Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

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


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright