From the shell of the old

        [Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]

You will find below some general thoughts on our movement and its lack of strategy and vision. It is a way of looking at things perhaps too distinctively South American and from a former ‘antiglobalization’ activist point of view. Its form is somehow dogmatic for shortness but the experienced reader will notice that it is based on practical knowledge.

1. Mass Machiavellianism

The organization of the so-called traditional left was built on the division between leadership and the rank and file. Although the division itself is today widely questioned, we still have to deal with the consequences of its past adoption. 

Traditionally, setting strategy  was the responsibility of leadership. This implied not only that leadership had a different depth of understanding of political conjuncture and the necessary course of action, but also that it had a different way of looking at things – a more pragmatic way, even when the leadership was revolutionary. This dichotomy is classically expressed in Machiavellian and later Weberian thought as two moral approaches to politics: the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. One, focusing on the principles governing action; the other focusing on its results. This distinction was deeply rooted in Leninist organization where leadership had to design tactics and strategy according to a long term plan that the rank and file was thought not able to fully understand. So political abilities to deal flexibly (i. e. effectively) to real life political situations where concentrated on the higher ranks and was often poorly documented, being orally transmitted. The rank and file received biased reports on where the movement or organization was heading based on the understanding that it was not mature to understand that effective politics demanded compromises that conflicted with principles.

When the distinction between leadership and the rank and file was questioned and some larger organizations started to make decisions horizontally, two things happened: political effectiveness was lost due to principlist approaches to politics; and pragmatic decision making reintroduced the division between leadership and the rank and file into the new horizontal organizations – often the two things happened at once. When taken to general assemblies, discussion of strategy that involve conflict with principles is generally halted; because of that, some horizontal movements and organizations would simply not take such issues to assembly leaving space for more pragmatically oriented individuals to deal with the dirty business on the back of the movement, covertly reintroducing hierarchy of command. So the dilemma of horizontal organizations and movements was to choose between being ineffective or to transform horizontality into an ideology or smoke screen. To overcome the dilemma we need to make public the dirty details of doing effective politics so we can learn how to deal with the understandably uneasy situation of making difficult decisions. We must learn how to deal tactically with corporate media, how to negotiate effectively with the state and how to fund our activities when needed. We need mass Machiavellianism. Otherwise, radical opposition can choose between remaining sterile or cynical.

2. ‘Reform or Revolution’?

The lack of strategy reflexion due to principlism has made our esteemed historical revolutionary tradition, a burden. When revolution is out of the political landscape – which is the case today in most countries – being a revolutionary or not is merely a play with words, an empty label. To opt for revolution abstractly is to take a thoughtless parti pris. To become a revolutionary is not to make a moral principled choice out of context – to become a revolutionary is to make a political choice at a historical moment when revolution is an option – and right now, in most countries, it is not a real option. When it is an option, it is never an easy option. Revolution is a bloody path that usually leads to civil war and death and whose outcome is always unpredictable. For revolution, the price is high and the success uncertain. Revolution is a jump in the abyss – sometimes necessary.

Because revolution is not discussed sensibly on the tactical and strategical level but on moral grounds, it is mistook by radicalism of purposes. So, for example, due to mere confusion, radicalism of tactics is often made equal to radicalism of strategy and then made equal to radicalism of purpose. If you do a dumb violent act, you want a deeper transformation of society. It seems primitive, but it is quite widespread – and for too long. One can find this kind of thought already mentioned (disapprovingly) in the early memories of Emma Goldman. This has made rather difficult to think tactics and strategy on sensible terms.

This primitive confusion has made all negotiation of improvement of conditions seem moderate and reformist. Early reformism (as espoused by Bernstein for example) was the understanding that successive reforms could replace revolution altogether in the radical transformation of society. But early revolutionary tradition never gave up reforms for fear of reformism. Although for early revolutionaries reforms were not the way to the radical transformation of society, they were considered necessary to improve conditions in present society on the short term. So for early revolutionaries reform and revolution could co-exist tactically and strategically. However, when the cycle of struggles of the 1960s and 1970s was over, two things happened: horizontal organization spread and with it moral substituted tactical and strategical discourse; simultaneously, due to the failure of ‘real socialist’ experiences, revolution gradually disappeared as a viable option on the political landscape in most countries. Those two things led to revolution losing force as a viable strategy and to many rank and file self-proclaimed revolutionaries mistaking reforms for reformism. The result was that reforms were put solely on the hands of reformists and, with revolution temporarily disappearing from political landscape, revolutionary politics lost all political substance, being converted into an empty label and a moral ground for action-less critical discourse.

3. Reform, Revolution, Antagonism

The end of the cycle of struggles of the 1960s and the 1970s brought to the forefront (although did not invent it) somehow new and usually not self-aware radical transformative practices such as social centers and new-type cooperatives. What was distinctively new of these initiatives (in comparison to old style coops and community centers) was that they incorporated more substantially the new horizontal practices of the ‘new movements’ and with the practical weakening of revolution the ‘creation of new social relations’ which they embodied began to look more like a strategy on their own.

Coincidently or not, in the 1990s and the first years of the new century, popular movements in Latin America, from the zapatistas in Mexico to piqueteros in Argentina to neighborhood associations in Bolivia, began building new social relations ‘from the shell of the old’, usually based on existing traditional and communitarian organization. Caracoles, asambleas, juntas are different ways in which popular movements are perhaps retaking the councils that Hannah Arendt considered the permanent form of political resistance in the modern era.

Both the popular Latin-American experiences and the more urban social centers and co-ops face the same difficult challenge of being within capitalism but against it. This is what can be called their antagonist condition. On one hand, these experiences are taking self-organization, horizontality and cooperation to a level that goes beyond what is possible under traditional capitalist institutions – even post-fordist capitalist institutions. On the other hand, capitalist conditioning blocks its full development – because it contradicts the power of the state and the organizational principles of the capitalist market.

Antagonist political and cultural organizations such as social centers and antagonist economic organizations such as co-ops face similar challenges due to its inescapable dual nature. Co-ops for example, have a limited way to propose egalitarian remuneration, because concurrent enterprises offer higher salaries to the ‘best qualified’ workers. Likewise, their solidarity to similar minded initiatives is limited to the point where this priority to economically relate to other coops can not significantly impact production costs. Social centers are similarly limited in the sense that although they can create radically democratic management of neighborhood activities, they usually can not  openly contradict the legal framework of the state.

The risk of failure for these experiences is to not realize their antagonist condition – that they are anti-capitalist but not non-capitalist – that they can not realize their mission within capitalism and that despite this crucial limitation, they must persist in tensioning it. The risk is to convert these anti-capitalist experiments into merely more humane enterprises and more openly managed communities after the trivial realization that anti-capitalism is impossible within capitalism.

The creation of new social relations from the shell of the old if understood as a strategy to radically transform society must incorporate duality as its main condition. Those anti-capitalist initiatives must learn to live dually and not succumb to reformism or to abstract revolutionarism.  Antagonist institutions must push the limits of capitalism and not despair when they fail – because until victory they are bound for failure. They must learn to keep their anti-capitalist political orientation while contradictorily operating within the market and relating to the state. An they must do it with a mass Machiavellian sense of real world politics.

The fundamental political dimension of these experiences rest on their politically organized diffusion. If isolated, these experiments will just perish – inevitably. So they must organize themselves as a political movement giving political meaning to their antagonist nature. If they can widespread keeping their dual integrity, they will multiply those new social relations (in a somehow limited, dual and mixed fashion) not just to give a taste of the new world that we want but also to practically organize the social forces that can promote this new world. If sufficiently widespread they could be the political basis for institutional rupture and for a new decentralized horizontal  governance; they could also be  the economic basis for a solidarity economics free of wage slavery and hierarchical command. It is a long way to convert these still shy experiments into a real threat to capitalism. To get there, we need strategy and a widespread sense of the way real world politics is made.

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