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The past year has been hailed in the media as one 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 per cent, 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.
An unapologetic ‘No’
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 and so on. 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. 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 Olympics, which will be used to promote national unity and pride.
One of the encouraging developments of last year was the convergence of the labour movement with the extra-institutional insurgency associated with Occupy (including, in this country, the UK Uncut campaigns). This was seen most dramatically in the US, with the interventions of construction and transport workers in support of Occupy Wall Street and in Oakland, where dockworkers and allies battled police. But here 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 per cent.)
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 that 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 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.
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Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
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Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
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Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
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Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
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Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
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Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi