How do we build a movement?

Politely walking into pens set up by police, shaking our signs and gently dispersing will not build a movement serious about root-and-branch change. Even the more militant demonstrations, in which people — gasp! — actually take the streets in defiance of authorities, both legal and NGO, are far from sufficient.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t demonstrate. Nor is it to say that demonstrations aren’t important and necessary. They are. Demonstrations are important (including the semi-official large-scale walks in which government officials are moved to participate) because they signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly, and serve as a potentially invaluable organizing tool.

Rally on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg after the February Revolution of 1917 (Source: State museum of political history of Russia)

But demonstrations don’t, and can’t, change anything by themselves. They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. This is especially so when they are “one-off” events. Remember that it was only two autumns ago that an estimated 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York City in defense of the environment. There were street actions in the financial district the next day, ones that were permitted to go on for much the day because it would have been too embarrassing for the gentrification mayor, Bill de Blasio, the Obama of New York, to have openly suppressed it one day after he marched in the big Sunday stroll.

But, then — nothing. The energy generated by the march evaporated; it might as well not have happened. It didn’t help that march organizers raised no demands, much less attempted to connect global warming and environmental destruction with economic issues. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead-end strategy.

A steady crescendo of demonstrations and marches certainly are part of any serious movement. But petitioning leaders to do better for working people yields meager gains. There are structural issues here: When Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Matteo Renzi and Alexis Tsipras follow the same path, then a condemnation of personality doesn’t provide explanations.

There are no saviors. We will have to save ourselves. And we won’t save ourselves without organization or commitment.

Fighting on all fronts

An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force. A serious movement needs a full toolbox and not simply one tool.

Such a toolbox can only be wielded by cohesive organizations welding together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneous with rooting these in larger understandings of the structural causes of them and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to wait your turn and, anyway, your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness.

Nor is it necessary to choose between “identity politics” and “class politics.” We need to fight on all fronts, using both what is relevant from past struggles and new tactics and strategies reflecting contemporary understandings arising out of current conditions. Nor should it be an obligation to accept or reject organizational structures simply because they are old or new. There are vast gradations between those who believe we should just replicate whatever Vladimir Lenin did and those who believe we should spend three hours a night in open-air assemblies.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

Practice without theory amounts to running around in circles with no effectiveness. Theory without practice is arm-chair pontificating. Only a synthesis of theory and practice can propel a movement forward to effective action. That synthesis does not fall out of the sky.

Theory derives from examining our experiences, both in our everyday lives and in movement work, and developing ideas out of these in opposition to the dominant propaganda — ideas that can be translated into concrete actions. Effective action, in turn, is impossible without organization.

In her thoughtful paper, “Ideas for the Struggle,” Marta Harnecker writes that the example of successful revolutions demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle and based on current, concrete conditions is essential. She argues that people who believe that strong organizations are something to be avoided because many parties of the past engaged in authoritarian or manipulative political practices should not be trapped in the past. She writes:

“I believe it is fundamental for us to overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking about any political instrument; we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must build together. … We are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the correlation of force in favor of the popular movement, to make possible in the future what today appears impossible. We have to think of politics as the art of constructing forces. We have to overcome the old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force without building a social force.”

Changing the world means taking power

We can ignore the state all we want; the state will not ignore us if we mount any challenge to present-day orthodoxy. Nor will the new age concept of “changing ourselves” lead to any social change. If we want a better world, that entails eventually taking power. As Vivek Chibber recently put it at the “Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University” conference: “A politics that doesn’t try to take power isn’t politics — it’s just talking.”

The task, however, not only is immense but must be conducted on multiple levels, Ms. Harnecker writes:

“[W]e must develop a process of popular construction opposed to capitalism in the territories and spaces won by the left, that seeks to break with the profit logic and the relations this imposes and tries to instill solidarity-based humanist logics. We must promote struggles that are not limited to simple economic demands — although these need to be included — but that advance the development of a more global, social project that encourages authentic levels of power from the grassroots.”

And what form should a “political instrument” take? These need not take any specific form — and in pluralistic societies are likely to encompass multiple forms. Yet if building an effective movement that is sustainable, institutionalizes memory through integrating past experiences and aims toward a transformation of society, a party is necessary, argues Jodi Dean. In her 2016 book Crowds and Party, she argues that Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form.

This argument is made in the context of analyzing why Occupy so quickly dissipated. The birth of a movement such as Occupy should represent a beginning, not an end. A spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, is often seen as an end in itself. Such spontaneity needs a permanent form for meeting the challenge of maintaining a movement. Professor Dean argues that those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.”

New forms of organization

This does not mean a party is the only organizational form. Nor does it have to mean that a single party will, or can, express the full range of demands of a broad movement or represent all shades of opinion, especially given the divide that will likely persist for some time between those who begin with a goal of fundamental transformation and those who advocate reforms. Given the pluralism of most countries, including all advanced capitalist countries (not to mention the complexity of modern life), the formation of multiple parties should be seen as healthy.

A successful movement will inevitably be a coalition; the political expressions of this should be coalitions as well. Popular-front types of organization, movement coalitions organized to achieve specific goals while allowing participating groups to express their particular perspectives, are forms likely to be necessary to create the sufficient scale of activists needed to effect advances.

A multitude of popular organizations, reflecting not only the differing sites of struggle but the necessarily different types of struggle, will come into being. These need not be permanent, although some will be. Self-organized councils or assemblies of workers sustaining an enterprise occupation or sit-in strike is but one form; neighborhood organizations uniting into bodies representing larger spaces of geography, advocacy groups and the creation of liberated zones are among others.

New types of unions could be still another form. Staughton Lynd, in his recently updated book Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, argues that present-day unions are “institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace.” He advocates shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries. New labor organizations should be built on solidarity, he writes:

“[B]y building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.”

As with any other organization created to address specific problems, sustaining effectiveness will be impossible without linking the specific problems to other issues and in turn linking related issues to larger structural critiques. The enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions present enormous challenges. This is a hegemony that must be broken, and won’t be broken until a critical mass of people come to understand the excuses that buttress all this for the self-serving ideology that it is.

Breaking hegemony through alternative examples

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, in their 2014 book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, argue that the work of breaking this hegemony necessitates defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard.

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. They write:

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.”

Nothing of human creation lasts forever. Capitalism, despite the frantic scribblings of apologists for inequality, is no more immune from this than previous forms of economic and social relations. What will replace it is up to all of us. Given that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, that hard-won reforms are temporary in a system of massive and pervasive power imbalances, that no permanent solutions are available in a system that is dependent on its most powerful institutions (large corporations) being able to offload all responsibility for pollution and other social problems on society, and that inequality, endless growth, global warming and pollution are necessary byproducts for the system to function at all, limits will be reached.

If this is the last century of capitalism, what will replace it? It could be something worse — some combination of high-tech fascism imposed on feudal arrangements in which a minuscule minority uses extreme force to hoard the world’s dwindling resources for itself is not only not out of the question, but the likely response of a capitalist elite that will stop at nothing to maintain itself. In the continued absence of organized resistance across borders, that may well be the future. Or a better world can be created, through organized struggle, that is based on fulfilling human need within environmentally sustainable practices in which everybody has a say in how their enterprise functions and in larger political and social decisions.

One day, people have had enough

These words are being written on the 100th anniversary of the start of the February Revolution in Russia. Let’s take a moment to reflect on that momentous event, which toppled an absolute monarch who ruled as a direct representative of God and whose every word was indisputable law. A monarchy that had no hesitation in shooting down protestors in the hundreds or thousands, where the overwhelming majority lived in unspeakable poverty and illiteracy.

Women protest in St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day, 1917

More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution, during which time three major demonstrations were planned, and mutinies spread throughout the army. The tsarist régime responded with lockouts of factory workers, shootings of strikers by the police and army, and mass arrests.

But on one day in 1917 (March 8 in the Gregorian calendar not yet in use in Russia), tens of thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called) walked out. The women walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. More struck the next day. The day after that, a general strike was under way in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. Within a week, the tsar abdicated.

Years of tireless work paid off. As I wrote in my book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment:

“One more strike, one additional action following hundreds of actions, one action that on the day it began did not seem noticeably different from previous actions, put the revolution in motion. Why this one? It is impossible to say. Perhaps all that can be said is that on that particular day, enough Russians, or at least enough Petrograd women and men, were sufficiently exasperated to do something about it. The February Revolution is an excellent example of the necessity of continuing to struggle: It is usually impossible to predict which spark will be the one to catch fire. The revolutionaries were surprised by the revolution, and perhaps that could not have been otherwise. But the revolution would not have happened without their work.”

Russians had ceased to believe the ideologies that kept their society in place. Similarly, our task today is to explode the mythologies that undergird our current world. This is a big task, but one that is indispensable, Henry Giroux writes:

“Central to a viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

[P]rogressives must address the crucial challenge of producing cultural apparatuses such as alternative media, think tanks and social services in order to provide models of education that enhance the ability of individuals to make informed judgments, discriminate between evidence based arguments and opinions, and to provide theoretical and political frameworks for rethinking the relationship between the self and others based on notions of compassion, justice, and solidarity.”

And as a reminder that we need to take care of each other, because struggle is such hard work, it’s appropriate to offer a quote from Mark Fisher, who recently left this world all too prematurely:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order,’ must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

Good words to remember, even if many of us won’t be around long enough to see a better world come into being. Struggle we must, regardless. I don’t wish for the following words to be reduced to cliché because they are uttered so often (including by me), but the choice for the future remains socialism or barbarism. Let us be worthy of our task.

Economic issues are not separate from “identity” issues

Building the largest possible movement to not only tackle the immense, and intensifying, problems facing humanity and the environment but to overcome these problems is our urgent task. Given the position the Left finds itself in today, serious discussions inevitably include a variety of perspectives, and that is healthy.

But sometimes these discussions can veer too far into an “either/or” dynamic. These debates center on who should be the subject(s) of a mass movement that can begin to reverse the European and North American slide toward the right, a direction that, at least for now, appears to be sweeping across Latin America as well. In the United States, following the shock election of Donald Trump, an “either/or” debate has taken shape in the form of “identity politics” versus “class politics.” But do we really have to pick a side here?

An example of an activist arguing that there has been too much focus in the U.S. on “identity politics,” Bruce Lerro, writing for the Planning Beyond Capitalism web site, argues that both the Democratic Party and the Left ignored working class concerns, catastrophically leaving an opening for a right-wing demagogue like President-elect Trump to fill a vacuum. Critical of what he calls a capitulation to “long-standing liberal ideology [that] all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie,” Professor Lerro writes:

“Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.”

It is true that liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression. Leaving capitalism untouched leaves behind all but a handful of people who ascend to elite jobs. Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president didn’t end racism, did it? Nor would have a successful Hillary Clinton campaign have brought an end to sexism. A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

But to say this is not to deny that racism, sexism and other social ills have to be fought head-on. So even a focus on class issues does not mean ignoring these issues, Professor Lerro writes:

“In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor — on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals — not socialists.”

Racism and sexism in our own movements

Racism and sexism, however, are found outside the workplace, and have not been eradicated from social struggles. Certainly there can not be any going back to the open sexism of 1960s movements. There was a prominent demonstration of that era in which no women were invited to speak, and a group of women in response confronted men organizing the event about this, insisting that their demands be included. In response, one of the men told them that there was already a women’s resolution, which was simply a general plea for peace. Demanding that issues specific to women’s oppression be included, the male activist not only refused further discussion, but actually patted Shulamith Firestone, soon to be the author of The Dialectic of Sex, on the head!

Such degrading behavior would not be tolerated in a Left movement today, but it can hardly be argued that sexism (or racism) has been overcome once and for all in Left movements, never mind in larger society. The days when a Left movement can tell a member of an oppressed group to “wait your turn, it’ll all be better after we have the revolution,” really should be behind us.

Even after a revolution, these issues have to be worked on. Women, for example, made serious advances in the 20th century’s socialist revolutions but never sufficient advances, and there was often backsliding. The Sandinistas banned the display of women’s bodies in commercial advertising after coming to power in Nicaragua, but near the end of their first 11 years in power sponsored a beauty contest, nor did they legalize abortion. No woman sat on the Sandinistas’ highest body, the nine-member National Directorate, during those 11 years despite their fighting in large numbers, and even commanding, during the hard struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. No woman ever sat on the Politburo during the Soviet Union’s 74-year history.

Working people are oppressed, but not all to the same degree

The world’s advanced capitalist countries are far from a revolution, so all the more is it necessary to seriously make structural discrimination a component part of Left struggles, without forgetting the class dimension any such struggle must contain. In a typically thoughtful article in CounterPunch, Henry Giroux, while not losing sight of class issues, and the overall repression of working people under neoliberal regimes, refused to downplay the extra repression that rains down on minority communities. He wrote:

“Large segments of the American public, especially minorities of class and color, have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing.

As these institutions vanish—from public schools to health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. With the election of Donald Trump, the savagery of neoliberalism has been intensified with the emergence at the highest levels of power of a toxic mix of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, nativism, and a renewed notion of American exceptionalism.”

Professor Giroux argues against a focus on what he calls “single-issue movements” but not in the sense of dismissing liberation movements based on specific oppressions, but rather argues for a joining together of struggles through drawing the connections among various social movements. He writes:

“Central to viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

Crucial to rethinking the space and meaning of the political imaginary is the need to reach across specific identities and to move beyond around single-issue movements and their specific agendas. This is not a matter of dismissing such movements, but creating new alliances that allow them to become stronger in the fight to not only succeed in advancing their specific concerns but also enlarging the possibility of developing a radical democracy that benefits not just specific but general interests.”

Economic issues aren’t separate from other issues

All working people are exploited under capitalism. It would be the height of folly to sideline this fundamental commonality. But the levels of exploitation, and the intensity of direct oppression, varies widely and it would be folly to ignore this as well. Those subject to higher (often far higher) levels of discrimination have every right to focus on their own emancipation, and those in more privileged positions have an obligation to support those emancipations. Further, the perpetuation of class oppression central to capitalism depends on deep divisions within the working class, not only in terms of setting different groups at each other’s throats but in providing relatively better pay and conditions to some so that the more privileged set themselves apart from the less privileged, reinforcing hierarchies that maintain divisions among working peoples.

Therefore it is self-defeating to attempt to downplay racial, sexual and other divisions in an effort to “concentrate” on economic issues, as if these are somehow separate from other issues. In a very thoughtful essay dealing with the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dampening activism and propping up the system they purport to critique, Sophia Burns goes on to argue that no fight against capitalist exploitation can succeed without women and People of Color playing central roles. If they are playing central roles, then the fight for their specific emancipations is central to the struggle.

Her discussion merits being quoted at length. Writing in The North Star, she argues:

“There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of ‘allyship’ — you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest.

But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc — the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation.

Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all ‘capitalism’ means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.”

From the standpoint of the relationship to the means of production, white-collar middle class employees, as commonly defined, are of the same class as a blue-collar assembly-line laborer. Both are exploited economically in the same way, being paid a small fraction of the value of they produce. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that such middle-class workers (even if more properly understood as a strata within a working class that includes the vast majority of humanity) are privileged compared to other workers, and that their composition will be more heavily weighted toward dominant racial, ethnic or other groups in a given capitalist society, with the nastier and lower-paid jobs disproportionally held by disadvantaged groups.

Struggles against chauvinism are not an adjunct

The pervasive propaganda that denies that capitalism is exploitative or even refuses to acknowledge the different opportunities among different groups “is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class,” Ms. Burns writes. Thus, she argues, a false opposition is created between economics and other issues.

“Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being.

Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair.”

Let’s take this discussion a step further. Should we even use the term “identity politics”? Susan Cox, speaking on the Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio program on December 4, argued that being female is not an identity but rather is a material reality, and one of the most foundational realities that define the world’s social organization. She pointed out that women’s unpaid domestic labor props up the entire capitalist economic system. Defining feminism as a movement with a goal of global resistance wrenches it from the idea that it is an individualistic, lifestyle choice.

Further discussing this issue in an article in Feminist Current, Ms. Cox wrote:

“One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.

Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests.”

It is reasonable to dispute the use of the term “class” in this context, but it should be indisputable that women face a particular oppression, one that although predating capitalism has long been an essential prop for maintaining capitalism. Racism is also necessary to maintain capitalism, and thus fighting it can never be an adjunct to a broad struggle for a better world.

Dismissing all those who voted for Donald Trump as bigots, “deplorables” or ignorant is not only simplistic and mistaken, it is bad practice. Some who voted for him can be described in such terms, but plenty voted for him, however mistakenly, out of a belief that he would bring back their jobs and because he represented, in their minds, “change.” Some Trump voters previously voted for Barack Obama — such folks can hardly be described as racists. Similarly, in France, many now supporting the National Front formerly supported the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party, however ridiculous we might find its name, is peeling off supporters from Labour.

Again, those trends do not mean there is no racism in such movements; that plenty of such exists is obvious. But economic insecurity is driving the rise of far right movements on more than one continent. Establishment politics has failed working people, and working people, including those without higher education, know it. They live it. At the same time, the far right movements that are gaining support among working people tap into the racism, nationalism, sexism and anti-Semitism that both exists within working classes (reflecting the whole of society) and is an inculcated weapon of division launched by elites who have every interest in our not uniting.

To “choose” between class politics and identity politics is a false choice. We are defeating ourselves if we decide to separate interrelated struggles and then debate which is the “proper” one. A multitude of tactics are just as necessary as fighting on multiple fronts, taking on the multiplicity of interconnected issues.

We can dream, or we can organize

The swift rise, and swift crumbling, of the Occupy movement brings to the surface the question of organization. Demonstrating our anger, and doing so with thousands of others in the streets, gives us energy and brings issues to wider audiences.

Yes spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself. For all the weeks and sometimes months that Occupy encampments lasted, little in the way of lasting organization was created and thus a correspondingly little ability to bring about any of the changes hoped for. Nor is social media a substitute for mass action.

Organization, specifically a party, is the missing element, Jodi Dean argues in her latest book, Crowds and Party.* Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form. The party is a permanent body that can channel the crowd’s promise of justice into organized political struggle, she argues.

Crowds and Party coverWith a sustained, organized movement, real change is not possible. How then to sustain the enthusiasm of a spontaneous “crowd,” such as Occupy? Through a more structured form capable of organizing activists toward concrete goals worked out through mutual discussion, distilling practice and experience, and providing the necessary scale. The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.

Professor Dean argues that to do so is to accept markets and the capitalist state as a given; focusing on individuals is a substitute for focusing on necessary revolutionary transformation. She writes:

“The realism in which the Left has been immersed in the neoliberal decades has meant that even when we are fully conscious of the deep inequality of the system in which we find ourselves, we confirm and conform to the dominant ideology: turn inward, enclave, emphasize the singular and momentary. … [W]e found ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. Or we presume that we have to focus on ourselves and thereby redirect political struggle back into ourselves. In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult that success on this front can seem like a significant accomplishment. Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.” [pages 71-72]

The ‘beautiful moment’ is a start, not a culmination

What Professor Dean calls the “politics of the beautiful moment” represents a beginning, not an end. By this “beautiful moment,” she refers to a spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, and the tendency among some to see such spontaneity as an end in itself. The “crowd,” as she terms this spontaneity, provides an opportunity for an emergence but the party is the form for meeting the challenge of maintaining the fidelity of an event. Those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.” [page 125]

The imposition of the popular will over the National Guard at the dawn of the Paris Commune is an example of a “crowd event,” Professor Dean argues, but this event did not create the Commune — the Commune was pre-figured by earlier attempts. The overlap of the Commune form and the “crowd event” created the space for emancipatory egalitarian politics. Similarly today, the crowd is not an alternative political arrangement, it is an opening for a process.

Without targeting the capitalist class, there can be no end to exploitation. Movements inevitably run up against state power — how can a movement sustain itself in the face of repression? An unorganized movement can’t, and indeed Occupy withered once the Obama administration, the federal security apparatus and local police forces combined to suppress it.

Or, to put it another way, you can ignore the state all you want, but the state will not ignore you.

Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past, but this is nothing unique to the Left; all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many, and organizing means creating differentiation, but, Professor Dean argues, this gap need not be permanent nor with set divisions. This gap is also a social space where the crowd’s association creates space for an alternative perspective to arise. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize can’t be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in “the fantasy of the beautiful moment.”

Opponents of parties and formal organization are incorrect in charging that workers were excluded from Left parties and that the leaders of those parties believed that an intellectual vanguard held all knowledge. This is a misreading, Professor Dean writes:

“Lenin’s point is that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle, not [outside] the class struggle. The economic struggle takes place between particular interests within the field of capital. The terms of the struggle are set by capitalism. The political struggle—for communists—is over the field itself. When ‘we’ is used as the designator for the subject of a politics it asserts more than a collective will. It announces a will to collectivity, a will to fight together on terms that challenge rather than accept the given. Class consciousness is not spontaneous. As [Slavoj] Žižek emphasizes, what is spontaneous is misperception—the perception that one is alone or that one’s circumstances are unique. The political ‘we’ of the party ruptures this immediate consciousness to assert a collective one in its place.” [pages 198-199]

No going forward if we erase the past

Anti-party critics seek to have nobody hold political knowledge, the author charges, and that is a serious failing: Erasure of the past is renouncing revolutionary power. The collective space of struggle creates the conditions for new perspectives to arise, and the party establishes this space.

Professor Dean, in the last two chapters, provides several inspiring examples of communist activists finding power in their collectivity. The young Jewish woman who finds the courage to stand up to her tyrannical father because she feels the power of her party comrades behind her; the impoverished Black laborer who enters the Communist Party illiterate because of his poor schooling yet becomes a strong organizer and eventually writes a book; the organizers who do far more than they ever thought possible and continue to push themselves forward. When a new recruit had to have basic concepts explained to him, he wasn’t ridiculed or made to feel inferior; instead, the more experienced took the time to patiently explain in detail.

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

“To reduce the Party to its excesses fails to recognize its indispensable capacity to generate practical optimism and collective strength. Such a reduction likewise reduces the world, contracting possibility into what can be done instead of forcing the impossibility of what must be done. … The party continues the moment of belonging, intensifying and expanding it in solidarity purpose.” [pages 247-248]

Here, however, the author could have strengthened her argument with a discussion of those excesses. Communist parties did have weaknesses (as all parties do). She touches on some of this, briefly, in the introduction, pointing out that the authoritarianism of Left parties in the East, the surrender to capitalist assumptions of Left parties in the West, and the failure of Left parties to incorporate identity politics as reasons for so many turning their backs on the party form.

Why was this? One reason was the imbalance between theory and practice; practice with too little theory behind it leads to practice that spins its wheels in place. For all the good that the British and U.S. communist parties achieved in the lives of people it reached, particularly in the 1930s, that activity did not lead to an ability to grow beyond small followings. The extreme policy zigzags of alternately denouncing all other organizations with tailing those groups previously denounced, and embarrassing episodes such as Lysenkoism, demonstrated not only fatal over-centralization but an organization in which theory had disastrously fossilized into incontestable dogma.

Parallel to this is the concept of the single party: Why can’t there be multiple organizations working toward a goal of full human emancipation? No organization, much less an individual leader, has all the answers. Regardless of how we see this question, however, there is no escaping that organization and learning from the past are critical to sustaining any movement that purports to bring a better world into being. The answer is to learn from past mistakes, not to throw out the past. “To advance, we need to organize,” Crowds and Party correctly concludes. “We need a party for the people in the crowd.”

The title Crowds and Party is carefully chosen. Professor Dean has linked these two, and given us a powerful defense of organization, of demonstrating that only as part of collectives, rather than as individuals, can we hope to overcome the mounting horrors that capitalism unleashes on the world.

* Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party [Verso, London 2016]

A global working class in formation

With the rise of a working class rooted in the global South comes worker militancy in the same geographies. This is militancy that has yet to attract much notice in the advanced capitalist countries of the North.

One reason lies in the withering of labor movements across the North, and a belief in some circles, flowing from that withering, that the working class is shrinking and perhaps ceasing to be an instrument of social change. In part such viewpoints are due to a failure to see office workers in “white-collar” professions to be part of the working class. (Surplus value is extracted from them just the same.) In another part it is myopia — believing labor acquiescence in the North to be universally representative while failing to appreciate the rise of militancy on the part of super-exploited workers in the developing world.

Workers in the South, however, are developing new forms of resistance, and are now an integral part of a global working class, under-appreciated developments brought to vivid life in Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class* by Immanuel Ness. The industrial working class has not disappeared, but rather has been reconstituted in the South and in larger in numbers than ever before, in contrast to scholars on the right and left who “declared the working class dead.” In his book, Professor Ness argues:

“While the right wing declared the working class dead and a false construct, leftist scholars were also challenging the legitimacy of the working class as a force for social equality and transformation. Yet, more than 40 years after the onslaught of the economic, political, and intellectual offensive against organized labor throughout the world, the working class has a heartbeat and is stronger than ever before despite the dramatic decline in organized labor. … While it may be the case that the labor movements in Europe and North America are a spent force, it is their very defeats that have marginalized their existing supine and bureaucratic order and regenerated a fierce workers’ movement in the early 21st century.” [page 3]

Southern Insurgency coverThe percentage of formal-sector workers holding industrial employment in the South has grown from about 50 percent of the global total in 1980 to 80 percent. This increase is of course central to corporate strategy in the neoliberal era — as organized labor achieved successes, capital responded by moving production. This process has repeated, as Northern multi-national capital continually seeks out lower-wage Southern labor to exploit. That Northern capital has intensified its exploitation is demonstrated by the fact that profits being taken out of the South are rising faster than the inflow there of investment capital.

Southern traditional unions lost whatever militancy they may have once had through their co-optation into state and capitalist institutions. But in contrast to working people in much of the North, workers of the South have begun to build new types of organizations. Professor Ness writes:

“In more and more industries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, this new proletariat is forming bonds of solidarity through independent organizations demanding improved conditions for all workers, pushing existing unions to represent members and non-members, and forming alliances within communities to improve the quality of life for all impoverished workers. The workplace and community demands that are now made by the new industrial proletariat reveal the motivations of workers rooted in solidarity, and a fundamental opposition to neoliberal capital, inequality, and poverty.” [page 58]

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable, and suffer particularly unsafe and exploitative working conditions and pay. Liberal theories of migration ignore the structural reasons for migration, Professor Ness notes — neoliberalism creates unemployment and inequality, forcing involuntary movements; forced displacement in turns leads to slums, poverty and exploitation. Capital needs these migrations, and immigration, to increase competition for jobs and thus make work more precarious. Guest workers tend to earn barely enough to ensure their own survival and don’t contribute to their home economies, in contrast to World Bank and International Monetary Fund propaganda.

Precarious labor in India

The core of Southern Insurgency are case studies of three of the largest Southern economies: India, China and South Africa. The intensity of exploitation in each of these countries is high and resistance ongoing despite the use of force on the part of both capital and government. The first of these case studies, India, represents “a leading example of neoliberal imperialism,” Professor Ness argues:

“The actions of the Indian state have been decisive for multinational capital and its local agents by facilitating foreign investment in new manufacturing industries, safeguarding foreign investments, and commonly using legal rulings against workers and unions and unions fighting for democratic representation at the workplace. Moreover, state police are readily available to intervene on behalf of multinational investors seeking to thwart labor organizations. In India, the state police and the criminal justice system are not impartial intermediaries but partisans in support of corporations against the working class as it seeks equity and humane conditions in the workplace.” [pages 105-106]

Only about one-quarter of Indian workers enjoy regular employment and are eligible to be in a state-recognized union; three-quarters of workers are “contract workers” who have no security, are prohibited from unionizing and are paid 25 to 50 percent of the low wages of regular workers, barely enough to eat and pay rent. Although Indian law has permitted unions since independence, labor law has been flouted since the early 1990s by the state, capital and sometimes even unions. With traditional Indian unions, who are aligned with weakening political parties, failing to defend workers, a new independent formation, the National Trade Union Initiative, is attempting to organize non-union and informal workers, although the government refuses to recognize it.

Splitting the working class is at the core of multi-national capital’s strategy in India, actively encouraged by the state. One example is a fierce fightback at a Suzuki auto plant in 1991. Workers there used hunger strikes and two-hour “tool-downs” to press their demands, which included an end to the contract system. Management responded with a lockout, enforced by a police blockade, and a demand that workers sign a draconian “good conduct” letter to be allowed to return. Ultimately, Suzuki restarted production with scabs, enthusiastically backed by the state.

When Suzuki opened a second plant, the same scenario repeated, but this time the company hired goons who instigated violence, leaving more than 100 injured but only worker leaders jailed. Organized resistance continues in India despite continued repression, Professor Ness writes, and organized fight-backs, which consistently include demands for equal pay and conditions, are building needed class consciousness.

Organizing beyond unions in China

Although Chinese workers face the strongest state among the three case-study countries, they are also making the biggest strides. The very weakness of the Chinese union federation, Southern Insurgency argues, may give workers there more space to act collectively outside the constraints imposed by union bureaucracies and labor law. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions has been the sole national federation since 1949, and because good benefits and security were the norm during the Mao Zedong era, member unions have little experience in negotiating. Local branches don’t function as active organizations but respond only to rank-and-file disruptions of production. Unions are subservient to capital and negotiate without member input, but this makes them little different from Western unions, Professor Ness argues:

“Most existing union models throughout the world do not want competition from independent unions, so why should the [All-China Federation]? Labor unions in liberal democracies that fail to represent members’ interests are thus a poor model for the Chinese working class.” [page 126]

Labor law is largely not enforced in China; in part this is due to enforcement being devolved to the city level. Struggles tend to be ignited by failures to pay wages and thus tend to be spontaneous single-factory actions. Ironically, because workers are circumscribed by an inability to revolt regionally, nationally or across industries, the number of local revolts is higher than it would be otherwise. Younger workers are becoming more assertive in demanding better pay and retirement benefits, and privatizations and layoffs at state-owned enterprises are also behind a rising number of strikes.

Workers in the heavily industrialized Pearl River Delta region, sometimes led by floor supervisors, have forced companies to pay back owed wages and retirement benefits. Police repression has been deployed outside plants but the state has also pressured companies to pay what they owe their workers. Throughout, workers have relied on self-organization as they have received no help from their unions.

Wildcat strikes are the standard model of Chinese workplace bargaining, Professor Ness writes, a “class struggle” unionism outside official channels. A future Chinese labor movement may be emerging from these battles.

State and capital vs. South African labor

Parallel to the contract-labor system of India and the hukou migrant-labor system of China, South Africa extensively uses contract and migrant labor at the behest of multi-national capital. Neoliberalism has an added bitter component there because harsh labor policies are enforced by the African National Congress (ANC), which granted political rights to the country’s oppressed Black majority but left economic relations untouched.

The largest South African labor federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), formed as an ANC affiliate during the 1980s but became a “distinctly junior partner” to the ANC and the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party and began to lose credibility in the 2010s as it failed to oppose the harsh neoliberalism dictated by the International Monetary Fund. Working conditions are particularly poor for miners — mining is controlled by multi-national capital and is by far the country’s biggest industry.

COSATU and its National Union of Mineworkers affiliate have supported an increase in the use of informal labor because they can hold a dominant position by representing only regular workers and thus without the support of the majority of the workforce. When a wave of strikes nonetheless began in 2009, the unions declared the strikes “illegal” and backed management. In at least one case, the union called for a harsher punishment than management did!

Workers organized themselves, and asked a new union unaffiliated with COSATU, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, to negotiate on their behalf, which in turn won much greater pay raises. The National Union of Mineworkers reached a new low in 2012, however, after striking workers left that union and joined the Association during a strike. When management obtained a court order against the strikers, the National Mineworkers sided with management and sent goons to join with company goons to impose a violent denouement; 34 were killed and scores injured in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.

A fresh wave of strikes commenced in 2014, with Association negotiators obtaining significant wage increases. In parallel, a metal workers union has called for more militancy and for nationalizations; in response, COSATU expelled it. Worker militancy continues to rise and with the fracturing of the union movement, a realignment seems to be coming. Professor Ness writes:

“While the future configuration of the unions remains to be determined, it is clear that rank-and-file workers are helping to build oppositional unions that are shaping a struggle against economic imperialism, insisting on ending the system of exploitation and inequality that remains a fixture in the post-apartheid era.” [page 178]

Strength in worker radicalism

Southern Insurgency concludes by asking if existing labor unions can contain the development of independent working-class organizations. The actions of Indian, Chinese and South African industrial workers are reshaping traditional unions, and workers can’t rely on bureaucratic unions leaders to defend themselves, the book argues:

“It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. … [T]he results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed, but the evidence … demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction, and achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions.” [page 189]

This latest book by Immanuel Ness is a needed corrective to the false idea that resignation to neoliberalism is universal, and the examples of militancy that he presents are not simply a necessary corrective but demonstrate that improvements are only possible with organized, self-directed actions. In a world more globalized then ever, workers of the world truly do need to unite — a global working class can only liberate itself through a global struggle.

Immanuel Ness, Southern Insurgency: The Coming of the Global Working Class [Pluto Press, London 2016]

Are we ready for the twilight of neoliberalism?

Not since the Great Depression have so many people in the global North called into question capitalism, yet among most of the advanced capitalist countries there is little organized pushback. Worse, parties of the Right appear to be gaining ground as voters who in the past backed the traditional parties of the center-left increasingly stay home, disgusted at their “me, too” approach to economics.

A decaying order increasingly reliant on repression that delivers immiseration to ever more people ought to be under more pressure. It can’t be said there are no serious challenges — social movements such as Spain’s Indignados and political coalitions contending for power such as Greece’s Syriza, for example — and the dramatic instant popularity of the Occupy movement demonstrated widespread discontent.

Still, the limitations of Occupy led to its demise and nothing yet has arisen in its place. Is there a weakness in our movements that is preventing them from organizing that discontent and channeling it into productive forces capable of challenging prevailing social orders?

We Make Our Own History coverAny answer to the puzzle of why Left movements have gained so little traction comprises multiple parts. Certainly the enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions can’t be discounted. Nonetheless, that does not relieve ourselves of the necessity to think about how we attempt to organize.

Activist knowledge has been “frozen” in specific forms, and today’s movements must be willing to break with past patterns and to build different styles of organization, argue Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen in their study of social movements, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism.* In writing this book, the authors, both of whom have long histories in activist work, set out to “reclaim” activist knowledge for today’s movements and problems.

The authors quite reasonably argue that the failure of neoliberalism is “evident” and that we are now living in the “twilight” of the neoliberal era. That neoliberalism is reaching its end does not necessarily mean that capitalism is reaching its end; merely capitalism’s latest phase. “There is no alternative” retains a powerful punch even as conditions continue to deteriorate around the world. Moreover, activists are at a disadvantage when operating within rules designed to maintain the status quo.

Theory does not derive from an armchair

Theory, Professors Cox and Nilsen write, derives from the activist work of making sense of, and changing, social experience. Theory helps grasp ideas in opposition to dominant discourses, helping us go beyond our immediate situation or experience. A “unity of theory and action, and not simply practice,” is a necessity. But theory is not a concept imposed from high above nor the province of a handful of philosophers. They write:

“The producers of theory are — potentially — everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience. Theory, in this perspective, is knowledge that is consciously developed out of experience, and has been worked through using experience as a touchstone, that has become explicit and articulate, and which as been brought to a level where it can be generalised.” [page 8]

The everyday experience of creating new forms of organization during struggles itself provide bases for a better world.

“At their best and within wider movements for social change, the council, the assembly, the occupied factory, the social centre, the self-organised neighbourhood, or the liberated zone can simultaneously prefigure a different way of living together, represent an effective means of organising here and now, and embody a critique of key social relationships and institutions.” [page 11]

Building from abstract concepts in its early pages, We Make Our Own History steadily builds concrete scaffolding. A key concept of this scaffolding, introduced to emphasize the understanding that the current organization of the world is a product of human construction that can be disassembled and replaced through human agency, is that of “movements from above.” We are used to seeing grassroots activity as movements — movements from “below.” We Make Our Own History defines “movements from above” as the collective agency of dominant groups to reproduce or extend their power and hegemonic positions.

Movements from above draw upon a multitude of positions to cement their hegemony, among them their directing role in enterprises, superior access to state power, ability to extract “consent” from significant sections of the subaltern and ability to apply repression to those who refuse to consent. Movements from above are “forever moving.” the authors write, and are able to use a variety of tactics in their responses to movements from below: military force, police force, the law, and school and workplace sanctions. When necessary, concessions will be made, but only to some groups and in forms that reinforce clientalism and patriarchal relations while blocking self-activity and organization.

Seeing the efforts of elites as “movements from above” enables an understanding of our ability to change conditions, through the combined efforts of movements from below.

The building blocks of a movement

Movements from below must become strong enough to counter the hegemony of capitalist elites with a “counter-hegemony.” Professors Cox and Nilsen propose three “levels” of movements from below in distinguishing their ability to force structural change. Local, defensive struggles (the basic building block) can coalesce into much more effective offensives when they connect with other movements from below on the basis of common grounds to forge extra-regional or international coalitions that critique dominant ideas and projects.

Such coalitions, however, tend to remain field-specific and don’t necessarily relate to the social totality that shapes the issue being struggled against. If activists begin to examine larger structural issues, the authors write, they may go beyond field-specific campaigns to become a “social movement project” that targets the social totality. Thus,

“[S]uch a social movement project stands out from other forms of collective agency from below by virtue of its capacity to identify its own actors socially; name its central opponent; and recognizing that the social totality is the product and object of such struggles. In other words, there is a return ‘up’ the sequence from opposing everyday routines to opposing the structures that generate them, and finally to directly confronting the movements from above which have constructed the whole.” [page 83]

From this comes the question of: What is the nature of what we are fighting? To assist in answering that question, the authors divide the history of capitalism into three eras:

  • “Disembedded” market-centered liberal capitalism that lasted into the early 20th century. This era was marked by the violent incorporation of the colonized world into the world-system of capitalism, and concessions made to emergent middle classes split them from the subaltern, linking them to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
  • “Re-embedded” state-centered organized capitalism from the end of World War II to the 1970s. This period arose out of the breakdown of the previous era and in response to mass uprisings carrying the potential to sweep away capitalism. Some measure of development was allowed for the global South through import-substitution industrialism; workers of the global North received increasing wages and concessions in exchange for de-politicizing their demands.
  • “Disembedded” neoliberal capitalism since the 1980s, a project to “disembed” capital from institutional regulations. The turn to neoliberalism is grounded in changed conditions, in particular the profit squeeze that set in during the 1970s, and is organized globally through alliances with capitalists in all regions of the world and links among trans-national capital. Capitalists’ attempt to restore previous profit levels centers on breaking the power of labor and a strategy of “accumulation through dispossession” — the conversion of common property into private capital.

The victory of neoliberalism is “pyrrhic,” the authors write, because the accumulation strategies that restored power for capitalists are the root of the present crisis. Thus, we are in the twilight of neoliberalism. That elites can offer nothing new is a sign of their brittleness, but the simultaneous weakness of movements from below has led to an unusually long period of stalemate.

Learning from one another, not blindly following

How then will this logjam be broken? As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. It also stresses the full incorporation of struggles against racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression.

Winning, the authors write, means defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard. Success, then, is the collective achievement of people going beyond what they previously believed possible.

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.” [pages 186-7]

Building the “counter-hegemony” that can check and then supplant the hegemony of capitalists is far from an easy task. Those who benefit from the current world order spare no exertion in attempting to convince us that no other world is possible. Realizing that such assertions are nothing more than self-serving ideology helps to give ourselves the necessary consciousness to liberate ourselves:

“[I]f we do not see not see neoliberalism as a complex, contested, fragile and ultimately impermanent achievement of elite agency we are taking the intentions of its makers as given fact — and in essence conceding permanent defeat.” [page 142]

Professors Cox and Nilsen set themselves the audacious goal of reclaiming activist knowledge through filling a void in studies of social movements. They have succeed: We Make Our Own History is recommended reading for activists serious about bringing into being a better world.

* Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. [Pluto Press, London, 2014]