Previous chapters have argued the need to make the transition beyond the present state if we are to create a real democracy. The question arises: is a dedicated organisation needed to achieve this aim or can growing spontaneous anger and resistance take society to a new place?
There is a real urgency about all this. The coming to power of Trump in the United States and the referendum vote in favour of leaving the European Union in the UK have created a seismic shift. Liberal democracy has become illiberal democracy, with governments deploying populism, nationalism, racism and crude appeals to patriotism to confuse and divert the justified anger felt by countless millions bled white by the system.
In the UK, the state wants to revive Britain’s imperial past as it hopes to become a major global power after leaving the EU. The failure of Labour and others to put forward a progressive alternative to the neo-liberal single market strengthens the Tories and their narrow, corporate agenda.
Trump has stunned the United States with his Bonapartist dictatorship, ruling with a narrow group of advisors who specialise in fake news, lies, racism and ‘alternative facts’. America’s revered constitution is in tatters, torn apart by a clique that rules through proclamations and Twitter messages.
The immediate response of millions in America and around the world to Trump’s anti-Muslim visa and immigration ban – and before that, the huge numbers of women who marched against his rampant misogyny – have raised the stakes to an unprecedented level. The more than 1.8 million people who by early February had signed the petition against Trump’s visit to the UK showed a new global movement on the march.
This movement is up against the system itself in the shape of the existing state and the reactionary governments who direct it. So here are some questions to think about:
- • can a spontaneous mass movement lead directly to significant economic and social system change?
- • what kind of movement can protect and sustain people and eco-systems?
- • can occupying spaces, physical or economic, ‘edge’ capitalism out?
- • what about simply ignoring the system?
- • could electing a ‘progressive alliance’ at the next election offer a way forward?
- • or is there a need for a movement that is specifically focused on charting the path beyond the present state and capitalism to a real democracy?
The answers to these questions depend very much on what our aims are and what we want to achieve. If the objective is to make capitalism a little fairer, a mass movement on its own might work although the opportunities are limited.
Those who argue against building a movement directed at the state include influential sociologist Professor John Holloway. In Change the World without Taking Power (2002), Holloway argued that alternatives to capitalism could develop in autonomous social spaces, within and outside of capitalism, and that challenging the state for power was to be avoided. In his later book, Crack Capitalism (2010), Holloway emphasises resistance in the form of the simple ‘scream’ or ‘no’.
Economic thinkers such as Paul Mason have noted the increasing difficulty for the corporations of generating profit from the new economy and the rise of not-for-profit forms. They argue that occupation of more and more economic space by co-operative types of ventures will simply overwhelm capitalism and lead inexorably to a new commons.
Others argue that we should focus on community activism and mutual support. That is not a bad thing to do, but will it immunise communities from the miseries and poverty created by austerity capitalism, now entering a new phase of crisis globally?
It is crucial to set about trying to improve our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens – to be sharing and active. But if this is taken as a solution on its own, it can be overwhelmed by events. And in a certain sense it bolsters the idea that politics is beyond our reach, and there is nothing we can do to change it.
Drawing some lessons
We can draw some lessons from the mass struggles that erupted in the wake of the 2008 crash, when neo-liberalism’s grip on people’s consciousness was shattered. The Arab Spring of 2011 inspired the May 15 movement in Spain and Occupy in the US and the UK. In Greece, a left government was swept to power to resist austerity.
New technology facilitated communications between the young across the globe. They ignited a spark, sharing their views on politics, struggle, anti-globalisation and their opposition to political parties of the old kind. This was the start of an exciting change – a recognition that people do need to come together, to organise and challenge the status quo.
Many appraisals of Occupy tend to attack it for failing to be what it never set out to become, rather than recognising and learning from what it was. For example, Occupy Wall Street was criticised because it made no demands. But this was a deliberate policy. From its own point of view, the fact that it made no demands was a rejection of the power of those who might, if so minded, concede them and more likely ignore them. Instead, Occupy on both sides of the Atlantic critiqued a failed democracy which had come to represent the 1%.
David Graeber’s book The Democracy Project (2014) gives a full picture of the rise and decline of Occupy Wall Street. He shows the strengths and weaknesses of consensus decision-making – explaining how it can be extremely democratic, though also problematic and open to abuse. While explaining that the actions of the US state were significant in ending the Zuccotti Park occupation, Graeber resists drawing any conclusions from that, of the need to change the legal/criminal justice system – or indeed to extend the movement to other sections of society.
In Greece, the new left coalition called Syriza tried the parliamentary route after the old parties had collapsed in the face of the country’s overwhelming debts and the punitive measures proposed by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – the infamous Troika. Despite overwhelming support from the Greek people, the Syriza government was unable to defeat the forces ranged against it and eventually accepted the demands for a further bail-out. Syriza had made it a matter of European ‘democracy’ when in fact for the EU it was about the survival of the Euro and the single market.
The former finance minister Yannis Varoufakis is now on a mission to democratise the EU through his new movement, DiEM25. Podemos is pursuing a similar path in Spain, focusing on elections when the mass of people are sick to death of the Spanish state and could be rallied to rebuild it so that it worked for the 99%.
In the UK, new social movements have also found their expression in surprising ways. Over 500,000 people have flocked to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party because he is seen as an agent of change. The support group Momentum has 20,000 members and another 170,000 supporters. In Scotland, the huge mobilisation around the independence referendum led to 120,000 people joining the Scottish National Party. That would translate to 1.2 million in a country like England with ten times the population.
We need to learn from Syriza, Podemos, Occupy, the Scottish Yes Movement – all of which drew into action millions who had never previously engaged in politics. Their strength was in mobilising, but their weakness was the absence of a vision of new democratic structures that could become a vehicle for transformation.
What has to be acknowledged is that we cannot create real democracy through pressure and protest alone. Of course, it is possible to win some concessions but these are increasingly rare. Mobilisations for action on climate change have, for example, produced precious little in the way of response from states and governments.
In reality, with the political and economic system in meltdown, what we have gained in terms of democratic rights is disappearing in front of our eyes. So, even defending what we have now means breaking down the barriers that the present capitalist type of state presents. Syriza tried to make the Greek state the servant of the people – and it proved impossible. A similar fate would undoubtedly befall Labour in a Corbyn-led government.
Conventional and establishment parties cannot defend the democratic achievements of the past because they are tied into a state system that favours the most powerful in society. That is why we need a new kind of movement. It will be a synthesis, not idealising the past, or even the recent past – but ready to re-make the idea of mass organisation in order to advance democracy itself.
Honestly addressing the question of power
Some are convinced by the cliché that power by its very nature must corrupt. But is there not a profounder truth – namely, that without a transfer of power the very essence of democratic transformation is excluded? Indeed, this is the conclusion drawn by Toni Negri, the distinguished father of ‘autonomism’, the anti-authoritarian Italian workers’ movement.
In a 2016 interview, he concluded that “horizontality must be criticised and overcome, clearly and unambiguously … the situation is probably ripe enough to attempt once again that most political of passages: the seizure of power. We have understood the question of power for too long in an excessively negative manner. Now we can reinterpret the question of power in terms of multitudes, in terms of absolute democracy … ”
There is absolutely nothing in human nature or social potential which requires, or indeed makes it inevitable, that power must be exercised as a repressive force. Indeed, history can be seen as the ongoing struggle to realise the dream and the requirement that the vast majority – those directly involved in labour, the mothers, wives and carers who make society possible, those who create the means to live for everyone, those who look after others’ health and well being, those who perform in sport, art, education, culture and politics, the young, the old and the physically or mentally challenged – should gain real power.
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