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Social Movements and Resistance to Neoliberalism in America, 1979-2000



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Saich, Richard 


Neoliberalism is a political creed defined by a belief in the power of markets to bring about a free and prosperous society. It is the dominant ideology of recent times, and one that has attracted growing interest from historians. This dissertation breaks new ground by examining neoliberalism “from below,” that is from the perspective of ordinary people who were affected by neoliberal policies and who chose, in one way or another, to resist them. It examines a range of social movements that organised in opposition to neoliberalism in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, a period that has thus far received insufficient scholarly attention. It charts the emergence of a transnational network of movement actors, including labour unionists, feminists, environmentalists, indigenous activists, and others who were engaged in political campaigns within the United States and beyond its borders. Collectively, these movements highlighted the implications of neoliberal policies for rising national and global inequality, environmental degradation, and precarious employment. In telling this story, this dissertation brings together several strands of historical scholarship – political history, environmental history, and labour history – that have hitherto been treated as discrete objects of study.

Three thematic threads are interwoven throughout the dissertation. The first is an emphasis on neoliberalism as ideology, a set of ideas, policy prescriptions, and practices grounded in a particular economic doctrine. The second is an analysis of neoliberalism as a distinct political economy, an assemblage of political and economic processes with distributional effects that advantaged some and disadvantaged others. It is argued that the study of social movements allows us to consider the interrelationship of these two dimensions of neoliberalism, together with their material consequences. The third thread is the argument that popular opposition to neoliberalism has so far been overlooked by historians because it was most energetic at the grassroots. The insulation of national policymaking elites from such dissent, obliges us to ask critical questions about the nature of American democracy in the late twentieth century.





Gerstle, Gary


1990s, Anti-globalization, Globalization, Neoliberalism, Social movements, United States


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (2123525)
Arts and Humanities Research Council