Saturday, 13 February 2010

Building the left in an age of crisis

The defining feature of our age is crisis. Slavoj Zizek has written of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and the financial crash of September 2008 as the defining events of the last decade. The former finished off the notion of the 'End of History', the triumph of liberal capitalism and attendant peace and prosperity, as a credible idea. The latter event discredited neoliberalism as an economic doctrine and generated an ideological crisis for capitalism.

There are in fact three main overlapping areas of crisis: economic, ecological, geopolitical. We face what might be called a compound crisis of the system, with different elements combining in ways that create profound instability and - when you consider the scale of ecological danger - threaten our survival. In this country, like in most other Western societies, these crises are unfolding against a backdrop of long-term disillusionment with not only social democracy (the Labour Party in this country, but it is a widespread phenomenon) but the whole political class.

Political tasks for the Left are framed by this context. Other elements are important but, ultimately, secondary. A return to Conservative government should not - assuming it happens - lead us to erroneously conclude there is a major shift rightwards in popular consciousness. For example, the new Social Attitudes Survey revealed that only 8% want spending on public services to be cut. Broadly speaking, on most issues popular consciousness is to the left of the dominant thinking in 'official politics'. The BNP's increasing success is a serious concern and a major challenge for the left, though not the defining aspect of politics today. Cynicism towards politicans is a more common response than support for the BNP: as the Left has yet to gain from the crisis, a sort of 'anti-politics' is perhaps the most widespread mood.

As well as widespread disillusionment politically, there is a smaller (but significant) layer radicalised to the left. There are many who won't see themselves as 'left wing' or 'socialist', but share the values and ideas associated with the left. The decline of mass Labourism and the unions mean 'left wing' is part of political discourse less than before, but the ideas have certainly not gone away. At a deeper level there is, on a range of issues, a gulf between the political elite and working class people.

There are a number of dangers for the left. One is focusing excessively on the industrial struggle (still at a low level) and missing other opportunities. There are opportunities for political campaigns and interventions, in the absence of workplace militancy, which in the long term can feed a mood for resistance in the workplaces. A related problem is waiting for 'struggle' to turn up - it's that eternally-postponed 'upturn' - and failing to take broad-based initiatives that involve unions but aren't dependent on high strike levels.

For socialists the first, and most important, priority is to respond to the crisis of the system. This takes different, and sometimes unpredictable, forms. It has not primarily taken the form of industrial struggle, e.g. strikes, occupations, although there have been green shoots of resistance. Instead a number of what might be considered political issues have served as a lightning rod for discontent: the MPs expenses crisis, bank bailouts, super-bonuses for bankers, even the outpouring of solidarity with the NHS when it was attacked by American right-wingers. These are all reminders of the broadly left-wing consciousness that co-exists with cynicism and elements of populist racism and conservatism.

Socialists' priority here is to mobilise a practical response over such political issues, e.g. through protests, and use this to promote a broader culture of resistance that can potentially feed a revival of workplace struggles. This provides a pro-active, political alternative to the 'wait and see' syndicalism of hoping the industrial struggle will develop. It is also in this context that we can talk about electoral alternatives, currently an area of weakness for the left.

The next most important priority is the anti-war movement. The imperialist overstretch in Afghanistan is a major geopolitical crisis for the US and the UK alike, but it is also a domestic political headache for the government (and if the Tories are elected it will become one for them also). Anti-war opinion is more widespread than ever before. It is sharpened by the economic crisis, as people ask why billions are wasted on war while we are in recession. The democratic deficit it exposes - all major parties support a policy opposed by the majority of people - reinforces the impression created by the expenses crisis.

There are other important challenges, such as building the climate movement which took a major step forward with the Copenhagen demonstrations last December. We also need a strong anti-racist and anti-fascist culture to counter the BNP's poison and the mainstream culture of Islamophobia. The BNP and the English Defence league feed off the growth in anti-Muslim bigotry, as well as tapping into a widespread alienation from mainstream politics.

Revolutionary socialists need to organise in these multiple contexts. An organised core of revolutionaries is vital, but flexibility is needed regarding how they organise. In France and Germany, for example, revolutionary socialists have had some success in working together with other socialists and activists in the NPA and Die Linke repectively, with each of those offering quite distinct models for left re-alignment. Above all, regardless of the specific circumstances, it is necessary to play an active role in the key movements for social and political change. There is greater urgency than ever before.

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