No to cuts, yes to what? – Do we need an alternative?

The idea of putting forward an alternative political program or budget for the anti-cuts movement is one I’ve discussed briefly in the past, but it seems to be getting a bit of attention at the moment, so I thought it was worth going over in a bit more detail. Over the last week or so, George Monbiot’s put out his draft of an alternative budget (interestingly, using the same metaphor of having one hand behind our backs that the AWL use to attack anarchists), and an article’s come out on the World Socialist Website attacking the organisers of this weekend’s demo against the Lib Dems for not raising any political demands. If it was just liberals and trots saying we need a programme/budget, I’d be tempted to ignore them, but since they’ve now been joined by a piece from the Commune, a group I have a lot more time for, arguing that general strikes in Greece, Spain and France failed because they “lacked any inspired political alternative to cuts”, I think it’s worth taking the calls for a political or economic alternative seriously.
The argument that all this is a distraction from the real struggle has probably been best put forward by SolFed, in the short piece “Winning the Argument or Winning the Fight?” (see also Brighton SolFed’s “The Paradox of Reformism” for a more developed version of this theme.) Essentially, what’s important to remember here is that, in fields like politics and economics which are shaped by human behaviour, there is no fixed “impossible” or “possible” – what is or isn’t possible at any given moment is determined by the balance of power. To take one obvious example, back in October it would not have been possible to organise simultaneous student occupations of over 20 universities in a single day, or anything like the wave of militant demos at council meetings that we’ve seen recently; these things became possible, not because of any sudden shift in the universe, but because people active in the anti-cuts movement put the hard work in to make them happen. Continuing this line of thought, to defeat the cuts we don’t need to put forward an alternative programme which is more convincing, we just need to use our disruptive power to make sure that the “unavoidable necessity” of making the cuts is outweighed by the impossibility of actually making them.
But, of course, this is an oversimplification. Our ability to defeat the government by raising hell doesn’t just exist as a pure, abstract possibility – it’s affected by all kinds of things, but especially our ability to convince people to join us, and that, in turn, depends on whether we can convince people that there’s an alternative. On the face of it, this sounds like an argument for the idea that we do need a carefully worked-out alternative budget after all, but I’m still not convinced. I really don’t think the kind of careful economic calculation that people like Monbiot are interested in is actually what motivates anyone. If there’s one thing to learn from the successes of the racist right, it’s that, in the right context, it’s possible to motivate people to take action on the basis of a load of shit with very little basis in reality, as long as it’s framed the right way. Now, obviously that’s not what I think we need to be doing, but I do think that all we really “need” in terms of an alternative budget is one or two simple ideas that can be argued for in a way that makes them sound like common sense – in other words, pretty much what UK Uncut have already provided.
So, that’s why I don’t think the anti-cuts movement actually needs a positive political or economic alternative. But I think it’s possible to go beyond just saying that it’s unnecessary, and argue that it could actually be harmful. I’m glad that there’s still no single organisation controlling the anti-cuts movement, and by the same token I think that signing the whole movement up to a single alternative vision would be limiting and divisive. Of course, as anyone who pays any attention to this blog will realise, I’m no fan of “unity” as an abstract principle – there can be no unity between Labour councillors implementing cuts and the people affected by them, or between the people who wrecked the National Shop Stewards Network and those who were trying to build it as a genuine grassroots network.  Despite that, I think that (as has already been argued elsewhere) we do need a certain kind of unity – unity that’s not based around ideology, but around our shared material interests. That’s the basis the anti-cuts movement needs to be founded on, and trying to tie it to a specific set of alternative policies would undermine that urgent material unity. It’s not necessary to oppose Trident, or the Royal Family, or any other specific waste of state money you might mention, in order to oppose the cuts – you could argue that it’s necessary if you’re going to be logically consistent, but at the end of the day, I don’t care that much about being logically consistent, I care about fighting back against the ways that this government – and every other defender of capitalism – wants to make my life worse. To adopt a slogan from the turn-of-the-century anti-capitalist movement, our shared “NO!” is all we need, getting a single “YES” would be both impossible and undesirable.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Bit more thinky, Debate, Stuff that I don't think is very useful, The left and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to No to cuts, yes to what? – Do we need an alternative?

  1. Pingback: Can’t we all just get along? Thoughts on class unity and anti-capitalist unity | Cautiously pessimistic

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