The TUC march against Austerity in October may have been smaller than its precursor in 2011, but it represents a very important sea change for the ideas of trade unionism and, possibly, Socialism. They are becoming normalised.
In 2011 the streets of London were amassed with the largest trade union led demonstration in over a century, but the ranks were swelled with a carnival of characters representing, politely put, the weird and wonderful. They were best stereotyped by the self-proclaimed anarchists waging their very own class struggle via bins, shop windows and car windscreen wipers. All very Barcelona 1936 no doubt.
This year was different. While the more colourful characters of the protest world were present, they did not take centre stage, they were merely assimilated. This time around the type of people who personified the march were, well, regular people; the type you might actually find in shops, pubs, at work, on buses – real, regular people with regular problems, which now include the impact of the austerity offensive.
Why does that matter? Because if austerity is an issue people see as relevant to their own lives, then so are the solutions. This gradual sea change, already witnessed across the EuroZone, is seeing the anti-austerity banner passed (or pulled) from the hands of the regular protesters to those newly forced into action.
Marxists understand this process well. Like gravity, the class struggle is not something which only applies to you if you have read the theory. When working people, students, pensioners and families are forced onto the political and industrial battlefields it throws into reverse a political trend which has dominated the left (and right) in recent decades.
Since the late 1980’s the left has suffered the result of a triptych of great setbacks. The labour movement was defeated in 1984, at the same time the Labour Party began its migration to the political right, in the process destroying its community base; and the end of the cold war launched an era of triumphant global capitalism.
Very suddenly Socialism went from a mainstream idea to the very fringes of political thought. However, it is worth remembering that this hasn’t just been an issue for the ‘radical parties.’ Active political involvement in any UK party has fallen as disillusionment has soared. This year the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds announced it had double the members of all three main parties combined.
When a political ideology is thrown into the wilderness it will come across those who have already been pushed there, and they will begin to swell its ranks. For Socialist parties this is largely no bad thing. After all those marginalised by capitalism, from the disabled and the unemployed to a myriad of minorities, are empowered by socialist ideas to play a leading role in building an inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
However, while some political parties in the wilderness will encounter people unjustly marginalised, others will encounter those who have marginalised themselves. The most extreme example of this was symbolised by the Norwegian shootings of July 2011. Then this post argued that the Socialist left could never produce the type of lone gunman that the far-right has spawned from Oklahoma, to Olso. Anders Brevick, it was argued, found himself on the fringes of society and decided to politically align himself with a cause similarly maligned, the extreme right.
In the ‘mad or bad’ debate around him, it’s worth remembering that while many on the extreme far-right applauded his cause, none rushed to emulate his methods. The right-wing however, even at its most tame centre, focuses on the individual, both positively and negatively. For the far-right, this encourages the scapegoating ideology which can identify a specific social or ethnic group to blame and it’s this mindset which can encourage an already damaged man to murder 70 teenagers and believe he is attacking the establishment.
The Left are different .To the Marxist the injustices of this world are systematic and there is an appreciation of vast social forces at work. You can’t change the world with one Kalashnikov. Even the most marginalised groups on the far-left are unlikely to be harboring a Breivik. The worst we’re likely to find in the ranks of even the most peripheral sect is a middle class teenager wearing a Che t-shirt on his chest and a day-dream like aspiration for armed revolution on his sleeve.
Outside of Greece the far-right continues to be marginalized, attracting to their banner the sort of cranks and misfits which we can assume make Nick Griffin weep from his good eye. For the left it is different; across the world people are being pushed into action and in the process are receiving a crash course in class consciousness. For example in Spain we’re seeing evicted families occupying empty flats while a mayor in Andalucía leads raids on supermarkets to feed the starving. These are not the actions of rounded-out Marxists, or the usual protest faces, this is the manifestation of raw anger and desperation.
In these conditions the battle of ideas intensifies, yet the sectarianism which the left is so often accused becomes increasingly irrelevant. Parties with the best ideas attract support and others become marginalised, unable to make the transition to the mainstream. It’s why Syriza grew in Greece at the expense of the Communist KKE. It is also why the Democratic Socialist Movement, although small, is playing a leading role in the Miners’ strike of South Africa.
The working class is nothing if not practically minded and people pushed into action turn to the ideas and the organizations which they believe will solve their crisis. From trade unions, to the Indignados movement or embryonic new mass workers’ parties, these organizations are being tested. The class struggle is a brutal thing; groups found wanting will be discarded while those who can prove their worth will score magnificent victories.
At the time of writing we appear to be in a moment of transition. The impact of the economic crisis has long passed from an abstract idea in to a force directly impacting the ‘real economy’ and the lives of working people. It is no longer only the most vulnerable who are being hit (although they are continuing to be hit hardest); it is becoming a generalised issue.
In this transition we are seeing some groups build while others degenerate and little symbolises this more than the Occupy movement. There are few sights more tragic in politics than someone beginning to believe their own propaganda. The occupy movement, that loosely connected protest group, has had a very positive impact as a prelude, a taster, of what is to come, yet its degeneration is revealing.
We’ve seen large Occupy demos across the United States, with smaller solidarity groups springing up across the UK. That this emerged concurrently with the democracy protests in Moscow, the first Arab spring protests, the European indignados, the Wisconsin labour battle and the tent cities of Israel is no coincidence. It would be highly disingenuous for Occupy supporters to say that these events are directly part of their own movement (although that doesn’t stop them from doing so); they are however all eruptions of dissent against the same economic crises and the same system.
Plenty has been written about the Occupy protests in the US. Some have seen in it a vision of a future world, although I contend that they’re projecting on to it what they want to see rather than seeing the reality. Others have unfairly written off the whole thing due it’s’ lack of structure, its inability to articulate any clear demands and its sheer lack of organisation.
In reality its diversity was its strength, for its success entirely came down to the ability of the activists it was able to attract locally. In places such as Oakland in California where activists made a conscious effort to link to the labour movement, Occupy played a role in building a general strike. In other places, perhaps the majority, it never succeeded in becoming more than a collection of tents, a rain soaked curiosity.
It was never the reality of the ‘occupations’ which made us all sit up; it was the spectre of Occupy, a real-time myth. Its main message of dissent was already stronger than the sum of its parts, the idea that society is divided between a 99% and a 1% was far stronger than its activists. When members of this branch visited the Occupy camp in London we were struck that everyone appeared already be linked to an existing cause. If they weren’t outside St Pauls that day, even if they had never heard of Occupy, they would have been protesting against something, somewhere else. It was a collection of the niche, projecting themselves as the majority.
The problem for Occupy supporters now is that rather than looking outwards, as happened at Oakland, they started to believe their own myth and turned inwards. Many Occupy supporters see themselves as part of a movement which is above politics, indeed above the concerns of regular people. Of course if you asked them exactly what Occupy stands for you’d receive as many different answers as the people you’d asked. In part the group’s weakness stems from the low levels class conscious of the preceding era, a reflection of political disillusionment and the lack of confidence in traditional methods of collective action.
Errors of method are compound errors of perspective and Occupy’s fatal mistake was to equate publicity with success. Rather than looking to build a movement the activists increasingly turned to stunts or other media attracting antics. When the media attention inevitably dried up the groups turned to the online world, which has for the most part entirely consumed them. The media whirl had given the movement, or at least the best ideas of the movement, the appearance of being mainstream, in reality we saw the cancerous rise of the cranks and the conspiracy theorists.
It is inherently un-Marxist to paint one experience out as being true of the general picture, yet such experiences can serve to illustrate a point. Last year in Portsmouth the best of the Occupy supporters staged public events, debates and campaign stalls against workfare. Now, as they have retreated to the safety of online activism, the ideas which have risen to become common currency are as crazy as they are irrelevant. Gone is a focus on the economic crisis, its causes and its results. Arise are ideas parroted from far-right blogosphere, Jewish conspiracies, new world orders and other flights of fancy.
This stands in strong contrast to the Indignado youth movement of Spain or the tent city movement of Israel which, like many in occupy, proclaimed open hostility to the existing political establishment. What they succeeded in doing was grounding themselves on social issues, from housing, to unemployment. This ensured they could link up with other groups, they could continue to grow and they could truly claim to be articulating a generalised message of dissent from the people of Spain. In this time of transition we are seeing the Indigndos succeeding in becoming mainstream, while many in Occupy are drowning themselves in conspiracy and irrelevance.
Times are changing, the struggle of the classes is accelerating, and slowly, consciousness is beginning to catch up with events. If in the United States, the epicentre of global capitalism, a Marxist candidate in Seattle can receive 27% of the vote, then we know times are changing. When we hear people discussing politics in the workplace, we know times are changing. When the black flag toting ‘anarchist’ is replaced at the protest by a single mum, we know times are changing. When a Marxist organisation such as the Socialist Party can attract to it’s ranks the best fighters in the labour movement, we know times are changing. Socialists, armed with the right perspectives, a class analysis and a transitional approach are perfectly positioned to rise as the champions of our movement. We don’t merely think it. We don’t merely say it. We really are the 99%.