Ten reasons why we need a new anticapitalist alternative
First published at New Left Project
Over the last 18 months we have seen a sea change in resistance and popular consciousness. The Arab Spring has put revolution back on the agenda of global politics.
In Britain, we’ve seen the occupation of Millbank and student revolt, the huge TUC March and now the massive N30 strike.
The anticapitalist and subsequent anti war mobilisations of those times were electrifying. But they did not create a new mass anticapitalist organisation that could challenge the power of the warmongers nor did they stop the wars by mass action.
Whilst the new spirit of revolt is certainly exciting for the possibilities that it opens up for radical shift to the left across Britain, it would be a missed opportunity if we simply participated in the new movements without exploring new avenues for unity, new forms of organisation, that might help us finally overcome years of decline and division.
The fear that many of us have is that without transforming the militancy and energy into a lasting political organisation we won’t realise the promise of the hour.
And the threat posed by this government and the Labour party is very real – within a couple of years the NHS will be privatised, pensions slashed, benefits dramatically reduced, structural unemployment will return to the economy and the clock on civil liberties is being turned generations.
For the radical left the challenge of this moment is enormous.
Here are ten reasons why I believe we need to form a new anticapitalist organisation in Britain.
1. To challenge Capitalist Realism
Mark Fisher has called it Capitalist Realism: “the widespread belief that there is no alternative to capitalism”, a logic that resides “in the institutional practices of workplaces and the media as well as… the heads of individuals”.
Even in the face of the biggest capitalist crisis for generations sometimes the most radical movements get caught in the logic of merely promoting reform or taming the system’s worst excesses.
The world recession has opened the possibility to renew an alternative vision of the left, but it is only a possibility. Defeats can cause demoralisation and pessimism just as victories embolden and broaden horizons. Everything rests on the ability of the left to articulate not just what kind of resistance we need, but what kind of society can come after the IMF and Goldman Sachs are overthrown, and –crucially – how to connect the one to the other, to create a realistic challenge to the existing order from the protests and resistance movements of today.
2. From a culture of resistance, to a challenge to capitalism
#Occupy was a breakthrough moment. Under the barrage of government propaganda about public sector pensions and deficit spending we were losing ground in the argument against the cuts.
But #Occupy changed all that by bringing back into focus a public discussion of capitalism and the market. All the main political parties are now discussing the type of capitalism they want.
But the challenge is to move from a ‘culture of resistance’ to a challenge to capitalism. Radical demands that once seemed farfetched – like socialising the banks under democratic ownership without compensation to the markets – can now be popularised by new political formations contesting the status quo.
3. Because politics matters
Max Weber famously defined the state as that body which held a “monopoly on the legitimate use of force”. Every single moment of the evolution of the crisis has illustrated the living contradictions involved in this statement. For all social classes and political elites, state power is fundamental to the re-organisation according to their chosen vision. But at every moment state power is also contested – we’ve seen it done routinely by markets in recent years, but in Nigeria in the last days we’ve also seen how workers can do it too. In the process they expose the capitalist class power that lies behind even the most democratic of liberal states. If we are serious about fundamentally changing society we have to think politically – about the types of authority and state power that we want, about those we don’t, and how we should organise to fight for them.
4. Link theory and practice
The New Left Project is an example of the kind of forums that have emerged in the last years that have opened up a new space of discussion amongst radical activists. We all know how essential it is to link theory and practice and we increasingly have forums where it’s being done. But we need to inject the spirit of fraternal discussions from these networks into a new, organised left wing politics.
Some of the new ideas that have emerged on NLP or openDemocracy need to take shape within the movement in a more organised and overtly political way than they have hitherto.
5. Politics needs organisation
We need a new space for political discussion, but it needs to be orientated to action – we will not be able to transform society without organisation and politics. They both presuppose the other.
The organisation we want has to reflect our aims – it has to be democratic, open, and orientated to action. It should be built from below, emphasising democracy and fraternal debate. It needs to think creatively about the difference between the network and a ‘structure’. It has to find a means for mobilisation, while guaranteeing democracy. It will have to be elastic, that is, its form should be flexible and mutable but the content political and radical. It will have to adapt to changing patterns of working class life – the rise in temp workers, the urgent need to organise in dispossessed communities, the kind where the riots happened.
6. Get serious – we need to stop the cuts
Serious political organisation has to have credibility – integrity in its arguments and outlook, and seriousness in its goals. That means being frank about the enormous challenge we face – of how to stop the cuts – and of being equally determined in taking whatever action is necessary to do it.
We are facing a fundamental restructuring of global capitalism. The post-war welfare state is finished as far as the bosses are concerned, they are just arguing over how quickly to dismantle it. In the face of such tectonic shifts the odd strike or mass protest, no matter how militant, simply isn’t going to cut it. The capitalists have put all their eggs in the baskets of cuts, cuts and privatisation.
We need to be talking about the Anti-CPE struggles in France more, a successful struggle which started with students, broadened out tot he unions and become a genuine mass social movement which brought in millions to defeat a key government policy. We need more victories like that.
7. Transform the unions and working class movement
If we want to stop the cuts we need numbers. Strategically the power of workers to hold up production and distribution is central to any kind of radical change that we want to see.
We need the kind of social weight that, when mobilised, can bring down governments. That means the unions and working class movement, who can bring millions out on strike, mobilise entire communities, and organise mass demonstrations. But the official structures of the unions, beholden to the restrictive anti-union laws, all too often hold back the kind of action we need.
A key task, which certainly won’t be easy but is vital nonetheless, is building the kind of grassroots movement across the unions to challenge this bureaucratic layer.
8. An anticapitalist alternative to Labour is needed
In the early 1980s when the Bennite movement was ascendant, the Labour Party was seen by millions as a beacon of radical hope against the Thatcher government. But the defeat of the left challenge and the rise of the Third Way have, over the last two decades, swung the party irreversibly rightwards. Even the pressure of the biggest economic crisis in living memory did not lead Miliband to back the pension strikes. While he paid lip service to supporting #Occupy he hasn’t promised to reverse a single cut.
The Labour party is not going to move left. Ed Balls has even backed the Tory pay freeze in the public sector. The one councillor in London who voted against the cuts was expelled, the Labour left is isolated and fighting a losing battle against the prevailing logic of the party which looks more to liberalism with a human face than any kind of radical perspective. The cycle of politics in the post war period, where the Labour party acted as some kind of machine of capture the social flows and breaks of radical politics has largely come to an end. An alternative is needed.
9. But the left is fragmented and isolated
In a time of capitalist crisis the organised left should be ascendant. But it isn’t.
Despite, generally speaking, involving itself energetically in mobilising resistance, the organised left is weaker in numbers than it was ten years ago and isn’t growing in a way commensurate to the crisis of capitalism. Many activists hold back from joining any of the groups. Partly because they don’t appear credible, but also because it is the nature of organisations with a long history that they will often insist on a high degree of agreement to an existing body of ideas. Indeed, there has been little in the way of attempts to create forums where activists can discuss and determine the type of politics we need today.
There is also a problem with elements of the [organised?] left behaving bureaucratically in relation to one another and the new movements. One upshot of this is the ludicrous state of affairs that leaves us without a united anti-cuts campaign and instead with a series of almost identical rivals controlled by different left organisations. This compounds division on the left and substitutes fractious contests for bureaucratic control in place of fraternal discussion of political differences.
I believe the answer is to build democratic forums, starting locally by drawing in people active in the movements, but then co-ordinating nationally too, where debates around the kind of political organisation we need can be had out in a tolerant atmosphere that isn’t simply about discussion but also turning ideas into action.
Despite the problems, the new political situation is creating powerful pressures for unity. We have to create a new climate of fraternal political discussion – not to put aside our differences, but to clarify them, to work together and to take action.
10. Take the best of the new and old left
The global capitalist crisis also creates a new terrain upon which we can begin to break down some of the often arbitrary divisions between the old and new left. Without a doubt 2011 a key feature of 2011 was the network and occupation. Many people look at the vibrancy, participation and democracy of these movements and see them as a refreshing change to everything the ‘old left’ has to offer.
Often left organisations can go out of their way to lose friends in these movements through manoeuvres or a sheer lack of tact. But we shouldn’t forget there are positive sides to the ‘old’ left too. Yes, the organised left can certainly be dogmatic, but it can also help keep alive memories and lessons of past struggles which would otherwise be forgotten.
In any case, it must be possible for those of us active in the movement, whether we identify with the ‘new’ or ‘old’ left, or neither, to take bold new steps to unity.
It’s in your hands to build a New Left
Unless we find a way to realign the left around a radical perspective that breaks the bottle necks and captures the new mood of resistance, then we will pass through this crisis only to bear witness to new defeats. We will have failed the challenge that is being posed to us all – are we still relevant?
We have seen mass struggles in Britain – the student revolt against fees and for EMA, the N30 pension strike of millions of workers – but besides not (yet) winning their immediate limited cause, they have not spontaneously generated a wider “project”, a strategy to defeat capitalist austerity nor provide a coherent vision of an alternative to the system itself.
The limits of different sectors fighting separately on “their own” issues and “Capitalist realism” are linked. As Slavoj Zizek has provocatively put it by inverting the usual approach to the question, “It is as if recent events were staged with a calculated risk in order to demonstrate that, even at a time of shattering crisis, there is no viable alternative to capitalism.” Thus, he argues, there is “a real possibility that the main victim of the ongoing crisis will not be capitalism but the Left itself, insofar as its inability to offer a viable global alternative was again made visible to everyone.”
This should not be treated as a counsel of despair but a spur to action, there are tremendous opportunities and capitalist realism is far from insurmountable.
It would be nice if we had time to sit and contemplate all these issues in their full consideration before we took steps down this road. But, with the movements as they are developing, in the situation we are in, we will have to build this ‘on the move’. It will require a mutual spirit of co-operation, unity and above all, a new spirit of tolerance and respect for one another.
Meetings are already been organised across the country to discuss the new project. If you want to get involved or would like to organise a meeting then email [email protected].