I was recently asked to speak about the infrastructure of progressive movements at the Bank of Ideas – part of Occupy London. This is roughly what I said. This piece first appeared in the Occupied Times.

I recently had the good fortune to interview Newsnight economics editor Paul Mason at a comedy gig. His message wasn’t funny. He drew analogies with the 1930s – the descent to fascism – and with Europe’s failed revolutions of 1848: “When you get home, Google 1849” he told us “the bourgeoisies turned on the working class and shot them”.

The world order is falling apart. What comes next we don’t yet know. But we do know this: The road we take in the coming months and years could well define the shape of society for much of the rest of our lives. And we also know this: the last three decades have seen an entrenchment of the power of elites. They control more of the money than they have for a century. And with this money they control the bond markets. And so they can, and do, bring down governments who stray too far from the flock. And they rarely need to – the number of lobbyists in Washington DC has gone up roughly a hundredfold since 1970. Similar statistics could be cited for capital cities across the Western world. At the same time, megalith corporations have monopolised the media. With control of the means of cultural and ideological production comes an ability to manufacture consent. And with this consent, our social solidarity has been smashed. The 2011 British Social Attitudes Survey saw how our society has become atomised, how we look out for each other less and less, how we will stand together less and less.

But this is not the primary way in which the power of elites has grown. Perhaps most impressive of all has been the assault they have launched on the infrastructure through which British people traditionally organise, have traditionally secured some measure of control.

Famously of course, trade unions have faced attacked. The most obvious front in this attack has been legal – the banning of secondary pickets, the attempt through the courts in recent years to make legal strike action effectively impossible. But along with these, we must remember the impact of structural unemployment – introduced in the 1970s to ‘control inflation’: by making people fearful of joining a union and negotiating for higher wages. And we must remember the impact of ‘flexible labour markets’ – if I only work for a company for two years, is it worth my while organising my colleagues to push for better conditions which will probably only be secured after I have left?

Political parties used too to be a key structure through which people could organise – local meetings provided space to discuss together what we wanted for our future. Canvassing ensured those ideas could at least to some extent be shared face to face without the mediation of media or market. But as the key decisions which impact our lives have been privatised – from what rent we pay to what type of job we are likely to have – party membership has dropped. And in the case of Labour, those who did remain were seen by elites to be too radical. And so, with fewer members or an unwillingness to trust them, much of the face to face doorstep interaction once the indivisible unit of electoral politics was replaced with Philip Gould’s focus groups and Peter Mandleson’s media manipulation. And so the media entrenched its role as the mediators of conversations about our collective will.

The descent of parties and unions coincided not only with the rise of the markets, but also the growth of professional activist NGOs. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International etc – mostly founded through the 1960s and early 1970s – perhaps began to fill some of the space left on the left. Their growth came not just from the emerging gap, but also from a combination of changes to society and new technologies: the baby-boomers’ graduation from the expansion of higher education meant they didn’t identify as industrial working class and instead took up the new left liberation struggles in the 60s. At the same time zip-codes (USA) and post codes (UK) were introduced, allowing direct mail marketing and recruitment, and mass standing banking order technology was developed, making the funding of centralised offices much easier.

But whilst some of these organisations have local groups on the Margaret Mead model (“never let anyone tell you that a small group of committed people can’t change the world”), they could be accused of trying to sway those with power more than they organise those who need it: rather than supporting and empowering groups to mobilise their communities and workplaces around their needs, the standard NGO model involves producing a report, lobbying for its policy recommendations, and getting local groups to provide evidence of public support for these calls: compared to mass political parties tramping down our streets to knock on doors and to trade unions organising in our work places, there is little people power here.

In some corners of America, and in London to an extent, something else has risen – attempts at community organisation a la Saul Alinsky: piecing together community groups to encourage them all to stand together and face their oppressors – puting power before policy. But as Thatcherism has ripped apart the society she claimed didn’t exist, these community groups have weakened. With fewer and fewer attending any kind of local meeting this model of organising communities becomes harder.

The last decade has seen a new flavour of political organisation. On the one hand, the generation who first took to the streets to march against the Iraq invasion – who trace our politics to the 1999 Battle of Seattle – have mostly not joined these NGOs. The need for central offices storing mass databases weakens once an email list can do what once required a week of envelope stuffing. A generation who do not expect to live or work in the same place for more than a couple of years is unlikely to join an organisation for life. And as “all the stories on the news are merging into one big story” campaigning for life on any one of the manifestations of neo-liberal oppression seems to miss the core story.

Instead, many of us have graduated into self-organised direct action groups with no formal hierarchy or central office. Plane Stupid, Climate Camp, UK Uncut, Occupy London and countless autonomous affinity groups and actions have been demographically skewed towards today’s twenty-somethings, the ‘jilted generation’. These groups are media savvy, fleet of foot, delivering more than just the A-B march against the Iraq war where so many began their ideological journey. They are increasingly providing space for media circus, and for education. Sometimes they succeed in directly confronting power. But their lack of formal hierarchy does not mean there aren’t key organisers: there are – a few hundred people. The numbers who participate – thousands – are surely not yet enough to alone genuinely secure structural changes to the way our country is organised.

On the other hand, we have seen steps towards organisations who attempt mass mobilisation online – 38 Degrees, Get-up, Move-On, Avaaz. These allow hundreds of thousands to use the smallest possible interactions to ‘fix’ the biggest problems “click here to stop climate change”. But despite some noble intentions to make themselves democratic, they cannot hand the means of campaign production to those who wish to take action for themselves.

My worry is this: our organisations are top heavy. We are attempting to influence an increasingly stratified society by mirroring it. We have little space where people can go, on a regular basis, and discuss with members of their community what they want for it and how they will get it. As the systemic walls come tumbling down, our elites will throw at us everything they have. And when they do, we must know what it is that we are fighting for. And we must be willing to stand together, to hold together, and to carry on fighting for it – as a movement not built of a media savvy anti-capitalist elite, but of millions.

The trades unions are already the true base of that movement. But we always need to organise outside our workplaces as well as in them. Local anti-cuts groups are growing, with 300 odd listed on the web-hub False Economy. But these too are not yet enough, and do not have the support they need to come together and stand together.

And if we are to win, then we will need to learn the lessons of Alinsky and of Amnesty, remember the best of the techniques of the political parties, and take advantage of the changes in technology and in learning of the last 40 years. And we need to build from the scraps of what Thatcher trashed and turn them into something new, collective, and unbeatable. Because it’s not 1848, and it’s not the 1930s. It’s 2011. And whilst they may have smashed our organisations, we must remember the one advantage that people’s movements have always had: we are many, they are few.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.