This post originally appeared on Lenin’s Tomb.
This post will look at the anticapitalist transition from three perspectives: first, the basis for European anticapitalist politics in real dilemmas posed by the breakdown of the social structure; second, the forms of resistant politics generated by the current phase of crisis; and third, the ‘utopian moment’ in the development of these forms, and how they can be articulated to a practical process of transition.
This analysis is axed on the problem of self-government. We are tired of not owning our lives, of our waking hours being given over to employers, to the state, to cramped and uncomfortable transit, and to forms of consumption that do not meet our needs. We are tired of not having a say. We do not trust that those who presently rule can solve the epochal crises of global depression and eco-catastrophe, and if they do so it will not be in our interest. We do not need utopian blueprints; what we need are the signposts on the road toward real self-government.
Introduction: the pro-capitalist transition and buried traditions
Europe traversed the pro-capitalist transition many times, first from feudalism to capitalism, then from ‘communism’ to the ‘free market’. In Russia and the former Warsaw Pact states, the work of transition was undertaken by neoliberal technocrats working with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. On the assumption that there was only one possible terminus for societies breaking out of the Stalinist integument, they imposed neoliberal ‘shock therapy’.
‘Shock therapy’, under the orchestration of its eminence grise Jeffrey Sachs, was social engineering with a vengeance. It was not simply an economic project: it was a multi-layered series of drastic reforms of property relations, political institutions, currency regulations, trade and labour laws. The rise of the new Russian oligarchs was not just a predictable consequence of this process, but an intended consequence. If Russia was to become a modern centre of private capitalist accumulation, it had to have the appropriate civil society basis; not just a workforce but also a bourgeoisie. The liberal-conservative journalist Timothy Garton Ash, observing this process sceptically, commented: “There is real truth in the Marxist label for liberal democracy: ‘bourgeois democracy’”.
There were, of course, alternative paths. Anti-Stalinist rebellions in Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had involved workers developing organs of grassroots democracy, revolutionary factory committees and other organs not dissimilar to the soviets which had been the basis for the Bolshevik revolution in the first place. The famous ‘Kuron-Modzelewski Letter’ that signalled the birth of a new Polish Left, called for real socialism predicated on workers control and mass democracy. Polish workers had traditions of syndicalism and self-organization, manifest in the strikes and struggles organised under the banner of Solidarność. But by 1989, the social engineers of neoliberalism had the upper hand, and they had no interest in permitting a Millian process of experimentation.
Ten years later, the project for an anticapitalist Europe was resumed by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across Europe, initially united only by their shared opponent and their sense of buoyant optimism. Now, hardened by the experience of setbacks, divisions, bitter repression and a global depression, activists from Oakland to Oslo, are working out the political and institutional forms that can advance their struggle. They are working out practical solutions through trial and error, not always aware of the buried traditions of generations who have been on this road before them.
Europe’s crises and the search for alternatives
The history of Europe is a record of its turmoil. As the historical core of the world system, it has been racked by multiple, epochal emergencies, from the depressions of the 1870s and 1880s to the inferno of the ‘Thirty Years War’ (1914-45), the stagnation of the Seventies and the current wave of sovereign debt crises. Each time, the continent has witnessed the upsurge of a new Left, often accompanied by a resurgence of the labour movement. Each time, the same questions have arisen. What alternative is there? What is the strategy for getting there? Where is the agency capable of realising it?
No search for an alternative on a serious scale arises ex nihilo. It rather emerges in the folds of antagonism, dysfunction and crisis. The planners and policy makers behind the European project understood this, and sought to suppress the perpetual crisis-proneness of capitalism. In the post-WWII era, it was thought that fundamental social antagonism could be contained through a combination of Keynesian state management of the economy, and corporatist bargaining mechanisms. The old rivalries between European powers would be suppressed by the development of a common market dominated by France and West Germany. The Europe they envisioned was a business-oriented, anti-socialist bloc, with an autonomous role in the world system. But toward the end of the Sixties, this model began to enter crisis. Profit rates began to fall and labour conflicts soared; anticolonial rebellions dismantled overseas empires; the expansion of higher education to accommodate the demand for a skilled workforce drew in a boisterous, rebellious working class element. From the jacqueries of Paris 1968, the hot autumn of Italy in 1969, the strike-deadlocked British summer of 1972, to the crisis of the dictatorships in Greece, Portugal and Spain, there were signs everywhere that European capitalism was decomposing.
The debate about alternatives was not just driven by intellectual curiosity, but by the practical experience of student strikes, occupations, and factory and workplace councils. Workers’ control of industry was on the agenda of not just the revolutionary left, but even reformist socialists. A challenge to traditional modes of pedagogy based on the authority of the teacher was posed by students and pupils. In Portugal, the radicalisation after the overthrow of the Estado Novo led to a division in the armed forces and raised the question of popular control of the military. However, this ferment subsided. In Paris, the regime waited out the students and workers, and began a process of reform from above. Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ kicked off a decade-long class war, but the radical challenge was ultimately crushed, terminated by a miserable ‘historic compromise’ in which the Italian Communist Party adapted itself to the conjunctural needs of Italy’s bourgoisie and provided a left cover for austerity. In Britain, the Labour Party channelled the radical energies into a platform for reform but performed a monetarist volte face, slashed public spending budgets and co-opted unions into a ‘social contract’ that severely reduced wages. In Portugal, the fear of a new Chile helped discipline the mass movement and it was eventually contained.
Europe’s planners had two answers to the crisis, which had exerted a centrifugal tug on its constituents. The first was to accelerate toward fuller economic and monetary union, with a pooling of sovereignty to accompany it. The second was to impose an austerity programme based on low public spending and low wages, modelled on the West German experience. The European project expanded, and after the Cold War added a belt of former ‘communist’ states. But this system was predicated on a pattern of uneven and combined development which meant that ‘peripheral’ states lost competitiveness, and became export markets for the goods of core states. They accumulated debt, and relied on financial mechanisms and housing bubbles to generate growth. The core states, meanwhile, benefited from being able to suppress wages (since they did not need to cultivate a domestic consumer market), and export production facilities to low wage countries in the newly incorporated east. This unevenness left Europe precariously exposed when the ‘credit crunch’ struck.
Although the latest emergency did not originate, in its proximate causes, in the Eurozone, today it is the European system – economic and monetary union – that is most directly endangered. The crisis should be seen in Gramscian terms as an ‘organic crisis’, a simultaneous, multi-layered breakdown of different aspects of the system, from production to politics. Now European leaders are embarked on a process of fundamentally re-organising the continental system with a politics of ‘austerity’. This means drastically scaling back public expenditures in order to reduce the burden of taxation on the productive base of the economy. It also involves fundamentally weakening organised labour, and suppressing wage costs, so that profitability can be restored to industry and investors will be induced to invest.
At the political level this crisis has involved a decisive emaciation of parliamentary democracy and a tendency toward what Gramsci termed ‘Caesarism’. A ‘Caesar’ is not necessarily a great personality: rather, it is a political power that acquires a degree of autonomy from social classes in order to carry through a major structural transformation. “Every coalition government,” the Sardinian Marxist observed, “is a first stage of Caesarism”. In Italy and Greece, we have seen the imposition of unelected ‘technocratic’ coalitions representing the ‘national interest’, imposing austerity measures in a ‘responsible’ manner. This is linked to another process, which Gramsci identified as ‘passive revolution’, a process of molecular, structural reform affected ‘from above’.
There have thus far been three main discernible lines of popular response to this project of top-down structural adjustment. First, there have been a variety of sectional responses, based on industrial action or student strikes. There have been tendencies in these cases to try and generalise their action, and for groups to link up to one another, but they have only been partially successful in this, and the leaderships of both labour and student unions have remained stuck in a narrow sectional approach. Second, there have been the ‘movements of the squares’ and related Occupy phenomena. These have worked variously as a type of direct action and direct democracy; a protest and a pedagogical space; and a temporary tactical base from which to plan actions of solidarity and disruption. But they have been limited by the fact that the spaces they have taken are, while visible, strategically marginal, by the fact that those involved wield little potential disruptive power, and by the fact that their actions were eventually outmanoeuvred by state power. Thirdly, there has been support for radical ‘third party’ movements, pivoted on the idea of taking governmental power. This poses some old dilemmas, as leftist forces have often found themselves neutralised and then destroyed by office. The recent experience of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy is a case in point, as the party’s entry into coalition with the centre-left led to it sharing responsibility for neoliberal policies and war. It is now a greatly diminished rump.
In and of themselves, each of these manifestations is only a base element in a resistant politics. Together, they could be coordinated into a strategy for transition, but rather than define such a strategy in detail, I will here seek to identify the ‘utopian moment’ in which these forms of resistance converge and disclose a pathway to anticapitalist transition.
From the social democratic strategy to the anticapitalist transition
In the traditional social democratic purview, the strike and the ballot box are a complementary set of tactics, each a separate but contiguous part of the forward march of labour. But social democracy is moribund, and that old relationship between means and ends, that old division of labour, is no longer viable. There is no policing the strict division between politics (understood as parliamentarism) and economics (understood as wage and conditions disputes) any longer when the austerity agenda is so politicised, when the constitution of a new economy at the expense of labour demands the extensive involvement and re-tooling of the state, and when parliaments are so insulated from the popular will. It is time to think about a new relationship between these tactics, one appropriate to the task of transition.
Gramsci suggested that the workers’ strike was most effective when it broke out of the ‘economic-corporate’ tactic of fighting for the narrow material interests of sectional groups of workers, and instead articulated a wider agenda of social transformation that could attract the support of the greater portion of the popular classes. This would have to be a political strategy in the widest possible sense. This expansive unity, he called hegemony. It is clear that today’s trade union leaderships are far from being in a position to adopt such a strategy, even if they wanted to. An extreme, if functionally equivalent, variant of economic-corporatism is the idea of reducing student organising to a type of lobbying. This is the strategy currently pursued by the leadership of the British National Union of Students. It demands nothing of students but passivity until such time as they are marched into a limited tactical action by the leadership. Of course, such an approach is geared toward achieving the mildest form of palliation – or perhaps it would be better to say mitigation.
It is partly because of an historic weakness on the part of labour and student movements that one of the popular responses to the crisis has been to look for new parties. The rise of the radical left parties is a tactical issue specific to this conjuncture in Europe. The breakdown of social democracy has created the possibility of a long-term political realignment of working class and subaltern groups. The left-wing of the old reformist parties has broken away in country after country, realigning itself with Communist parties and revolutionary leftists. Now, amid Europe’s organic crisis, they are lightning rods for sudden voltaic bursts of popular energy. What was a small party yesterday can suddenly project a mass electoral presence today. Yet the question is how these new parties convoke and organise their base. If the social democratic strategy is not to be simply replicated in a new guise, these parties needs to find a way beyond parliamentary electoralism. It would be to place touching faith in a programme to hope that the dominant ideology of the party in question would settle this. The decisive factor, both in the case of unions and of parties, is the extent of the self-organization of their base.
And this is where the Indignados and Occupy movements have come in. Among many young people and students, distrust of both unions and parties has led them to look to social movement politics for the answers. Politically, they are often the most radicalised, and most willing to think beyond capitalism. And they have hit upon an organizational model, which I will call the commune strategy, that might just be key.
New Model Commune
It is no surprise that the most politicised of Europe’s subalterns look to Egypt. From the Puerta del Sol to Syntagma Square, they attempt to emulate Tahrir Square. But the precise status of Tahrir as a resistant form is still unresolved. It is clear that the capture of Tahrir by a cross-class coalition permitted the construction of a mini-metropolis, a city within a city, inhabited by up to two million people. Alongside petty commerce, this urban space was the basis for a certain rudimentary communism. The protesters put together a network of tents for people to sleep in. There were toilet arrangements – no small logistical matter when hundreds of thousands of people routinely occupied the capital’s main intersection. They rigged up street lamps to provide electricity. They set up garbage collection, medical stops, and occupied a well-known fast food outlet into a hospital for people assaulted and shot.
However, as the foregoing would suggest, Tahrir was no autonomist wet dream. It was not about carving out autonomous, liberated spaces from which to build a libertarian communism. It was a direct challenge to the authority of the regime, by a coalition consisting of Islamists, liberals and Nasserists. The participants, in their millions, understood that the Mubarak regime was exceptionally brittle. Its social basis was so narrow that it must suppress open signs of rebellion, pour encourager les autres. The protesters did not want to be bludgeoned and shot at, but they found that rather than return to an impossible status quo they would rather face the charge of armed police battalions. So, aside from the lighting, accommodation, sewage, garbage disposal and the distribution of medicine, food and water, they built a security infrastructure to see off wave after wave of assault. They set up committees to keep watch for government forces. They set up barricades, and routine ID checks for everyone attempting to enter the square. To prevent sectarian depredations, they set up Muslim protection for Christians while they prayed, and Christian protection for Muslims while they worshipped.
Moreover, Tahrir was neither the means nor the end in itself: rather, it represented the visible concentration of all the tendencies in Egypt’s revolution. It was coterminous with the self-organisation of widening strata and classes across Egypt, from the mobilization of middle class activists to an organised labour movement shutting down the major industries and government infrastructure. When police formally withdrew from communities, neighbourhoods formed their own watches to prevent assaults and theft. Guerillas in Sinai preoccupied government forces with an armed insurgency. Protests spread from city to city. Had there been nothing else taking place but the hybrid commune in the capital city, it would likely have been encircled and defeated.
Thus, there were always limits in attempting to emulate this situation out of context. The Occupy movements, wherever they were not complemented and nourished by wider social and industrial insurgency, reached these limits quite quickly. They found that their disruptive impact was far less, and the government far quicker to encircle them. Nonetheless, despite these limits, the utopian moment in Tahrir Square taught us one very important thing: with opportunity comes competence. We can, if given the chance, quickly learn and apply the techniques of cooperation, solidarity and self-government. We can build an infrastructure, and we can organise in our interests and self-defence.
But why should this be organised primarily in the strategically marginal spaces of Europe, by marginal youths, students and others with little social power? The vital axes for the reproduction of Europe’s strained social order are the workplace, the school and university, the state apparatus. And there is no reason why these cannot be sites of self-government. Indeed, despite the attempts by managers and bureaucrats to monopolise knowledge pertinent to this process of social reproduction, those involved as producers, students, civil servants, service providers, etc., rapidly acquire an expertise in their area of work, so that if they were to coordinate their shared knowledge it would enable them to manage enterprises, departments and apparatuses in the popular interests.
If there are to be new model communes, let them be built at these strategic pivots. Let them challenge the authority of capital and state directly, and let them do so as if they had a right to run things. It would not be the first time. The past waves of militancy I have mentioned have seen these forms experimented with, from the factory committees in Italy’s ‘hot autumn’ to the workers councils in Portugal’s Carnation Revolution. More generally, they have appeared in the form of cordones in Chile, syndicates and councils in Poland’s Solidarity movement, and shorahs in the Iranian revolution. Wherever the existing order is called into question, some form of these new model communes is experimented with. Let us rebuild them, as the key to our self-government. And once established, let these communes associate freely in a national assembly, to which delegates can be elected. Let them come into their own not just as a pragmatic agency through which the social means of popular classes can be achieved, but as a public authority in and of themselves.
Shifting the commune strategy to the workplace provides a basis for reorganising the relationship between this and the other tactical responses we have discussed. First, if strikes do take place, they can be plugged into a wider political strategy which is responsive to the needs of all subaltern social groups, including those not in the union, or not covered by a particular strike issue. Second, political organisation need not then be fixated on parliamentary elections, but can rather sustain a social and institutional basis in a popular form of self-government. Third, insofar as the commune strategy is both pedagogical and practical, this shift attaches the form to real social power, real leverage. They are a pragmatic nexus linking concrete present-day struggles for immediate needs to an open-ended, experimental process of transition.
Conclusion: so what about the transition?
In the study of transitions, be it in Warsaw or Cairo, Lisbon or Damascus, one looks for, and generally finds, the following coordinates: 1) the disunity and disintegration of the state, with apparatuses either incapacitated or locked in dispute; 2) the loss of initiative on the part of the rulers, who no longer command the tempo of events; 3) the rise of a counter-power, an alternative centre of legitimate authority that creates a situation of dual power for the state; 4) the marginalization of those seeking to cut a deal with the old regime, and 5) the raising of antagonisms between power and counter-power until the point of insurrection.
We have seen these features in Europe in living memory, for example in Portugal, 1974-5. Now we have seen them across the Mediterranean, in Egypt and Tunisia. We see them in Syria where the state has been jarred by dysfunction and splits, lashing out and undermining its own weakened social basis, and where local coordinating committees have taken on some of the functions of the state. But these general features cannot conceal significant differences in the type, range, maturity, politics, dominant ideology and social density of the forms of self-government that have been developed.
What these examples have shown us repeatedly therefore is that any attempt to elaborate alternative, popular models of self-government is not an impractical or simple utopian scheme. On the contrary, it is a difficult, pragmatic labour whose process is severely conditioned and constrained by the nature of the social relations and crises in which the question of popular self-government is posed, by the resources of the old regime to resist any rising new authority, by the strength and legitimacy of existing representative institutions, and by the concrete problems that these institutions are trying to solve. This is why there can be no abstract blueprint. The task is to work out forms of organization appropriate to their context, and thereby provide the basis for the practical resolution of dilemmas and impediments on the road to self-government.