2011 has been hailed in the media as a year of “protest” in the abstract, but it’s been more challenging and concrete than that. In defiance of received political wisdom, mass action in the streets returned with undeniable impact. Contests over space and the public domain became vehicles for the assertion of radical alternatives, which thereby forced their way into a discussion long restricted to a narrow consensus.
In Europe and North America, this democratic insurgency sought to free democracy itself from the straitjacket imposed by neoliberalism, which has deepened the historic tendency of capitalism to confine “politics” to the non-economic realm. Raising the banner of the 99%, the Occupy movement (with associated developments) broke through 30 years of neoliberal ideological hegemony to make the system itself – and the interests that drive it – the subject of debate. As a result, perceptions of the possible have been redefined. Horizons broadened. We do not have to be slaves of the financial sector, sacrificial victims to appease angry fiscal gods. Whatever else, this systemic challenge means the struggles of the coming years will be fought out on different terrain.
Against the claim that the Occupiers have failed to raise specific demands is the fact that the Occupy milieu has generated demands aplenty: on tax justice, financial institutions, environmental sustainability, etc. These need to be and are being detailed and enriched and disseminated. But the starting point must remain a giant, wholehearted, unapologetic NO to neoliberalism (at the least).
Here it would be a pity if people in and around the movement became muddled (for example by notions of “dialogue” with bankers). We have to adhere to (and develop) our initial and epochal NO, our rejection of the prevailing economic system and its dismal politics. It is this prevailing system that is the great negation – of solidarity, interdependence, responsibility for the environment, of a vast realm of human possibility and countless human lives. The nihilism of our times lies in the subjection of our entire society and culture to the narrow imperatives of capital accumulation. That’s why we need a “negation of the negation to redeem the contraries”, as Blake, anticipating Marx, called for 200 years ago. Yet even as we make this deeply considered NO our starting point, we must remember that what will decide outcomes will be the action or inaction of the much larger numbers of people who do not (yet) share this starting point.
As for the much-discussed question of “process”, the adoption of a horizontal, consensual model, given negative experiences with other models, laid the necessary basis for mutual trust. Of course, this model was not created spontaneously. It’s been gestating for years, developing through campaigns and struggles. It’s driven by an admirably anti-hierarchical spirit, along with a deep, understandable but not unproblematic suspicion of “representation” of any kind.
Previous experiences with non-hierarchical models suggest they carry perils of their own. The movement can become preoccupied with its own processes, identity and purity. In the absence of representative structures, it’s easy for individuals or coteries to make themselves spokespersons – and for the media to pick and choose whom it will give a platform to. What’s more, if people experience the process, however open and inclusive, as unproductive, without results in the real world, they’ll become disillusioned. In the end democracy is not only about how we make decisions but also our capacity to implement those decisions.
None of which is to suggest that the experiments in democracy should be curtailed. On the contrary, they must be continued and expanded. But they must be outward looking, they must aim to intervene, to mobilise, and not be content with sustaining a separate space. The new-old methods will have to be adapted to changing priorities and diverse constituencies. The link between the activist core and the much wider periphery will have to be strengthened.
The challenges are immense. If 2011 was, at times, inspiring, 2012 promises to be daunting in the extreme. In Britain, public service cuts will combine with recession to push millions into poverty and chronic insecurity. The breadth and scale of the attacks makes it hard to keep pace, no less to consolidate and unify. Plus there’ll be the mighty distractions of the royal jubilee and the Olympic Games, which will be used to promote national unity and pride.
One of the encouraging developments of 2011 was the convergence of the labour movement with the extra-institutional insurgency associated with Occupy (including in Britain, the UKUncut campaigns). This was seen most dramatically in the US, with the interventions of construction and transport workers in support of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, where dockworkers and allies battled police. But here in Britain too we’ve seen Unite, PCS and other unions seeking a relationship with the new forces and forms of resistance. From its side, the Occupy movement or whatever follows on from it also needs to reach out, to make the relationship between labour and capital, and therefore the labour movement, central to its analysis and strategy. If the movement understands this, it can play a critical role in creating the conditions (shifts in the climate of debate, in popular awareness) in which workers can take action with greater confidence.
Despite changes in the workplace, in technologies and the global labour market (overwhelmingly to labour’s disadvantage), the relationship between labour and capital remains central to capital accumulation and at its heart exploitive. It is also a relationship, a division, an experience more widespread today than ever, as market imperatives have been imposed in the developing world and extended within the developed world. (In one sense, it’s being on the subject side of this exploitive relationship that defines the 99%. )
Organised labour is rooted in collectivity, which is the source of its power and identity, and in this respect trade unions, however politically tame, have long offered at least the seed of an alternative to capitalist individualism. For all their failings, they remain the most democratic and accountable institutions in our society – certainly in comparison with the corporations, the media, parliament, universities, charities or regulatory bodies. The shared if highly fragmented world of work, which shapes the daily lives of billions, where value is generated and appropriated, where society is reproduced – this has to be a key arena of contest for any movement aiming for radical social change (or ecological sustainability).
It is because of their basis in this shared world of work that unions in Europe have taken up the fight against austerity which has been largely repudiated by their erstwhile social-democratic allies. Here in Britain, the Labour Party, forged by the unions a hundred years ago, is now too wedded to neoliberalism and too divorced from any mass base to offer real resistance. Long-term developments – the attrition of members’ power, the conquest of the party by a professional cadre chained to the logic of “presentation” – have left it incapable of imagining or articulating an alternative. Similar developments have been seen across Europe as “post-modern” inducements created “post social democratic” parties. In the end, the retreat of the mainstream social democratic left contributed as much as the collapse of Communism to the erosion of belief in alternatives.
This has left a gaping hole which the forces embodied in the Occupy movement cannot hope to fill, though they can forge a way forward. At some point, if we are to defeat austerity, we need to bring down the government. But then what? It may well turn out that we shake the tree, Labour politicians gather the fruit, and our world remains under neoliberal management.
In Latin America social movements were able to find or create political vehicles, and through them acquire the power to make the break from neoliberalism, which in turn made possible the remarkable reduction in poverty seen in the region over the last decade. We need a Latin American moment in Europe, a regime and a population willing to defy the demands of global capital.
In the meantime, our agenda in Britain over the coming year must be escalation: an increase in the tempo, scale, variety and overall public presence of resistance. We have to raise the social and political costs of austerity for the ruling elite. If we can see off even one of the major attacks we will be immensely strengthened. Those with a systemic critique need to find ways to bring radical ideas, and the energies they unleash, into immediate struggles – and fight to win.