Thoughts from the austerity frontline – Something we can do
For the past week, I’ve been reading Paul Mason’s ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere’, which I thoroughly recommend. I’ve been reading it mostly while travelling between appointments and workplace visits in my job as a school workers organiser for UNISON.
All week, I’ve been stepping off buses fired with the restless energy of a febrile world in partial, scattered revolt against the iniquities imposed by neoliberal power elites.
Within minutes, I’ve been stepping into workplaces haunted by the very real impact of the calculated callousness and heedless hubris of those same elites.
I don’t need to rehash what’s happening out there. By this stage, you know. As ever, I apologise that this is all a bit formless and lacking in rigour.
I don’t need to tell you that Something Needs To Be Done, that a line needs to be drawn, that there needs to be a ‘this far and no further’ confrontation with austerity on a macro-level.
Occupations, single-issue campaigns and the likes of UK Uncut have led to marginal improvements in the macro-discourse, but have failed to resonate in a significant way with a deeply disaffected, de-politicised, de-motivated polity.
Meanwhile, organised labour is exhausting itself fighting fires on the micro-level, unable to extend its tactics beyond easily ignored static demos (with low strike turnouts) and polite, periodic town centre marches. At the workplace level, as unions can do less and less to hold the line on wave after wave of austerity-induced attacks, even organised, politicised workers grow more disaffected, de-politicised and de-motivated.
The new campaign groups and occupations have, like the unions, secured certain reversals, concessions and delays, but, nearly four years on from the most explosive period of the global financial crisis, the left in general is no closer to forging a cohesive, macro-level force for a new political, economic, social and environmental settlement. If anything, after so much exertion and so little return, we are probably further away.
The work needs to shift towards forging something new, real and lasting on a grand scale in the medium-term, while resisting the worst of what’s proposed in the short-term, in order to achieve what we need to achieve in the long-term.
I’m not a pessimist or cynic about the work of the left; we have no option but to work and persevere, but we need, first of all, to decide on the right macro-target to confront, one not so abstract that it can’t be overcome and reformed within a realisable timescale.
Second, we need to find a way to re-combine the energy, resourcefulness and durability of the occupations and networked single-issue campaigners with the resources, history and relatively stronger reach of organised labour, in a sustained, over-arching campaign that offers a significant threat to the chosen macro-target.
We need to find a way to dovetail the occupations’ capacity for politicisation and ‘learning through doing’ with real workplaces, homes and communities beyond the habitual centres of revolt.
Every day, I rack my brains about how these aims can be achieved. We can all have a fair inkling that the next major public sector strikes, even with all unions participating, are unlikely to achieve a higher turnout and impact: on pensions, there is little chance of significant movement beyond the heads of agreement. Any pretentions that such a strike would catalyse some sort of prolonged, neo-syndicalist mass standoff with the Coalition government are, at this stage, ridiculous. We can also have a fair inkling that the mooted ‘spring offensive’ by Occupy protesters is unlikely to recapture the impact of its early days and weeks. Likewise, the NUS/NCAFC walkouts are unlikely to do much more than the various days of action last winter.
So far, the best I’ve come up with is this:
– We write a people’s charter for a new, Europe-wide ‘New Settlement’, outlining some very basic, social democratic and environmental principles, along with a thorough-going audit and reform of European institutions. The key to this new settlement would be the use of de-facto state control of banks as a way of making credit and banking a universal public utility, rather than a highly expensive quarantine exercise designed to prolong an impossible status quo. Canvassing opinions for the New Settlement charter would mean, ideally, activists temporarily decoupling from their pet projects and ranging out across their regions, calling at houses, workplaces and common spaces to make the basic arguments and say the basic things to millions.
– We aim to put this ‘New Settlement’ charter to a vote at the next European parliamentary elections. Turnout is low, parties largely treat it as a sideshow; it’s the best possible forum to claim a Europe-wide mandate for something suitably good, big and new in the medium term. This would, of course, require some tricky ‘lend us your votes and activists’ appeals to current centre-left, left and green parties/ party members.
– We spend the year’s lead in to the next European parliament vote re-establishing as many occupations as possible as working ‘New Settlements’ on the micro-level, illustrating the practical possibility of a new way of living, working and thriving together. Candidates for the party list system would be subject to election at the settlements.
This is the best idea I’ve had so far on how to combine the practical, energetic romanticism of horizontalism with the need for a hierarchical campaign seeking to unite left principles with fair outcomes through real political power, using deeply flawed institutions that we loathe but are almost certainly immune and impregnable for as long as flat objection/revolution is used as the catch-all alternative.
Also, this would give some focus to future occupations, replacing the current line of least resistance/laudable community resource/drift towards oblivion trend. My hope would be a greater synthesis of sinewy purpose and spontaneity.
Ideally, the actual vote would become irrelevant, serving solely as a fixed point in time by which we organise something positive, not merely defensive. Instead, the ‘New Settlements’ on the micro-level, and the injection of cohesion and momentum into anti-austerity forces Europe-wide would lead to faster and more thorough-going reform at the national and international level.