Anthony Barnett, Raymond Williams Annual Lecture, 26 November 2011, St John’s College, Oxford
It’s an honour to be asked to give this Raymond Williams Annual lecture. And also the chance to write the foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of The Long Revolution, republished by Parthian. It has given me the opportunity to renew and deepen Raymond’s influence on my thinking.
Today I want to set out some of the arguments I am developing about the potentially revolutionary events of this year.
It is work in progress, which I’m looking to you to test and can certainly improve. The forces that this year of 2011 is seeing unleashed will take a great deal of collective understanding – only to be reached by some tough arguments, to which I want to contribute and from which I intend to learn.
I’m going to focus on the Occupy movement, the most important example of which for me was the immense, peaceful take over of central Madrid from 15 May to 12 June, when it disbanded of its own decision. According to one Spanish RTVE poll, up to 7 million participated in some way, 20 per cent of the population, and it had over 70 per cent approval. In July the Economist reported 80 per approval and was very irritated, accusing the protestors of being “earnest”.
Spain itself has this month voted in the right-wing to power while what remains of the 15 May movement has lost popularity. Here in the UK those involved in Occupy, for example in St Pauls, are determined but so far too few in numbers to claim to be a ‘movement’ and are very vulnerable. It’s too early to judge what fate awaits Occupy Wall Street in the US now that it has been cleared from Zuccotti Park where I was fortunate enough to witness it and sit in on two meetings of its facilitators.
Nonetheless it is surely significant that an overtly revolutionary, ‘anti-capitalist’ manifestation for ‘Real Democracy’ suddenly commands attention as the so-called ‘real world’ realises that it is onto something.
Covering the G20 Summit for Newsnight in early November, a few weeks after Occupy Wall Street began Paul Mason found it “was on everyone’s lips… OWS has, in just a few weeks, become global shorthand among policymakers for ‘what can happen’ if they don’t regain control of the situation”.
That is an telling phrase, “regain control of the situation”.
When I was in New York two weeks ago, my equivalent of Mason’s G20 experience is that mighty Foundations that have poured millions into supporting participation in American politics are obsessed with OWS, not to speak of NGOs and Democratic think tanks. David Carr of the NYT thinks that even as they are evicted OWS may have changed the terms of political debate (although he thinks its main concern is with fairness while Ricken Patel the Director of Avaaz, with 10 million members, says it is corporate power).
Alas, Britain has a more closed and cynical political culture. But if two months ago someone had asked you what the Church of England thought about corporate capitalism, you’d probably have laughed. Now, it’s a serious issue for the country’s official religion.
In the US, especially, the Occupy movement has played the role of the little boy in the fable saying “The Emperor has no clothes!” In the land of Lincoln’s definition it is saying, “We have government, of the ninety-nine per cent, by the one per cent, for the one percent”.
The point of the fable is not what the child says. It is that everyone hears him saying it and that everyone is privately thinking the same thing. Indeed, it seems they know it all too well at the G20.
There are two measures, then, when something like the Occupy movement arises to oppose the system: its strength and the system’s vulnerability.
Is the system in Britain invulnerable? In 2015 it could well be that we have had an unprecedented full decade of falling real household incomes [Osborne’s Autumn Statement has since told us this is certain], UKIP not the Lib Dems could be the third party in the Commons, Scotland could have voted for independence from England, the Euro could have broken up, membership of both today’s main parties could have fallen well below 100,000 (in terms of active members they have probably already done so), our main newspapers could be abandoning print while the most vigorous defender of the old order, the Murdochs have bailed out.
Internet driven, flash organisation may not have staying power. Does it need staying power in such circumstances?
This is why the open-minded quality and revolutionary potential of the occupy movement deserves attention (and has my support). It is trying to tackle a problem.
Famously, in the concluding thesis on Feurbach, part of his warm up to the Communist Manifesto, Marx contrasted the way philosophers “interpreted” the world with the crucial need to “change it”. This hateful opposition of thought to action takes many forms: Labour bureaucrats denouncing ‘chatter’, Mandarin diplomats saying “we don’t talk about sovereignty”, “Deeds not Words” to quote the slogan of the militant suffragettes. But deeds – bureaucratic, diplomatic and militant – are also, famously, propaganda. Which is to say they can be lies.
When it comes to words, as my old and much missed friend Fred Halliday used to emphasise, it is a big mistake to assume that revolutionaries do not mean what they say (he was thinking of Iran as much as Russia). Their speeches are not the insincere babble of politicians calculating the balance of forces. Once organised, ‘interpretations’ in their case can shape and change the world.
For me, one of the most welcome aspects of the Occupy movements in the West, that have so contributed to the originality of this year, is that they have the capacity to depasse the opposition of word and deed to develop a thinking politics.
As their various theorists are arguing, the combination of hi-tech networking and no-tech gathering is developing forms of “communicative action”, “distributed networks” and “open sourced activism”. An ‘occupation’ is energised by the mutual human experience of face-to-face meeting – unlike the mobilisation of a demonstration in which all face the same way. To experience agency in general assemblies, and the hard work and shared responsibility of well-facilitated leaderless decision-taking, combines challenging authority with deliberation: it can join deed with word in a way that is open to growth. For those involved, the experience may change their understanding of the possibilities of politics – as they reshape their own experience of democracy.
Raymond would have enjoyed and appreciated this feed-back process. At one point in The Long Revolution he defines communication as “a process between real individuals, who are all learning’.
I’m not going to lecture about Raymond Williams’ work – I want to engage with the events of this year in the spirit of his investigations and in particular to his commitment to what he called the ‘Long Revolution’. I describe what he meant by this in my Forword to the new edition of the book: it is an original concept describing of an epoch of change. That is to say it is both a concept and also a process that the concept seeks to identify which is marked by a sense of totality, difficulty and humanity.
Raymond always emphasised the need to look at the “whole process” without according any part, especially the economic, a simple determining influence, hence the importance of culture; second he demanded recognition of how hard this is, both mentally and because such an understanding demands an collective effort; third for him, “Revolution remains necessary… not… because some men desire it, but because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men is in practice denied.”
A similar claim is implicit in the slogan “we are the 99 per cent”.
Why is this call being heard now, this year, when it has often been said before, that we are ruled by the 1 per cent, and it has fallen on deaf ears?
And what kind of revolution might it mean if it becomes an influence?
These are two very different questions. I’m going to sketch, very roughly and incompletely, some initial answers.
Two key reasons are a combination of the definitive military/political defeat of both Bushism and bin Ladenism – that’s one reason. At the same time we have witnessed the failure of market fundamentalism to repair the crash of 2008;
You’ll notice that I have not mentioned the internet and social media as a cause. I do think they are changing everything, but the same old everything still remains, that they are a’changing. Similarly, the evidence of climate change and the inability of the international system to mobilise young people to protect their inheritance along with the emergence of a highly trained, unemployed, indebted but flexible cohort of young people, many of them women (vividly described by Paul Mason in a famous blog post) are underlying reasons – but not specific to the answer of why now, this year?
1. The final military/political defeat of both Bushism and bin Ladenism;
One way of looking at this year is to see it as politically as well as chronologically the end of decade that began with 9/11: from the year of the towers to the year of the squares.
The attack on the World Trade centre and the Pentagon was Osama bin Laden’s calling card for an Islamic fundamentalism that spurned democracy across the Middle East and called for the creation of a caliphate. It was met with an American response to impose what it called democracy on the Middle East at the end of a smart bomb, in what was an attempt to demonstrate by military means the supremacy of its caliphate over a global economic system that was already moving out of its control. The outcome would emplace billion dollar American bases over the fabulously rich oil fields of Mesopotamia.
At the end of October, a little over a month ago, President Obama announced the complete withdrawal of the US from its bases in Iraq, which it had built for permanent occupation, one 25 square miles, one 15 square miles, built at a cost of billions after 2005. This is a colossal strategic defeat camouflaged as the fulfilment of the quite different commitment to withdraw combat troops.
Only six months before, the hooligan of the absolute was gunned down in his Pakistani hideaway. A row broke out in Pakistan about who protected him and their relations with Washington. But who cared about bin Laden or his ideas? He was already washed into irrelevance by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Often revolutions are frustrated and elements set in motion by the turn to terrorism. This year it was the abject failure of terrorism and its evident pointlessness and monstrosity that opened the way to peaceful, popular uprisings.
In effect, Bush and Blair launched the War on Terror as a new form of Cold War, to organise both domestic and international affairs to the advantage of their traditional alliance. Its mad logic involved hugely inflating the significance of its enemy.
Their best allies in this were the dictatorships of the Middle East who welcomed an anti-terrorist rhetoric to legitimise their autocracy. The most disgusting example was Blair ordering the round up of Gaddafi’s opponents in the UK as being supporters of al Qaeda. In the Middle East this confronted a new generation with the prospect of their tyranny becoming hereditary, turning their countries into variants of North Korea. Only they are educated and have facebook – and they revolted.
The ten-year folly also taught Anglo-Saxon publics to see their own governments and states in a different light. It is not just that political leaders, so-called intelligence communities, and armies with a duty to protect, have together both misled voters and proved themselves incompetent. Neither would be a historic first. What is different is that from the start very large sections of we, the people, proved to be wiser than our rulers. We saw further and proved to have better judgment: thus reversing the traditional legitimacy of our elite governance: that those in charge know better than the unwashed.
My theme is revolution. It comes onto the agenda in a fresh way when the political elite loses legitimacy. Only one aspect of legitimacy lies in the technical capacity of governments to be elected with a popular mandate. Another, arguably greater, resides in the overall competence of the governing architecture to deliver (let’s say on its promise of growth, peace and liberty) rather than wasting a trillion dollars (that’s Obama’s estimate, others say three trillion) on being effectively defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq.
2. The failure of market fundamentalism to repair the crash of 2008
One of the striking aspects of the crash of 2008 in the west was a public feeling that everyone had in one way or another benefited from the bubble and it wasn’t wrong to be paying the price. I can’t prove this. It may be that if it’s true it is because the public was relatively shielded from any immediate economic consequences. But something turned this year around the evidence that those we had elected to look after us were protecting the financial system that created the crisis, while the public had to pay and go on paying. It was less the crash than the way those in charge wanted us to compensate them for it, protecting the system that created it on the grounds that it will be even worse for us if they don’t. It has not just exposed neo-liberal capitalism both in its Anglo-Saxon and its Eurozone articulation, it looks set to end the European-wide project of every-closer union without democracy.
So my answer to the question, ‘why now?’ starts with a double-democratic crisis in the ruling order. Anglo-American financial leadership embraced market fundamentalism. When the bubble burst this exposed a political system as a ‘post-democracy’ that answers to corporate power. Meanwhile its ‘War on Terror’ – far from protecting the world or securing US hegemony – proved to be chasing a global chimera. There is terrorism, but it is a very nasty criminal danger not a strategic threat.
The two fundamental ideological pillars of the North Atlantic order, that it keeps the peace and that it delivers wealth for all, are clearly broken. Although not yet directly threatened, this makes what we can call the G20 elite distinctly anxious about their “control”. Which in turn leads to the nervous, high-profile media coverage of the Occupy events that has added so much to their potential influence.
But the elites, as elites do, attempted to carry on. Nowhere is this more intolerable than in the Middle-East itself, the outlying, oil-rich region of western dependent despots. The flame of revolt was lit in Tunisia, apparently inspired by the Wikileaks publication of a lucid dispatch from the US Ambassador describing the ruling family’s theft of “cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht”. All laid out in an amused, patronising and ironic language, unquestioningly assuming it to be the country’s permanent state of affairs. The rage then spread to the defining revolution in Egypt and parallel, heroically sustained uprisings across the region, from Yemen to Syria, which alone makes 2011 a candidate to rank with 1945, 1968 and 1989.
Their example, however, lit a further, surprising fire. Democratic insurgency travelled East to West. The Eurozone had concocted its own example of political hubris and economic permissiveness as it rode the bubble. Its Central banker Jean-Clause Trichet regretted in hindsight what he calls the deliberate “benign neglect” of the French and German governments not to “rigorously” impose their own rules. The correction demanded in Spain created an economic catastrophe with 45 per cent unemployment among the young. On 15 May, a week prior to municipal elections, 150 of them stayed the night in Madrid’s central square. Within two weeks hundreds of thousands, even millions, of the country’s young had joined them across 80 cities and a new politics was born that challenges the economic order in existing democracies, not of protest but of occupation.
It is the potential – let me stress that word, the potential – of this movement I want to welcome and discuss. It happened very fast, it will take ten to twenty years to organise its claims. It has already flared up in vast protest movements of different kinds, from Santiago to Tel Aviv to New Delhi and it is not to be forgotten, that the first such occupation came to a grim end in the largest square of them all, Tien An Mien.
When I was asked to give this lecture on 11 April I proposed my title, The Long and the Quick of Revolution. I intended to analyse what might happen. Instead I am going to report and discuss what is happening.
Let me just say something, however, about the sub-title I chose: “whether the left can reclaim the future from market fundamentalism”. Raymond’s observation that the left has lost its claim on the future has stayed with me since 1984 when I chaired the launch of his book Towards 2000
When he grew up his experience of being on the Left meant sharing a self-assured belief that it embodied progress: it represented a rising class, the producers of wealth, better more equal forms of organisation, welfare, housing, the expansion of opportunity and educational improvement. These weren’t seen as something that would be given to the working people by the ruling class. They were something to which working people were entitled to and would make their own. The Right was in every way the opposite representing an old order that was backward, exploitative, wasteful, warlike, socially elitist, regressive and, when it had to defend itself, fascist.
At some point across the 1970s the terms began to be reversed. The Left started to see itself as defensive and conservative, it wanted to preserve the mines and communities, even when work in them was inhuman. It closed its ranks, for some it was even personified by Brezhnev. (Those of you young enough to have no idea who I am talking about don’t know how lucky you are!). At the same time post-60s capitalism did not just embrace social egalitarianism with relish, it was planning over much longer periods than the electoral calendar with great confidence and accuracy. This is what Raymond understood as the left ‘losing’ the future to the right.
In the end social democracy capitulated, embracing ‘globalisation’ as a replacement of ‘internationalism’. In the UK under New Labour this took the form of Clinton style triangulation. On the European mainland it took the form of the Euro. Today, there is a similar sense of disorienting loss and demoralisation among those who put their faith in the European project as their claim on the future. They saw ‘Europe’ as inherently progressive, cultured, productive, far-sighted and inclusive if not egalitarian.
In fact the politicians of globalisation shared a contempt for democracy. We can see it today in the EU as its leaders struggle to preserve the Euro. Their visceral aversion for anything that smacks of direct popular assent will probably undermine them.
3. Five billion of us now have mobile phones
But, to prefigure a point I want to return to at the end, (and we might discuss) while the revolutionary challenges that mark out this year have been precipitated by the financial and military/strategic disasters afflicting North-Atlantic supremacy in Washington, London and Berlin and Paris, this is by no means the end-game for capitalism. It is a North-Atlantic crisis. Two other changes also frame the present moment.
The most enormous technological transformation of the industrial revolution, perhaps since the industrial revolution itself, is ploughing up how we communicate in a round of creative destruction comparable to the invention of printing. This extraordinary enhancement of productivity is by any measure an ongoing success for the open system of the international market, its capacity to invent, invest and develop.
At the same time, the last forty years, since 1971 when President Nixon floated the US dollar from the Gold Standard and Intel sold the first micro-processor, we have seen the largest ever movement of people out of poverty. Capitalism is thriving in the three giant economies of Brazil, India and China not to mention Turkey. There are crises of corruption and uneven development that always accompany rapid growth. The majority of people on earth are still experiencing capitalism as a force that delivers a better life, while their countries, elites and companies are becoming world players – even if their elites are taking most of the wealth and an outrageous, unacceptable inequality is the dominant economic feature of our time.
One statistic to symbolise both the technological revolution and the global spread of economic growth: five billion of us now have mobile phones.
What kind of democratic revolution?
Trying to understand how these different forces fit together is critical for any democratic strategy. In 2005 I wrote an overview with Isabel Hilton, called Democracy and openDemocracy. We argued that despite the War on Terror there is a global democratic warming underway that has three fronts:
First, the need to achieve the fundamentals of democracy in dictatorships and authoritarian societies: fair elections, the rule of law, a free press and open media, the right to assembly, equality for women, freedom from persecution for minorities. We should have added explicitly a secular state. From Iran and Saudi Arabia to Russia and China the battle for these democratic basics demands our solidarity. Although not in a patronising way as if we in well-established democracies, let’s say the US, the UK and India, are not notably challenged in at least some of these features.
Second, with the world being governed by international forces beyond the control of nation states, we need to make international power democratically answerable even when it cannot be voted for – for example transparency and accountability at the UN, the WTO, the IMF, the EU and international corporations themselves.
Third, in countries like our own that are established democracies, there is a growing awareness that our potential for self-government is being stolen and suborned as political parties shrivel. The response is a growing demand for government to be opened up directly to citizens in new ways so we can engage with and participate in public affairs, via citizen assemblies, new forms of deliberation and participation and referendums… what we may soon learn to call “Real Democracy”
These are three different kinds of democratic struggle. They are taking place simultaneously and threaded together by calls that can be heard in each for openness, dignity, trust, voice, opposition to corruption, the refusal of arbitrary power…
I now think that they are in part joined together by a fourth kind of democratic struggle. This is the fight for modern liberty and human rights. It involves a resistence to the growth of the surveillance and database state and forms of ‘smart’ administration and corporate marketing that hollow out rather than enhance self-government, and a battle to secure forms of digital power, such as informed consent, which now need to underly all efforts for democracy and rights in the 21st century, whether these are to secure the fundamental freedoms, apply them internationally, or ensure that they assist ongoing participation.
It sounds vague to talk about the “simultaneous inter-weaving” of the struggles against dictatorship, the demand for real democracy and a sense of global structures. When I was in Madrid in May, I met Mayte Carrasco in the occupied Plaza del Sol. She is a freelance television reporter who had covered Tahrir Square for global media companies. Inspired by Sol she and some colleagues launched ‘Real Journalism Now’ to establish standards of reporting and integrity in the media. She told me that while she was enormously uplifted by the resilience of the people of Cairo, as they demanded free speech and elections her thought was that when they win them, “they are going to be disappointed”.
Let me take you to Plaza del Sol on 26 May this year, eleven days after the 15 May movement of the indignants was born:
The Sol is at the centre of the shopping, cultural and political middle of Madrid. Distances in Spain are measured from its zero kilometre plaque. As you approach, a tent city emerges surrounded by the normal bustle of tourists and shoppers. The little city has entrances: narrow passageways shielded from the sun by plastic sheeting overhead. The passages are hot and congested with people moving in all directions. There are stalls facing outwards, with temporary desk-tops, across which earnest conversations are taking place or narrow entrances that open out into working spaces, such as the library or kindergarten. The atmosphere everywhere is businesslike and purposive.
I was puzzled going into it. It is both familiar and strange. The best way I can describe it, is that it is like entering an eastern bazaar or souk. It creates the same dreamlike suddenness of going from outside into an enclosed but also public space: intensely busy, crowded with its own rhythm, that assaults your senses.
Only the tent city is not a market place packed with commodities for sale, spices laid out to consider or carpets hanging on display for you to look at and think of buying. Instead there are words. Words are being offered and exchanged. Words everywhere: notices, slogans, banners, jokes, announcements, leaflets, marker-scrawled schedules, maps of the current layout of stalls and services, in notebooks, on notices, in suggestion boxes and on screens. And words are on everyone’s lips. Everywhere there are conversations, enquiries, discussion, people meeting in small circles. In the communications tent laptops cover wobbly tables, running thanks to a noisy generator that powers the lights and the excellent speaker system that is strung throughout the encampment. And a torrent of words in the general assemblies and different commissions, live-streamed, broadcast, shared with other cities signalled in sign language beside speakers at all the major events, personifying the energy and effort to communicate to everyone especially those usually excluded.
Previously, like many I suppose, in a perhaps lazy way I had assumed that mutualism and cooperation might work on a small scale. What I sensed in Madrid is they work best on a very large scale. An extraordinary construction, being built, mended, cleaned, fed, secured, was looking after itself – no alcohol was allowed within – it was a collective gift that showed real democracy is possible.
But what are its politics? I asked myself. Evidently revolutionary: it embodies a rejection of the way existing society is run and a desire, supported by large numbers, for it to be run differently. As good a definition of revolution as you can get.
While many of the words and slogans that decorated the Sol were familiar leftist proclamations they seemed to me not just unrealistic and unrealisable but also unrepresentative of the care, seriousness and good humour of what was taking place.
What is being offered by Sol, I felt, isn’t socialism: it isn’t centralised, it isn’t planned, it is free and inventive. It isn’t anarchism, even of the mutual aid variety, it is well governed, purposive and engaged with the future of the country.
When my colleague Tony Curzon Price went to Occupy Wall Street earlier this month he discerned an aspect of this originality. Occupy sees America’s existing democracy as responsible for the ills of our day: financial crisis, environmental degradation, war, identitarian strife and corporatisation of the State. All permitted by what Tony terms the “thick-skinned” nature of US democracy, “thick” because it relies on everyone believing that “whatever is permitted is both right and good”. Against this democracy of personal liberty that is indifferent to others, the Occupiers want a society where we are “thin skinned” and the experience of others is our concern.
I’ve probably lost everyone who has not experienced what I’m talking about, or sat in as Tony and I did on the sessions of careful and considerate facilitators, whose culture is so different from the shouty confrontation that the media transmits.
There are at least two problems in trying to assess the originality of the revolutionary implications of the Occupy movement. The first is to keep it in proportion. One function of the extraordinary media coverage is to balloon it. The media distrusts any form of fame and distinction that which it has not itself created. It then tests it to destruction by exaggeration and distortion while preparing to discard it as – what else? – exaggerated.
Second, there is the myth of revolution itself. It is deeply powerful and attractive for many and celebrated in the cult of the “meme” the imitative, spontaneous transmission that bypasses thought to unleash the Marxist apocalypse. You can hear a demand for a cleansing showdown in the criticisms of the Occupy movement for being ‘unpolitical’, shying away from the politics of antagonism.
I’d suggest that on the contrary its potential resides in its refusal of traditional opposition. The power of the movement comes from its openness, its claim to represent almost everyone, its refusal of traditional left/right politics. One aspect of this is its non-violence, which gives a Gandhian form to its challenge. Another is leaderlessness, which ensures it isn’t captured by a Gandhi.
Its non-violence is an immense strength. Manual Castells called it “fundamental” speaking to the Spanish movement in Barcelona as a veteran of May 1968, just days after the indignados began. Naomi Klein, whose serious Shock Doctrine documents how it is the “corporatist crusade” that seeks and profits from rupture and crisis, sung the “wisdom” of the Wall Street Occupiers when she spoke to them earlier this month, “You have committed yourselves to non-violence. You have refused to give the media the images of broken windows and street fights it craves so desperately…. Meanwhile, support for this movement grows…”.
The movement’s dedication to being leaderless may confuse those who have not experienced its assemblies into thinking it is headless even mindless. On the contrary to be leaderless and take decisions demands a great effort, patience and dedication. One great advantage is that here too it refuses what the media craves.
However, in Europe two aspects of the myth of revolution remain very attractive to the movement: pure internationalism and revulsion from the market. Ironically so, as national experience and market style enterprise are positive drivers of the Occupy experience.
What we are witnessing is evidently national. Across the Middle East there is an Arab but not a pan-Arab awakening. It is surely a sign of the health of the young people fighting in the streets that there is little of that hysteria of displacement onto the roles of America and Israel, who seem as almost as irrelevant as bin Laden – even if this leaves western anti-imperialists gnashing their teeth. Nationalism isn’t a problem for Occupy Wall Street, either, where the Stars and Stripes proudly decorated tents in Zuccotti Park. But it is in Europe. Spain’s M-15 was distinctly Spanish but refused to see itself as such. Even though their insurrectionary neighbours, the French could not bear to be upstaged and follow them and even the Portuguese stayed at home. Nor is the Union Jack at St Pauls. The Europeans still cling to the prejudice best expressed by Marx,
“The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English nor German, it is labour… His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital.” (Vol. 4 p 280)
He could not have been more wrong. There is only one class of people whose “government is capital”, who are removed from territorial facticity and patriotic constraint: namely corporate and financial capitalists (and not all of them either).
Raymond wrote about the 18th century country house, built on the proceeds of slavery and new money while appearing to be a timeless claim on place and status. Today’s equivalent of the country house that scorns all such attachments is the large yacht.
A potentially global movement has started, drawing on shared experience of software and social networks and a concept of human rights that is necessarily international. But it is also human to have a nationality, or a particular mixture of nationalities. And the web encourages difference and complexity – not uniformity (a point Clay Shirky has made). The Occupy movement in Europe has to find a vocabulary for the national and particular, without which it can’t sustain an influence over politics. If it too chooses to float only in the sea of internationalism, it won’t beat the yachts.
Here I want to add that this is not an argument against internationalism, which can inspire and be inspired by democratic, civic nationalism, but against globalism and the way this so often attacks the local and particular. For a powerful and important reflection on international-nationalism, see Nguyen Dong’s openDemocracy article that is essential reading on the meaning of the Vietnamese revolution, particularly valuable because it is written by a Vietnamese.
Second, the market. Here the argument I’m interested in is still hesitant and under-researched, as I warned at the start, and there is a growing body of work on mutuals, cooperatives and new economic organisation that needs to be brought into the argument. For, if we are going to enjoy Real Democracy it will have to be really productive.
In What Should the Left Propose? Roberto Unger complains of the paucity of invention in politics. It needs, he says a high-energy innovation and experimentation of the kind you get with enterprises in the economy. Well the Sol and OWS and Occupy London are inventing new, if transitory, institutions and processes.
Is ‘livelihood’ the term we should use to articulate this? In my Foreword to The Long Revolution I mention that Raymond considered proposing it a term to replace ‘socialism’. Socialism as an idea was becoming irreducibly associated politically with the state, rather than self-government, and economically with production, rather than the material environment as a totality. In addition to government and productivity, ‘Livelihood’ embraces consumption, the environment and different generations and neighbours.
Above all, perhaps, it points towards a political economy that is open, like the market, but driven by other values as well. In openDemocracy we have had a brief discussion of the relevance of ‘optimisation’ rather than ‘maximisation’ as a proper measure of return on investment – meaning for example that you don’t outsource services just because it is cheaper.
There is also the case, which I developed in a tentative way in an exchange last year with Gerry Hassan about ‘Where do we go from here’, that computerisation is creating a powerful class of producers, a networked artisanate, that can overturn the corporate control of the means of production with their own relations of production.
The obvious importance of this is that there can’t be a revolution against the rule of the 1 per cent unless a majority are persuaded that any new arrangements are demonstrably more democratic and freer, that they will be fairer and that they work.
The occupy movement is a challenge to the failure of our political system – our form of democracy. But to succeed, it will have to occupy the economy.
To recap: The Occupy movements have sent a shock wave through some societies in North America and Europe. They have been inspired by the awesome uprisings for basic democratic government in the Middle East, and are linked to them by the strategic and financial crisis of the US and the EU. They are new and fragile and, with the exception of Spain across four weeks in the summer, have not yet won massive direct support. But they have sent out a message that resonates everywhere. They are saying ‘no’ to a system in which the super-rich are robbing the rest of us and are protected by the political system, which has now been exposed by the crash.
But if the political system is broken this puts the movement into a bind. Its defiance of the political game has released energy and changed the terms of the public debate. But what next?
However shrewd and appealing the development of new demands might seem, such as those proposed this week by Michael Moore for Occupy Wall Street, all they do is illuminate this frustration.
We need economic interests that back the 99 per cent and can out-influence the 1 per cent. For example, cooperative banks, our own standards of transparency, winning control in local government and then having it operate with different principles and open up planning and budgets. All this will take time, demand full-time organisers (Jeremy Gilbert has an interesting discussion of this when he talks about strategy in his book Anti-capitalism and culture). Which then re-surfaces all the questions of how we are represented.
The idea of a leaderless government is a suitable revenge on neo-liberalism’s demand for a pure un-governed market! But how will it work?
We need to think fast, but for the long-term, with the planet’s ecology as well as our democracy at stake. This I think is the core message of The Long Revolution whose wisdom, challenge and humanity it is now our turn to share with a new generation.