2011 has clearly been a good year when TIME magazine, of all publications, names “The Protestor” as its “Person of the Year”! http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102132,00.html 2011 has also been called “The Year of Revolt”, “The Year of Revolution” and “The Year of the Uprisings.” (Although the BBC website, true to its mission to mystify and trivialise, simply called it “The Year When A Lot Happened,” managing to equate the Arab revolutions with Amy Winehouse’s death and the royal wedding. If you think I’m making this up, take a look:- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16089232.)
2011 has been a year of international revolt to bear comparison with that other annus mirabilis, 1968, and those other peaks of global revolution, 1848 and 1919. But if you were paying attention, some fairly large straws had already been a-blowin’ in the wind. In fact, in the previous year, 2010, protests and rebellions had been growing in various parts of the world as governments imposed austerity measures on their populations to pay for the banking crisis which broke in 2008, throwing the world economy into turmoil.
Here in the UK, militant student protests against fees and the marketisation of education had started in November 2010, opening the door to a new period of resistance. Tory party HQ in Millbank was occupied and trashed, police and students clashed outside parliament and, during the 9 December protests, the car carrying Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall was assailed on Regent St, causing apoplexy in the right-wing media. Other European countries, notably Greece, saw much bigger protests, strikes and riots that year.
But as the man said, people make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing. And on December 16, 2010, under the US-backed dictatorial regime of Zinedine Ben Al in Tunisia, a 26-year old street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi, sole earner in his family of eight, was insulted and bullied by the police one time too many. Equipment confiscated, without money to bribe officials, desperate, he set fire to himself outside the governor’s office, dying from his burns on 4 January 2011. Thus it was that an extreme act of protest, born from oppression and despair, sparked off riots and demonstrations in Tunisia which spread and gathered momentum. By 14 January, 2011 the uprising had grown into a revolution, forcing Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. This in its turn triggered a wave of uprisings across the Middle East which are continuing as I write.
Key to the whole dynamic and zeitgeist of 2011 has been the amazing Egyptian revolution. The growing Egyptian working class had been flexing its muscles since 2006, when the number of strikes and protests began growing sharply. The US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak had been long hated for the vicious and oppressive nature of his regime, and his complicity in the Iraq war and Israel’s genocidal violence against Palestinians made him even more loathed among ordinary Egyptians. On Tuesday 25 January, 2011 a popular uprising began, and after street battles and massive demonstrations Mubarak was toppled from power on 11 February. However, the military took control of the country in his place, and the unfinished revolution continues as we move towards the new year, as people take to the streets once more in an heroic struggle to continue the revolution and wrest power from the army. Read more here: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=27066 . And here, the writer Mona Eltahawy describes how she was beaten and assaulted by the Egyptian junta’s security forces http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/23/mona-eltahawy-assault-egyptian-forces?INTCMP=SRCH
This ‘Arab Spring’ spread across much of the Middle East, as workers, students, the middle classes and the poor rose up to challenge despotic regimes. Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and many other places felt the impact of popular protest and rebellion. Even in Israel, US imperialism’s attack-dog state, there were large demonstrations over housing and other issues. The West used military intervention in Libya as a way of regaining political and economic leverage in the region. In Yemen and Syria mass military repression has resulted in many deaths and injuries, and in both countries the regimes are hanging on, slowly decomposing as mass protests continue, but exacting a terrible price for their destruction. Even the US-backed absolutist monarchy of Saudi Arabia felt the breath of revolution.
But the revolts of 2011 were not confined to the Middle East. Attacks on working people and the poor came not just from dictatorships but from the governments of the so-called ‘Western democracies’. Europe saw the unelected International Monetary Fund (IMF) the European Central Bank (ECB) and compliant politicians forcing through austerity measures that were only going to make the economic crisis worse. Their policies were increasingly exposed as springing from a specific agenda: make working people, the unemployed and the poor pay for the crisis caused by the profligacy and greed of the financial institutions. A critique of this began to emerge in the ‘Occupy’ movement which developed in opposition to corporate greed in New York in mid September and rapidly spread to most of the North American and Western European capitals and beyond.
As crisis spread across the Eurozone, with contagion making it impossible for individual states to know whether the money and bonds their banks were holding was junk or not, ruling classes relentlessly restructured their economies in their own class interests. But the citizens of many parts of Europe were being forced into rebellion. A new generation was beginning to learn that there is no crisis the capitalists and the ruling classes cannot survive if they can make the working class pay the price. Talk of a lack of lack of political representation spread, as social democratic parties of the sort that have traditionally used the rhetoric of shielding workers from the worst aspects of the free market now led the attack on workers.
Of all the Western economies, only Iceland seems to have refused to bail out its banks, and is the one country that appears to be coping best. But Western politicians and media talk as if such a response is unthinkable, despite the evidence. It seems obvious to many that to throw public sector workers on the dole, cut pensions and force up unemployment across the board will not solve the crisis, but deepen it. How can forcing down people’s standard of living and restricting the amount of money they hold possibly generate growth? But to say this is to expose yourself as a Keynesian, or possibly even a Marxist. It is an indication of how far to the right governments have gone under the cosh of the free market that such moderate proposals are now regarded as heretical and ‘beyond the pale,’ because they involve a tiny redistribution of wealth.
State intervention is anathema to the neoliberals. “You cannot buck the market,” they say. “It must be allowed to run unfettered”. Well, what about the banks? Shouldn’t they be allowed to fail too, unfettered, without government intervention? After the shock of the Lehman Bros collapse governments intervened, and we saw the biggest nationalisation in history, that of the banks. What we have seen since is actually summarised by the formulation: “socialism for the rich: capitalism for the poor”. The benefits are very specifically targeted but the risks are socialised.
In Britain the Con-Dem attack that will continue into 2012 is not essentially an economic exercise but an attack by one class on another. The capitalist class has decided on an international level that, given the scale of the crisis which is engulfing it, what is now necessary is the complete re-shaping and restructuring of the way services and benefits are provided. This involves the dismantling of the whole of the so-called ‘social wage’ which has sustained workers in the advanced capitalist countries since the end of World War Two, and goes hand-in-hand with ongoing privatisation and casualising of work itself, as attempts are made to shore up a declining rate of profit.
This is what drives the attack on public sector workers and on their unions, unions which in the 1970s and 80s were strong enough to negotiate decent pensions for their members. The fact that UK public sector pensions are better than private sector ones is actually a testimony to the power of organised labour. The powerful manual unions were hammered in the 1980s, and from the 1990s onwards their hold on private sector work shrank. Sometimes the work itself (eg mining, much of manufacturing) disappeared, and the pension schemes were raided and dismantled. At first, in the 1980s, only rogue employers like Robert Maxwell began the process of pension theft. Tested out, the practice was generalised. The theft by Ford, under the guise of Visteon, of its workers’ pensions was nothing short of criminal. There is now an all-out employer and government-led offensive against pension schemes, with unilateral cuts taking place at the employers’ will in the private sector, and union resistance continuing in the public.
But as I write the leadership of the main British trade union federation, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) is calling off industrial action over pensions, saying it supports a government deal that is not fundamentally different from the situation before the November 30 public sector strike. The speed with which they have capitulated is undignified but unsurprising. Instead of an unified, coordinated strategy of resistance, the TUC agreed to section-by-section negotiations. Sectionalism has been the curse of the British trade union movement. It is not only strategically misguided but unprincipled for one union to agree a deal while other unions are still fighting over the same issue. The danger is that the first cracks in the fragile unity will precipitate a collapse of resistance. The TUC leadership often invokes the rhetoric of ‘Unity is Strength’ but in practice displays little grasp of it.
The pensions issue is an important one because it draws all the unions together. It effectively surmounts the laws banning solidarity action, because it affects all public sector workers. As a unifying factor, it can act as a lightning-rod for the anger which is growing around other issues but which cannot find expression. So the move towards a possible settlement is worrying. Rank and file activists must do everything possible to insert some spine into the TUC negotiators. For practical suggestions on how to keep up the pressure, click here: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=27059
And for full details of Unite the Resistance’s lobby of the TUC on Thurs 12 January and emergency national meeting on Saturday 14 January, click here: http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=27062
In terms of a model for effective resistance, the unofficial walkouts, demos, blockades we have seen from electricians and other construction workers this winter have been inspirational, as have the other private sector strikes at Unilever and Argos and elsewhere. Scottish railway signal workers in the RMT union launched a three-day official strike over Christmas over changes to conditions, and in London tube workers in ASLEF also struck on Boxing Day over pay, provoking fury from the government and media. Resistance in both public and private sectors will continue as the employers begin fresh attacks in 2012.
On the other hand, the trade union and Labour Party leadership were conspicuous this year by their total uselessness. This is not just an ‘image problem’ but a defect in ideas, the origins of which go back to 1989 and beyond. After the old Stalinist regimes collapsed, the political economist and author, Francis Fukayama, deputy director of the US State Department’s policy planning department, argued in his book “The End of History? ” that the worldwide spread of ‘liberal democracies’ signalled the end-point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution, with ‘Western liberalism’ becoming the final form of human government. What we were witnessing, he said “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such...” In other words: the class war is over and free-market capitalism has won, it is now the only game in town.
How absurd that argument now sounds, as we look back from a 2011 in which the profound structural crisis of capitalism continues to unfold with increasingly catastrophic consequences, environmental as well as political. Capitalism has proven to be ever less capable even of sustaining itself, let alone being the economic base on which to nurture progressive liberal democracies.
But throughout the 1980s and 1990s the leaders of social democratic parties and trade unions in the West had been drawing the same conclusions as Fukayama. Radical change in the direction of socialism was no longer possible: capitalism had won. The defeatism expressed in the ‘New Realism’ of the trade unions and the ‘New Times’ of Marxism Today was born of years of Thatcherite domination and trade union defeat. Thatcher, it was said, was hegemonic, had connected directly to working-class voters and Labour would never again form a majority government. Furthermore, many on the left of the Labour Party and trade union leadership had illusions in the socialist credentials of the Russian and east European economies. When these regimes collapsed in popular revolutions, their supporters were demoralised and politically disorientated.
Kinnock’s Labour Party paved the way for Blair’s New Labour – a party that loved the free market and looked after big business as well as the Tories did, while retaining a minimal social democratic gloss. This was Baron Anthony Giddens’s supposed centrism of “The Third Way,” or, to put it in the more forthright words of another baron, Peter Mandelson: “New Labour is intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” And as for the working class, well, it had ceased to exist, hadn’t it, in any significant sense, and no longer needed looking after. As John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister under the hated Blair, opined after the Labour victory in 1997, “We’re all middle-class now.”
These half-baked ideas fused with the relativity of post-modernism, careerist opportunism and a completely uncritical acceptance of the triumphalism of the US neo-cons, to create a set of political ideas and a political culture around New Labour which had very little connection with the lives and experience of ordinary people, in the UK or indeed anywhere else. Yet this was happening at a time when on a global level the working class was growing faster than for generations, and was also learning to resist the conditions capitalism forced on it, as BBC Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason illustrated in his 2007 book “Live Working or Die Fighting.”
Part of the current problem with the leadership of the UK Labour Party and trade unions is, simply, that they do not believe there is such a thing any more as the working class. Least of all do they believe in a class which is able to resist capitalism or assist in the construction of a new world. What is at the root of the collapse of social democratic reformism is firstly, the disappearance of any economic space whereby politics might actually benefit workers, and secondly, the disappearance of any sense of an agent of change. If the working class has ceased to exist, there is no agency which can change the system in any fundamental way. This belief acts as intellectual justification for a strategy of deckchair-rearranging while the system threatens to drown us all.
It is a failure of imagination and of politics - a failure of the art of the possible as much as a question of nerve, and is at the heart of the TUC sell-out over pensions and much else. With the disappearance of the central concept of class a massive void has opened up at the heart of social democratic politics, which is one of the reasons why Ed Miliband sounds so unconvincing and vapid. As I write, Labour ‘thinkers’ are warning him that he will lose the next election if he appeals to his core supporters in the public sector and leads a serious campaign against the cuts! http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/dec/28/ed-miliband-tory-public-spending. This is the disappearance not of class politics but of a reformist politics centred on the working class. Class politics, in the sense of a political project geared to the further empowerment and enrichment of the ruling class, is of course alive and kicking.
And this sort of pessimism is pervasive. Barely 18 months ago, the ‘received wisdom’ from the media was that the banks and the governments which protect them had got away scot-free with persuading everybody that cutting the deficit was the real issue. The frankly illegal behaviour of the massive financial institutions which got us into the mess in the first place had, it was said, been forgotten. The commitment of all the major political parties to the banks and the bankers remained absolute. There was no alternative.
But resistance came from outside the UK parliament and US congress, outside the official political spheres. In September the Occupy Movement detonated in the belly of the beast – New York. Eventually involving millions world-wide, it gave a voice to the many whose disgust at the inequalities of the system had been unheard . The tactic of occupying city squares was inspired by the massive occupations of Tahrir Square, and by Los Indignados, the ‘Indignant Ones,’ whose occupation of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid triggered similar protests across Spain, and whose cry “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” found a resonance worldwide. The movement is on a continuum at one end of which are the small, purely symbolic protests and at the other the strikes and mass demonstrations involving thousands such as the one that shut down the port of Oakland, California, in November: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2098628,00.html
The commentators that have mocked Occupy’s identification with the Egyptian revolution completely misunderstand the situation. Of course protesting in an advanced capitalist country under liberal democracy is a different experience from under Mubarak’s secret police or Assad’s army. But that is not the point. The fact is that young people growing up in somewhere like Swansea, or Hackney, as much as in Madrid or the banlieues of Paris, over the next decade are going to find that there are no jobs, slashed benefits and collapsing public services, and that all the main political parties support that state of affairs. This is a serious case of political disenfranchisement, and it is only through protest that they will be able hold on to the little they’ve got. The English riots of this summer, triggered by the police killing of an unarmed black man, Mark Duggan, were a response, visceral and inchoate, not only against the police but against this situation.
This is why 2011, the Year of Revolution and Resistance, has been such an important turning-point. The reconstitution of social movements, of a philosophy and practice of resistance, takes time. Ideas are important, but without activity they remain unanimated. A previous significant wave of international radical energy, and its ‘fructifying residue’ the ‘New Left’ of 1968, did not constitute itself in a vacuum but out of a wave of uprisings involving millions. It was not a single year, but a series of political and social convulsions which lasted from the mid-1960s to the mid-70s. There is a new urgency for us in 2010 as environmental changes caused by capitalism threaten life on the planet. The formulation of the great revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, that the choice for humanity is either socialism or barbarism, has rarely felt so true.
Revolutionary socialists must strive to unite the social movements like Occupy with the workers’ movement and the unions. The failure of 1968 was its failure to connect such forces together: the social movements – against Vietnam, for equality, against racism – did not effectively connect up with the only power that could change things: the organised working class. Where these elements came together, as in the French general strike of May 1968, the effects were dramatic, taking us closer to revolution in a major capitalist country than at any time in the last 50 years.
In 2012 the economic crisis will deepen, as will the resistance to it. On our side, a new generation, unscarred by defeats, is taking the field. Revolutionary socialists must act as ‘the memory of the class,’ making sure that we learn from the struggles of our past. We learn, too from the activity of the class itself. Rosa Luxemburg laid great store by the spontaneous creativity of mass movements. We must have faith in the self-renewing energy of the masses, while aiming to show in practice that the ideas of revolutionary socialism do not only explain the world but are the best guide to changing it. But we must do all this with humility, in a spirit of comradeship and with a readiness to learn.
What we saw in 2011 was the beginning of the rebuilding on a global scale of a new left and of a new politics of resistance. There will be sell-outs, defeats and reverses. The horrifying power of capitalism to inflict suffering and demoralisation remains intact. But in 2011 ordinary people - workers, students, the disabled, the unemployed, the poor - began, as the overwhelming majority, as the 99%, to fight back. And that makes all the difference...