Bridging the gap (2) – Len Arthur
The last discussion piece suggested that possible answers to the ‘what can we do about capitalism’ question would appear within a week. Well, as Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’ and in this case it has stretched to four!
In that time, Peter Rowlands has made a useful contribution which adds politically to the issues. Another reader has suggested that what may have been depicted in the first piece was a description of ‘hegemonic fatalism’, where through lack of confidence or consciousness a transformative challenge to capitalism is not considered possible: critical analysis is all that can be achieved. Unsurprisingly, this second piece will draw upon previous WLG blogs and suggest that the transformative gap between where we are and would like - or need - to be, can be bridged and, moreover, that there may be more unity of left ideas than at first seems to be the case.
As has been intimated through this blog, there are a range of contemporary left discussions on how we can confront the challenges of capitalism and climate change. Unfortunately, the discussions seem to dance around each other, often dealing with parodies or at best, incomplete descriptions of each other’s alternative forms of transformation. Consequently, an unhelpful dichotomy has arisen which can, and must, be overcome in order to lay the basis for a renewal of confidence in our transformative possibilities. In order to consider a possible basis for this renewal, it will be helpful to describe some of the main ideas involved.
It is difficult to come up with acceptable labels, but there are a group of arguments that could be described as deriving from social movements or social forums and are associated with the terms ‘autonomy’ and ‘horizontalism’. Essentially they are about prefigurative change or creating ‘the future in the present’, through the contemporary establishment of alternative spaces, some of which seek to challenge and transform the effects of contextual problems such as climate change and capitalism. Works by Hardt and Negri; John Holloway; and Michael Albert reflect those with a left background writing in this area; and some of their key arguments overlap with those coming from the green movement such as Molly Scott Cato and Richard Douthwaite; together with those reflected in organisations such as Compass and the Transitional Towns movement.
A recent book by Marina A. Sitrin called Everyday Revolutions: horizontalism and autonomy in Argentina, which is reviewed in the latest edition of Red Pepper , relates to some of the writers already mentioned, is one of the most clear and recent statements of the thinking behind horizontalism and autonomy and, most importantly, draws upon the extensive experience in Argentina. The following six criteria based upon the Argentinian experience identify the effects of these ‘everyday revolutions’ and consider their implications for issues of consciousness and confidence in the possibility of transformation:
· the centrality of horizontal decision making – ‘they do not use hierarchy or will not work with political parties’ and ‘show the centrality of direct participatory decision making’;
· new conceptualisations of power – not as a noun but a verb, ‘that is active, interactive, and can be dynamic when used together, as ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’’;
· the importance of affection and emotion – ‘without acknowledging a shift in their own subjectivity, their own understanding, and without their movements being based upon trust and affection they would not be as militant’, regaining dignity features strongly in the analysis;
· the creation of new value production – ‘what is being produced is being done outside the frame of capitalist market production’;
· the non-contentious political framework nature of the new movements – ‘within the creation of alternative ways of producing value, one can begin to see the seeds of an alternative economy that is central to the total transformation of society’; and,
· rethinking the meaning of revolution – ‘the meaning of revolution for those in the autonomous movements is not that of taking over from the state, the ways in which revolutions are perceived also should be different, subtler, and perhaps quieter’.
Socialists who come from the Second or Communist International tradition of party building will often not engage with or acknowledge these movements or their ideas, and if they do, refer to the arguments of ‘islands of socialism within a sea of capitalism’, unable to withstand the dominant power that surrounds them and doomed to failure or incorporation. It is a shame there is not more of an engagement as, at a personal level, I recognise many of the features described above occurring in my trade union experience and, moreover, have carried this across into some research where the concept of ‘deviant mainstreaming’ is proposed. It can also be argued that a study of first four conferences of the Communist International will also reveal a much more subtle approach to resistance in these forms – particularly cooperatives – as will alternative readings of Lenin’s What is to be done? such as that recently produced by Lars Lih.
Some parts of the left in the UK have started to relate to these arguments. For example: the most recent edition of ISJ, the quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party, has two significant articles; one engaging with the ideas of John Holloway and the other, part of a debate about Syriza in Greece and the role of ‘transitional demands’. Articles in Red Pepper tend to develop the ideas of autonomy and horizontalism but also explore how these movements may relate to socialist party organisation and trade unions. Recently also, there has been some consideration about how these movements may evolve toward existing forms of resistance, such as that by Jodi Dean in the Guardian. My intention is to have a third section to this ‘bridging the gap’ discussion piece, exploring the extent to which it is possible to build on synergies across the left: perhaps even building left unity. To set that scene this piece will conclude by briefly evaluating the ISJ articles and recent Red Pepper contributions.
The article on John Holloway, by Paul Blackledge, recognises that Holloway usefully places an emphasis on the link between socialism and human self-activity and criticises the idea that the capitalist state can be used to bring about socialist change. Blackledge agrees with Holloway and, indirectly with the autonomist and horizontalist case, about the necessity of having a criterion of what a change to an alternative – socialist – society means. Blackledge goes on, however, to identify serious flaws in Holloway’s arguments by exploring his central idea of the “scream”, making the case that there is a real limitation to just producing ‘use values’ and attempting to separate these from their marketable ‘exchange values’, as a way of overcoming alienation: an idea that is reflected in the fourth bullet-point in the summary of the writings of Marina A. Sitrin given above. Blackledge argues that, under capitalism, the need for capitalists to realise surplus value as money – ‘exchange value’ - through sales of products as commodities in the market, feeds back and determines what is produced as ‘use values’, thus blocking the scope for alternative spaces to exist. Holloway, in turn argues, that the outcome of trade union struggles just perpetuates the exploitative and alienated relationships.
Both writers thus recognise the difficulties of overcoming the power inherent in the social relationships of capitalist production: Holloway argues that breaking this has to go beyond trade union struggles toward alternative forms of ownership and control now, whilst Blackledge makes the case that trade union struggles lead to a political tension with reformism (which seeks gains for working people within the framework of existing ownership and power relationships) and thus can provide the basis of the political argument that capitalism and its state needs to be challenged, if the problems experienced by the working class as a result of continuing exploitation are to be overcome. A challenge to the system, Blackledge argues, needs to be made by socialists who can make that case, and they must therefore be prepared to take leadership positions in trade unions so that it can happen: thus, within the terms of this blog piece, the socialist leadership provides the consciousness, and the confidence that come from taking direct action, such as strikes. Blackledge argues that, as Holloway does not recognise this role of socialist leadership, he ends up, by default, supporting compromises with reformism to preserve the alternative spaces. This argument is then extended to include UK activists such as Hilary Wainwright, to which we now turn.
Late last year we offered a blog discussion piece that evaluated Hilary Wainwright’s arguments about how transformative power might be able to bridge the gap between where we are and need to be. As Darren has also pointed on our Facebook page a version of the paper is now available on the Red Pepper web site. There is no question that the Red Pepper magazine has made the major contribution in the UK to exploring not only how the ideas of autonomy and horizontalism can be translated into practical resistance and prefigurative transformation, but also to how these might relate to a wide range of forms of resistance, including those led by trade unions, while also relating to the existing parties of the left. In a recent edition, there was an excellent article by a Syriza activist on how they are working to combine both the traditions of being a social movement and a socialist political party, demonstrating that it may be possible to overcome the dichotomy between the different forms of resistance. Also, interestingly, back to the current issue of ISJ, there is a discussion piece by Richard Seymour, where he takes up the role of Syriza and suggests that what they are arguing for and trying to achieve is worthy of support and examination in more detail, and that this may mean giving more thought to the politics involved in social and political transformation. He suggests that there may be more possibilities available than have previously been argued in the ISJ, among which might be further consideration of ‘transitional demands’ and what is ‘left reformism’.It is these possibilities and the contribution they could make to left unity, which will be discussed in the third and final piece on bridging the gap.