Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Seven women school students in Bristol organised a thousands-strong anti-austerity march just days after the election. Photo: John Lynch / Demotix
Two words have become mantras in the post-election babble: ‘fear’ and ‘aspiration’, sometimes counterposed to ‘hope’ and ‘equality’ respectively. It would be useful critically to scrutinise both of them. We need to think precisely in the coming months with a language that helps us express what we are really about.
There was certainly a lot of fear being spread during the election. And what happened in the final days was that the Tories mobilised the fear that many people feel and directed it at Labour and its possible alliance with the SNP.
An atmosphere of fear reinforces an underlying desire for order and antipathy to change. It induces paralysis. Its opposite though is not hope; it is self-confidence, especially collective self-confidence. Hope is important but unless it is combined with self-confidence and a sense of one’s own power with others, to take effective action, it can also be passive.
Look at the movement for Barack Obama in 2008. Hope was its theme but it was hope in someone else, for change on our behalf. It made many people feel good and encouraged a few to act for themselves hoping that Obama would support them. For example, workers in Chicago occupied their factory to save jobs, urging Obama to intervene. But in general Obama’s campaign and action in government did not build the self-confidence to take collective action and failed to achieve what it promised as a result.
There has been the gross abuse of the concept of ‘aspiration’, as if it was exclusively about private, market success. The life‑sucking vultures Mandelson and Blair, returning to squawk ‘I told you so’ over the defeated body of Ed Miliband’s leadership, are not just advocating back to the 1990s, they are pleading for a return to the 1950s, when we were told ‘You’ve never had it so good’ – ‘Vote for us and you’ll have your car, house and washing machine.’
Another case not only of passivity but of being relaxed about the inequality that the capitalist market inevitably produces. But then we all know from Mandelson’s infamous statement about being ‘intensely relaxed’ about some people being ‘filthy rich’ that is exactly what he and it seems most of the contenders for the Labour leadership want. An active, self-confident labour movement is what they spent their lives trying to crush and partially succeeding.
With Cameron’s victory we are going to face an attempt to complete Thatcher’s agenda of destroying the unions and dismantling the welfare state. Make no under-estimation: we will see a concerted attack, as aggressive as Thatcher if not more so, on collective rights and social gains won through an entirely opposite understanding of aspiration: aspiration through social and collective action, aspiration for a class or oppressed community.
In this social sense, aspiration is exactly what the trade union movement, so maligned by the very same political vultures, is all about. It’s an idea that goes back to Marx: ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.
You can trace it through William Morris’s emphasis on individual self-realisation through community, to the women’s liberation movement, which exemplified movements for personal liberation through collective action and solidarity. We knew that only through a powerful social movement in alliance with others could the deep structural inequalities that blocked women’s aspirations be eliminated. Essential to the character and success of that movement was the emphasis on building self-confidence and networks of mutual support, enabling people to act politically as they coped privately with the everyday trials of being a woman.
Quick off the mark
Even more so now: the protests that were so quick off the mark after the fright of Friday 8 May are expressions of a struggle to survive. Refusal is becoming a matter of necessity. The case of the seven women school students who organised an unexpectedly large post-election protest in Bristol is exemplary.
‘Like many others we felt lost and hopeless after the election, but seeing the London protest [the action in Downing Street] inspired us to take action, peaceful action, to get our voices heard,’ says one of the young women, Megan Foster Flaherty, snatching a moment to talk between her exams. ‘It’s about helping the most vulnerable to survive austerity in the bleak years to come. We felt, “If not us, who? If not now when?” That’s what led us to act and to act quickly. What we have loved is that ours is just one of many protests currently taking place all around the UK.’
This combination of a sense of injustice with a sense of illegitimate exclusion and silencing plus a strong sense of personal responsibility is the perfect recipe for direct action. And we will see more it at every level: from a spread of occupations of houses by communities saving their homes from social cleansing and property profiteering, to the militant organising of groups of precarious workers like the hotel workers Unite branch, encouraging waiters to refuse bullying by getting organised.
‘When you get organised, you can take on the bullies and the system that produces them. You are not alone, you stand together with your co-workers and you stand up for yourselves. Organise and fight back,’ declares their Facebook page. Ewa Jasiewicz, branch organiser, is clear about the importance of building mutual self-confidence: ‘Organising relies on collective action and winning small victories in the build up to the big. We have to make change ourselves. We have to build each other.’
The idea of ‘building each other’ is spreading fast. ‘We didn’t think this would become as huge as it has,’ says Megan about Bristol Against Austerity. ‘There have been protests in Cardiff, Sheffield and one due to take place in Glasgow. The national media don’t report them – we only found out through Twitter.’ She ends her list with the big demonstration in London on 20 June.
A process of making connections has also been quick to get underway, helped by techno-tools but driven by indignation and determination. A Radical Assembly called one week after the election in London attracted over 1,000 activists involved in direct action from which people gained confidence to step up their militancy and strengthen their alliances.
We can look to Scotland for inspiration, for the possibility and the know-how of building an interconnected movement that works through good communication and common ideas rather than a centralised organisation. The Radical Independence Campaign provides an impressive example of an aspirational movement – in the social labour movement sense that Mandelson et al would not recognise and of which Miliband, with his deference to the Westminster state, was ignorant.
To learn its lessons, we must recognise clearly that nationalism was not the central issue, though radical political change was and still is. It is a movement about creating social and political autonomy against austerity, and therefore using the possibility of independence as a means of overthrowing the neoliberal and imperial yoke of Westminster. Many of the SNP candidates in the last election were chosen from or influenced by this movement, even though the movement is autonomous from the SNP. They have come to Westminster not with a nationalist but an anti‑austerity and pro-democracy agenda. As George Kerevan, now MP for East Lothian, said in the last issue of Red Pepper: ‘Watch out for SNP campaigners south of the border. If there are anti-austerity demonstrations in London, I will be there.’
He’s not alone. And although with Cameron in office there is probably little that he and his fellow SNP activists can achieve through sitting in Westminster and sticking to conventional procedure, there is much that a progressive anti-austerity alliance of MPs, including from Plaid Cymru, the Labour left and the victorious Green Caroline Lucas, can contribute to amplify the voices and demands of the movement across the country.
The presence of the SNP, along with the fact of having a government voted for by only 24 per cent of the electorate, reminds us of the urgency of democracy and the broken nature of our unwritten, pro-elite constitution. This points to the need, alongside the actions against austerity, to campaign for an open constitutional process for the whole of the UK, including the English cities and regions, to develop a constitution that radically redefines politics, basing it on popular participation in its making and in its final character.
The Tories are already fusing destruction of the welfare state and further privatisation with ‘devolution’ to city regions, starting with Manchester. We need to respond with a clear political alternative rooted in the needs of the people. Here we can also learn from Podemos, which is urging a similar process in response to the crisis of the Spanish state and the demand for Catalan self-determination.
Collaboration with Podemos and Syriza especially, with their large circles here in the UK, is vital to the movement we need to create. This leads us to the unavoidable issue of the EU referendum. I watched Cameron celebrate his victory on a friend’s TV in Athens, a late-night conversation with Syriza members ringing in my ears. They were stressing the concertedly political nature of the conditions that the EU was imposing on Syriza: a neoliberal determination to crush a political challenge that might spread.
Cameron and Osborne have an entirely common cause with this EU. The referendum has been mainly Tory damage limitation against UKIP. Refusing their cynical choices ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – a neoliberal super-state or a xenophobic little England – we must turn the referendum into a platform for working on a practical strategy for another Europe. This should include tours of Podemos and Syriza activists engaged in the kinds of struggles – for example, against eviction or building a solidarity food movement – that the mass of people face here.
There is so much to be done beyond the ballot box. And the signs are that Labour Party members are waking up to this too. There is much talk of ‘a movement’, a turning away from the leadership elections, making links across branches to promote debate and support for local struggles. The leaders for such a movement are ones like the Bristol young women who got people on the streets in their thousands before would-be Labour leaders had said a word of protest against the new government.
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
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
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
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
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
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
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun