What lessons can we draw from the social movements of 2011?
We’re publishing here the first presentation to the ICC Day of Discussion held in London on 23 June. Its focus is the significance and lessons of the social revolts of 2011. The other two presentations – on the origins of Islam and on art in ascendant and decadent capitalism – can be found on our website, and we will also publish write-ups of the discussions and if possible an audio version of the day’s debates.
This was a very fruitful meeting. It was well-attended – around thirty people, including ICC comrades and members of three other political organisations (Communist Workers Organisation, Commune, Socialist Party of Great Britain). The discussion was extremely lively, serious, and wide-ranging, and took place in a very fraternal atmosphere; and there was a high level of participation, as evidenced by the fact that the presentations and write-ups have all been undertaken by non-ICC comrades.
At the end of the meeting we discussed various themes for future days of discussion and there were a lot of suggestions: ecology, the causes of the economic crisis, immigration, the relationship between anarchism and marxism. The next meeting will probably take place at the beginning of 2013, so that will give plenty of time to reflect on these (and no doubt other) suggestions and prepare for the debate.
For many of us who’ve been around a long time, who’ve gone grey (if they’ve still have any hair at all!), the events of 2011 were, in part, a reminder of times gone by: of the barricades of May 68 in France; of the strikes and assemblies the following year – the so-called Hot Autumn in Italy in 1969; of the next year of massive strikes in Poland 1970 and those across the globe in Argentina and then, in Britain in 1972, when it seemed the whole working class was mobilised and on strike.
In what way did the events of 2011 recall the late 60s and early 70s?
First and foremost, the sheer, global extent – the internationalism - of them. And whereas, 40 years ago, this ‘wave’ of struggle rolled out from one country to the next over a matter of years, in 2011 it happened in just months – from Tunisia to Algeria; from Egypt to Bahrain, Libya; from Greece to Chile; from Israel to America to Spain, Portugal and Britain....
Secondly, the massive nature of the movements of 2011 – not tiny minorities of the population but large, angry, ‘indignant’ swathes, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, in total hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, taking to the streets and squares, talking politics and taking action and organising themselves to do so.
The media grouped these expressions under two headings – the ‘Arab Spring’ and the ‘Occupy’ movements. The ICC Statement, which is the basis for our discussion here today, aims to draw a ‘provisional balance sheet’ of what it calls the ‘social movements’ or ‘social revolts’ of 2011.
Now I don’t want to go into any great detail about what exactly is meant by ‘a social movement’ as opposed to a workers’ struggle; or into an explanation of what’s meant by ‘non-exploiting strata’, or ‘dispossessed masses’ or various other terms, though the discussion afterwards may want to make these more precise. Perhaps these terms are self-evident, at least to the ICC. Maybe such terms mean different things to different working class organisations, and maybe they’re gobbledegook to others. You’ll have to speak up but perhaps it will become clearer as we continue.
In all events, while as Marxists we insist on the central importance of ‘the working class’, or ‘the proletariat’, we recognise that this term, paradoxically (or dialectically if you like) may include millions who’ve never had the opportunity to work in their lives – the unemployed children of workers, for example. We also insist that while the proletariat is the revolutionary class in capitalist society, and requires its political and organisational autonomy, other classes – in fact the vast majority of the population outside the ruling class - have absolutely nothing to gain from the status quo. To quote from near the end of the statement: “There is no opposition between the class struggle of the modern proletariat and the profound needs of the social layers exploited by capitalist oppression. The struggle of the proletariat is not an egotistical or specific movement but the basis for what the Communist Manifesto called: the ‘independent movement of the immense majority to the benefit of the immense majority’.”
Therefore, today, whatever labels we employ, we’re not going into sociology or categorization, but understanding a dynamic underway in society, its root causes and its effects on the future. We’re looking at the dynamic underlying and expressed by the movements in 2011.
The first dynamic cited by the statement is the economic crisis. It’s 5 years into its current, ‘open’ phase. That means that whereas in the previous thirty years, people who talked about the crisis of capitalism were largely looked on as lunatics, today almost everyone can see and feel a real blockage in the functioning of the social order, from a massive rise in unemployment, prices, taxes and bank crashes to lower wages, benefits, services and pensions affecting millions upon millions and confronting countless more with destitution and poverty, amidst a growing censorship and a murderous repression of dissent or resistance. In 50 years capitalism’s gone from a debt-fuelled ‘you’ve never had it so good’ to firms going under, to industries going under, to finance houses going under, to countries bankrupted, to the entire financial system under unprecedented stress and to the probable break-up of an institution like the EU. There is no ‘recovery’. There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. It’s this dawning realisation, and the sordid, everyday reality that underpins it, that mobilised the masses in 2011.
The second dynamic, as already mentioned, is the international scope of this movement, its simultaneity in different countries, as well as the spread from country to country, even if we shouldn’t “make a strict identity between all these movements, both in terms of their class content and of the response of the bourgeoisie” (International Review 145).
Importantly, this was a ‘knowingly’ international movement, to a degree ‘conscious’ of itself as such, despite all the national flags and undeniable patriotism you could see. Thus in Spain, “solidarity with the workers of Greece was expressed by slogans such as ‘Athens resists, Madrid rises up’. The Oakland strikers (USA, November, 2011) said ‘Solidarity with the occupation movement world wide’. In Egypt it was agreed in the Cairo Declaration to support the movement in the United States. In New York, a poster says ‘We’re All Khaled Said’ – the 28 year old whose murder by Egyptian security forces in 2010 sparked the Tahir Square events. In Israel they shouted ‘Netanyahu, Mubarak, al-Assad are the same’ and contacts were made with Palestinian workers.” When Occupy Wall Street protesters called for an international day of solidarity, 900 cities around the world participated. While the Spanish Indignados movement of May 15 to July 2011 was influenced by events in Greece and Egypt, it in turn influenced Greek protesters to a new round of demonstrations culminating in assemblies “on the Indignados model”. In France, Belgium, Mexico, Portugal, there have been regular assemblies, though smaller in scale. Internationalism is, of course, the first law of the workers’ movement. It’s not a slogan but a practical and political necessity.
The third dynamic was self-organisation. We see street demonstrations as a matter of routine all over the world: mainly called by unions and or political parties, the routes are announced, the police are informed; there are stewards, there are speeches ... We also know what riots are. We see crowds united in their alienation at football matches or pop concerts. What we saw in 2011, particularly at its highest points, was none of this: it was on a qualitatively different level.
As well as reclaiming the streets and public squares for themselves, and setting their own agendas, “the masses involved in these movements have not limited themselves to passively shouting their displeasure. They have actively participated in organising assemblies. The mass assembles have concretised the slogan of the First International (1864) ‘The emancipation of the working class is the work of the workers themselves or it is nothing’. This is the continuation of the tradition of the workers' movement stretching back to the Paris Commune ... General assemblies and workers' councils are the genuine form of the struggle of the proletarian struggle and the nucleus of a new form of society.”
So having arisen, spontaneously, the movements, with greater or lesser success, began to organise. The assemblies permitted attempts at discussion, clarification, and the wielding of action. They were an expression of and an active factor in pushing real solidarity: one for all and all for one. Quote: “In Oakland the strike assembly has agreed to send pickets or to occupy any company or school that punishes employees or students in any way for taking part in the General Strike of the 2nd November”. In Spain, as in Tahir Square, squads were formed to free those arrested by police. In Spain again, action authorised by the assemblies prevented police harassment of immigrants. In Pisa, Italy, in Greece, in Egypt, in Spain, occupations of empty buildings by the homeless; attempts to prevent evictions; the takeover of hospitals by staff. In Egypt, the self organisation of neighbourhoods against the looting of government thugs. In Greece, today, farmers from Crete continue to distribute their produce free to the impoverished of Athens.
In themselves such actions may or may not be considered remarkable, but taken in isolation, they’re hardly ‘revolutionary’. In the context of an international movement, however, it’s different... They took place amidst widespread thirst for the acquisition of knowledge and exchange of views and information; discussions about the economy, the crisis, a questioning of the existing order. What is democracy? Do we need a revolution? What kind? Are we political or non-political? How best to organise?
The assemblies began to overcome divisions of employed and unemployed, of religion, of generations, of trade or region. In Spain, they attempted a coordination, a political centralisation; in the US, they attempted an extension, particularly towards the workers as at the port in Oakland where workers supported their call for a general strike. The situation in Egypt was transformed when the workers’ strikes for their own demands meshed with the protests. As the statement says: The influence of the working class on the consciousness expressed in these movements has been tangible, both in the slogans and the forms of organisation they have thrown up.” And “All of which starkly contrasted with what is ‘normal’ in this society with its anguished sense of hopelessness and vulnerability.” As was widely heard in Tunisia: “We are no longer afraid....”
If we spoke about certain similarities between the late ‘60s and 2011, we should begin this section by recalling that, back then, there was no doubt about the power of the working class or its strikes. It was self-evident. In 2011, it’s different. The working class has had many experiences but it’s undeniably harder to go on strike today; there have been many bitter defeats. The ruling class is better prepared.
Anyway... It’s been said, by the ICC at least, that the refusal of the Indignados in Spain and the US Occupy movement to be rushed into defining their demands, to fix limits to their movement, to enter into ‘negotiations’ with the state are further positive signs of an emerging proletarian consciousness, extending in both depth and extent.
But what did the movements demand? Bread, freedom from repression; dignity: certainly. The removal of hated figures: evidently. But it’s less clear the movements could be said to know where they were going, of what historical evolution they were part, even if we could see, here and there, banners proclaiming that ‘the only future is revolution’. In Spain, the frequent call was for ‘all power to the assemblies’. But how to achieve this, and what to do with this power, and against whom to wield it?
The old foe of the workers’ movement – bourgeois democracy, ‘real democracy now’, the abstract and a-historical bourgeois democracy of atomised citizens regrouped behind ‘their’ state, in flagrant contradiction to the movements’ actual internationalism – was very present and often unrecognised by the movement. To quote:
“If there is a growing number of people in the world who are convinced that capitalism is an obsolete system, that ‘in order for humanity to survive, capitalism must be killed’ there is also a tendency to reduce capitalism to a handful of ‘bad guys’ (unscrupulous financiers, ruthless dictators) when it is really a complex network of social relations that have to be attacked in their totality and not dissipated into a preoccupation with its many surface expressions (finance, speculation, the corruption of political-economic powers).
“While it is more than justified to reject the violence that capitalism has exuded from every pore (repression, terror and terrorism, moral barbarity), this system will however not be abolished by mere passive and citizen pressure.....
“...Although the slogan of ‘we are the 99% against the 1%’, which was so popular in the occupation movement in the United States, reveals the beginnings of an understanding of the bloody class divisions that affect us, the majority of participants in these protests saw themselves as ‘active citizens’ who want to be recognized within a society of ‘free and equal citizens’.
“However, society is divided into classes: a capitalist class that has everything and produces nothing, and an exploited class -the proletariat- that produces everything but has less and less....
“The social movement needs to join up with the struggle of the principle exploited class -the proletariat- who collectively produce the main riches and ensure the functioning of social life...”
And as an earlier ICC article says “The working class has not yet presented itself in these events as an autonomous force capable of assuming the leadership of the movements, which have often taken the form of revolts by the whole non-exploiting population.”
And the reverse is also true: where the working class, historically, has been weakest, in Libya, in Syria, popular revolts have quickly been utilised by inter-bourgeois faction fights and drowned in blood. Imperialism was waiting.
In all events, the present Statement insists that this is all just “a fragile beginning. The illusions, confusions, inevitable mood swings of the protesters; the repression handed out by the capitalist state and the dangerous diversions imposed its forces of containment (the left parties and trade unions) have led to retreats and bitter defeats. It is a question of a long and difficult road, strewn with obstacles and where there is no guarantee of victory. That said, the very act of walking this road is the first victory.”
What’s left? What lessons?
The social movements, though they continue (see for example Quebec) are well past their peak: the crisis deepens; austerity accelerates; the unions try to mobilise the employed workers, the core of the proletariat, in sterile general strikes that are in fact anything but generalised and over which the workers have little control or influence at present. On the surface, nothing seems to have changed. And yet...
- There are politicised minorities, in Spain and elsewhere, determined to influence and link up with the main battalions of the working class; they are an immediate residue, a fruit of the movement. Already they are intervening towards the struggles of today in Spain, in the US. They are also facing a fight not to be dispersed, to keep in touch, to prepare for the next moment and to draw the lessons of the last.
- Among these lessons, the experience of the attempted sabotage of the general assemblies by ‘specialists’, experts and ‘working groups’ which seek to seize the momentum and leadership of the movement– is a valuable lesson for the whole proletariat. Assemblies, in themselves are not enough: there’s a political battle to be waged for their soul, for creators to have mastery and control over their own creations and to make the general assembly the sovereign organ of the struggle and to make delegates revocable and responsible to the whole, not the other way around.
Much has been made of the ‘youth’ of the 2011 movements, and it’s true. And while things can seem quiet on the streets today, the following is also true: “Those days in May will remain a reference point for the fact that it is possible to struggle, to decide for ourselves. Each time that discontent and anger overwhelm democratic normality in order to fight back, 15M will be a reference point. First of all because it was a baptism of fire for the younger generation, for those who had never been in an assembly, who had not felt the solidarity and collective force of the workplace because of the chronic unemployment they suffer. In the squares and demonstrations the youngest and oldest have come together, and begun a transmission of experience, gaining confidence in the possibility of changing things. And this will not be easily forgotten.” (‘What’s Left of the 15M Movement’, ICC Online, April 2012).
This energetic ‘youth’ is largely the product of a decomposing capitalism which cannot hope to integrate them into production, and despite their inexperience of labour, they are in fact part of the reserve army of labour, the unemployed, and it’s not accidental that the ICC used to write that the privileged terrain of the unemployed is the streets...
- On technology: much was made of Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones to link and organise the struggles, to spread news of them. Again, true. It was excellent to be able to participate, from the arse end of England, via the ICC discussion forum, to an intervention into an assembly in America. But I feel we should be wary about putting too much emphasis on the purely technological aspect which still requires the consciousness of a movement to control it. And the fact remains that the ruling class controls even these means of dissemination: they can and did close down networks in this or that country: block Google here or there. The proletarian movement requires real people on the ground. The revolution will not be a virtual affair.
In conclusion, it would be good to hear appreciations of the movement and to try and gauge whether what the ICC statement says is considered broadly correct, or if there should be different emphases and lessons.
For me, looking to the future, and trying to see the new society and the movement that will build it, the lesson of 2011 for the working class is a bit like that voiced by one of the main characters in Spielberg’s Close Encounters: “If you build it, they will come.” As the main battalions of the working class manage to control the content and direction of their struggles, vast layers of society will flock to support, strengthen and enrich them.