Thursday, September 6, 2012

Discussion – we shall overcome: challenging the power of capitalism (2). Len Arthur

Discussion – we shall overcome: challenging the power of capitalism (2). Len Arthur

Tying up loose ends is the intention of this second and last piece on challenging the power of capitalism. Answering the ‘what can be done about it’ question remains the aim, concluding with a possible process for coming up with action on a wide front, which can be explored in future discussion pieces.

Situating power as capitals, controlled by people, within ongoing social relationships (interaction), provides a conceptual framework of understanding the ‘balances of forces’ at any particular time, their potential weaknesses and how they may be challenged. Such a conceptual framework indicates that those with institutional power try to influence the future course of social interaction of people who, not only have lives outside the institutional sphere that may result in challenging thoughts and actions, but can also become aware that their every act of interaction, within the institutional sphere, is potentially a creative challenge to the pattern of social reproduction desired by those with power. In sum, it provides a hopeful starting point: that there is nearly always the chance to develop alternative agency and build resistance.

Resistance through saying ‘no’ is an essential starting point but it is not sufficient in itself to mount a serious challenge and achieve a shift in control and power - the ‘balance of forces’ - away from those who benefit from and dominate capitalism: alternatives need to be envisaged and, if possible, constructed. Socialism is not just about changes to the economic system; it is about the achievement of the radical project of the Enlightenment: the establishment of a humanist society, where the (dialectical) process of reason is allowed to operate freely, with all having the power to be able to participate in their own way, and where the contribution of all is respected and recognised. It is about having processes of democratic control and openness throughout all social relationships, which will enable this process to work, and to protect against the re-establishment of forms of domination and power inequality. I would suggest, as a Marxist, that this is what our democratic project is about, as opposed to the neo-liberal version of democracy being expressed through the market, allowing forms of power and other inequalities to rule and become more extreme. I would suggest that this project is reflected in the analysis of Marx, represented by the tradition of writers such as Herbert Marcuse in Reason and Revolution; Raya Dunayevskaya in Marxism and Freedom; E. P. Thompson in Socialist Humanism; and more recently by Alex Callincos in Social Theory. Of course, many others can be included in this tradition: these are just windows onto a seriously alternative tradition.

“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves” was a formulation used by Marx and Engels from the Communist Manifesto on. This particular version is taken from their draft of the rules of the First International. The tradition, and what it means in political practice, is important, as it suggests that there has to be a link between our current activities and the changed society we wish to work towards: essentially, it is important to strive to achieve a unity of theory and practice; and ends and means. We currently have few societies we can point to as an inspiration and say ‘that represents socialism in practice’ but what we can point to, is how we organise our resistance and challenges in the here and now; we can and need to demonstrate that what we mean by socialism, in part, exists within our trade unions, campaigns and parties. The answer to the starting question ‘what can we do about it’ is, in part, to point to what we can do now collectively, and how we would like this to operate on a whole society level.

I’d like to briefly draw upon my own 30-odd years of trade union organising to provide an example, before suggesting a possible process of resistance and challenge, that we can start to adopt within the Labour Party and beyond. In the early 1970’s I think I remember Tony Cliff – one of the founders of the SWP – arguing, in an interpretation of the First International position, that ‘workers’ control is the answer and workers’ control has to be the way’. For me, that summed up the approach I’ve been trying to describe so far. Clearly I’ve read a lot more since then, and more recently I think the John Holloway  summary of the anarchist tradition of striving to build ‘the future in the present’, is perhaps a better way of describing it. However, the Cliff phrase summed up my experiences to that date, and provided a guide to trade union activity.

NATFHE (National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education) was to become one of the unions which merged to form the UCU (University and College Union). Amongst other posts, I was essentially the secretary in the UWIC branch from 1974 – 2004. Working with other activists (largely socialists), we gradually built up the branch into one that could be mobilised for strike action, from one that was little more than a social club. Looking back, and using the power conceptual framework, we basically spent years building up our ability to challenge and shift the frontier of control in our direction, through developing the union’s collective social, political and cultural capital.
A union is its members; consequently, the ability to challenge was ultimately dependent on their involvement and support. Over the years, membership numbers were built up from around 25% to almost 90% of the academic staff. Fights over key issues led to bursts of growth, but also being ever present in the workplace helped to create the confidence for colleagues to join. The union’s presence was developed and sustained by regular and detailed newsletters, regular meetings at all levels, and constant discussions with activists. The newsletters were critical, as they provided opportunities for accountability and, at the same time, helped to support a collective political culture, as well as acting as a constant reminder to the employers that we had our own route to mobilisation. Of course, all these activities were greatly enhanced by email, and other electronic means from the early 1990s on. Local leadership structures were essential to keep this process alive, with representatives from all departments meeting weekly. A key part of developing the branch’s collective strength was being prepared to take up all issues, and collectivising them, arguing their importance for all members, even just at the level of reporting in the newsletters. Another key part was being open about how success involved not only getting the demands and negotiation right, but was also about the balance of forces and the action that would be required to achieve our demands: it was critical not to assume that issues could be resolved by negotiation alone.

A trade union recognition agreement – right to bargain - with the employer is the starting point of establishing a collective frontier of control. It was often difficult to keep this going during the Thatcher years, but, with member support, we hung on and even extended our recognition over an increasing number of issues: building up mutuality through our collectively agreed contract. At one stage, following a difficult fight, we managed to preserve the contract but lost some ground. However, we produced our own commentary and, over time, encouraged members to work to this interpretation, thus clawing back, in reality, some of the areas lost. Very little was effectively defended without either taking, or being prepared to take, strike action: challenging the employer’s institutional power.

Politically, we were very clear that a great responsibility fell on public sector trade unions in the Thatcher period, as we were able to sustain our recognition and ability to act, where many in the private sector were being hammered. Moreover, resistance to Tory cuts at a branch level was automatically political. Course cuts and other losses of funding, curriculum interference, attempts to control research - all provided grounds for linking trade union activity and politics. Such an approach opened up other avenues of negotiation and mutuality through the collegial academic structures, such as course committees, the academic board, board of governors and the education committee, when we were still with the county council. We stood as trade union representatives for these bodies and coordinated activities after election, ensuring that we used them as forums for negotiation and taking forward education politics. Things opened up a bit more after the 1997 election, and then with the advent of the Welsh Assembly, and we were able to some extent ‘go around’ our immediate employers and talk to those whom they were accountable to, gaining some commitments such as to ‘no compulsory redundancies’. Locally, this changed context provided further space to gain some extension of collegiality, by having elected staff members on departmental management teams and to argue for ‘open books’ budgeting, enabling some influence over the employer’s economic and financial powers.
Generalisation and collective mobilisation were the watchwords within the branch, and were also the guide to action within the union. As a branch, we helped establish the UK Socialist Lecturers Alliance in 1987 – the start of the UCU Left as it now is – and worked closely with other branches in the Wales Region of the union, making political, as well as activist, connections, coordinating negotiation and action where possible, and developing a left critique of education policy. Solidarity with other unions and their actions, was also argued for, but was often more difficult to achieve than developing joint action within our union, which was itself not easy and required a clear political commitment for it to work.

Developing and sustaining this level of trade union activity was only made possible by it being led by members who had some recognition that there was a connection between demonstrating the strength of collective activity at the workplace and wider social and economic change. It was also clear that a wider political vision helped to cope with the changes in the terrain of the ‘balance of forces’ – such as the outcome of general elections – how to respond collectively to the wide and unpredictable variety of issues; and how to cope with the difficulties of ‘cycles of mobilisation’, where it is easier going forward, but difficult to decide how to go back. I have also argued elsewhere that the concept of a ‘frontier of control’, and that of an alternative collective space that lies behind it, can be seen in social movements other than trade unions, such as cooperatives.
Alternative space, however, only provides part of the answer to the question of how can we challenge the power of capitalism. It is an essential element, enabling the overcoming of the isolation of individuals by providing a method to resist, fight back, and experience a collective alternative in practice, but more is required to challenge capitalism directly. This is not a new issue and Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, writing in his Prison Notebooks in the 1920s, described it as a ‘war of position’ as opposed to a ‘war of manoeuvre’, where in the latter a serious challenge to the power of capital is possible. Within social movement theory, Doug McAdam and colleagues in their book Dynamics of Contention, have described the difficulty as one of moving from a situation of ‘contained contention’ to one of ‘transgressive contention’.

Trotsky, writing in the ‘Transitional Programme’ in1937, suggested a formula of ‘transitional demands’ which may help to guide action that we can all understand and participate within:
‘It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat’.
The language is of its time, but the method suggested still has relevance to our problem of moving from contained to transgressive contention, especially the notion of finding a bridge between where we are now and a serious challenge to capitalism. I would like to suggest that we can use the idea of transition, as defined in this way, to apply to extending the frontier of control and linking with other alternative spaces – futures in the present – as ‘transitional actions’ and, at the same time, link these actions to ‘transitional demands’. So, for example, the type of trade union activity that I have described, could be seen as transitional actions, constantly seeking ways to push forward the frontier of control and taking power from the employer, acting as an agitational inspiration for others to do likewise. Transitional demands, for the current situation, could include linking this trade union activity, with demands that challenge all the austerity actions, introduced by the Tories, to support the bankers and their capitalist system. It is an historical opportunity to make this argument so clearly, possibly without parallel any time in the last 90 years. 

For us in the Labour Party, it may seem that, through winning elections and in our manifestos, we move into a position of a war of manoeuvre and transgressive contention, where we implement our transitional actions and demands. If our policies are radical enough to seriously challenge the power of capital, this would indeed be the case, but being successful in that challenge, would mean maximising the collective mobilisation of the working class, to try to ensure that the balance of forces works in our direction. Syriza, in Greece appear from the reports, to be aware of the need to do this; should we be considering ways of developing similar links with working class organisations and communities through our trade union and local government links?
Concluding then – thank goodness, you may say, if you’ve got this far – I’m suggesting that it is possible ‘to do something about it’: it is possible to resist and, at the same time, start to build ‘the future in the present’ through transitional demands and actions. If we accept the argument that capitalism and neo-liberal politics require a fundamental challenge, then, in all our circumstances, we could start to make a bridge between where we are and would like to be, by considering what transitional actions and demands challenge some, if not all, of the power that enables the capitalism to continue. Asking these questions is a political process and a guide to action that could inform what we mean by ‘progressive politics’. I’ll try to put my money where my mouth in the next discussion pieces by practically suggesting some transitional demands and actions.

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