Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Broader horizons

Mike Marqusee asks: are the emerging forms of resistance up to the challenge?

April 11, 2012
8 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


  share     tweet  

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.

Convergence

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.

Gaping hole

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.

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.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


7