Waiting for a message of some sort

 spectacle

What would a serious radical left reaction to the economic crisis look like? It’s a serious question, I don’t really know, and from here it doesn’t look like there is one yet. Maybe it’s the warped perspective from Australia, where the crisis remains to most people a reality only on paper: newspaper, retirement fund statements and stimulus cheques. As chief Business Spectator Alan Kohler put it on April Fool’s Day, there’s an “air of complacent unreality in Australia at present, as if this country can somehow escape the Great Recession.”

But elsewhere in the Anglosphere, where crisis has well and truly come, there are endless pronouncements and diagnoses but not much resembling a mass movement. The G20 protests in London are exciting as spectacle but I can’t help but think things look like more of the same old ‘activistism’, as Henwood et al put it. The far left comes together as a (particularly fractious) identity group, making shows of ‘resistance’ that reinforce self-identities as radicals. Police co-operate in the psychodrama by cracking down hard, giving the impression of a real battle with something at stake. But the recurring ritual ends up a sublimation of political energy, amounting to little more in the broader political culture than a colourful few seconds on the news.

Now, this view has a fair amount of currency among the people in the crowd themselves, and I don’t mean it as a moral critique of activist failings. After all, you could say something pretty similar about the lefty grad student blog international (represent!), the Communist Conference-going professoriat, the Trots and their theory of permanent paper subscription drive, soft-left NGOs and think tanks promoting ever-so-reasonable policy reforms without a show in Hell… All gears turning and turning and not catching on anything. We’re still ghettoised, the channels of communication with the public at large remain closed, and it’s not entirely certain what we would say if they opened.

It’s a time of political hope in some ways, with capitalist triumphalism taking a beating in the broader culture, but not capitalism itself, because in most people’s minds there’s either nowhere to go or no way to get there. Meanwhile the radical left is energised, ready to join up and do something, but whatever it is we join has yet to precipitate.

Am I wrong?

P.S. I started this post intending to link to the interesting post-protest discussion breaking out among the UK chapter of the lefty grad student blog international: Owen, Savanarola and see also the great pics at Infinite Thought, which despite the above make me wish I was there. Apparently k-punk’s also written something worth reading but my employer’s firewall blocks it as ‘adult/mature content’ so I’ll have to draw the curtains and have a look when I get home.

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Published in: on 3 April, 2009 at 1:12 pm  Comments (7)  

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  1. An effective mass movement is becoming possible. It will need organizers who are capable of articulating concrete demands that address the interests of the growing mass of economically disenfranchised people. This is the main thing that is lacking. It is a failure of imagination.

    Every so often reality is able to drown out the shouts of the information industry and the various other forces which convince and coerce us into accepting the lives that we have and the way things are done. This is one of the rare cases where the truth is louder than the lie, at least temporarily.

    But the window won’t last forever. They will “fix” the system, in the sense that the Dow will be back above 10,000 and everyone will assume that their lives are in good order as a result, even if their prospects for the future have vanished and even if they are worse off then they were before.

    The public is just as eager to be rid of this recession as the bankers, the developers, and the goons at the IMF, and it is only a matter of time before they settle on a new normal, after which point alternatives will once again look absurd.

  2. “An effective mass movement is becoming possible. It will need organizers who are capable of articulating concrete demands that address the interests of the growing mass of economically disenfranchised people. This is the main thing that is lacking. It is a failure of imagination.”

    I think this is right, god knows there are demands to be articulated! Who do you see as potential articulators? What has resonance?

  3. It will probably not resonate from the margins. Not because people won’t listen. People will listen to anything at this point. It will not resonate from the margins because the reality on the margins is impotent when it comes to constructing an alternative. You could do all sorts of great things at a time like this that would have simply appeared crazy 9 months ago, and which may very well appear crazy again 9 months from now. Debt forgiveness on student loans. Guaranteed housing laws. Changes in national tax codes that create a distinct and favored legal category for worker-owned cooperatives. A revitalization of the community banking and credit union system. Dismantling speculative markets in real estate and commodities. Shortening the work week.

    The demands are not going to be made by a kid who throws a brick through a window before returning home to finish his paper on Zizek, since a Marxist reading of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about at useful as teats on a hog when the global economic system starts to disintegrate.

    So where could it come from? I really don’t know. I think it depends on the situation. In the United States I assume anything would have to start regionally. In the northeast US, for example, this might be an opportunity for the Working Families Party to make some of these demands if they were backed up by the SEIU and the CWA. They have a bunch of good community organizations behind them, so it’s not out of the question. WFP is mostly based in New York and Connecticut, which is enough for significant regional influence, particularly since New York’s democratic governor is up for an extremely difficult (impossible?) re-election next year. There’s no reason he couldn’t be out-flanked from the left if someone put themselves out there with a platform that included some radical demands, so long as they were concrete and spoke to people.

    And you use this not because unions are the answer, or because bourgeois electoral politics is the answer, or because professionalized community advocacy is the answer, but because sometimes you have to do something before you have “the” answer, whatever the fuck that is.

  4. I think you more or less hit the nail on the head here Mike. Though I couldn’t go to the G20 protests, it would seem to me that they indicate precisely nothing – they were conducted by the usual suspects, people who hated capitalism as much during the boom as during the recession. Anti-capitalism has no additional purchase in the Anglosphere today that I can discern. Chi’s claim that the mass movement is building seems to me to be a fantasy, though surely he is right to suggest that organisations that exist today could provide the basis for a mass movement – there’s just no sign that they will.

    It’s worth reminding people that the Great Depression didn’t lead to a single revolution, despite a constellation of much stronger, much more revolutionary movements than exist today. What we saw was a rather modest drive towards welfarism, in response to the growth that the organised left did have, and a great big fuck-off war. This time, my expectation is that more war will be the main consequence: this depression is occurring within the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, where most people have no idea of changing the system. The only hope I can see would be for a wave of revolutions emanating from Asia and Latin America, where there is a significant revolutionary wave already in progress, which will, like the Russian Revolution, shake the world.

  5. Yeah I think you’re right AusWatch that’s there’s no necessary link between crisis and radicalisation. And I agree with you both that the organisations Chi mentions are where the potential is… I still get the WFP emails having come into contact with them in the streets of NYC three years ago. Don’t know much about where they come from but surely they’re trying something that ought to be tried in the US. Over here I’m still working within the Greens, as the only substantial force left of the government. As for the unions, well, they are going about business as usual, maintaining wage claims in the face of bullshit – I think intransigence is the best strategy, though historically high unemployment has always undermined the union movement.

    As for Latin America and Asia, well, we can hope but not much we can do about it here… I still hope there are untapped possibilities in our own societies… but yeah, no sign of them as yet.

  6. Sorry to quibble, but I didn’t say that a mass movement was building. I said one was possible. And (unfortunately), those are two very different things.

  7. hi Mike,
    I hope you’re well. I’ve been thinking about this a lot too, not coming up with much in the way of answers. I think there’s two pieces of this that it’s worth distinguishing. One is a matter of line/ideological content and the other is a matter of other organizational practices, including distribution of the line. In terms of line, I’m not sure what that should be. Really there ought to be at least two fronts in terms of line – moving one with the existing left (particularly the organized left), mainly just starting some dialog and building consensus (less on line than on other practices), and moving one to working class people outside the left. That begins to touch on the other stuff of distributing the line and taking actions. My view is that experience in struggles changes people, and that that’s part of what we should be doing, trying to get folk into fights that are winnable or where the loss won’t be super catastrophic, to radicalize them. I think right now at least in the US we’re not going to change the outcome of the crisis, we’re too weak. At most we can try to use the crisis to build and try to head off the growing far right.

    At a very nuts and bolts level, some comrades and I have been talking about moving a leaflet in a neighborhood aimed at turning people out to a discussion and speakout, getting folk to say what the crisis means to them, then using that to build some relationships. We’re all overtaxed so it’ll be a while before we get started on that. I think this sort of thing is really necessary, having conversations with people beyond the left ghetto, and trying to move people through relationship building and questions initially, rather than starting with the line.

    Sorry if this is obvious or off topic.

    take care,
    Nate


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