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Rebuilding the Left in a Time of Crisis


Leo Panitch is a political economist and theorist based at York University, Toronto, and is co-editor of Socialist Register. His most recent book is In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives (with Greg Albo and Sam Gindin). Leo spoke to NLP’s Edward Lewis about the long crisis of the left and his ideas for a reinvigorated anti-capitalist strategy. In this part he focuses on the labour movement, class and identity politics.

 

In In and Out of Crisis you comment that the financial crisis opens up the possibility of reversing the many defeats that the left have suffered over the past thirty to forty years. We are right now in a situation in the UK where despite the fightback that is taking place there are serious concerns that we will face deep and great defeats. So can you explain how we’ve got to this point – neoliberal capitalism looked relatively fragile to some people immediately in the wake of the crisis, yet right now a very aggressive neoliberal agenda is being pursued, with at least some popular support.

 

Well, let’s begin with the moment of defeat. One has to be careful when drawing these historical parallels, but I think to some extent we may have been living through a period not dissimilar to what the left was living in after the great defeats of 1848 – that revolutionary moment. And it wasn’t until the late 1880s, with the great dock strike and the emergence of the mass trade unions and the mass socialist parties in the 1890s, that you really saw the left coming together in new organisational forms – really the first mass organisations of the subordinate class in history that were formed. And if you think about it – that was forty to fifty years after 1848. If you date the defeat of the British left in the UK from was the defeat of the Bennite/Livingstone insurgency in the Labour Party that would mean that we’re in the late 1870s in terms of the comparison with 1848. And what we might have to look forward to then in the next ten years is the emergence of movements of class reformation, the development hopefully of post-Leninist and post-social democratic parties, as people will have learned the lessons of their failure. And a new type of trade unionism, which is not merely defensive, and is a class trade unionism rather than a sectoral trade unionism. That’s what’s on the agenda I think, that’s what is possible for the left in the 21st Century and we shouldn’t get too despondent about the length of time under which we have been suffering defeats.

 

Where do you think the momentum for those kinds of developments is likely to come from?

 

Well in order to get at that I think we need to go back to the way you quite rightly framed the first question. One might have thought that this crisis would provide an opening and an opportunity. Will the gloss finally come off neliberalism? The first thing to say about this is that the thirty years of defeat for the left have been thirty years of tremendous success for capitalism, both in ideological terms and in terms of the actual spread and deepening of capitalist social relations. There has been a commodification of almost every aspect of social life and a spreading of capitalist social relations to places and to classes that hadn’t been so commodified.

 

So we have to be careful and sober when we see that the contradictions within that process of capitalist dynamism have now come to a head. This dynamic period of capitalism constantly produced crises. There were 72 financial crises in the 1990s around the world, most of them in the south – but not entirely -  and most of them were serious. But they were able to be contained. This one is much larger, much bigger; it’s also an American crisis in the sense that it began in the heartland of the empire itself. But so far, even though it’s clearly going to kick off a significant period of stagnation, it’s still been contained, in the sense that globalization has not been reversed as it was in the 1930s.

 

Now, when we ask whether the gloss has finally come off neoliberalism, that may be true, in the sense of the demystification of neoliberalism, but this had already been happening over the last ten years, when people already no longer believed that what was really going on was freeing markets from states – that was the ideological representation of what was going on, but in fact states were more and more than ever involved in making this global capitalism, in containing these crises. It was only at the ideological level that markets ever escaped states. And it became ever clearer to people that in the real world, markets relied ever more on states to to promote and facilitate this marketisation, to come in as lenders of last resort every time a barrier was reached and a crisis occurred. People have recognized that we have very active states in that sense. And I think that people will now be more realistic than ever that rather than them being released from the state, they will have a greater awareness that they’ve been living under a capitalist state, it.

 

On that point – so when someone like George Osborne comes along and talks about the need to diminish the role of the state, as it’s become overbearing, and that that is the cause of this debt crisis – at some level you don’t think that that will wash, that people will see that nonetheless the government will still be acting as a manager of the economy.

 

We’ll have to see. I’ll think it’s more possible now than ever that that type of B.S. – the notion that people are going to live on charity, that they’ve been oppressed by the state etc – will not wash. I think the ability to win so much support behind what was really a tax revolt has declined. Sure, most people, including working class people, didn’t want to pay taxes, they didn’t feel that what they were getting out of welfare state, was worth it. But the cover that justified this tax revolt, that ‘when we’re liberating markets we’re liberating you’ – and the occlusion of the power of the state in doing that – I think that portrayal is harder and harder for people to credit. And increasingly I think if people succumb to this going to be not because they’re ideologically convinced by it, but because they see, really that there’s no other alternative than capitalism.

 

So it comes back to this – there will be struggles, we can see that there are struggles, whether it’s university students here or it’s the opposition to the cuts in France or Greece or the G20 protests in Toronto. The key question is whether these protests continue not to be able to yield a more promising permanent form of organisation so as to be able to do more than protest. I hope that with the ideological clarification that can come at the current moment, some of the organisational horses (so to speak – to pick up your question about where is this going to come from) will start emerging. If all we’re left with is one series of protests after another, then we will fail.

 

In terms of the organisational forms that need to be developed in order for the left to move forward, you discuss the need for new political parties and for a new form of trade unionism. Let’s start with the unions.

 

What is our agenda in this respect is massive. We face a trade union movement which moved from the militancy – often successful – of the 60s and 70s to an entirely defensive mode. A trade union movement in this country radically opposed to going into Europe in the 60s and 70s, that shifted when it was hit by Thatcherism, to the hope that Europe would save them, and whose politics largely began to revolve around ‘can we find ways for Brussels legislation to prevent what both Thatcherism and to some extent even New Labour was doing’. That has failed as well. I think the illusion that the European left was going to be able to withstand this much better is now clear. In North America, especially in Canada, where the movement resisted concessions that the Americans readily engaged in, it’s now become clear that we may have looked tall relative to the American labour movement, but it’s only because they were on their knees. Those unions which led the struggle against concessions, which was trying to educate people as to the nature of neo-liberalism etc – they now are too engaged in concessions. I’m thinking of the Canadian AutoWorkers union in the face of the latest crisis.

 

Even those unions that have in the service sector been more successful in terms of organising, such as the Service Employees International Union, has mainly done so by doing a deal with employers that will not leave much scope for militant action by newly organised workers. This is what I call credit card unionism.

 

It’s becoming clear that we are going to have to have a radical reformation of the labour movement, maybe even like in the 1930s crisis, which saw the emergence in the United States of a very different labour movement, sidelining the old AFL craft unions with new industrial unions which were much more class unions. What’s on the agenda now is the big question of whether we’re going to need new class organisations, organisations that maybe need to be founded as much in neighbourhoods as in factories, which are mobilizing people not just in relation to workplace struggles but into struggles in every facet of their lives – as creditors, as people whose families expected their children would go to university and are not going to be able to go to now, and in other respects.

 

So this is clearly a very large and important agenda.

 

What do you think has changed that means that community-based, neighbourhood-based, organising is also necessary now – or was it always also necessary?

 

It was always necessary. And I think one of the reasons that we suffered some such defeats was that the working classes became bereft of what had originally been a large element in the formation of trade unionism to begin with, as welfare state benefits replaced the kind of community benefits that trade unions had originally provided. When trade unions emerged, before the welfare state, they often were playing the role of providing for the community a central space of meeting, a guarantee of a funeral benefit, a guarantee of a social benefit etc. And in that sense, trade unionism was a community trade unionism. And increasingly, ironically, one of the contradictions of the welfare state was that the things that trade unions had done were now taken over by the state. And union people lost those capacities. My Dad learned Robert’s Rules of Order through his local union branch and benefit society, where workers had to run their own meetings. Incidentally, I have increasingly found that people that I was teaching at first year university, and sometimes fourth-year university, knew less about running a meeting, knew less about politics, than my Dad with a grade 5 education. He’d gotten his knowledge out of the community-based nature of the labour movement.

 

So what had been there was lost. I may be romanticizing how much it had been there but I think it had been there to a significant extent. Of course it was the way capitalism developed that mainly destroyed it – workers tended to live together, much more than they do now, in working class communities. With the automobile, with the transformations of suburbanization, workers got dispersed much more throughout the modern city.

 

So it isn’t going to be easy to rebuild this community trade unionism, but I think it needs to be done, it needs to be on our agenda, and I think there are increasing grounds for us to think that that is possible.

 

Such as?

 

Well, I think, we’ve run up against the limits I think of network politics – ‘we should bring together anti-poverty groups with trade unions etc’. It’s mostly been a popular front thing at the top. But in a variety of struggles going on at the moment you see a more genuine interaction at the base. It used to be the case that activist workers in the US would look north to a place like in Canada to see the way the UAW was integrated into a community like Windsor. Now you see Canadian workers looking with admiration at this taking place in Wisconsin. And this doesn’t come out of nowhere.  What doesn’t usually make the radar in terms of national news coverage in the United States are struggles by nurses, for example, which are reported in the local newspaper but are never reported at the national level.

 

So I’m hopeful. Insofar this involves an explicit commitment to the need for organisation, it means overcoming a lot of young people’s semi-anarchism. The great anti-capitalist globalization moments of Seattle 1999, Genoa, Quebec City and so on, were very enervating. It was evident that a new generation had emerged. But it was a new generation that – not surprisingly – was suspicious about bureaucratic trade unionism, about political parties, about struggling in the state to transform the state. This was captured in the attraction to the Zapatistas, to what John Holloway now calls changing the world without taking power. But there’s no changing the world without taking power, and that means there’s no changing the world without permanent organisation of the subordinate classes. And I’m seeing an increasing number of young people who were energised by the anti-globalisation movement, and who are still showing up at G20 protests etc, interested in how to move beyond the current struggles they’re in, not least around universitiy issues, etc, to join in the struggle to create new, very broadly defined working class organisations.

 

And they are thinking not in terms of the old industrial working class organisations obviously. We’re talking about young people who are often engaged in casual employment themselves. That’s one of the reasons one perhaps can’t count on factory or office-based organisation because so many young people will take a job in one sector for three months and then another sector for three months, and move from being a labourer in one context to being a service worker three months later. That doesn’t mean they can’t be organised, on the contrary. But that’s what’s on the agenda.

 

Do you think that the notion of the working class remains a vital one? Because it’s not prominent in much of the activism that I come across – it’s there in aspects of the Marxist revolutionary left and elsewhere, but it isn’t highly prominent. Does this reflect objective changes in the nature of class, so that there are difficulties in pointing to ‘the working class’ and identifying it effectively, or is it a symptom of a political and organisational malaise?

 

It’s a very good question. Workers aren’t born identifying themselves as workers – as you might think reading some Marxist literature. It isn’t an automatic identification. That’s the whole point about liberal capitalism, in which we’re not, in a constitutional legal sense, born into a class.

 

It’s not a caste system.

 

It’s not a caste system, it’s not a slave system. So it’s always been the case that you could articulate the identity of people along all kinds of dimensions. And you know people tend to think it’s been replaced by different types of identities – women’s identity, or ethnic identity, or racial. That was always a problem in terms of working class unity. The working class was never homogenous. It was always a problem when the great unions and great original working class parties emerged, to try to get people to see that they had a common denominator in contesting exploitation and oppression in capitalism.

 

There was a tendency, however, to try to efface the other identities, in order to build the strength of the class. And I think that we need to learn from identity politics, from the movements of women, of people of colour, of refugees and of immigrants. I think that class organisation can be strengthened rather than weakened if those identities are valorized, are developed within class organisations. I don’t know whether we can rekindle class as the common denominator But I think people are frustrated by the limits of identity politics [?].I’m going to say this (and it’s harder for me to say it as a white socialist than someone who’s a black socialist, and there are black socialists who say it, in the United States at least, increasingly so) – what good does it do a working class black person, when we have an equal proportion of black lecturers at every university? Ok, if there are 12% of black lecturers now in American universities, let us say, and 12% of the population is black. How much has that helped the mass of black people? When women increasingly say there’s still a glass ceiling in the corporate sector – well let’s say there wasn’t and you had an equal proportion of women. What would that mean for most women in this society?

 

I do think that identity politics, which has scored real victories, is increasingly running out of steam, especially in the face of this crisis. People are really feeling the objective costs of not being able to maintain standards of living. In fact, some of the main victories of identity politics were precisely about improving standards of living and economic independence. The victories in North America in the 70s of the women’s movement (which I think then came here) included, crucially, that women could get a credit card. Because in the 50s and 60s it was hard – the male bread-earner got a credit card. The great victory of the left in the Democratic Party in the 1970s was the Community Reinvestment Act, which required banks to put 5% of their capital to lending to poor communities in great American cities. That was the start of the integration of black people into mortgages. On the other hand, of course, this was also a deepening of capitalism in the subordinate communities of identity – blacks, women etc. They were being financialised. The limits of that in this crisis are increasingly clear – getting them deeper into financialised capitalism was a victory, but a victory full of contradictions.

 

So I see a basis for a mobilization around class which will not succeed unless people’s other identities are valorized and built on and used to strengthen the class organisations representing them.

 

And you seem to also to be suggesting that if those movements join forces with class organisations they themselves will be strengthened – so that ordinary women and black people, say, will gain more from being part of a class-based movement as opposed to connecting with a politics of identity that accepts capitalism.

 

That’s right, in so far as the mass of people are spoken for in identity politics by middle class professionals, or even businessmen or lawyers or what have you. They are middle and upper middle class led organisations. Historically there have been ethnic groups, for instance, and sometimes women’s groups, who’ve been led by working class people, or at least by professionals who identify with the socialist project, and seek to develop stronger class identity or consciousness. Certainly where I come from, in Canada, if you were a businessman or a lawyer in the city I grew up in, in Winnipeg, for a very long period you had to be a socialist in the Jewish community, or the Finnish community, or the Ukrainian community. Even though these were Ukrainian, Jewish or Finnish organisations – you just had to be socialist, in order to have any legitimacy within that community, and this was because the working class element within that community was dominant, was hegemonic. This is true today in Toronto with the Philippino community but it’s very, very rare with most of the ethnic ‘identity’ organisations.

 

Part two will follow shortly…

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