Monday, 11 May 2015
Comrades, Kindly Stop Smashing Things
It shouldn't need pointing out but clearly some comrades haven't got the message - either from the public at large, the media in general, or indeed from serious left-wing strategists - that smashing stuff up is not going to bring you any propaganda victories in a war you're already badly losing. The fact is you might think the Tories are scum, but much of the public does not. Scrawling that message - just roundly rejected at a general election - on a hallowed war memorial during VE Day celebrations smacks either of stupidity or despair.
The left - or what remains of it - likes to talk about strategy, though not in the way parliamentary parties talk about strategy and the relentless pursuit of their "message." For the left strategy is the opposite of what goes on in elections: because it is made up of different political tendencies and types of group, the left favours debate and discussion over order and rigid discipline. This is a good thing. But these strategies occasionally become fixed in polar oppositions that are deeply unhealthy and rigid. The opposition between parliamentary reform and insurrection is one such fallback, ever ready to ensnare the left in defeat. By getting stuck on these rigid distinctions, groups risk turning inwards and, most damagingly, forgetting events and ideas in the wider world. The analysis of the concrete situation - with all its ideological twists and turns; with all the messy upheavals internal to the power bloc - gives way to melancholy and fatalism.
There is little permanence in the world of political strategy. When times change, ideas and people change too. But there are a few things we can say with reasonable confidence; one being that, if there ever was a time when tagging Whitehall and beating on a phone box was a broadly effective propaganda tool, now is not it. We are not at the Bastille; we are mostly on street stalls and in dole queues. We are not Luddites in the midst of industrial takeoff either for that matter. It shouldn't take the most farsighted social critique to understand that attacking shopfronts or throwing stones at police is not a winning formula. Moreover, these riots are both symbolically and actually different to, say, violent anti-cop protests in Baltimore or even the riots in London. Why? Because the latter could be understood as major social upheavals and protests deeply rooted in the outrage of whole communities. Like it or not, pseudo anarchist projectile throwers with their Banksy-lite iconography are seen as brattish. And not just by the right-wing press. There is a broader "counter-hegemonic" platform to be built by the left, one which can win "hearts and minds", so to speak. The right is very good at fighting the "war at home"; we should learn how to do this for the left.
I fully intend to go to People's Assembly meetings and marches. It's urgent that we show a united front against austerity. It's also extremely important that we start developing some more critical strategic skills. Our enemies in government surely already have. We need to understand why people vote Conservative. Sure, papers can lie, but only certain lies capture the imagination and articulate popular desires. What makes the myth of austerity so appealing? How can we build a counter-narrative from the ground up, with few allies in the old print media? All these are questions that we can ask at such events. We can also draw others into our conversation. But let's be honest: throwing a few stones proves nothing except that we have no answers and are unwilling even to pose the questions.
We need to look to countries in Latin America, and to Greece and Spain. There movements for social justice began commanding first pluralities and then wholesale parliamentary majorities (in some cases for decades) through peaceful community action, through strikes and marches, through holding meetings, and asking questions. They never won over the private media, and neither will we. So instead they went round the back of them, operating at every alternative social level, and eventually finding themselves challenging neoliberalism and austerity in local and often national government. Their trick was to convey the dignity and sense of justice of ordinary people in unconventional forms. That kind of dignity is rarely visible in the mainstream - which prefers to demonise working and unemployed people - but it is the truly insurrectionary truth. I sympathise with the fury of some left-wing activists. But if we are going to get anywhere we need to be smart, not just angry.