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Beyond ResistanceThe limitations of protest

The great challenge for all those opposed to capitalism is whether they can go beyond the limitations of protest politics in order to promote something better and more humane than capitalism. Phil Sharpe reviews Beyond Resistance: Fight the Cuts: Build People’s Assemblies

Beyond Resistance, by Gerry Gold and Paul Feldman and published by A World to Win, contends that it is not possible, in this period of extreme economic crisis, to change the Coalition government’s policies by putting pressure on it through protest politics.

There is no alternative to the government’s policies of austerity for resolving the crisis at the expense of working people except to work for the formation of a revolutionary regime that can attempt to create an historical alternative to capitalism.

Because the representatives of the capitalist class have only the option of imposing austerity politics to resolve the debt crisis in the interests of the current economic system, the working class has only the option of struggle for the realisation of a better historical alternative.

If the critics of the Coalition government argue, as many do, that the central issue is simply the defence of the welfare state, they are tacitly admitting that the approach of the government is merely motivated by the ideology of cutting the state, and so alternatives within capitalism are possible.

In fact, the policies that the Coalition government is supporting are the pragmatic response to the crisis and express what they consider necessary to resolve the problems of the economic situation. This is precisely why the question of a U-turn is unlikely and so it would be an illusion on the part of the opponents of cuts to develop a perspective based on this possibility.

How do we explain the illusions of the critics of the cuts? Most of the critics effectively reject the necessity to strive for an alternative to capitalism. They can only conceive the prospect of the reform of capitalism. They can only conceive of the defence of the welfare state as the realistic option. What they do not explain is the question of what will happen when the continuation of the welfare state becomes a luxury that can no longer be afforded in relation to the profit imperatives of capitalism. Principled Marxists do not reject the importance of defence of the welfare state, but they understand that the severity of the crisis of capitalism has meant the welfare state is no longer economically viable.

This is precisely why the ideology of Cameron is about ending the “extravagance” of state expenditure. Cameron is providing ideological justification as to why the era of the welfare state is historically limited. His commitment to the NHS is an attempt to disguise the actions of the Coalition government, and to make acceptable what is unacceptable to working people.

Consequently, the issue of the defence and extension of the welfare state is connected to the struggle for a historic future. The authors are quite categorical on this point:

“The stark fact is that defeating the cuts means putting capitalism out of business – politically, economically and financially. Revolutionary solutions are required to prevent a catastrophe that will destroy the jobs, services, pensions and hopes of generations, and bring global military conflict closer.”

In this context, the limited and illusory strategy of protest strikes and general strikes can only be inadequate because they will be based on the view that there is a different policy possible within capitalism. By contrast the authors have attempted to show that the representatives of the ruling class are carrying out what is a rational strategy in the conditions of profound crisis and that the very resort to deflation is the result of the historic failure to reflate the economy in response to the recession of the recent years.

The authors outline the causes of the recent economic crisis in depth. This is because they want to show that many of the opponents of the cuts have only a superficial understanding of the situation and as a result uphold an approach that promotes illusions. In impressive detail, and as a continuation of their analysis in the pamphlet The House of Cards, the authors outline how the process of the expansion of credit and the creation of debt is the outcome of the anarchic character of capitalism and the limitations of the present social relations. This is precisely why it is a cruel deception to suggest that alternatives are present under capitalism.

In the present situation, this type of thinking has led to the belief that capitalism can be based on the expansion of the public sector, or the unifying of the principle of private ownership and the role of the social sector, and therefore it is argued that the cuts are not necessary. But the point made by the authors is that if cuts are not made then the situation of debt will only intensify, and if cuts are made the contraction of the economy will accelerate. The contradictions created by this situation are an expression of the severity of the crisis. The quantitative easing pioneered by Gordon Brown and Barack Obama has not been successful and instead has only increased the scale of the debt problem. All this is the outcome of a long historical period of the accumulation of debt and the reliance of capitalism on debt, until the bubble burst.

Consequently, the reason why the various defenders of the welfare state are unable to agree with the standpoint of the authors of this pamphlet is itself ideological. At the level of economics they do not accept that the problem of debt is caused by the limitations of capitalist relations of production and instead contend that the debt problem can be resolved by what are considered to be fair and humanitarian policies. Hence what could be defined as moralism becomes the substitute for what could be considered to be the application of a principled Marxist method. And the non-historical approach of what is “fair” and “just” replaces the importance of the process of economic development and the creation of the dilemmas of the capitalist system.

The supporters of this moralistic standpoint are convinced that there is an alternative within capitalism, that is, of expanding the economy. The fact that this perspective has already failed and is one reason why austerity policies are presently being utilised is not recognised by the defenders of what are both Keynesian illusions and a moralistic standpoint. In contrast the authors connect morality to what they conceive to be the objective situation, which is the culmination of the contradictions of capitalism.

They contend that the acuteness of the present crisis is not an ideological mirage, but an indication that capitalism is in a period of decay and so the realisation of what is moral, fair and just can only be realised under a historical alternative to capitalism. It is a further illusion to believe that expanding economies like those of China will enable the world economy to overcome the limitations of recession. Instead the role of China will be to intensify global competition and to raise questions about the continuation of globalisation on the basis of international trade and investment.

Therefore only the most astute representatives of the ruling class and intransigent Marxists understand the depth of the crisis and advocate opposed strategies in order to resolve the problems of the situation. In contrast, many of the opponents of the cuts have a consciousness that is based on illusions. They reject the reactionary resolution of the crisis whilst also rejecting the perspective of revolutionary politics.

If this approach is adopted it will result in an ideological impasse. Firstly, it will not be possible to understand the crisis in terms of its contradictory complexity. Secondly, the illusion will be created that the crisis can be resolved in terms of the development of policies that do not go beyond the limitations of capitalism. Thirdly, the view that mass pressure can force changes of policy by existing governments will also be influential.

In contrast, Marxists do not defend schemas that are based on conceptions of ideological consolation. Instead they are aware that the possibility to resolve the crisis within capitalism is unlikely and so what is realistic and practical is the attempt to struggle to go beyond capitalism. Hence the most important question becomes how to develop strategies that connect the concerns of the present to the vision of the future. 

The future is represented by the continuation of a capitalism that will undergo the intensification of its contradictions, with the prospect of a resolution of this impasse by the struggle for a better future that goes beyond the limitations of capitalism. However, the latter prospect is not inevitable or a mechanical and automatic expression of the result of crisis. This is because consciousness still lags behind the demands of the present objective situation.

Objectively what is required is communism if humanity is to make further social progress, but the illusions of consciousness demand the continuation of the welfare state under capitalism. It is entirely possible that people will enter into struggle with these illusions intact and so will not strive for what is objectively necessary as the only basis to advance the interests of humanity.

This is why this pamphlet is so valuable because it attempts to tackle these illusions in a constructive manner. The critique is connected to the possibilities of the future and the prospect of overcoming the crisis of capitalism. In other words, the pamphlet announces that the period of the ideological proclamation of the “end of history” and the victory of liberal capitalism has been replaced by the situation of the acuteness of the crisis of capitalism and the uncertainty of what will be the future. 

Capitalism has not yet been challenged and undermined by a conscious and revolutionary agency of change but it has been weakened by the effects of the limitations of its own system. This has meant that the era thought by many to be “the end of history” has itself ended. The period when the demise of Stalinism was equated with the effective end of the vision of Communism has been shown to be a temporary and false interlude in history. Instead, what is more durable is the importance of the crisis of capitalism and the prospect of the replacement of capitalism by truly emancipatory communism.

The important theoretical service carried out by the authors of this pamphlet is to show that the view of capitalism as a permanent and perpetual system has been undermined by the continued intensification of its contradictions and that the situation is maturing for its replacement by a better historical future.   

The second part of the book develops a strategy for change and a conception of the future. This is important because it is necessary to outline not only what a Marxist is against but also what is the alternative. Indeed the present weakness of the emerging struggle against the cuts is that people are aware of what they are against but are vague of what they are for.

This is why the Coalition government retains ideological hegemony. They can present their opponents as dreamers who are impractical in contrast to their own realism and wisdom. The only possibility to end this ideological hegemony is to outline a vision of the future which can compare with the limited and narrow realism of the Coalition government.

The pamphlet is adamant that the present spontaneous mood of opposition to the cuts will be inadequate if it is not transformed into conscious and organised expression. What is being suggested is that demonstrations, however militant and determined, are not sufficient to realise this necessary transformation of spontaneity into organisation. Firstly, it is necessary to articulate a vision of the future, which is of an economic and social system in which the present domination of capital over labour is replaced by the democratic management of the producers and which is based on the realisation of need and sustainable production.

Secondly, in order to mediate this vision and provide the basis of the process of transition it is necessary to establish People’s Assemblies. These will represent networks to coordinate the struggle and will encourage occupations at the workplace and the organisation of production in a different manner to the logic of the domination of capital. People’s Assemblies will have an important defensive role in the struggle against the attempt to implement the cuts. But what is defensive will become the offensive attempt to develop beyond the process of just reacting to the attacks of the forces of capital, becoming instead the basis of organisation of what is the historical alternative within the capitalist system.

In economic, political and ideological terms People’s Assemblies will represent the formation of a different society and so go beyond the process of resistance that is unable to articulate what the struggle is in favour of striving for. Instead of an ideology of struggle without goals, the formation of People’s Assemblies will connect goals with the process of struggle:

“Assemblies will bring together anti-cuts campaigns and all organisations resisting the coalition’s attack on jobs, services, pensions and standard of living. A Network of People’s Assemblies will have the capacity to facilitate a transition to a democratic society based on co-operation and self-determination instead of profit and corporate power.”

Furthermore:

“They will challenge the lie that there is no alternative to the capitalist system, which has plunged the world into global crisis and is the source of the coalition’s attacks.”

The role of People’s Assemblies is very important. Primarily they represent the embryo of what a different society would be like within the womb of capitalism. They express the fact that the struggle against the cuts cannot be limited within capitalism to the defence of the welfare state and instead they represent the emergence of the new within the old and the fact that this relationship is one of antagonism and transformation.

If the People’s Assemblies do not succeed in bringing about a revolutionary regime the forces of reaction will attempt to overcome their social power in the form of repression and dispersion. Consequently the development of the functioning of People’s Assemblies represents a type of dual power, or a form of political power that challenges for the domination of society.

In other words People’s Assemblies represent different social relations that undermine the logic of the profit imperatives of capitalism. They represent the alternative of social ownership, workers’ control of production and the prospect of production for need. At the political level they represent a type of participatory democracy that is superior to the elitism and passivity of Parliamentary democracy, and therefore challenge the repressive character of state power.

They represent an alternative form of state that is based on the popular and democratic will of the population. In this sense the formation of People’s Assemblies is the emergence of a revolutionary regime within capitalism, which has a different logic and dynamism when compared to the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism.

Hence the formation of People’s Assemblies will indicate that those who are subordinated within capitalism have become serious about the perspective of political power and are no longer content with trying to reform the existing system. The struggle in the immediate, of opposition to the cuts, becomes a struggle for an alternative future.

This demand is not utopian because it has occurred in the past in the formation of Soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917 and workers’ councils in Spain in the mid 1930’s and Portugal in 1974. The role of People’s Assemblies is to provide focus and clarity to what has become mass struggle and to show that the advance and progress of struggle has taken a definite organisational form. Consequently the People’s Assembly will not be content with dual power but will strive to advance the struggle to a new and higher stage which is the realisation of political and economic power and the formation of a revolutionary regime.

This is why the demand for the People’s Assembly is the concrete manifestation of a challenge to all types of reformism and the illusion that the struggle can be victorious within the limitations of capitalism. The People’s Assembly is also the connection between what is required in the present and the instrument and mediation of the realisation of the different future.

The setting-up of People’s Assemblies would be a rejection of all those that consider that spontaneity is sufficient, and will generate its own aims and dynamic. The perspective of the People’s Assembly is an indication of how the spontaneous power of mass struggle can be connected to what is the elaboration of definite political aims and is therefore the transformation of spontaneity into definite class consciousness.

It is important to recognise that the strategic aim of the People’s Assembly is not meant to diminish other aspects of the class struggle against the cuts. On the contrary the role of the People’s Assembly is meant to enhance the role of occupations, strikes, and the attempt to establish democratic control of production. Instead of strikes and occupations being part of an isolated and dispersed form of struggle they can instead become part of the logic to develop the power of the People’s Assembly, and so express the militant opposition to the domination of capital.

In contrast, if we are afraid to outline any strategic logic to the struggle against the cuts because that would seem to diminish the power of militancy, which has been argued by left-wing trade union leader Bob Crow, then the struggle could become aimless and liable to defeat and demoralisation.

The attempt to form People’s Assemblies is not any guarantee of success but it does at least provide an important compass for understanding how the mass struggle can realise its potential and become the basis for challenging capitalism and in order to transcend capitalism. Consequently those that champion militancy as the non-dogmatic alternative to the role of the People’s Assembly are ultimately expressing a reluctance to support political forms that go beyond the limitations of capitalism.

The attractions of supposed perpetual struggle are transitory; instead we should be concerned with how struggle should be victorious, and in this context the People’s Assembly is a transitional form that points in the possible direction of success. If the People’s Assembly did not have this function it would be wrong to make this demand for its formation, but the authors are not wrong to have this perspective. We should concern ourselves with how we make this demand popular and accessible to those who will become engaged in struggle against the cuts.

The alternative is to support political drift in order not to offend the sensibilities of those that are becoming engaged in struggles against the cuts. This is why the left refuses to develop strategy and instead outlines minimal proposals in order to make itself popular with the trade unions and other social groups opposed to the cuts. The implicit assumption is that spontaneity is sufficient in order to arrive at the required strategy.

What is lacking in this opportunist approach is recognition of how spontaneity can become conscious, and the result is a mistrust of the necessity of revolutionary consciousness. In contrast the demand for People’s Assemblies is concerned with the very problem of how to connect spontaneity with consciousness. This approach is not content with the complacent outlook that the struggle will create and promote its own logic for success.

The above discussion can be used in order to evaluate the merits of the call for a general strike. This has already become a popular demand for those contemplating becoming part of the struggle against the cuts. The call for the general strike has the merit of combining militancy with the political capacity to avoid discussion of the aims of the mass struggle against the cuts.

Marxists do not dogmatically rule out the importance of any type of struggle and so would cautiously applaud the willingness of trade unionists to advocate the general strike. But what we would also suggest is clarity on what the general strike is to be about. Unless the advocates of the general strike are ready to recognise its insurrectionary qualities it would be better not to support it in any vague and demagogic manner. It is also necessary to recognise that the general strike has to result in victory or else the consequences of defeat can be catastrophic. It could be argued that it took 50 years for the working class to fully recover from the defeat of the 1926 general strike in Britain. The trade union leaders of the time preferred the consequences of defeat instead of victory because of the very fact that victory could have resulted in the overthrow of capitalism.

Historically speaking the trade union leaders have always preferred to retain capitalism rather than risk an end to their privileges in a revolutionary society. This is why Marxists cannot have confidence in the recent calls of some trade union leaders for a general strike. Consequently, we would argue that the issue of the general strike should not be considered an aspect of the limited role of the trade union leaders but should instead be part of the democratic and popular will of the People’s Assemblies.

Only when the People’s Assemblies decide on the necessity of a general strike (which will include an important role for the trade unions) can we be certain of the success of this tactic. We should be wary of making this important tactic into a fetish of the struggle, and should only call for a general strike if it genuinely is part of the integral logic of the struggle against capitalism.

12 January 2011

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