Sunday, 5 February 2012

Global movements and social change

This is a revised version of a talk I did for Occupy University at Occupy Dublin (9 Nov 2011), very much in a personal capacity. 

In this talk I want to look at three things: the idea that we are living in the middle of a wave of social movements; what the impact of such waves has been historically; and what the practical implications of that are for social movements.

Global movement waves

Waves of social movements are a normal feature of life in capitalism. They include the “Atlantic Revolutions” of the late 18th century (America, France, 1798 in Ireland and the Haitian revolution which ended slavery); the revolutions of 1848 across Europe; the wave of 1916-23 which left new states of very different kinds in Ireland and Russia but saw revolutionary situations in many if not most European countries; the anti-fascist resistance from (say) the Spanish Civil War to 1945; Asian and African anti-colonial movements which led to independence from empire for most of the world’s population; the global wave of 1968, from Mexico to Japan; the revolutions of 1989-90 which brought down state socialism in most places (but were defeated in China); and the Latin American “pink tide” which has seen a string of revolutionary situations and movement-linked states in South America in particular.

In the present day, the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of the early 2000s have faded into European anti-austerity movements (from the 2008 Icelandic “pots and pans revolution” and Greek unrest), the Arab Spring, and the indignados / Occupy movement. (NB that I am not trying to list every movement here, just those where there was visibly a wave of large-scale participation in radical movements across many countries.)

The causes of such waves are widely debated. One reading links them to the long Kondratieff waves of capitalist development and tries to see a structural link to the ebbs and flows of political economy. Another highlights weakened states (for example, at the end of wars). George Katsiaficas has talked about an “eros effect” of contagion from one revolution to the next. Others have celebrated “networking” processes.

My own take is to see them as linked to the rise and fall of regimes of accumulation – that they represent both a crisis in such regimes and a moment in which popular forces have an opportunity to push events in a different direction: enforcing democracy against monarchy or dictatorship, independence against empire, welfare against capitalism, and so on. For the purposes of today’s talk, in any case, it is less important to analyse why they happen than to note that they happen, and to think about their effects and what that says to us.

The impact of movement waves

Global waves of social movements have been among the major social forces in the history of recent centuries. Decolonisation – whether the US in the 18th century, Latin America in the 19th, Ireland in the 1920s or Asia after WWII – is one major outcome. Democracy – in the French Revolution, the European resistance to fascism or the events of 1989-90 – is another. Social justice has been a common theme, from the Haitian revolution via the European uprisings at the end of WWI to the Latin American pink tide. A democratisation of everyday life – in particular after 1968 – is another.

The current wave is happening in a very particular global context. The wave of 1989-90 saw the Soviet Union lose its satellites and then disintegrate, and Putin has not been able to restore its reach. The pink tide demonstrated the US’ inability, for the first time in a century or more, to impose its will (in military, foreign policy or economic terms) on its Latin American “backyard”, while events in Egypt in particular have underlined its limited purchase on the strategically crucial Arab world (a process begun by the failure of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq).

More generally there is a rumbling challenge to neoliberalism: started by the “IMF riots” of the 1980s and early 1990s, articulated by the Zapatistas, the World Social Forum, summit protests and the 2001 Argentinazo, institutionalised by radical governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, most recently on the streets and shaking governments in Iceland, Greece and the UK and now in the form of Spanish indignados, “Occupy” in the belly of the US beast and even a revival of protest in Italy.

This challenge is particularly significant as the tentative criticisms of neoliberalism made at the start of the current crisis by figures like Gordon Brown have had no real implication beyond the narrowly technical (“quantitative easing” etc.) It is clear to anyone who reads the newspapers that there is no significant dissent within elites – political and financial, or their hired mouths in academia and journalism – about the proposal that the only way forward is more austerity, more neoliberalism, more privatisations. If you want to imagine the future, imagine a debt burden pressing into human faces forever. Unless, of course, we stop it – and the fact that elites are so resistant to alternatives is one of the major factors forcing ordinary people into radical resistance.

Implications for social movements

Firstly, of course, we need to understand the current movement wave as international; we need to see its time scale (in relation to anti-capitalism and in relation to the anti-austerity protests from 2008 on as well as in relation to the Arab Spring and Occupy); we need to understand that it has many different organisational forms; and that this situation will not last for ever.

The weakness of neoliberal structures is precisely in the closed consensus of elites – and their belief that they do not need to convince or gain the consent of their populations, simply tell them that austerity is necessary and the reporters and economists will do the rest. Of course every regime that has ever fallen, controlled or censored the media and had its own paid hacks in the newsrooms and universities: it did not keep them in power.

There is a substantial crisis of legitimacy for neoliberalism which anti-capitalism laid the groundwork for and the new movements are articulating dramatically. It is above all an inability to lead: to articulate the political and social aspirations of large groups of people in the way that (for example) Thatcherite and Reaganite populism could.

Its global grip – from the Middle East to Latin America, in the belly of the US beast and across key European states, where unemployment figures have reached unheard-of levels – has never been weaker. We miss this if we take their definition of reality (political parties in a situation where there were more spoiled votes in Spain than votes for the PP, an official media which repeats an elite consensus, the co-option of historic movement organisations etc.) too seriously. Real social change comes about precisely when ordinary people look at the reality of their own lives and contrast it to these official versions of the truth, and organise differently. It can happen very quickly: Colin Barker’s Revolutionary rehearsals is one book which shows what this means in practice.

For social movement participants and organisers, this potential means, firstly, that we should do what is possible now, while the situation is still open (it will not remain so indefinitely: we will see a new fascism, a new fundamentalism, or some other new elite-led way out of the impasse if we wait too long). Secondly, we should try to understand ourselves on a global stage. In Ireland this means – while seeing the increasing political bankruptcy of the new government, the leftward drift of voters, resistance to all aspects of the financial crisis and new movements springing up – making the case that we are part of a wider European wave of opposition to neo-liberalism. “Europe” is not all-powerful because it is not simply the leaders of the EU. It is also our fellow Europeans, rising up in revolt against “Europe” as debt collector, bailiff, liquidator and technocrat.

We need, of course, to keep highlighting that the challenge is neo-liberalism, not just this or that policy. So it is important at every opportunity to make the links between the giveaway of oil and gas in Mayo, Leitrim or Dalkey; bailing out the Anglo bondholders (and others); European-imposed austerity regimes; the household tax and other iniquitous ways of making the poor pay for the crisis; loyalty to the euro at any price rather than the Argentinian and Icelandic default option; the privatisation of public services; low corporation tax and union-free multinationals; and all the rest of the sorry shebang. We need to think what is possible in Latin American terms, not the ones set by the Irish Times, RTE, the ESRI or Joan Burton – and to develop an alternative understanding of social movements in Ireland (see this paper).

Lastly, we need to think how we can construct alternative institutions, at any level. “Occupy NAMA” and other strategies of taking occupation outwards are important ones. Resisting the household tax, and reviving community organising, is another. Supporting strikes and workplace occupations is fundamental, and trying to involve radicals within the unions. Challenging the economics of bailout and bondholders, tied to specific issues like repayment of Anglo debt, is important. Resisting Shell at Rossport, fracking in the west Midlands and drilling of Dalkey builds important alliances. Bringing together activists across different organisations and movements to develop solidarity is strategically key. And so on.

If there is one guiding line, it should be bottom-up democracy: the construction of new institutions responding to human needs and outside the current orthodoxy. That means holding the more authoritarian left groups to account and making them serve the movement rather than try to own it. It equally means being wary of fake movements like “Claiming our future”, ICTU-led token protests and other strategies which are led by individuals and organisations who are structurally tied to neoliberal politics and the current government.

Whether that means “ignore”, “challenge from the outside” or “participate and raise hell internally” is something everyone has to work out for themselves: my own guess is that we cannot ignore the fact that to date the unions are the only body capable of bringing out real numbers of people against government policy, and we should argue within these protests and try to take them further. Conversely, it is simply wasting time to talk to Labour Party hacks pretending to be radical activists. But these are not the most fundamental questions.

Lastly, and most importantly, our question has to be “How can we take the movement further?” How can we find ways of engaging people who are being hit badly and show them where the problems are coming from? How can we talk to people who believe that their local councillor or union rep has only their best interests at heart and don’t know about the political bottom line of their party whip or union policy? How do we link up the different struggles that are happening rather than let them be played off against each other and treated as separate issues on the “we’ll give you a concession if you come back within the tent” logic? And how do we find new ways of talking to and working with each other which are adequate to the kinds of movements that we have seen across the world these last twelve years?

I think we may be about to find out.