Back to ‘normal’?

Extraordinary displays of resistance are only the beginning, says Michael Calderbank

April 7, 2011
4 min read


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank

Popular protest has seized the political imagination in 2011. The TUC-organised ‘March for the Alternative’ was the biggest demonstration of anger at government policy since the massive Stop the War demonstration in February 2003, and followed on (albeit belatedly) from the magnificent protests over student fees and the scrapping of education maintenance allowances (see page 22). But these British developments are just one part of new global tide of resistance, most notable for the regime-changing wave that has swept the Arab world (see map, page 16).

As the demise of Ben Ali and Mubarak shows, when long suppressed public anger erupts it can unleash a raw power that can push aside the limits of what appears possible. Crucial in these circumstances is a refusal to allow power to remain in the hands of sections of the old elites (or emerging new elites), enabling them to set limits to democratic innovation, as those who sought a ‘stable and orderly transition’ under Mubarak wanted for Egypt.

But even after a revolutionary moment, there follows a dangerous period where things ‘get back to normal’, with the risk that reactionary forces are able reshape new institutions according to their own image, if not to restore the status quo ante.

This is why, although few would deny the imperative to provide genuine assistance to those resisting the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the intervention of the rapacious western interests until recently content to profit from the dictator’s rule would bring with it the seeds of the revolution’s own betrayal.

Even where the people are able to take power into their own hands for a time, the challenge is to prevent illegitimate powers from asserting themselves. The annals of our own history contain a relevant parallel. After the toppling of the absolute monarch King Charles I in the mid-17th century, the Levellers, Diggers and other radicals made an inspiring advocacy of democracy and equality against the reconsolidation of arbitrary power under the leadership of Cromwell.

Though they were brushed aside, their arguments have sustained those fighting for democratic rights ever since. And as Hilary Wainwright observes (page 43), we shouldn’t forget that even in a nation that loves to applaud itself about its democratic tradition, the AV referendum on May 5 is the first time in our history that we will get to vote on the system used for electing our representatives. Even today, a variety of powerful forces are lining up to convince us to spurn the opportunity to open up a dynamic for real change.

Perhaps, then, we might say that the period after the moment of the mass mobilisation, as things go ‘back to normal’, is when the real graft – and strategic thinking – necessary for structurally lasting change must begin. Many of the generation who marched in the Stop the War protests felt that in the end no one really listened. Will the government be forced to listen this time?

Undoubtedly, there will be elements of the union leadership who believe that one single ‘march for the alternative’ should again be the summit of resistance, at least as far as active protest goes. The timing of the event appears highly calculated, falling as it does conveniently after Labour councillors have passed their cuts budgets but focusing anger at the coalition ahead of a set of local elections in which Labour hopes to prosper. The conclusion implicit in this position is that there is nothing we can do except re-elect a Labour government at the next general election.

It is very likely that at some point the anti‑austerity movement will come into conflict with those leaders who want to limit its ambitions and deaden the pace of resistance. But just as a key to the revolutionary dynamic of the Egyptian protests was the fact that they reached deep into Egyptian society, and even into the military, so too the anti-cuts movement in the UK can only create the pressure for trade union leaders to depart from their accustomed role if it reaches deep into working class communities, and beyond, to include elements of the middle class with a stake in public services.

This calls for a radically self-critical approach to the whole modus operandi of trade unionism today, moving beyond the traditional focus on workplace representation and pay bargaining to engage much more broadly with the wider community who share such a huge stake in quality public services (see Amanda Tattersall, page 25).

The ability to rethink our own methods is intrinsic to rebuilding our capacity to confront and deny the coalition’s brutal assault. Extraordinary displays of resistance are only the beginning. The real victory lies in our ability to re-imagine what counts as ‘normal’. In our different ways, it is a struggle that we are all engaged in.


Michael CalderbankMichael Calderbank Red Pepper co-editor and parliamentary researcher for trade unions. @Calderbank


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant