Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

From Class-Struggle to Neoliberal Narratives: Redistributive Movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

From Class-Struggle to Neoliberal Narratives: Redistributive Movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand

Article excerpt


Over the past two decades social movement scholars have argued that identity-based claims have come to dominate the realm of contentious politics. An examination of four decades of claims making by redistributive movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand illustrates the shift away from claims based on 'economic divisions' to those centred on 'social divisions'. However, the change is not a displacement of class by identity politics. The analysis of a selection of publications by a range of organisations representing workers, the unemployed, and the poor, signals that the shifting claims-making has been driven by larger trends in the political-economy. The analysis, we argue, highlights the importance of studying social movements in a dialectical manner-one which seeks to understand how contention interacts with the external dynamics of the state and economy.


Social movements in New Zealand and other English-speaking nations operate within the context of the capitalist economy. Yet, as argued by Jeff Goodwin and Gabriel Hetland (2013: 83), there has been a 'strange disappearance of capitalism from social movement studies in the English-speaking world during the past two decades.' Many of the ground-breaking studies of social movements in the 1970s and early 1980s explicitly acknowledged the dynamics of capitalism in relation to movements, but recent scholarship has eschewed this approach to focus, instead, 'on short-term shifts in "cultural framings," social networks, and especially "political opportunities," rarely examining the deeper causes of such shifts' (p. 86), a shift often attributed to the rise of new social movements and their focus on identity or post-material issues.

We argue that social movement studies must always take cognisance of the activities and rationale of the phenomena at the heart of their studies when laying bare their analytical and theoretical arguments. In this article we look at the publications of 'redistributive social movement organisations'- organisations concerned with the redistribution of material wealth, and associated opportunities, in the interest of equality-to see whether the shift in academic argumentation is reflective of a shift in movement narratives.

An examination of four decades of publications from labour movement, socialist, communist, and anti-poverty movement organisations in New Zealand provides a window into the claims-making of redistributive social movements since 1968. The analysis shows an incorporation of new social movement claims by redistributive movements. These identity-based claims do not, however, eclipse those based on class-with 'class' denoting, as argued by Erik Olin Wright (2009: 108), an individual's position in relation to the ownership of the means of production and/or their ability to occupy a privileged site within relations of exploitation, as is the case, for example, for those who possess highly sought-after skills or hold managerial positions. Further, the publications analysed signal a move from structural argumentation toward an individualisation of claims-making. The timing of the change in claims-making signals how the shifting nature of the New Zealand state and economy-from a Keynesian welfare state to a 'neoliberal state'-influences the focus of redistributive movements. That is, changes in capital-as overseen by the state-have effects for the claims-making of redistributive movements.

Class, Capital, State

The strange disappearance of class and capitalism in social movement studies needs to be challenged and evaluated against the shifting power and focus of movements. Often the changing nature of academic analysis is attributed to changes in social movements themselves, particularly in relation to the decline of redistributive movements and the rise of 'new social movements' in the late 1960s-these being movements centred on feminism, ecological concerns, sexuality etc., and which are often associated with 'identity politics. …

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