The politics of #shutdown: from capitalism to popular protest

4 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

In this column I look at the meaning and practice of shutdown. Originally used in the context of capitalist expansion and workforce disciplining, it has been adopted as a grassroots tool of rebellion against the status quo.  

On 19 September 2017 three students at the University of Cape Town entered lecture theatres and the library. They declared a shutdown, asking lecturers to suspend classes and students to leave the library. The shutdown was shortlived on this particular day. Yet, it echoed earlier shutdowns: the #nationalshutdown of tertiary institutions across South Africa in October 2015, followed by further shutdowns in 2016. Institutional shutdowns are an important strategy of the South African student movement.

Shutdown was a tool of capitalism that ensured high profits and that disciplined the labour force through a politics of fear.

The student movement calls for free decolonized education in South Africa and has created a strong student-worker alliance. It aims to improve not only the plight of students, caught between high fees, financial exclusions and a Euro-centric curriculum, but also that of workers, who are stuck in low-paying and insecure jobs. The student movement received national – and international – attention in 2015, when it gained strength and visibility at formerly white universities. At formerly black universities, on the other hand, protests and strikes had been a regular feature since the 1990s. They might not have been called shutdowns, but they too resulted in temporary closures of institutions by blocking access to venues, building barricades, disrupting classes and administrative work.

Political activism creates new words and meanings that capture the current moment as well as future imaginings. Shutdown, as well as the verbal construction ‘to shut down’, became such words in South Africa from 2015 onwards, indexing through a set of practices and experiences a particular political project. What are the meanings of shutdown? What is its history?

In the 1970s and 1980s, shutdown referred primarily to projects of de-industrialization in the global North: the closure of factories and the outsourcing of workers. These processes were driven by the expansive-speculative projects of late capitalism. Thus, while companies expanded and invested in new ventures, they simultaneously closed down industries and jobs, destroying the livelihoods of workers and their families, destroying cities and communities.

Shutdown was a tool of capitalism that ensured high profits and that disciplined the labour force through a politics of fear. Integral to these corporate shutdowns was an obfuscation and indeed denial of agency: the market was said to be the force behind the closures, and alternative options were neither discussed nor articulated. Factory shutdowns were aggressive tactics which ultimately broke the social contract, allowing capital to reign free, with no strings attached. (A detailed discussion of this can be found in R.J. Lustig’s article ‘The politics of shutdown’, published in the Journal of Economic Issues in 1985).

Contemporary politics of shutdown have turned these corporate, top-down-and-power-invested meanings upside down. They draw on another tradition, another meaning: a general strike which shuts down, through collective action, all operations. Unlike strikes, however, shutdowns go beyond the downing of tools and also involve direct action via the disruption of business-as-usual, whether of corporations, governments or commodified educational institutions.

This use of shutdown might, at this point in time, be particularly common in the global South, and as I was writing these reflections, there were news reports about a shutdown in Darjeeling (India), shutdowns in Kashmir, and a shutdown in Vuwani (South Africa). Earlier in 2017 ‘Operation Ghost Town’ shut down cities in western Cameroon, and in 2014 there was Shutdown Bangkok.

And if shutdowns are reported for the global North, they are portrayed as the actions of migrants (Migrants shut down French university campus, 18/9/2017,, or associated with the radical transformative politics of #Occupy and #Blacklivesmatter (in September 2017, for example, there were the shutdown protests in St. Louis, USA, after police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted).

The popular politics of shutdown are rooted in a reclaiming of agency

The discourse of shutdown also links back to earlier protest cultures, such as the May Day shutdown of Washington, USA, in protest against the Vietnam War (1971), or the shutdown of the WTO meeting in Seattle, Canada, in 1999. The reaction to shutdowns tends to be draconian: mass arrests and police action are common responses to these radical forms of civil disobedience.

The popular politics of shutdown are rooted in a reclaiming of agency. In Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, L.A. Kaufmann (2017) quotes the slogan of the 1971 Washington shutdown: ‘If the government won’t stop the war, the people will stop the government’.

Thus, activists position themselves as citizen, not as subjects or warden’s of the state who can expect charity – for example, in the form of financial assistance – rather than rights (to work, to earn a living wage, to study, to be safe). Shutdowns, in this sense, reclaim democracy, and turn the weapon of the neo-capitalist system against itself: the shutdown is about being able to do, being able to act, rather than to be the object of someone’s doing.

The double-meaning of shutdown is clearly visible in the language used by Todd Gitlin in Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit and The Promise of Occupy Wallstreet (2012). On the one hand, there is police ‘shutting down’ the Zuccotti Park camp, reflecting the top-down actions of state-authorized power. This is the old meaning of shutting down: those who have political or economic power shut down the lives of those who don’t. On the other hand, Occupy activists ‘shut down’ the Port of Oakland, a bottom-up display of the power of the 99%. The politics of shutdown are dialectic: top-down, bottom-up, between state power and the activism of grassroots movement, between traditional representative modes of governmentality (an elected few who decide what is best for all), and the voices of many who wish to speak and to be heard.