Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Age of Neoliberal Austerity: Part 3: The Urban Uprisings



The first article in this series analysed the world capitalist crisis in the context of the neoliberal counter-revolution of the last 35 years. The second looked at the way in which neoliberalism has transformed society by weakening labour organisation, atomising social experience, and, to some degree, influencing how people think about themselves and their place in the world.

There is much to be gloomy about it in this analysis. I argued that the crisis is deep, permanent, and liable to get much worse, and that the resistance to growing corporate and state power faces an uphill struggle to reconstruct collective organisation and a tradition of unity and solidarity among the oppressed. I concluded, however, by emphasising the waves of mass protest that have broken over the system in the last 15 years, especially since the Great Crash of 2008 and the onset of the Age of Austerity, since when protests have sometimes swelled into large-scale urban uprisings involving hundreds of thousands of people in weeks of mass struggle.

This article considers the new urban uprisings in a little detail, and seeks to set them against the background of the modern neoliberal city.

A new wave of struggle

Istanbul and Rio have now joined Athens, Tunis, Madrid, Cairo, Santiago, and many other modern cities as centres of popular revolt against the neoliberal order. The major uprisings are often mirrored by secondary risings in regional cities – in as many as a hundred across Brazil in June 2013, for example. They also find echoes in more limited sectional revolts – like that of British students in November-December 2010 – and in mass direct-action campaigns – like that of the Occupy Movement of 2011. Capitalism seems to be facing a wave of urban uprisings in its metropolitan heartlands.

These different struggles are not identical in composition, form, and trajectory. Each reflects the history and conjuncture of capitalist development inside a particular country. Many have been cross-class popular mobilisations, not easily classified as specifically working-class revolts. Some have become dominated by right-wing forces and ceased to be in any sense progressive. Ukraine is the obvious example.

But they also have things in common, and many have strong roots in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements that emerged at the beginning of the century. But they have been reconfigured by the 2008 crash, the onset of the depression, and the imposition of austerity programmes. Events have occasionally risen to the heights of revolutionary years like 1848, 1919, 1968, and 1989. This is most obviously true in the Middle East, where entrenched dictatorships have been brought low by revolutionary action. But the Arab Spring clearly forms part of a global pattern: neoliberal regimes are under assault across the world.

The media have dubbed many of the new urban uprisings ‘middle-class revolts’. This is misleading. Mainstream commentators employ definitions of class which reduce it to a list of occupational and lifestyle differences. In fact, class, properly understood, is both an economic process (of exploitation) and a social relationship (of subordination). It is inherently dichotomous, contradictory, and contested.

The majority of the people involved in most of the urban uprisings are working class The millionaires are not facing the water cannon, tear gas, and pepper spray. But if the new urban uprisings involve substantial working-class participation, and if they represent the cutting-edge of modern class struggle, how are we to evaluate them in relation to what many regard as the more ‘traditional’ forms of workers’ struggle represented by strikes and workplace occupations?

The city as arena

The workplace is a primary arena of proletarian struggle. To be powerful at the point of production, workers must have strong sectional organisation, effective networks across and between workplaces, and the confidence that comes from a tradition of successful strikes and solidarity.

In Britain, two periods stand out, that from New Unionism to the General Strike (1889-1926), and that from the end of the Second World War to the Great Miners’ Strike (1945-1985). Britain, moreover, has an exceptionally strong union tradition dating back more than two centuries, with levels of union membership usually far higher than the global average. The workplace has often been more central to the class struggle in Britain because of this.

The long-term global pattern looks rather different. Sometimes struggle in the workplaces spills into the streets. More often, the struggle in the streets triggers revolt in the workplaces. This should cause no surprise.

Even in Britain, the city has been an epicentre of working-class revolt for 200 years. One thinks of Peterloo in 1819, of the great Chartist demonstrations of 1839 and later, of the huge London marches of the mid 1880s that triggered New Unionism, of the mass mobilisations against fascism and unemployment in the 1930s, and of the Poll Tax Revolt of 1989-91.

The relationship between mass demonstrations and general strikes is intimate. It is often the former that trigger the latter. The sequence of events in France in May-June 1968 provides one example: it comprised student demonstrations leading to fierce street battles, then a one-day official general strike and a monster student-worker demonstration, and finally a wave of factory occupations that brought the country to the brink of revolution.

There is ‘something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’ writes Marxist geographer David Harvey. ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ shout protestors confronting police on the streets. From Syntagma to Tahrir to Puerta del Sol to Taksim, young protestors are contesting the state’s authority over urban public spaces. Millions are mobilised in mass occupations of downtown squares and parks.

We need to understand the role of the city in contemporary class struggle. Here are what seem to be three clusters of relevant factors.

A nexus of contradictions

The city is a concentrate of social contradictions. It contains the gargantuan prestige monuments of the state, the steel-and-glass towers of the corporations, and the luxury residences of the elite. Yet in streets often only a short walk away are the terraces of rack-rented flats where young workers live, the high streets full of charity shops, pound-shops, and boarded-up shops of an economy in slump, and the dirty hospitals, run-down schools, and rubbish-strewn streets of a public sector squeezed by austerity cuts. The widening gap between rich and poor, between corporate profit and public squalor, is a physical and social fracture-line drawn across the shared urban space.

What is more, as union organisation weakens on the one hand, and as financialised forms of exploitation in consumption loom larger on the other, the urban working-class community as a whole (as opposed to its separate workplace sections) assumes greater social significance. Struggles against low pay and bullying managers centre on the workplace. Struggles over tax, rent, benefits, public services, and environmental protection necessarily centre on the community.

This partial (and not necessarily permanent) shift in the class struggle’s centre of gravity, from the workplace to the city, reflects growing corporate power – ‘the centralisation and concentration of capital’ discussed in the first article. As economic and political power becomes more remote from everyday experience, the focus – and therefore the locus – of struggle moves from the immediate to the general, from the local to the global, from one’s own workplace to the economic system as a whole.    

A mass of exploited and oppressed

The workplace is inherently sectional. Strong workplace organisation strengthens sectionalism even as it provides a firmer platform for unity and solidarity across the class. The city works the other way round. Urban communities and urban crowds tend to be diverse. Big demonstrations bring together workers from different industries, the organised with the unorganised, the secure with the precarious, the employed with the unemployed, the students with the minorities. Quickly, easily, naturally, the urban crowd can unite the urban working-class as a whole in struggle on the streets.

What is clear, too, is that urban street mobilisation can overcome the weakness of hollowed-out labour organisation. Social media have facilitated the creation of loose networks and rapid mobilisations of otherwise atomised individuals. Then, coming together on the streets, the disparate radicals of the counter-culture discover that they are at the head of a mass movement.

On the streets, too, there is safety in the anonymity of the mass. It is not simply that the unorganised, the precarious, and the unemployed can the fight on the streets. It is also that organised workers who face management intimidation in their workplaces can more easily give expression to their anger in street protest than in strike action. 

A centre of profit and power

The modern city has been created by the labour of workers. Yet control over public spaces is usurped by corporations and the state, and less and less of the city is free of enclosure, control, surveillance, and commodification. This contradiction goes toxic when protest erupts and is met with state repression. A recurring feature of the new urban uprisings is the collision between the democracy of the streets and the violence of the police, a collision sometimes capable of turning protests of thousands into protests of millions in the space of a few days.

The city is a product of human labour, a source of capitalist profit, and a centre of class power. As such, it is vulnerable. Just as strike action can shut down factories, offices, and entire industries, so too can street protest shut down infrastructure, workplaces, and entire cities. The street can close the factories. The urban mass, fully mobilised, can paralyse the city economy.

The workplaces can be shut down by revolt from within; but this requires strong sectional organisation. Or they can be shut down by revolt from without – because they have been engulfed by a city-wide mood of revolt. There are many examples. It may be worth pausing to consider one.

An example from history: the Plug Riots

The Chartist Movement – the first mass working-class movement in history – reached its peak in the campaign for the vote in 1842. A National Charter Association was formed which achieved a membership of 50,000, organised in almost 300 local branches, by the end of 1841. This network – a mix of party and united front – succeeded in collecting 3,315,752 signatures on a People’s ‘Leviathan’ Petition in support of the Six Points of the Chartist Movement: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs, abolition of the property qualification for MPs, and equal electoral districts.

Presented in May 1842, it was, like its predecessor, rejected. The effect was to trigger a wave of mass strikes that swept across the industrial North between July and September. The strikes were both political protests in support of the Charter and economic protests against wage cuts. But politics and the street led. The strikes took the form of ‘turn-outs’: a procession would form and move from workplace to workplace, pulling out each in turn; the strikers would then draw the plugs from the boilers that powered the steam-engines to let the water drain away (thus the mass strikes of 1842 became known as ‘the Plug Riots’). Once a town or village was solid, the procession of strikers would head off to the next industrial settlement.

One such procession, for example, shut all the textile mills in the Manchester district on Tuesday 11 August, and then dispatched what would later be called ‘flying pickets’ to shut down Preston, Hull, and other industrial cities further afield the following day. One participant reports the success of the strike despite bloody clashes with police and soldiers, claiming that by the third day the Chartists in Manchester had ‘stopped every trade: tailors, cobblers, brushmakers, sweeps, tinkers, carters, masons, builders, colliers, and every other trade. Not a cart is allowed to go through the streets.’

Many mass strikes are built this way. Many revolutions begin with mass demonstrations which turn into mass strikes when the authorities attempt to drive protestors off the streets. Many sectional strikes involve sending out pickets to pull out other workplaces and win solidarity action from other workers. What is clear is that the balance between workplace and street is often a reflection of the relative strength of union organisation; where it is strong, workers typically act through established union structures; where it is weak, the role of the wider urban mass in creating a sense of solidarity and momentum is often critical.

Some British unions seem to be feeling their way to a new conception of trade unionism along these lines. There is growing emphasis in unions like Unite on community unionism, street protest, and alliances with wider forces like the People’s Assembly. There is growing emphasis, too, in unions like the NUT, on lively marches when members go on strike. The implication is an instinctive understanding that, with workplace organisation substantially weakened, the unions cannot stand apart from the wider movement against austerity. In this sense, there is a shift towards a broader, more political, more socially engaged definition of trade unionism – and the forging of practical alliances between what I called in my second article ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ activists.

More on the vanguard

The new urban uprisings represent the latest stage in the development of a global protest movement which has it origins in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of the last decade. There are national variations, of form and tempo, but a broad pattern has emerged.  

Al-Jazeera reported a Datafolha poll of Brazilian protestors on Monday 17 June 2013. This revealed the following about the protestors: 84% had no party preference, 77% were college graduates, 22% were current students, 53% were under 25, and 71% were on their first ever protest. The issues raised were diverse. What began as local protests over transport fares quickly morphed into protests against waste expenditure on prestige sports facilities, and then, when the state unleashed its riot police, into an explosion of rage against the entire neoliberal order – not just the stark contrast between corporate wealth and public squalor, but state violence, lack of jobs, soaring rents, the democratic deficit, official corruption, environmental degradation, and the deteriorating quality of life in a system driven by profit not need.

What is making the new urban uprisings so explosive is the relative weakness of pressure-gauges and safety-valves in a neoliberal political order where unions are weak and social-democratic parties have become cheerleaders for the corporations. The ruling class cannot measure the rising temperature. The masses have no effective means of redress. The anger accumulates beneath the corporate glitz. Then, when the surface calm breaks, the eruption is violent, anarchic, uncontrollable; there is sometimes no-one to negotiate with and no mechanisms of mediation. Unable to anticipate or respond to mass protest in any other way, the ruling class unleashes a wave of police violence – and pours petrol on the flames of social revolt.

Sometimes the young protestors remain a relatively small minority. They may have mass sympathy, but it does not transform into mass action. The British student revolt of November-December 2010 is an example. Other times the movement broadens and deepens, drawing wider masses into action behind the vanguard, and raising new grievances and demands. The Brazilian protests are a recent example, but the Egyptian protests remain the most powerful so far, turning into full-scale revolution. The trajectory and potential of the new urban uprisings is obvious.

The problem is that protest based on mass demonstrations and urban street-battles lacks the ballast of permanent organisation. Each time, the movement ‘goes up like a rocket and comes down like a stick’.

That is one reason that the unions and ‘traditional’ activists remain central to any strategy for change. The unions are the largest civil-society organisations in existence. They are inherently expressions of working-class unity, solidarity, and resistance. They are still mass-membership organisations and have enormous potential. Traditional activists embedded within them can help provide the infrastructure of permanent organisation for a rising mass movement against the austerity regimes and the neoliberal order.

This is already happening. The unions are organisationally strong, and this has been reflected in the TUC anti-austerity demonstrations, union support for the People’s Assembly, and a series of one-day strikes which have taken the form of mass street protests. This is an important antidote to the weaknesses and dangers inherent in the new activism, the street protests, and the urban uprisings.     

Every popular mass movement faces three basic tasks if it is to advance. They can be summed up in three words: unity, democracy, and clarity. Unity is achieved when the greatest possible social forces are drawn into the struggle together. Democracy requires the creation of forms of popular organisation that can give direct expression to the will of the masses. And clarity of both purpose and direction are necessary to orient the movement, maximise its support, and drive it forwards towards radical change.

To win, a popular mass movement cannot afford to stand still. It must reach out, broaden its base, and draw new forces into the struggle. To do this, it must unite the struggle for democracy in the city with the struggle for social reform among the mass of working people.

History’s finest example remains that of the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917. The slogan ‘Peace, Bread, and Land’ crystallised the aims of the revolutionary movement and united the largest possible numbers behind the leadership of the revolutionary vanguard. ‘All Power to the Soviets’ elevated the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils, a great network of direct democracy, into an alternative to the old state apparatus. The October Revolution was the realisation in practice of these two slogans.

The formula – unity, democracy, clarity – is yet to be bettered in the struggle to remake the world.

A minority of street fighters cannot defeat the state. If the mass movement lacks organisation, stability, and strategy, and if it fails to reach out to the working class as a whole, it will be defeated. An isolated vanguard will end up being crushed.

A vanguard is precisely that: the advanced formation of the class that draws the rest into action behind it. An oft-repeated mistake of the past has been to conflate the vanguard and the class. It was a common mistake in the late 1960s. It is the basic mistake of various brands of ‘autonomism’ today. The protestors can win only if they act as a spearhead of mass struggle by the working class as a whole. The imperative is to create a framework that will harness, organise, and channel the anger of an alienated and atomised working-class behind the minority already on the streets.

The revolutionary group/party may be unfashionable, but it is as necessary as ever. The class struggle is characterised by uneven consciousness and fragmented activity. Revolution depends upon raising general consciousness to the level of the vanguard and fusing disparate activity into a single struggle to overthrow the system.

The revolutionary group/party is the mechanism for achieving this. It is the place where the advanced class consciousness of the vanguard is concentrated, where different struggles are linked together, and where theory and practice are united. The party cannot exist in ‘virtual’ form. All human organisation involves people meeting, deciding, and acting together. The combination of democracy and centralism is essential.


Again, as with the first two articles, I want to suggest some conclusions that may be relevant to charting a way ahead for the radical left:

1. The wave of urban uprisings since 2008 – despite their manifold national differences – have important features in common and seem to represent a form of protest which corresponds with: a) the way in which growing corporate and state power has created a generalised resistance to ‘the system’ where economic and political discontents fuse; b) the relative weakening of traditional labour organisation and civil society more generally in the neoliberal era; and c) the democratic deficit and the increasing authoritarianism of the state.

 2. The uprisings also reveal the neoliberal corporate city to be a hot-house of alienation, social extremes, and unmediated contradictions, such that it has become a major arena of the modern class struggle alongside the workplaces, and an arena within which ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ activists can come together in united resistance.

3. Revolutionary organisation needs to be both embedded in the class struggle – in the unions, the movements, and the campaigns – and to project a high level of revolutionary politics. It is where the advanced class consciousness of the vanguard is concentrated, where different struggles are linked together, and where theory and practice are united.

Thanks are due to James Meadway, Alex Snowdon, and Alastair Stephens for specific comments on this series of articles, and to other Counterfire comrades for more general comments that have helped shape my thinking. It will also be apparent that I am indebted to two generations of theorists associated with Monthly Review; their ongoing analysis of capitalist development is, in my view, indispensable. I must also acknowledge a debt to the insights of David Harvey.



No comments:

Post a Comment