Populist movements are gathering around the world. People from different generations, ethnicities, and multifarious backgrounds taking to the streets and public spaces to express collective outrage at what is happening to them. Thus the rumour of a ‘global revolution’ is spreading. So these are exciting times, though also perilous times. Revolutions have a habit of being derailed and going bad; that’s history. But I admire the optimism, the enthusiasm, and the courage of all those now actively resisting the increasingly apparent slide into outright economic and social breakdown.
A week last Saturday [Oct 15th] signified the first day of truly international dissent. 15-O, which had been called for by los indignados, was marked not only by huge protests in Spain (half a million in both Barcelona and Madrid), as well as Greece and the other “PIGS” (to use the vile and frankly racist acronym so freely attached in the press), but by many in other European countries, as well as throughout the United States, and as far afield as Hong Kong, Tokyo, Mumbai, Canada, parts of South America and Africa. Click here to read a list of the 15-O “occupy” protests around the world.
Media attention inevitably focused on the rioting mobs in Italy, where the protests had been infiltrated by a substantial element of anarchist hooligans, rather than on the relatively peaceful protests elsewhere; in some cases remaining non-violent in the face of rather extreme police provocation. And the widespread police tactic known as ‘kettling’ is inherently provocative; a kettle, of course, being an object that has a singular purpose of bringing a substance to boiling point, which is precisely what confining any crowd of people in a tight area is likely to do to them. But as Democracy Now! reported, the New York police went further still, sending mounted officers into already ‘kettled’ crowds. That no-one was actually trampled to death during this incident was simply due to the self-restraint of the crowd and pure good fortune:
Mass strikes, marches and demonstrations can, of course, only take any movement so far. For real victories, a more cutting political edge is required; clear demands for a realistic and realisable alternative. Only then can any movement either steer the policies of established parties, or else, and given that almost all current political parties seem to be sold-out to identical interests, begin to build new political parties that offer genuine and viable change for the better. The simple fact is that to change the course of a country, let alone the whole world, means sooner or later picking up the reins of power. You have to get your hands dirty in the end.
But when I come to Britain, I am puzzled. My home city of Sheffield, the once proud ‘Steel City’, its name engraved on cutlery throughout the world, was also renowned for being a hot-bed of ‘Old Labour’ socialism, and yet after more than a year of deeply unpopular government ‘austerity measures’, there have been just two significant protests. One when the Lib-Dem Spring conference showed up in town, and the other, a trade union march and rally against the cuts. When the Jarrow March came through the city a fortnight ago, it was welcomed by less than a hundred people. We were there to applaud them:
Whilst on 15-O there was no protest at all in Sheffield, and Sheffield was far from alone – did you hear of any action that took place in Birmingham, or Newcastle, or even Liverpool?
Last Wednesday [Oct 19th], I attended a public meeting with a friend. It had been organised by Britain’s largest civil service trades-union, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and was also supported by the Sheffield Anti Cuts Alliance. We were two newcomers of the around thirty people who turned up; the great majority being experienced and committed activists, and about a half of those attending being on first name terms with one another.
At the meeting, all opinions were welcomed and respectfully listened to, and overall the meeting was frank and informative. Having said this, however, and after more than two hours of discussion, the only decision made was that we needed another meeting…
But a meeting about what exactly? That was what my friend and I couldn’t actually fathom. Although there was a clue in the title of the leaflet promoting the event. WELFARE, it read in large friendly letters, and beneath: “a campaigning and organising meeting for workers and unemployed people”. But campaigning and organising to what precise ends? A simple enough question, and one raised during the meeting, with someone respectfully asking what other speakers precisely meant by saying “we” all the time. It was a question that went all but unheard by most in the room.
And why was the meeting only called “for workers and unemployed people”? Workers and unemployed people as opposed to who exactly?
There is a sense that the anti-cuts movement in Britain is about to repeat the mistakes of 1980s all over again. The traps are set, the population having been so effectively divided against itself thanks to the policies of Thatcher and Blair. For if opposition to the ‘austerity’ programme is to be successful, then it needs to be engaging with more than just the ‘Old Labour’ old guard; we really need to find support within the other sections of the 99%.
So what exactly am I saying here? That in Britain, the left is too wrapped up in itself. That it talks to itself all the time, sometimes with good intention, other times wistfully reminiscing, and still with a significant minority fixated on the Marxist dialectic. On this occasion the only Marxist to speak up, explained very eloquently how the welfare system was just another symptom of the sickness of Capitalism, which was perhaps not the most helpful contribution under the circumstances. But, in any case, what leads some on the left to suppose that the masses of unemployed and workers are about to be won over by oblique and antique instructions laid down in Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto? Writings from the nineteenth century that most people never read and never will. I increasingly fail to understand why the left feels this need for philosophic validation to justify or promote their own visions of social justice. As Orwell pointed out, the notion that society should be fairer is really just a matter of commonsense. And Marx sort of said the same, albeit in a more roundabout and convoluted fashion, which is presumably why so many academics love him so much.
Meanwhile, many of the ‘Old Conservative’ right are also disaffected, but those of the disaffected right form into different groups like UKIP and talk to themselves about how the country is being sold down the river by Eurocrats. In this they are correct, the Eurocrats being another big part of our problem. Membership of the EU is costing the nation £45 million each and every day, and for what?
Others on the right try to make their opinions heard via groups like The Taxpayers’ Alliance, complaining about the increasing rates of personal taxation and how their standard of living is dropping. And in this they are correct too, but instead of seeing that their money is being stolen by the super-rich, they wrongly point the finger of blame downwards to those scraping a living at the bottom of the social heap; the irony being that they are suckered into the same phoney class war as many on the left.
And here, we ought not to forget the Greens, who talk to themselves about saving the planet. And good for them, because it’s only the insane who willingly destroy their own world. But do they really think they can halt the devastation by tinkering with a corporate system as corrupt as ours? Right now by far the most important thing being to reverse the escalating economic crisis before our society breaks down entirely (as appears to be happening in Greece). This should be the immediate goal for all of the disaffected and since this requires a mass resistance to the social and economic measures being imposed, the disaffected on all sides must urgently establish some common ground. For once there is much to agree about.
I might have said some of this at the meeting last week. It might even have been politely applauded, as many of the contributions were. Although I never quite understood exactly what we were meant to be talking about, and so I kept my thoughts to myself. I suppose what I was really burning to say was something like this: you cannot stop the cuts to welfare until you take on the hedge funds and the bankers. But I also wanted to say please, please, please look beyond the local issues – the fine details – we need to understand the bigger picture to get a proper perspective on what’s going on right now.
And we need to learn from the many ‘occupy’ movements, which though to some extent crossing the traditional party political allegiances are stuck in another way. They have trapped themselves in a strait-jacket of the “consensus model”, which means, at best, wasting precious hours deliberating over details of where to go and what to eat, and at worst, letting the voice of a few dissenters call the tune. The simple and expedient truth being that every democratic movement needs to accept some kind of majority rules and decision-making. That said, the gathering thousands who are now camping out in Wall Street and elsewhere have set their sights on the real enemy; and in this respect, at least, the protests abroad are well ahead of ours in Britain.
On 15-O, there were indeed some brave souls who made the decision to pitch camp in London, and good luck to them, though camping is perhaps an unlikely method for gathering popular support in Britain, especially now that it’s almost November. Quite frankly, I think we may need a somewhat different strategy to one adopted during a Mediterranean Spring, which in any case hasn’t as yet forced any significant concessions from their own government’s brutal austerity programmes. The important thing is not to automatically copy the action of others, but that in some way we begin taking a more visible and collective stand. We need people speaking up and joining in.
This moment in history is an extraordinary one. A dire time that is also an opportunity for the most extraordinary transformation of our society since the war. I believe that such a transformation is coming whether we choose it or not. If we do nothing then our nation will undoubtedly be torn apart, sold off and slowly taken over by a small criminal syndicate – the tiny banking and corporate elite who caused this economic crisis and now sneer over us as masters might their slaves – a ruling elite that probably doesn’t even amount 1%.
I’d wanted to say some of this at the meeting. How we shouldn’t only be talking about jobs and welfare, as vitally important as such issues are, because the situation we face is much worse than most can yet imagine. The rescue of our nations requiring nothing less than a sweeping overhaul of our venal and oppressive political and economic systems. An end to globalised systems in which usefulness is all that counts, and after that we can all go to hell. We, the 99%, need acknowledge our common grievances, to pool our dissent, to think bigger, and we need to act urgently… so how about another meeting next week, anyone?