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 Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.