The Year 2011 was marked by worldwide demonstrations and occupations against the bankers and transnationals that brought about the global crisis. So what can we expect in 2012?
For many it will be one of continued crisis and severe hardship. Despite a virtual implosion of global capitalism, the left and progressive forces nowhere seem able to mount a serious challenge, never mind topple the rotten system which also becomes ever more capable of fragmenting, integrating or redirecting whatever opposes or challenges it.
The arguments for a non-capitalist form of society are ever more pressing and increasingly obvious. However, without a party or organisation strong and magnetic enough to give focus and leadership, this awareness will not be translated into meaningful action, despite the many welcome and heroic city square occupations, demonstrations and pickets outside banks.
Most would agree that some sort of radical change of the present bandit capitalism is necessary if humanity is to progress and flourish. Facing environmental catastrophe, widespread poverty and inequality, increasing unemployment, crises in our healthcare and education systems, lack of adequate pensions, a severe housing deficit and rising crime levels, few could argue that the present system is fulfilling society’s needs or that it offers a stable future. Such a crisis in the past would have spurred an enormous development of the Left, but this is not happening presently. Trade unions remain on the defensive on almost all fronts and working people, by and large, appear to acquiesce to the blackmail of economic crisis and budget deficits. Most of the new social movements reject organisation, ideology and politics, based on their past knowledge and present observations of these concepts in practice.
While we need new thinking, it cannot be reduced to ‘revolution via the internet plus blogging and tweeting…a refusal of politics, the demand for power from below, a revolution without the seizure of power may contain partial truths, but runs the risk of becoming merely a fossilized subculture’, as the recently deceased Italian communist Lucio Magri wrote.
Why has this profound crisis not produced a resurgence of the Left? The answers are complex, but there are undoubtedly a number of central ones.
Marx and Engels clearly saw that outmoded productive forces would become fetters on the development of more advanced production relations, and that has become more obvious than ever, but it hasn’t led (as the two philosophers predicted) to the overthrow of the old relationship; we have not witnessed a growing proletariat with increasing class consciousness challenging the status quo. In fact, in the Western world, the industrial productive forces (as described by Marx) are becoming increasingly less significant numerically and socially, and their contribution to GDP has also diminished. Relations of production are now more fragmented, less cohesive or socially significant than ever. We have also seen a profound set-back in the development of class consciousness – avidly promoted over the years by the media. Our society today is more fragmented than ever, on social, cultural and political levels.
Certainly class and class interests are no longer as clear or black and white as they were decades ago. For the Left to bang on about the ‘working class’ as if nothing had changed since the height of 19th century capitalism, is a refusal to recognise this new reality.
The role of the mainstream political parties has changed too. They no longer clearly represent different class interests in society, but have become self-perpetuating and self-selecting elites content to argue over which one can best manage the same system. None has a mass membership base any longer, or strong local parties that truly represent their local populations; the dwindling members are also ageing. They have become electoral machines geared to the reproduction of governing castes and turning out their dwindling votes once every few years.
The overwhelming majority of the population has become so disillusioned with politics as a whole that it has switched off. This is a dangerous situation, because the political elite will continue to govern and make policy, with or without popular mandate. Already in the developed world we have seen how an increasing rejection of politics can open the way to a spiral of revolt and repression (viz. the recent riots in London and other UK cities). The concentration of social injustice in marginalised sectors and zones has also made social conflict less unified and transparent and has removed the cohesiveness of organised masses that for decades breathed life into political democracy. This runs parallel with a wider a much ideological crisis linked to general social attitudes: the decline of mass parties as activist organisations capable of unifying and mobilising interests and behaviour in a common culture or project.
But worldwide, despite an impending environmental catastrophe, a global financial system in chaos, and world leaders in denial, most people are continuing their daily lives as if little has changed. Of course there are continual protests, but like the recent anti-capitalist occupation movement, they are undertaken by smallish groups that have been able to galvanise much public sympathy, but this has not led to an expansion of the movement itself. The big exceptions have been, of course, the heroic uprisings in the Arab world.
Within this whole debate we can’t ignore the key role of the media. Their role has become key in moulding consciousness, and in counteracting and negating a class consciousness developed in daily work and social relationships. What is also new is the leap in the manipulative power of these media and their close inter-relationships with the major centres of economic power. They are continually reshaping the common sense of the times, moulding cultures, lifestyles and values, especially among the subaltern sections of society. This lends public opinion a confused and indecisive character and leads to political apathy. Education itself is being supplanted by fast-moving mass media and their message of passivity.
The Labour Party was created by the Unions in 1900 in order to ensure working people had adequate representation in parliament. We don’t have to go into the details of Labour Party history to argue that, today, it can hardly be said to represent those interests any longer. The fact that parliament itself has also become a largely impotent force in the context of our globalised economy, alongside the power of the banks and multinationals, means that the representatives we elect have little power. Traditional parties are, today, characterised by a less representative and ageing membership. A conception of the party as the exclusive locus and instrument of politics is no longer valid. The political system as a whole has entered a new crisis and impotence as the role of nation states has declined and spawned institutions divorced from democratic input.
The Trade Unions and the Left in general, today, have to look beyond parliamentary representation if they wish to promote a shift towards implementing policies and changes in society commensurate with the needs and goals of their members and constituents. Those needs and goals can no longer be channelled or indeed implemented through the sort of political party we have traditionally assumed represented working people, and certainly not through an impotent parliament. There is also a general ossification in the organisational forms of the workers’ movement. Traditional forms of organisation and methods of waging the struggle for better pay and working conditions are no longer effective, particularly within the context of the complex legal restrictions on workers’ rights. Working people now find themselves in a losing battle to defend public services, pensions, job security as well as living wage levels that most of us thought had been won for good. The present functioning of the economic system has proved incompatible with long-standing social gains, a universal welfare system, stable full employment and elements of participatory democracy in the most advanced societies.
Surely by now it must have become clear to the Labour Party and the trade unions that capitalism cannot be permanently reformed to ensure workers get a fair deal (a basic tenet of social democratic thinking)? The capitalist class has been able to roll back the welfare state, wages and decent conditions with little more than token opposition; we have lost much of what was won in struggle over decades. One doesn’t need to be a prophet to recognise that workers may be able to achieve modest victories when capitalism is booming and there is full employment, but once the going gets tough for the owners of capital, these can be destroyed overnight and there is little the unions or the Labour Party seem able to do about it.
A secure future for working people will depend less than in the past on trade unions, but more on a defined and clear political project and on forging instruments that directly impact on the structure of the state, the economy, technological strategies and educational apparatuses. Trade unions, in the past could rely on the power of a collective labour force, but that is no longer the case due to a fragmentation of workplaces and workforces, increased mobility of labour and the instability and temporality of the work-place itself. These factors are continually subtracting from the vanguards, i.e. working class grass-roots organisations and leaderships are continually being dismantled or destroyed.
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This post was written by John Green