Boldness is required
So yes, boldness is required. Writing about the environment in 1974, Andre Gorz called for “a multi-level political attack to wrest (from capitalism) control of operations and to counter with a completely different plan for society and civilization.” He explained it was important to avoid environmental reform bought at the expense of social conditions: “The environmental struggle may create difficulties for capitalism and force it to change; but when, having long resisted through force of cunning, it finally yields because the environmental impasse has become unavoidable, it will incorporate this constraint as it has incorporated past constraints … people’s buying power will be squeezed and everything will happen as though the cost of fighting pollution were charged on the resources which people had to buy products.” Since then, the resilience of the system has been shown in the creation of a market to fight pollution. In Shenzhen, low-polluting businesses sell others the right to exceed their statutory quota. Meanwhile, polluted air is killing more than a million Chinese every year.
Ideas to set the world to rights are not in short supply, but how to avoid them becoming more unaccomplished possibilities? Recently the social order has been subject to many challenges, from the Arab revolts to the movements of the “indignados”. Since the huge demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003, tens of millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets, from Spain to Israel and from the US to Turkey and Brazil. They have attracted attention, but gained little. Their strategic failure may help us to plan the future.
Large protests coalitions need to consolidate their numbers while avoiding divisive issues. Everyone knows the subjects likely to split alliances, which often have no more solid a base than well-intentioned but vague aims, such as better wealth distribution, a less damaged form of democracy, and an end to discrimination and authoritarianism. With the social base of support for neoliberal policies shrinking, and the middle classes now paying the price with insecurity, free trade and expensive higher education, it is becoming easier to put together a majority coalition.
But once established, what could it do? Demands that are too general or numerous are difficult to translate into politics and make part of any long-term plan. “At a meeting of all the leaders of the social movements,” Arthur Enrique, former president of Unified Workers’ Central, Brazil’s main union, told us: “I collected together everyone’s papers. The union organizations’ agenda had 230 points; the peasants had 77 … When I added them all up, we had over 900 items. And I asked: what can we actually do with all this?” In Egypt, the military have supplied the answer. The majority of Egyptians opposed President Morsi for good reasons, but because they lacked any common objective beyond his removal, they ceded power to the army, at the risk of becoming its hostage now, and in the future its victims. Not having a map often depending on those who do.
Spontaneity an improvisation can favor a revolutionary moment, but don’t guarantee a revolution. Social networks have encouraged the horizontal organization of demonstrations, and the absence of formal organization has enabled them to avoid police surveillance, for a time. But power is still achieved through pyramid structures, money, activists, electoral machinery and a strategy: which social block and which alliance for which project? Accardo’s metaphor is relevant: “Having all the pieces of a watch on a table does not enable someone who has no assembly instructions to make it work. Assembly instructions are a strategy. In politics you can utter a series of crisis or you can think about how to put the pieces together.”
Relationship to power
The watchmaker strategy would be to define the majority priorities, reconstruct the debate around them, and stop complicating things to prove individual cleverness. A “Wikipedia style revolution, which everyone adds content” will not fix the watch. In recent years, local, diffuse, febrile action has produced an opposition in love with itself, an important spectrum, and disappointments. Given that the middle classes often from the backbone of these movements, such fickleness is not surprising: they only ally themselves with the working classes in extremis, and on condition of quickly recovering of operations.
The question of the relationship to power also arises, more and more often. Now that no one imagines that the main parties and current institutions will change the neoliberal order at all, there is a growing temptation to prioritize changing minds over changing structures and laws, and to abandon the national terrain, and re-address the local or community level to create a testing ground for future victories. “One group is betting on (social) movements, on diversity without central organization” Wallerstein wrote “another contends that without political power, you can’t change anything. All the governments in Latin America are having this debte”.
The difficulties of the first strategy is considerable. There is a coherent ruling class, aware of its interests, master of the terrain and of the use of force, set against many association, unions and parties, all tempted to defend their turf, their uniqueness and autonomy, as they fear being swallowed up by political power. They may also suffer from the Internet illusion, which makes them imagine they count because they have a website. What they call “network organization” becomes the theoretical mask of an absence of organization and strategic thought, since the network has no reality beyond the circulation of electronic communications that everyone forwards and no one reads.
The relationship between social movements and institutional channels, counter-balances to power and parties, has always been problematic. Now that there is no longer a principal objective, a general line-and less than ever a party or cartel that embodies it-it is necessary to “reflect on how to create the global starting from the particular”. Defining priorities directly challenging the power of capital would make it possible to arm fine sentiments, attack the central system, and to identify those political forces which are also disposed to do so.
In exchange, it will always be important to demand of them that electors can, through referendums, throw out their representatives before their mandate is up; since 1999, the Venezuelan constitution has included such provision. Many heads of government have taken major decisions (retirement age, military engagement, constitutional treaties) without a popular mandate. Thus, the people would obtain the right to take a revenge that goes beyond returning to power clones of those who have already abused their trust.
It is enough to wait for the right moment? “In early 2011 there were only six people who still belonged to the CPR (Congress for the Republic)”, recalls the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. “But that didn’t stop it coming second in the democratic elections held in Tunisia a few months later”. In the current context the risk of waiting too passively, too idealistically, would be that those less patient, less hesitant and more formidable may seize the moment and exploit, for their own gain, a rage in search of targets, the focal points and centers of resistance (non-profit activities, public services, democratic rights) that may be the source of a possible re-conquest risk being destroyed in the meantime, making a subsequent victory less likely.
The game is not over,. The neoliberal dream has lost its status as an absolute and an ideal, without which its social projects will wither and perish. All it is capable of producing now are privileges, and cold, dead beings. A change will occur. Each of us can help it happen a little sooner.
Source: DIGEST January 2014