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Unmasking the State

Power is not a dirty word

The occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid and actions in other Spanish cities organised by the Real Democracy Now/M-15 movement, openly challenges the country’s economic and status quo.

Where the movement heads next, its likely ambitions and aspirations, are hotly contested and debated in Madrid, Barcelona and outside Spanish embassies in other countries where solidarity camps have been established.

Some have designated the movement as the start of the Spanish Revolution and reject the mainstream political process, urging people “not to vote for them” in last Sunday’s elections. In London, one debate is between those who view it as primarily a Spanish question and others who favour a more global approach.

An open debate and struggle over ideas, orientation, strategy and tactics is fundamental. The M-15’s manifesto embraces this approach and the way the Puerta del Sol occupation is run encapsulates in microcosm how a future society could work more democratically than the present capitalist one.

For some, engaging in an alternative democratic, transparent process is a victory in itself and the movement should more or less leave it there. On his Beyond Clicktivism blog, Tim Hardy endorses philosopher John Holloway’s view that “the quest for power with the aim of transforming society sets us up for perpetual disappointment”.

Hardy claims the Spanish protests “don’t hope to seize power” and seek “instead to transform existing power relations” allowing “participants to directly experience the possibility of a better world through participating in assemblies and consensus decision-making.”

Well, yes and no, dialectically speaking. The M-15’s manifesto says, for example, “the current status of our government and economic system… in many ways is an obstacle to human progress.” While the manifesto does not explicitly demand a new system, the implication is clear:

The will and purpose of the current system is the accumulation of money, not regarding efficiency and the welfare of society. Wasting resources, destroying the planet, creating unemployment and unhappy consumers.

In Holloway’s outlook, all power is alienating and is to be avoided; only consciousness developed in the struggle is positive. In his book Change the world without taking power (here’s an excellent critique of it by Phil Sharpe), Holloway focuses on human spontaneous activity because, he claims, it alone has the quality of overcoming alienation. Why it has not done so yet, despite countless mass struggles, is not explained.

As Sharpe notes:

In strategic terms Holloway can only postulate an endless repetition of struggle as being able to ultimately transcend alienation. This glosses over the tendency of spontaneous struggles to have alienating limitations and qualities that undermine the possibility of universal human emancipation. These embrace the tendency to gravitate towards reformist aims and restricted trade union type demands and the related acceptance of capitalism.

The fact remains, whether we like it or not, that capitalism organises itself through state structures. The state is not some neutral body that can be won over to the side of ordinary people. Corporations and banks express their power over ordinary people through this state, which has physical force available to uphold its authority.

The state creates laws and practices that relate to property and share ownership, employment, working conditions, education, social rights, welfare and so on. It is in essence a capitalist state. Everything working people have gained is the result of a struggle AGAINST the state in each country.

What is new is that the political parties like the PSOE in Spain and Labour in Britain that once mediated between capital and labour through their access to the state’s political system, no longer pretend to do so. Corporate-driven globalisation has meant these parties’ effective integration into a market state.

In this context, making use of the existing state structures, including the political system, to shape human society in a progressive fashion is no longer a viable option. The present state has to go and power has to change hands, from the minority to the majority, in revolutionary practice. Corporate and financial power could be co-owned and controlled and exercised through a network of people’s assemblies.

Creating “real democracy now” demands nothing less.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
24 May 2011

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Penny says:

The strangest thing is that Holloway's proposition is very similar to the position the CPSU adopted in 1926 in relation to the general strike in Britain. Whilst sentimentally praising the workers' committees that had sprung up all over Britain, the by-that-time Stalinist dominated CC of the CPSU told workers not to use these to struggle for power but to give "all power to the General Council of the TUC". The result was that the people's assemblies then running the strike, food supplies, picket lines, defence, etc., were limited at that level. The TUC promptly sold out the strike at the national political level, terrified by the implications of taking actual power. The revolutionary Trotskyist wing of the CPSU had a different perspective, calling for all power to the people's assemblies themselves.


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