Going beyond Pilger and Monbiot
Another day another banker receives another obscene bonus. We are being constantly reminded, even recently and in part by Mervyn King the Director of the Bank of England, that the international financial crisis had a structural cause deep in the way capitalism works maximising the rate of return to maximise corporate accumulation. The old adage is right: production is just for profit and that doesn’t mean for you and me. As this Tory government swings into action to make the working class pay for crisis of their fellow rich, we can see that those who control the state and the economy are very powerful.
Changing how the economy works and in whose interest means challenging the power of capitalism: the question of the balance of forces is back on the agenda. Again, daily, we are being reminded internationally how this power can be challenged by mass mobilisation across the Arab world and is starting to emerge again in the US, across Europe and in the UK. Is it possible to continue to generalise this mobilisation? How does it relate to other forms of challenge such as cooperatives and social movement like transitional towns? And finally, this is an extra parliamentary struggle, how can it relate to social democracy?
Collective mobilisation is the way most of us first think about how to challenge power. As a trade union, political and community activist since about 1963 I’ve helped to organise many collective mobilisations and there has been a particular cycle to the activity. A moving forward phase where the issues or grievances are seen to be important to an increasing number of people; a standoff phase where the mobilisation has been maximised and some gains made; a tail off phase where gains are secured but the mobilisation declines. The moving forward period can be difficult to get going, shifting people from an individual approach to a collective approach, but is inspiring once started as all sorts of possibilities open up. The standoff phase is fraught with difficult judgements. Can we mobilise more? Who is going to blink first in negotiation? Are the leaders going to be accused of selling out? Have we gained enough? You get the picture. Then finally, in the tail off phase, it is clear to all the mobilisation is at an end and either defeat awaits or the gains provide a starting point for further improvement in the future. Some argue that movement is in abeyance at the end point.
In a trade union context I was always conscious of this cycle of activity and the absolute necessity of constantly discussing with members about what we wanted from the action and where we were within the cycle. Anything less would be manipulative and selling out. But it was still not easy. The key thing was to be clear about what we wanted and the nature of the balance of forces so we could measure our gains or success and what could be achieved.
Many disputes were over preventing management from doing something, redundancies, dismissal, sacking, changing contracts etc, clearly the gains in the situation was to stop or ameliorate the management action. Some disputes were about improvements pay, workloads etc. The key point was at the end to secure a collective agreement that improved or sustained collective control over an area of management autonomy. It was about collectively controlled space. In a partial sense this is close to Gramsci’s idea of a war of position and a war of manoeuvre, although he was referring to state power. Going forward is a time of manoeuvre tailing off is a war of position.
The idea of an alternative and challenging space is also common to social movements such as cooperatives and transitional towns. In this type of situation alternative space is what is aimed for is not just a result of a decline in the ability to mobilise. As a result they have been criticised as being ‘islands of socialism in a sea of capitalism’ doomed to eventually sink or be eroded away. They are seen as inherently reformist. One set of commentators has described this type of movement as ‘contained contention’ as opposed to the ‘transgressive contention’ of collective mobilisation. A more recent debate about this type of movement has been over the direction of the European and Global Social Forums which seemed to be aimed at establishing alternative and liberated space or ‘autonomy’ as opposed to mobilising to challenge the power of capital. John Holloway has contrasted the two types of social movement as either aiming for ‘power over’ revolutionary mobilisation or ‘power to’ the autonomist typed movement.
As you can see the debate enters into very dangerous territory of reform v revolution. Well I’ll rush in like the proverbial fool and suggest that actually the two types of social movement can be part of same challenge to capitalist power as twin strategies not as alternative ‘roads’: the key is in the idea of what happens within and what is the purpose of the alternative and liberated space. Both in the trade union example and in say the case of cooperatives, the space they have control and influence over is dependent on collective membership. As such this provides the basis of a terrain of struggle between the reformist trajectory of accommodation with capitalism and the revolutionary trajectory of challenging the power of capital with which I started the article. The key difference over whether there is contained or transgressive contention is not in the organisations themselves but over the purpose of the strategies that the organisations follow.
Transitional demands as the basis of such a strategy have a long root in British labour history. I’ve tracked down a Transitional Charter drawn up by Robert Owen in 1842, but the most recent work stems from Trotsky where he described a transitional demand as
‘This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.’ 1938
The key is the idea of a bridge between where we are and where we would like to be. So for example the current demand that the Tories clamp down on tax evasion, forcing Vodafone for example to pay £6bn of unpaid taxes is transitional as it directly attacks the source of the speculative profitability of a global company and poses the tax to spend on the public against the market interest.
Making the link to the space controlled by social movements I would suggest a different form of a bridge: a transitional action. Instead of demanding those with power do something we do it ourselves through self activity such as making capital less alienable through cooperative ownership and control; taking direct steps to live without oil and affecting climate change; supporting fair trade; and demonstrating that workers control can work. John Holloway I think describes these types of actions as ‘building the future in the present’. These are only examples and George Monbiot recently in the Guardian (08.03.2010) had a list of alternatives, some of which could be seen as transitional demands and actions.
The final key to this argument is that developing a strategy based on transitional demands and actions for the current situation is a collective process which has to be started by an analysis of the capitalist context we find ourselves in. Demands and actions can only be transitional if they are a bridge to seriously challenging the power of capitalism and putting alternatives in place. Elsewhere I have described this as a process of ‘deviant mainstreaming’ and if you wish to look at the text and it is at: http://www.zcomm.org/how-to-resist-continually-deviant-mainstreaming-by-len-arthur where many of the references used in this piece can be found.
Quite a list of tasks and it does require political coordination to move the debate about capitalism and how it can be challenged, from an eclectic response of good ideas, to a strategic list of transitional demands and actions aimed specifically at providing a bridge between where we are now and were we would like to be. The balance between demands and actions also shifts over time with the balance of forces – like Gramsci’s war of position and manoeuvre – and currently I would argue the need to prioritise transitional demands to maximise collective mobilisation and generalisation of struggle.
It seems to me that I’ve answered my first two questions but I’ll have to leave the relationship with social democracy to the debate or some future thoughts. I’ll leave you with this one: the discussion in the Labour Party is currently very open and do you think it may be possible to have some serious thoughts about transitional demands and actions?
Going beyond Pilger and Monbiot
Going beyond Pilger and Monbiot