- The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-liberal America by Dawson Barrett
New York: New York University Press, 2018
233 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
Histories of our long era of neoliberal/conservative ascendancy have tended to overlook or at least to undervalue stories of resistance to that new order of things. The great virtue of Dawson Barrett's book is that it helps right that balance. The Defiant encompasses a great range of protest movements. Some were quite locally focused, like the struggle to block the construction of the Mt. Graham observatory at the University of Arizona by those concerned with its threat to the environment (a fight that was ultimately lost when the Clinton administration allowed the project to proceed). Another case study looks at politically minded punk rock and graffiti artists' attempts to reclaim public space in New York and Berkeley. Actions in the Pacific Northwest by local environmental groups aimed at thwarting the destruction of the region's forests featured confrontations with lumber companies, sometimes their workers, and the US Forestry Service.
The Defiant examines more broadly based resistance movements as well. Although the partially victorious battle of immigrant farm workers for a livable wage and decent treatment was based in the tomato growing fields of Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers enlisted the aid of students (including United Students against Sweatshops), religious groups, and others angered by the injustices of neoliberal globalization, who joined in a nationwide campaign to boycott food chains (Taco Bell especially) supplied by the offending growers. (Incidentally, it should be noted that secondary boycotts were not outlawed by the New Deal, as Barrett has it , but rather by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, the most important piece of anti–New Deal legislation of the immediate postwar period). Barrett also describes other national movements. They include the mass protests in Seattle at the 1998 meeting of the World Trade Organization, where trade unionists and environmentalists in great numbers made life miserable for the assembled delegates; the enormous anti–Iraq war demonstrations that swept the country (and the world) even before the war began; and the Occupy Wall Street uprising, which also made its presence felt globally.
Barrett aims to describe the nuts and bolts of how these various movements got started, how they worked, and how they evolved. Here too his book is useful. It portrays an array of strategies and tactics, from creative forms of direct action to more conventional forms of legal and electoral protest. Interviews with participants enrich these stories. Almost without exception, originating activists recognized the need to build out from their bases of protest, to find allies, and to construct coalitions. Some succeeded, some did not. A good deal of this material is not surprising, but it is valuable for its specific accounts and to have it all available in one place as a record of resistance.
The Defiant is a weaker book at the analytic level. Barrett sees these movements as protests against the ascendant neoliberal order and its all-sided assault on the New Deal/Great Society liberalism that preceded it. He tracks that counterrevolution in all [End Page 106] the expected places: in the realms of government regulation, social welfare, labor protections, privatization, and so on. Most chapters open with a short account of neoliberal policy. These accounts are lucidly presented, but they will be completely familiar to historians and other readers. There is something tautological about them as well. After all, since neoliberal policy defines the dominant framework within which these contrarian movements emerge, what else would they be contesting? But sometimes the actual empirical connections between neoliberalism and cultural eruptions like punk rock and street art are at best thinly developed. A remark that "punk rock is at its core a form of direct action . . . it has been a struggle for the freedom to construct, rather than consume, culture" is head-scratching in several ways and leaves the reader wondering what that has to do with neoliberalism in particular (75).
More significant in this regard is the absence of much social analysis of these movements. In some cases...