Are we not just waiting for something to happen? This isn’t just a period of simple reaction or malaise. We are not in a place beyond history, however, we are stuck. We seem incapable of changing the world around us. Is this simply a product of our lack of imagination? It seems the majority of people who want to see change can only envision minor alterations. The rest of us who see the need for radical reorganization are left with our hands in our pockets. We are at the precipice. How do we move forward? Do we simply keep doing what we are doing?
Is the movement of movements really working? While there is no doubt that some social movements have exploded with activity in the last bunch of years, I feel it is fair to state that most social movements in Canada have been under intense attack. The question we must ask ourselves is similar to the one Lenin posed at the beginning of the 20th century, what is to be done?
I know this sounds pessimistic, but we are losing. I know we all know the tale of the tape. The 1990s saw profound change in Canada, neoliberal reforms were ushered in at an unprecedented rate, the death of real existing socialism altered the terrain on the radical left. The birth of the alter-globalization movement led to the re-invigoration of the anti-capitalist left. The alter-globalization movement did not die but moved into other fields. Anti-poverty groups, migrant rights groups, anti-war groups, environmental justice groups are the phoenix to the ash of the large protest movements of the late 90s and early 2000s.
While some of these movements are strong, others have been severely hampered. Take the case of the anti-war movement. The largest Canadian protests in 2003 against the war in Iraq were able to pressure the Liberal government to take a passive role in the Iraq occupation and invasion. (Remember the Liberal government desired to go to war) However Canada’s actual occupation of Afghanistan, which is entering its 10th year has engendered a relatively small vocal resistance despite poll after poll showing the majority of Canadians favour withdrawal. How can we account for this?
The financial crisis of 2008 should have been an opportunity for us anti-capitalists to grow our movements and spread our perspectives. This did not happen. Instead, in the last couple of years if we held on to what we had, we were among the fortunate ones. The labour movement got beaten back hard, environmental groups lost the battle of Copenhagen handily, and anti-poverty groups struggled through. This isn’t to say that certain movements didn’t have success, rather that on the whole, most of us in organizing have been on the defensive and in all likelihood will continue to be so.
The coming austerity will be harsh. There can be no doubt. Europe is just the beginning. It is also worth remembering that austerity will be coming when corporate profits in North America are going up up up. In America, non-financial firms have accumulated more cash, as a percentage of short term liabilities, than at any other time in the past half century. Meaning that corporations are simply taking the money and running. They are quite happy with unemployment rates (of course the official unemployment rate is bullshit, there are countless underemployed and those who have given up who are not counted) floating above “natural” limits.
Labour costs in this situation have been driven down and corporations can now rely on perverted Keynesian logic where government intervention is aimed not at stimulating consumption, but at directly ensuring corporate profitability. The government through middle class and working class dollars funnels money into corporate hands through direct bailouts or indirect policy interventions (i.e. starving state and municipal governments) That cash is then passed on to investors and managers who either sit on it or shift it around geographically (by way of foreign direct investment in capitalist friendly “zones”).
A rising tide may lift all boats but there are only enough life rafts for the rich. The rest of us are left to drown or fight amongst ourselves.
Make no mistake, when the dust settles from the great recession, and it will settle, though not yet, we will be faced with an absolutely unique situation. The welfare state will be under assault wherever it still exists, neoliberal policies will be back, the capitalist system will use its geographic advantage to continually postpone seismic tensions (inequality, environmental, technological, etc.). When these tensions come to a boil, it will not automatically result in positive radical breaks (just as likely, if not more, is the possibility of new authoritarian models).
So where are we now?
We are mistaking liberal ideas for radical solutions.
We are losing ground.
We are concerned about our radical identities.
We are burning out.
We are withdrawing.
We are rehashing tired tactics and strategies.
We are infighting.
We are fantasizing.
We need to organize and strategize. We need the return of big ideas. We must risk more now because the risk of business as usual has stakes that are almost too high to fathom.
Yes, we need a better analysis of capitalism. But more than that we need a better analysis of how we should organize and change our present situation.
If we neglect to build, and simply focus on interventions, purity and armchair critiques (of course I am talking about critiques and interventions which regress and divide rather than provoke and empower), we will isolate ourselves and our actions will become about us as individuals rather than we as a class or community.
Mao once wrote “If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.” We need to start building revolutionary organizations (and not by blindly repeating past models). We need to do this by being less concerned about our personal identities as revolutionaries and more focused on understanding how we can imagine a world that is different.
Imagining and building are not easy tasks. It is a long hard road. But we can not take a short cut to revolution or freedom. We can’t wish or hope for change. Only through struggle will we know the form of and path to our collective liberation.
I am tired of waiting…