Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In defence of the old hierarchies

The student protests blew open the question of resisting the Tories' austerity agenda, so it is natural that the tactics deployed therein should be the subject of inquiry. How was it done, what can we learn from it, and how can we repeat its successes under changing circumstances? Especially as the authorities adapt and tool up to cope with the current protests - a process that might thankfully be impeded a little bit by Liberty suing the cops over the kettling of children.

In this vein, Laurie Penny's recent articles, following on from her reporting of the student protests, have highlighted what she takes to be the novelty of the protests and thus the increasing irrelevance of "the old left" with its "traditional hierarchies" and "strategic factionalism". It's a pity that this came with condescending swipes about my party, the SWP. As one Twitter sage put it, writing on CiF about how awful those Trots are may not be as revolutionary as Laurie thinks it is. I don't intend to get bogged down in that subject, however, as I don't think this is fundamentally about the SWP. It's about the secular decline of mainstream institutions of the Left, most notably the Labour Party - it was Labour's offer to be the 'voice' of students that inspired Penny's disdain. The fall-out from that decline, and how we respond to it, is the issue. It's also a shame that Laurie has indulged in this tendency to speak as if she does so on behalf of a whole "generation" of protesters. I'm not accusing Laurie of actually believing this - it's a journalistic cliche, a USP. But it's also bloody annoying - worse, it plays into a destructive myth of inter-generational conflict. (There's a critique of this sort of cliche here). Still, if the aim was to provoke a conversation, it has certainly done that - see here, here, here and here, for example. In addition to the blogs, Alex Callinicos of the SWP responded here.

The SWP's newspaper, Socialist Worker, is totemic of a broader set of issues that Laurie raises. Thus, she says: "Stunningly, the paper is still being peddled at every demonstration to young cyber-activists for whom the very concept of a newspaper is almost as outdated as the notion of ideological unity as a basis for action." Setting aside all defensiveness, let's concede that the far left has been rather slower than its competitors to embrace the internet and harness its latent promise. In fact, as far as the UK goes, fascists were actually quicker to see the opportunity than most others. Even so, the traditional use of paper sales in high streets, at protests and at workplaces is now complemented by the full repertoire of websites, Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo and Youtube, as well as blogs and various link-sharing devices. So this is only incidentally about technology, and more fundamentally about the forms of organisation that they engender.

The substance of Laurie's argument is that the student movement works best by following anarchic, leaderless principles, by emphasising spontaneity and unity in action over specific grievances, and by de-emphasising grand narratives. The old left can be useful inasmuch as it participates in this mode of organising, but obstructive when it cleaves to older, hierarchical methods, based on "deference" to the decisions of a conference or a collective leadership. The issue of the print newspaper is raised as a symptom of this wider question. A political party which communicates by selling newspapers isn't engaging in the kind of open-ended dialogue that is facilitated by social media, for example. Instead, working within a closed ideological terrain, it produces a univocal message devised for one way communication. By means of this imposition, it seeks to "control" the resistance. This is a hierarchical way of organising drawn from a pre-internet paradigm.

But, says Laurie, the means of oppression have been "deregulated". Thatcher, Reagan, Blair et al undercut traditional working class forms of organisation by decentralising and deregulating capitalism, while keeping the working class atomised and divided into traditional communities of mutual suspicion. Overcoming this means "deregulating" the resistance, making it anarchic and "inclusive". In a word, the paper and its embedded principle of leadership should be - is being - superceded by cybernetics, the wiki, and its embedded principle of spontaneous, leaderless, non-hierarchical engagement. This is nothing less than a complete "re-imagining" of the Left.

This is a sweeping, dramatic set of claims, but it glosses over some important facts and problems. Worse, I fear that, for all the limitations of the 'old left', the call to 'deregulate' resistance may be more of a symptom of neoliberalism than a solution to the problems it poses. Among the facts that are glossed over is the role of leading cadres of experienced activists in bringing direction to the movement. The Daily Mail, the Tories and the police have a tendency to reduce such protests to nefarious 'ringleaders', and such ideas form the basis of 'intelligence-led' policing which is resulting in raids and young people being intimidated by coppers. So it's important not to reduce the movement to a few tightly knit groups of revolutionaries, 'professional demonstrators' and 'troublemakers'. But the fact that leadership doesn't work that way doesn't mean that there has been no leadership. Left-wingers, student union members and trade unionists from various political backgrounds, including the far left, have put their repertoire of knowledge and experience at the service of the students movement. This knowledge was accumulated as a result of their affiliations and unglamorous groundwork in the trade unions, past protests, leafletting and even high street paper sales. Without this, the recent occupations and protests would have been the poorer.

Still, even setting this to one side, with the student protests we have had a situation where the first nationally significant response to the Tories' cuts came from students, especially the poorest students - from the 'banlieues' of Britain as Paul Mason put it. They were not necessarily affiliated to political parties, or to the National Union of Students, or to any trade unions. Due to the weakness of the labour movement and the Left, they were largely not called to action by leafleting campaigns or billboard advertisements. Rather, they relied on Facebook groups and social media to coordinate their actions. Insofar as tens of thousands of people are willing to spontaneously sign up for protests and turn out, this is all very well. But what if that ceases to be the case? What if, as could happen very quickly, large numbers of people stop showing up, out of fear of police intimidation, out of frustration with diminishing returns, or out of demoralisation? Then the hard work will once more fall to that small number of committed activists who are embedded in existing structures - trade unions, socialist parties, Labour, student unions.

I think it is a weakness, rather than a strength, if an atomised populace without the support of large institutions becomes overly dependent on social media. The neoliberal solution to capitalism's problems could not have been imposed if the institutions of the labour movement and the organised left had not first been hammered by a combination of concerted employers' offensives and especially a centralised state apparatus. The fruit of that ruling class offensive, the erosion of trade unionism, left-wing community organisation and parties, is one reason why it has fallen to small groups (often drawn from the far left, by the way) using social media to coordinate protest dates etc., while the role of the mass of protesters has been merely to turn up and join in. Far from actively participating in the organising of these events, the majority have actually been excluded by their dependence on social media. The means of their inclusion must now be the subject of urgent negotiation and collaboration.

This raises hard problems. One of Laurie's objections is to grand ideologies. As she puts it, it doesn't matter if you're a socialist, a Blairite, a liberal, an anarchist, etc. What matters is whether you're ready to be be on the frontline, in the struggle. That's fine as long as the only issue is, how do we stop this cut, this fee rise, this 'reform'? As long as it's something as simple as that, then unity in action is assured. But as soon as things become more complicated, as soon as we have to think about whether we need unity with firefighters, tube workers, immigrant groups, etc., and as soon as the issue of more far-reaching social change comes up, there are going to be real, obstinate differences of principle which emerge. Then decisions have to be made. Can we still work together, and if so on what basis? Can we suppress certain differences to achieve a common goal? At what stage does the suppression of real differences become counter-productive, or even unprincipled? If these matters are to be resolved democratically, then we can't avoid traditional means of organising.

And here, it is worth defending the old hierarchies to some extent. Hierarchy, as Terry Eagleton once pointed out in his polemic against 'postmodernism', is not identical with elitism. It is, as much as anything else, an ordering of priorities and tasks, a division of labour, which is indispensable for radical political organisation. This is not to say that there hasn't been elitism on the Left. This isn't to say that all the old hierarchies are defensible. Sexism, racism and imperialism have been among the flaws of large parts of the European Left in the 20th Century, and I would be the last to claim that these have been completely overcome despite the civilizing effects that past struggles have had. But there is nothing about hierarchy per se that is objectionable. On the other hand, there is such a thing as the tyranny of structurelessness. In the absence of hierarchies structuring priorities, ordering tasks, and giving democratic expression to political differences, there is a danger that the sole structuring principle is that 'might makes right'. That is, whoever is best organised, has the most resources and is best equipped to usurp the cultural capital of protest can end up effectively dictating terms and taking it over, without being accountable to anyone. And if others don't like it, well, they know what they can do - precisely nothing. As slow and cumbersome as the formal structures of trade unionism and party conferences can be, they also have the advantage of that in principle elected officials can be fired, leaders deposed, policies overturned, misbehaviour investigated, and so on.

Lastly, and speaking from experience, I would like to assure Laurie that the role of newspapers is not quite what she thinks it is. Parties don't sell papers expecting that the dissemination of ideas in hard copy will by itself change the world. The newspaper is there when the internet isn't. The newspaper is a way of overcoming atomisation, giving complete strangers the occasion to stop and talk to one another about political ideas. You stand in a street, or in a workplace, asking people to stop and buy a copy of the newspaper not so that they will take it home and passively absorbe its contents, but so that a minority will stop and talk to you about what's wrong with the world and where we can go from here. It's a way of building up a network of real life relationships in a way that the internet can't yet replicate, much less replace. Those networks, built up through unglamorous daily toil, are the rock on which much larger movements are built. And that's only possible because of durable party and trade union hierarchies which have survived the locust years and come out ready for a fight.