In my last post, I talked about the idea of our own powerlessness as being one of the main ideas that prop up the current social order. But that’s clearly not all there is to it. Another major prop keeping the system stable is the use of limited choices as a way to hide the existence of more radical options. People are contrary buggers, and so if you tell them that they can’t do something, they’re likely to do it. If, on the other hand, you offer them a choice, they may choose your least favourite option, but they’re a lot less likely to just tell you to fuck off and do something else altogether. By looking at the way this system of choices has changed over time, I’d like to try and explore the opportunities that the current crisis offers us.
To start off with, I’d like to make it clear that I’m describing effects here, not causes. Cock-ups are usually more likely than conspiracies, so I’m definitely not trying to claim that the leaders of the world’s lefty groups – let alone the rank and file – are all consciously part of some evil pro-capitalist conspiracy. Although, having said that, it is certainly possible to find examples of situations where rulers have deliberately decided to grant reforms in order to prevent a greater upheaval. The world’s rulers didn’t get where they are by being stupid, and it’d be naive to think they’d never heard Martin Luther King’s famous warning about those who make peaceful change impossible making violent revolution inevitable.
The 20th Century
Near the start of the last century, the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, combined with the defeat of the German Revolution, set down a model for what it meant to be against capitalism. Other forms of revolutionary socialism appeared less relevant and practical, and so it became possible to divide politics into two opposing camps: either you supported socialism, equality, and the workers, and so you supported the workers’ state, even when it created massively unequal societies controlled by a tiny elite and repressed workers trying to demand a better life; or you supported freedom, democracy and human rights, even when that meant backing dictatorships that tortured and killed communists, and more generally supporting a set-up that limited freedom to those who could afford it. Of course, as the Cold War went on, the Leninist movement fractured again and again, but almost all the competing groups that emerged out of it still shared the same basic hierarchical, authoritarian assumptions. The idea of a genuinely free and equal movement to create a classless society was almost nowhere to be seen.
Of course, eventually the Soviet Union fell (ironically, this was partly because, for most of its history, it had failed to provide safety valves to let people criticise the system within carefully controlled boundaries), which upset this balance. The great battle between the state-centred form of capitalism that existed in the East and the market-centred form of capitalism that existed in the West had been settled with a clear victory for the market. In a related development, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party, which had been the main force supporting a state-based alternative in the UK, decided to drop its formal commitment to nationalisation and opt for what they called the Third Way. Unsurprisingly, this Third Way had nothing to do with providing a genuine alternative and everything to do with shedding all remnants of leftist ideology in favour of a kind of Conservatism Lite.
For a while, capitalism appeared completely triumphant, but nothing lasts forever. Starting with the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, and gathering pace towards the end of the decade, a new anti-capitalist movement began to emerge. It’s important not to romanticise things, and this new movement did contain contradictions and doubtless there were lots of shitty things about it, but it did have the advantage of not being tied to a failed strategy the way the left is. The protests that shut down the World Trade Organisation in Seattle at the end of the century were not channelled into electoral politics, nor were they aimed at the creation of a new Leninist vanguard party aiming to seize state power. Therefore, they raised the possibility of a new, genuinely effective challenge to capitalism.
The last decade
Of course, things didn’t turn out quite that way. With 9/11, the unified global order cracked again. When Bush declared that “you’re either with us or with the terrorists”, he was welcoming back the system that had proved so effective at guaranteeing capitalist stability during the Cold War. During the decade that followed, the radical left was effectively distracted from putting forward any positive alternative and diverted into a series of arguments around war and Islam. With the start of the war on Iraq, we were told that we could either support the war or support the Stop the War Coalition, and so pour our energies into boring, ineffective protest marches with ever-diminishing returns. The possibility that the anti-war majority could have actually used their power to stop the war by bringing society to a halt was never even raised. The walk-outs by schoolchildren showed one way in which people opposed to the war could have taken genuinely effective action, but their example did not spread, and so the war was not stopped.
The new focus on Islam and Muslims allowed the far-right room to grow, leading to another false choice: between the anti-establishment rhetoric of the BNP (and, later, EDL) and the defence of existing society. Those who wanted to make a stand against racism were told to line up behind Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and council bosses cutting workers’ pay. As with the clash between Stalinism and free market capitalism, the battle between the far-right and liberal anti-fascism serves to hide the possibility that ordinary people, acting for themselves without external leadership, can assert their own needs against the logic of this system, and take collective action to improve their lives.
The economic crisis and its ongoing effects have served to change the terrain once again. The story of the struggle against the cuts is still in the process of being written, and the way it’s told will determine whether or not there’s any hope of winning. If it becomes a battle of Labour vs Tories, we’ve lost before it starts – either Labour will fuck it up the way they do most things, or they’ll somehow manage to gain power, and then implement their own alternative cuts programme. Equally, if it becomes a series of individual clashes – the government versus overpaid greedy public sector workers; versus idealistic, out-of-touch, immature, posh students; versus lazy benefits scroungers; then it’ll be a walkover. But if united action is taken by everyone affected by the cuts – that is to say, as unfashionable as it sounds, by the working class – there’s still the possibility of winning. If that’s the case, then we might stand to go beyond fighting defensively, beyond asking for a kinder, gentler screwing from the softer faction of the ruling class, and move towards a future where a real communist movement worthy of the name – that is to say, a movement of ordinary people taking direct action to fight for their own interests without being controlled by one set of bureaucrats or another – could become a major player.
(P.S. If you’re interested in the ideas talked about in this post, you can find a longer, more coherent, if somewhat dated, explanation of them in the Spectacular Times booklet Bigger Cages, Longer Chains.)