Editorial: Power to transform

Hilary Wainwright asks: Could the election be turned into an 'enough' moment?

December 1, 2014
3 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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Until recently, you had to go to South America for examples of the radical left as a popular political force. Now, radical parties opposing austerity top the polls in two southern European countries, while the movement for ‘Another Scotland’ is threatening to break open the elite club of Westminster.

Red Pepper is committed to doing all in our modest power to contribute to just such a popular radical politics. A first step is to learn from these breakthroughs. How have they reached beyond the left’s talking shop and won active popular support? And as well as taking the demands of anti-austerity movements into the political system, how are they forcing open that system to the direct participation of the people?

Across the UK, the policies of the left – higher taxes on the rich, new public housing, rent controls, common ownership – are increasingly popular and a growing number of organisations are producing demands rooted in struggles around urgent everyday needs. For example, earlier this year single mothers who had been evicted from a local hostel occupied flats on the Carpenters Estate, in east London, and won a commitment to rehousing in that community. Such victories have raised political consciousness and their struggle has now become a focal point for a movement for social housing. Similarly, Fuel Poverty Action’s ‘energy bill of rights’ emerged from the struggle against unaffordable energy and the domination of the ‘big six’ energy companies.

An insight from movements that engage with the political system is the distinction between two forms of power: power as domination and power as transformative capacity, or ‘power over’ and ‘power to’. Traditionally, left politics has been about winning control over the levers of power and using them paternalistically to meet people’s needs. In contrast, social movements have insisted on our capacity to transform social relations. When people refuse to reproduce the status quo of their relationships, on which the dominant institutions depend, a power is created with a dynamism of its own – but also with limits.

The practical problem is how power as domination can be ‘won’ in order to turn it into a resource for power as transformation. Historically, this has been tried through the Labour Party. But under Tony Blair, the party was changed to ensure that it is solely an instrument of power as domination. We have to create a political movement, based on power as transformative capacity, which could also struggle for the resources of some parts of the state.

We face a particular challenge six months before the general election. The mainstream parties have shut themselves off from the people, turning politicians into what the Spanish call la casta. Could the election be turned into an ‘enough’ moment? A moment when people refuse the fatalism that would doom us to live for ever under neoliberalism and instead assert a popular political process, a people’s politics?


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper