In my view, the discussion needs to be about establishing a strong, unified, global anti-imperialist movement that is beyond the left-right paradigm. Abandoning political parties and embracing grassroots governance is a more creative and daring way forward.
However, the merits of this article lie in its critique of the “anti-capitalist left” and the truth that the current impasse is rooted in the insidious nihilism that has moved like a contagion among individuals and organizations, paralyzing effective action, undermining trust in ourselves and each other, immobilizing creative thought and obfuscating access to our inherent capacity to discern the difference between truth and prevarication.
Before we can leave untenable ideologies behind, we need to recognize why they are worthless, how they sabotage our collective advancement and threaten our survival as a species.
“The only thing we proposed was to change the world. The rest we have improvised.”
Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
By Jerome Roos
Humanity finds itself at an inflexion point. On the one hand, global capitalism is producing and aggravating a series of existential crises that may well undermine the very preconditions for a dignified human life—or any form of human life—on this planet. On the other, the only political force that could possibly do something to counter this inexorable drive towards catastrophe—the international left—has long since been run into the ground by a four-decade neoliberal offensive, leaving its social base fragmented and atomized, its organizational structures in tatters.
In the wake of this world-historic defeat, we are confronted on a daily basis with the devastating consequences of our contemporary powerlessness. Far from retreating in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-‘09, neoliberalism has intensified its war on democracy and doubled down on the structural violence of austerity and dispossession. Meanwhile, we look on helplessly as wealth and power continue to be concentrated in ever fewer hands, while common goods and public services are mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of the marketplace.
We stand defenseless as high finance and big business mount an all-out offensive against the last-remaining vestiges of the welfare state, while mass surveillance and state control are expanded across the board. We are powerless as barriers to capital are knocked down in secretive trade deals while national borders are militarized and new walls erected everywhere to keep out the unwanted other. We feel paralyzed as families are evicted from their homes, protesters brutalized by police, and the bodies of refugees continue to wash up on our shores.
Amidst the growing uncertainty of a hyper-competitive 24/7 information economy, in which indebtedness, unemployment and precarity are rapidly becoming the generalized conditions of life for the majority, we are overcome by exhaustion, depression and anxiety. At the same time, a sense of existential gloom is settling in as global temperatures and sea levels continue their seemingly unstoppable rise, while planetary life-support systems are being destroyed at a truly terrifying pace.
From Hollywood blockbusters to best-selling books, late-capitalist culture knows all too well how to wax poetics about the collapse of civilization—yet its critics seem to have lost all capacity to imagine even the most moderate reforms to prevent this dystopian fiction from becoming reality.
For all its tragedies and failures, at least the old left was once driven by hopes and visions of a better future. Today, all such aspirations seem to have been abandoned. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has astutely put it, the future has been cancelled—and the left, unmoored from its post-capitalist imaginary, has been cast hopelessly adrift in the process. In this conjuncture, we may continue to speak of a crisis of capital, but what really confronts us is a crisis of the left.
The dual crisis of the left
This crisis is of a dual nature: on the one hand, it is a crisis of collective agency, marked by the left’s utter incapacity to rise to the challenge of our times, or even to capitalize on the brief window of opportunity opened up by the crash of 2008; and on the other it is a related crisis of imagination, marked by the left’s total inability to even conceive of a world beyond capitalism. The two reinforce one another, pulling the opposition down in a vicious cycle of endless defeat.
As a result, today’s disoriented and unimaginative left has largely ceded the ground to the uncontested reign of zombie neoliberalism: an undead system that—impossible to either save or kill, yet desperate to counteract its own decay—feasts ever more parasitically on the collective fruits of our precarious labor, relying increasingly on direct rent extraction and the outright dispossession of humanity’s common wealth to prop up its faltering profit rates. It is a nihilistic order that, incapable of offering a positive image of the future, has resorted to framing its hegemonic discourse entirely in negative terms, with an unfailing mantra repeated religiously by its stubborn acolytes: “there is no alternative.”
This successful suppression of the radical imagination, which has seeped deep into the very fabric of advanced capitalist society and has been internalized fully within the existing body politic, turned out to be the death-knell of all creativity and change among the institutional left. Meanwhile, the fragmentation, atomization and isolation of the traditional working class have thrown up seemingly insurmountable barriers to concerted action and enduring organization on the part of the new social movements, which—in response to the overwhelming odds that are now stacked against them—have largely retreated into a defensive and self-limiting localism.
And so we are left, on the one hand, with the ossified and bureaucratized remnants of a defunct 20th century socialism, wholly subsumed within the stultifying boredom and counter-revolutionary circuitry of bourgeois parliamentarism; and on the other with a disoriented multitude full of revolutionary passion, yet struggling to channel its intense collective outrage and its immense social creativity into a coherent and transformative political project.
Faced with the overwhelming power of capital and the escalating violence of the state, stuck between the institutional inertia of the old left and the ephemeral spontaneity of the new, the opposition remains impotent and confused. Evidently, it is not the “historical inevitability” of the capitalist law of value, but the left’s own lack of internal coherence and the conspicuous absence of visionary post-capitalist perspectives that keeps it stuck in an endlessly repeating present.
As the future collapses in on itself and the left’s revolutionary aspirations wither on the vine, it is the weakness of our clenched fist and the paucity of our collective imagination, far more than the “natural laws” of their invisible hand, that now makes the end of the world appear more likely than the end of capitalism. It has become painfully clear that, if the left is to truly to chart a way out of capitalist barbarity, it will have to first reinvent itself.
Let the dead bury their dead
What could such a “reinvented left” look like? Clearly, it will not come falling out of the sky, nor can it be conceived on paper by the high priests of radical theory. Rather, its political imaginary, organizational forms and strategic orientations will all have to be constructed through collective processes of political agitation and firmly rooted in the structural contradictions and periodic crises of contemporary capitalism; in the material conditions and lived experience of ordinary working people, oppressed minorities and marginalized communities; and in the concrete materiality and revolutionary potential of actually existing struggles.
Most importantly, the reinvented left will have to abandon its longing for a romanticized past and be boldly forward-looking in its perspective. To paraphrase Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the social revolution of the 21st century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future: “it must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content.” Only by forgetting its native tongue, Marx noted, can the social revolution appropriate a new language and begin to articulate the nature of its struggle on its own terms.
We are all familiar with the poetry of the past: historical hymns still recount the glorious promises of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the leading role of the vanguard party, and countless other state-communist clichés long due for an ignominious burial. Lest we forget, Lenin’s corpse has been lying in state for almost a century now—it is high time to give the old man a final resting place! The social revolution of the 21st century century will be anti-authoritarian and radically democratic, or it will not be a revolution at all.
Social democracy, that other great project of the 20th century left, has not stood the test of time much better. Across Europe, center-left parties that once dominated the national political scene have long since devolved into the servile lackeys of capital and the submissive technocratic handmaidens of the reactionary right. Reduced to the status of junior partners in grand coalitions and European institutions whose overarching vision of the future appears to be one of permanent austerity, social democracy has been so thoroughly hollowed out as to fundamentally undermine even its own prospects of survival—the specter of “Pasokification” now looming large over most center-left parties.
Democratic socialism, by contrast, appears to have been staging a cautious comeback in recent years, especially in its various left-populist forms. Buoyed by the collapse of social democracy and the constituent impulse of recent mobilizations against neoliberalism and austerity, a raft of leftist forces has been on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic—ranging from the progressive governments of the Latin American Pink Tide to the radical left parties in Greece and Spain, on to the self-declared “socialist” candidacies of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom.
But while the emergence of electoral alternatives to neoliberal cynicism certainly marks an advance compared to the shallow theatrics of electoral politics prior to the crisis, the defeat (and subsequent cooptation) of the radical left in Greece and the gradual receding of the Pink Tide in Latin America clearly reveal the limits of the once-vaunted model of “21st century socialism”, whose dependence on global capital and international financial institutions remains woefully undiminished.
Insofar as the aforementioned left-populist forces have anything new to offer, it is mostly new to a millennial generation that grew up at the End of History and that has been weaned for decades on a “post-ideological” diet of elite-consensus politics. When it comes to their actual political content and policy proposals, even the staunchest of state-socialists have long since made a headlong retreat into a moderate left-reformism, expressed in economic programs that can best be described as Keynesianism-lite. And as Syriza’s recent experience has tragically confirmed, even that is unlikely to be tolerated by the capitalist powers of the day.
The foreclosed alternative
What we are witnessing with this emerging left-populism, then, is the halting resurgence of an old left much more than the birth of a new anti-capitalist politics as such. The political poetry of left-populism may rhyme nicely with the language of the movements and resonate strongly with a public mood that is increasingly indignant at the inequities of financial capitalism and the corruption and unresponsiveness of the political elite—but it still remains the poetry of the past, embedded within a political imaginary that is wholly out of sync with the latest trends in capitalist development and the emerging forms of class struggle.
It should be noted, in this respect, that the relative successes of 20th century state-socialism were always limited to a very brief historical window in the immediate postwar decades and always depended on a set of very specific circumstances, including mass engagement with left parties, a powerful and militant labor movement, and soaring social, ideological and geopolitical tensions. During the “Golden Years” of the Keynesian compromise, the left’s political horizon largely reflected these structural conditions, with demands and struggles for full employment, higher wages and better working conditions taking center stage.
The capacity of the left to pursue such a productivist welfare program in turn hinged fundamentally on the Bretton Woods regime established at the end of World War II, which effectively kept finance and industry “captive” within national boundaries. By greatly increasing the relative autonomy of individual capitalist states and thereby creating policy space for large-scale public investment, progressive taxation and a range of redistributive policies, the Bretton Woods system turned out to be a fundamental prerequisite for the emergence and survival of the welfare state. Its breakdown greatly boosted the structural power of capital and limited the left’s room for maneuver.
In short, the material gains and political achievements of the old left depended on a very specific set of circumstances whose reproduction—irrespective of whether or not it would be desirable—is simply no longer possible today. With the liberalization of capital flows and trade, the globalization of production, the financialization of the world economy, the revolutions in transport, information and communication technologies, the demise of the unions, the evaporation of the communist threat, and the wholesale withdrawal of the masses from party politics, that route has now been foreclosed.
This is not a development that can be magically reversed by going back in time. As Peter Mair notes in the powerful opening statement to his last book, Ruling the Void, “the age of party democracy has passed.” Today, we are witnessing nothing less than “the final passing of the traditional mass party.” Of course this should not be taken to mean that these parties will just wither away, or that the state should simply be ceded to the capitalists. But it does indicate that the kind of enthusiastic popular engagement with politics that once sustained the relative successes of the labor movement is not going to come back—unless the left revolutionizes itself from below by inventing a new anti-capitalist politics for the 21st century.
Flashpoints of a new politics
It is in this light—of the historic demise of the traditional mass parties of the left—that we must read the most recent cycle of struggles. While the spectacular protests and popular uprisings of the last years have clearly centered on the inequities of financial capitalism and the authoritarian tendencies of the capitalist state, the more immediate significance of the mobilizations lay in the urgent message they sent to the left: evolve or die. Either build on the creativity and dynamism of the movements, or fade away into political irrelevance.
The Greek riots of December 2008, the mass protests against austerity in Southern Europe, the Occupy movement in North America and the UK, the student mobilizations in Canada and Chile, the mass demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and countless other countries of the Global South, the urban uprisings against anti-black police brutality in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore—each of these brief “insurrectionary” episodes constitutes a flashpoint in the emergence of a new politics, offering a collective vision of a radically different future that is being imagined in the very process of struggle.
Seen in this light, it becomes clear that the intense collective outrage and the immense social creativity expressed in these mobilizations is already breathing much-needed new life into a moribund left. As John Holloway argues in his contribution to this issue, the financial crash of 2008 and the popular uprisings of the post-2011 period can be seen as a rupture that has changed the very texture and content of contemporary struggles. Even if the movements do not yet seem to know the exact way forward, and even if the initial mobilizations themselves petered out relatively rapidly, it is self-evident that there can be no way back.
There can be no way back because—in the over-developed and deindustrialized societies of the Global North at least—the productivist and welfarist horizon of the traditional left has simply lost all connection with the social realities of ordinary working people and the concrete materiality of actually existing struggles on the ground. In this respect, the most recent wave of popular protest tells us something very important about the changing nature of capitalism and the evolving forms of class struggle under conditions of financialization; changes which in turn necessitate innovative new ways of thinking about anti-capitalist organizing and the transition to a post-capitalist world.
Sadly, those who remain versed in the poetry of the past have struggled to understand the unfamiliar language of the movements. Incapable of detecting anything new in them, many have ended up reducing the political essence of recent mobilizations to what they do understand: the struggle against inequality and unemployment, the opposition to austerity and the defense of the welfare state, and so on. While such traditional leftist grievances were certainly there, what was largely obscured in this mainstream narrative—also among large parts of the institutional left—was the deeper political content.
Emerging forms of class struggle
The only way to uncover the deeper political content of recent mobilizations would be to tune into the movements themselves and try to understand contemporary struggles on their own terms, while at the same time recognizing the embeddedness of each struggle within the context of the global political economy. Only by exploring the dialectic between the movements’ own subjectivities and the material conditions in which they arose can we begin to elucidate the common elements and intimate interconnections between them.
In this light, some of the main themes we can identify in the latest cycle of struggles include:
- The primacy of everyday life and questions of social reproduction;
- The centrality of the commons;
- The expression and enactment of a strong desire for democracy.
The traditional left has proven to be extremely poorly equipped, both theoretically and practically, to grasp these points—precisely because they go against some of its main ideological tenets.
The primacy of everyday life:
For one, the traditional left has long upheld the primacy of waged labor and struggles within the sphere of production. As a result, it has historically paid much less attention to the more fundamental forms of unwaged labor—including heavily gendered housework and care—that constitute the sphere of social reproduction; a point that has been powerfully developed by Italian autonomist theorists and Marxist feminists like Silvia Federici. Reproduction is always prior to production, as the latter cannot continue without the former.
All class struggles under capitalism must therefore start from the most elementary question of social reproduction: how to make a living and reproduce the “general conditions of life” without direct access to the means of subsistence. As Manuela Zechner and Bue Rübner Hansen show in their contribution to this issue, the recent transformations and crises of capitalism have pushed this question to the heart of contemporary movements: How do we sustain ourselves under conditions of austerity, precarity and unemployment? How do we provide care (personal, medical, psychological) in the face of a crumbling welfare system? How can we build social power by increasing our reproductive resilience?
Another way of approaching the same problem would be to shift attention back towards the related struggles taking place within the sphere of realization. As David Harvey has repeatedly argued, including in his interview in this issue, the left’s over-emphasis on Volume I of Capital at the expense of Volume II has led it to narrowly prioritize struggles over wages and working conditions at the point of production, while largely ignoring struggles over everyday life and living conditions at the point of circulation and consumption. “For conventional Marxists,” Harvey writes, “this poses the problem of how to wage class struggle against, say, the merchants, the bankers, currency traders and the like.”
While the productivist bias of the traditional left has long plagued and stunted broad-based popular struggles, its limitations become even more acute under neoliberal capitalism, which is marked—in the over-developed countries of the advanced capitalist core—by a decisive shift away from the productive sphere (which is increasingly being automated or outsourced to the Global South) and towards the sphere of realization; a development that is exemplified by the rising power of financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, the emergence of new merchant mega-corporations like Wal-Mart and Amazon, and the return of the rentier in the guise of the multi-billionaire Silicon Valley mogul.
This broad shift towards redistributive conflicts over realization is progressively taking class struggle in the Global North out of the workplace and into the city at large, where it unfolds directly onto the terrain of everyday life. Interestingly, contemporary social movements turn out to be much more attuned than the old left to the dramatic consequences of this shift for the material conditions, lived experience and day-to-day concerns of working people and urban dwellers. This, in turn, has led them to be much more actively engaged in ongoing struggles over debt, housing, gentrification, transport, police brutality and the cost of living.
Urban space, in short, becomes a key battleground in the emerging forms of class struggle; a point that heterodox radicals like Henri Lefebvre and Murray Bookchin were already insisting on in the 1960s. More recently, Hardt and Negri have even wagered that “the metropolis is to the multitude what the factory was to the industrial working class.” Explosive urban uprisings like the Gezi Park protests in Turkey and the bus fare rebellion in Brazil are some of the clearest contemporary expressions of this development, as are smaller-scale struggles over housing, gentrification and transport in places like London and San Francisco.
The centrality of the commons:
The primacy of everyday life and social reproduction in contemporary forms of class struggle is in turn closely connected to the centrality of the notion of “the common” (or “the commons”)—defined by Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis as “autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over our life and the conditions of our reproduction, and to provide resources on the basis of sharing and equal access; but also bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state.”
The centrality of the common is yet another important point setting the movements apart from the old left, which has tended to reduce its conception of class struggle to a simple tug-of-war between the public property of the socialist state and the private property of the capitalist market. What was somehow lost over the course of the 20th century was an appreciation of the liberatory and transformative potential of the “common in communism”; that which is held indivisibly and self-managed democratically by all members of the community.
For the Jacobin left, eternally agitating for greater state centralization and public control over the means of production, the notion of the common has often been derided as little more than a relic from a pre-capitalist past, closely tied to the somewhat dismissive category of “primitive communism.” This is not how Marx himself saw it—and it is certainly not how today’s social movements see it. For Marx, the ultimate objective of communism was always to establish a society in which the means of production were to be held in common, leading him to develop a strong interest in existing forms of communal ownership in later life.
As Kristin Ross recounts in her new book, Communal Luxury, Marx spent his final years working on two big projects: the first, of course, was his well-known study for Capital; but at the same time he was also engaged in another, lesser known study of the Russian peasant communes, starting with his reading of Chernyshevsky’s Essays on Communal Ownership of Land. “In the form of the Russian peasant commune,” Ross writes, Marx “saw the traces of the primary communism he had observed in the Paris Commune: ‘individuals [who] behave not as laborers but as owners—as members of a community which also labors.’”
Just a year before his death, in a move that marked a clear break from his earlier writings on the law-like progression of capitalist development, Marx decided to add a direct reference to the common in the final paragraph of his 1882 foreword to the Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West,” he wrote with Engels, “the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.” In Marx’s own latter-day view, then, the notion of the common lies at the basis of the social revolution.
While they may not necessarily self-identify as communist, today’s movements are once again placing the notion of the common back at the heart of broad-based popular struggles, ranging from the creation and maintenance of common spaces (like the protest camps at Sol, Syntagma and Zuccotti), to the defense of the urban commons (like Gezi Park) and common resources (like struggles against water privatization in Bolivia and Italy), on to conflicts over the enclosure of the creative commons (like patent and copyright regulation in the TTIP trade deal) and movement support for recuperated workplaces (like Vio.Me) and other self-managed cooperatives in which the means of production are held in common.
Again, we can discern a clear connection here between the emerging forms of struggle and the systemic tendencies in neoliberalism. As Harvey has famously noted, the latter increasingly operates through “accumulation by dispossession,” or various forms of state-backed plundering of public goods and common wealth. Neoliberal state policies like austerity, privatization, bank bailouts, resource extraction and regressive taxation dispossess society of its ability to reproduce itself, leading to the enclosure and commodification of spheres of life that had previously been held firmly outside of the logic of the market.
Naturally, just as the commoners in early-modern England fiercely resisted the enclosure of their pastoral lands, and just as the levelers in the English Civil War struggled firmly for the common ownership of land, today’s neoliberal forms of enclosure and dispossession are unleashing a new wave of resistance across the globe. Essentially, what is being rediscovered in these ongoing struggles is something as old as the notion of communism itself: the powerful and “dangerous” idea that ordinary people are perfectly capable of collectively self-managing their own affairs by holding the land, the city and the means of production in common—without capitalist oversight or state interference.
The desire for democracy:
The overarching theme that can be distilled from all the above is the strong desire for democracy; a desire that has both been expressed as a demand (“real democracy now!”) and directly enacted in practice (in the assemblies). Again, the contrast between the emerging forms of struggle and the old left is stark here. Against the hierarchical, centralized and bureaucratic institutions of 20th century socialism, the movements are counterposing their own dynamic, horizontal and decentralized forms. Against the constituted power of the Jacobins, they have aligned themselves firmly with the constituent power of the sans-culottes.
The concept of constituent power is foundational in this respect. As Michael Hardt writes in the foreword to his translation of Negri’s Insurgencies, “constituent power … is the essence of modern democracy and modern revolution. [It] names the democratic forces of social transformation, the means by which humans make their own history.” As such, it is “the locus of social creativity, political innovation, and historical movement.”
In contrast to the old left, narrowly concerned with seizing the constituted power of the state, the emerging anti-capitalist politics is not necessarily opposed to the idea of taking power, but finds it much more worthwhile to think in terms of building power and cultivating the social creativity, collective imagination and democratic aspirations of society as such. It recognizes that the left cannot simply “take” power without first building it—democratically—from below.
While the latest cycle of struggles never really posed a threat to the constituted order as such, the real significance of the movements lies precisely in this: in their creative capacity to constitute new forms of organizing through an experimental, educational and embodied democratic praxis. As Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini put it in They Can’t Represent Us, “the mobilizations we have seen are laboratories for democracy.” The Greek WWII resistance hero and left-wing political activist Manolis Glezos once put it to ROAR in similar terms: “The assembly at Syntagma Square was not democracy; it was a lesson in democracy.”
In this respect, the desire for democracy and a new constituent process expressed in the latest cycle of struggles is indicative of an expanding political imaginary on the part of the movements that demands ever greater popular participation in (and direction of) processes of social transformation. As Hardt notes, constituent power is defined by “the inseparable connection it demands between revolution and democracy.” Just as the revolution of the 21st century must be democratic in nature, so the democracy of the 21st century must be revolutionary in its horizon.
Beyond insularity and fragmentation
It should be clear by now that the expansive and democratic political imaginary of the movements makes the latter cast their social net much wider than the traditional left. Struggles are increasingly situated within the urban terrain and cross a broad range of areas that may, at first sight, make them appear to be separate single-issue campaigns over concerns like housing, transport or student debt. Nevertheless, upon closer inspection, such struggles often turn out to be connected in intimate and powerful, if not immediately obvious, ways.
The wide social net cast by today’s movements—with their plurality of concerns and complicated interrelations—therefore offers both exciting new possibilities for cross-sectional political agitation and at the same time throws up formidable new challenges to collective organizing. If it is not immediately obvious, for instance, how struggles over university tuition fees relate to urban uprisings against anti-black police violence or workers’ demands for a fair minimum wage, it will be difficult to bring such disparate movements together beyond superficial lip-service to “intersectionality” or ephemeral expressions of solidarity.
The result is that many struggles within the sphere of realization and social reproduction remain relatively insular in nature and defensive in character, failing to cohere into a broader political movement capable of striking out at capital by mobilizing and coordinating the collective energies of different groups in the pursuit of a common objective. This in turn reinforces the overwhelming climate of political isolation among activists, further exacerbating the perceived weakness and sense of futility experienced by many.
One of the biggest questions facing the movements, then, is how to turn a seemingly endless variety of issues and an often fragmented field of struggles into a more or less coherent social counterpower capable of tackling the many seemingly separate conflicts at their shared root. This would require nothing less than a common project to contest, subvert and ultimately dismantle the power of capital at its various levels of operation: the local, national and global.
The problems of extension and scale
Here, however, we encounter another difficult problem. It is not just the “objective conditions” of late capitalism—with its fragmentation and atomization of the social fabric—that throw up barriers to collective agency; as Harvey points out, the movements have also locked themselves into a mirror image of capital in some respects, often (consciously or unconsciously) mimicking and idealizing its networked organizational properties without always subjecting them to proper scrutiny. The result, in Wolfgang Streeck’s words, is that “disorganized capitalism is disorganizing not only itself but its opposition as well.”
This has led, on the one hand, to ephemeral explosions of mass protest that strangely resemble the boom and bust cycles of capitalist credit creation; and on the other to a more enduring but mostly defensive retreat into the “small” and the “local”—or what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams refer to as “the political bunkers of immediacy and simplicity.” The movements still have to come to terms with the problems of spatial, temporal and social expansion, as well as the related problems of conceptual abstraction and systemic complexity.
The most pressing challenge, Michael Hardt points out in this issue, is how to ensure the capacity of the struggles to spread, to endure and to become generalized, which in turn requires us to think much more critically about the question of organization. We may dislike the traditional institutions of the left, Hardt notes, but we have to recognize that at least they were capable of mobilizing a large cross-section of society and sustaining political action over prolonged periods of time to secure real material gains at the level of working conditions and social rights. We need to learn from this historical experience.
Today, by contrast, movements thrive on a powerful form of political spontaneity that closely parallels the affective economy of social media: their outreach is potentially unlimited and dissemination almost instantaneous, feeding into patterns of resonance that allow specific struggles to spread like “viral” memes. But once the collective self-expression of public grievances has exhausted itself or a degree of social recognition has been secured, the latest “status update” on the popular mood of the day swiftly recedes from view as the timelines and newsfeeds of the multitude of spectators move on to other pressing concerns.
Again, there are both opportunities and challenges here. While the movements have unprecedented access to technology, information and direct pathways of communication, the organizational capacity to transform our expressions of collective outrage into tangible material gains has yet to be developed.
Unfortunately, the absence of large-scale and long-term organizational capacity has—in some circles, at least—become fetishized as a political objective in and of itself. Even if most movement participants do take the organizational challenges seriously, there appears to be a certain self-limiting quality to many forms of contemporary activism that militates strongly against the type of concerted political action that would be required to confront the immense power of capital at its higher levels of abstraction—like crushing the state-finance nexus or dismantling the prison-industrial complex.
More specifically, the strong emphasis on political process and strictly horizontalist modes of organizing imposes a raft of new rigidities and unnecessary restrictions that may actually stunt the development of the movements and limit their capacity to scale up, endure and extend into the social fabric. In this sense, the movements’ apparent difficulty in taking the “next step” following a period of spontaneous mass mobilization can be seen at least in part as a result of some of the ideological narratives circulating among a new crop of activists.
While many activists today rightly take inspiration from libertarian socialist struggles like the project of indigenous autonomy in Chiapas or the construction of democratic confederalism in Rojava, one crucial factor behind the successes of such struggles often tends to be overlooked: both the Zapatistas and the Kurds practice direct democracy, but neither movement has ever limited itself to a pure horizontalism. Indeed, the EZLN and PKK both originated in, and to some extent continue to function as, highly disciplined armed forces with inspirational leader figures—even if they have long since abandoned their Marxist-Leninist methods.
In contrast to the long-term projects of the Kurds or the Zapatistas, more loosely organized movements elsewhere—lacking a disciplined nucleus of militants like the EZLN and PKK—have not been able to develop a concrete project of their own. As a result, the ruptures they generated left behind a political vacuum for other, more organized forces to fill: reformists like Syriza at best; reactionaries like Sisi at worst. In an ideal insurrectionary situation, this space would have to be occupied by the organized forces of the social revolution, which would in turn require extensive organizational groundwork and advance preparation.
Of course none of this means that the latest cycle of struggles has been in vain—far from it. As we have already seen, its historical relevance resides principally in the creative impulse it has given to the broad left. The mobilizations of the post-2011 period should be seen in this light, not as failures or defeats, but as tentative first steps in a long-term process of reinventing and reconstituting the social opposition; a common political project that must ultimately build towards the creation of a broad-based anti-capitalist movement for the 21st century.
Towards a common political project
The notion of a “political project” should be understood in the broadest possible sense of the term here: neither simply as the creation of an ordinary political party in the pursuit of state power, nor as the construction of another coalition of social forces, but more generally as the development of a set of convergence points for various pre-existing struggles to rally around and organize upon.
These points of convergence would have to be inserted directly into the deepening contradictions and crisis tendencies of financialized capitalism and situated firmly in the lived experience of working people and urban dwellers. Most importantly, they would have to build on the transformative potential of ongoing struggles. Only on that basis can the movements begin to formulate a shared narrative, political imaginary and transformative project rooted in the social reproduction of everyday life, animated by strong popular desires for democracy, and geared towards the collective self-management of the common.
In many ways, this is both the most important and at the same time the most difficult task confronting the left today: how to generate political coherence out of a field of struggles full of contextual particularities—and, more specifically, how to do so without sacrificing the richness of a plurality of methods. The only sensible way forward would be to actively build on the diversity of tactics, multiplicity of strategies and ecology of organizational forms that presently exist within society and that will undoubtedly be further expanded in future years.
The minimal prerequisites to generate such coherence would be to name the common enemy (capitalism), identify the common terrain of action (everyday life in the city) and develop a common project (the construction of a social counterpower geared towards the eventual establishment of a democratic post-capitalist society) that can unify the struggles through a shared narrative, with participants neither clinging on to their individual identities, nor giving up their unique particularities under the aegis of a single hegemonic force.
More concretely, the convergence point would have to take on an organizational form of its own; one that can accommodate the wide ecology of other organizational forms without imposing itself on them. The social movements in Spain have embarked on an interesting project, in this respect, by developing city-specific “confluence platforms of popular unity” that have fielded “citizens’ candidates” in municipal elections. The confluence platforms bring together a wide array of movement activists, left-wing militants and public personalities without developing the “organic internal life” of an ordinary political party.
The political objective of such convergence points would be dual: first and foremost, to generate a confluence of social forces capable of exerting collective power through unity in action; and second, at a deeper and much more radical level, to actively transform the identities of individual participants in the very process of collective mobilization—broadening political horizons, overcoming sectarian divides and opening particular struggles up onto the wider social terrain. In this sense, the construction of confluence platforms opens up a raft of new opportunities to act in common and build social power from below.
A network of rebel cities
To insert themselves directly onto the terrain of everyday life, the confluence platforms would have to be urban or metropolitan in scope and would ideally be rooted in and responsive to a confederated structure of neighborhood and workplace assemblies—just as Bookchin envisioned it. Among their ranks, the platforms would include a broad ecology of autonomous movements, social unions, neighborhood organizations, popular initiatives, issue-based campaigns and even radical parties, as long as the latter remain on equal footing with the movements and are never allowed to hegemonize the platforms.
Beyond creating new capacities for mutual aid, dynamic coordination and collective mobilization, the platforms would field citizens’ candidacies (ideally in the form of recallable delegates) in municipal elections, as in Spain, with the short-term objective of taking back the city and putting it under movement control. Since public provisions like social security, social housing, refugee reception and public transport in many countries are administered by local municipalities, the “rebel cities” could begin to roll out pilot projects with basic income, free transit, refugee sanctuaries and cooperative housing; although they will initially lack the resources and powers to fully develop such schemes.
This is why, once multiple municipalities are brought under the control of the movements, their respective confluence platforms would have to confederate into a national (and eventually international) network of rebel cities. The newest municipal platforms in Spain, for instance, have recently banded together to form the Network of Cities for the Common Good. These networks could in turn decide to create higher-order confluence platforms fielding citizens’ candidates in national elections. The latter would aim to oust reactionary elites and establish defensive positions in the state apparatus, especially in relation to the forces of order and the concentrated power of finance and big business.
Here we should immediately note that the capitalist state is unlikely to ever become an active agent of popular empowerment and social transformation, and the left should therefore always guard against tendencies to prioritize the state as the primary site of struggle. As Marx famously put it in his reflections on the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Even with the left in government, capital continues to be a social power, not just a personal one. It will operate on and through the state even when it is nominally in the hands of the movements.
The long-term objective of any meaningful revolutionary process should therefore be to dismantle the “ready-made machinery” of the centralized capitalist state and replace it with a decentralized confederation of communes. The state, however, is not simply a “thing” that can be declared out of existence by the assembled multitude. Like capital, the state is a social relation that can only ever be dismantled through a complex and prolonged destituent process rooted in popular struggle. The coordinated network of rebel cities we speak of here could serve as a short-term stepping-stone towards that ultimate post-capitalist horizon.
A political program of the common
On the basis of this stepping-stone, the movements could begin to formulate a coherent political program of the common, pushing for substantive reforms geared towards increasing the reproductive resilience of society.
What would set such “substantive” reforms apart from a more traditionally reformist agenda would be their transformative political horizon: rather than seeking to reform capitalism, they would aim to expand and consolidate the power base of the opposition, allowing it to launch future attacks on capital from higher ground while generating new openings for the intensification and radicalization of the struggle.
The list of such transformative reforms is potentially endless. It could include the devolution of power away from the central state and towards the rebel cities, the socialization of finance and the democratization of money, the institution of a universal basic income and universal citizenship, working-time reduction, access to cooperative housing and free healthcare, the introduction of radical pedagogy into school curricula, the decentralization and decarbonization of energy systems, legal recognition of workers’ councils, and the declaration of a “charter of the commons” to enshrine open access to communal property into law, protecting it from enclosure and liberating new spaces for non-commodified social relations to prosper.
Where the 20th century left once envisioned a “mixed economy” of public control and private initiative, combining state regulation with market distribution to allow for the private accumulation of capital within a framework of political constraints, the 21st century left will have to start building a “cooperative economy” combining common ownership over the means of production with innovative forms of “hands-off” state support aimed at creating space for autonomous circuits of social reproduction and self-organized social initiatives, ranging from legislation in support of workplace recuperations and worker self-management to the provision of interest-free credit to cooperative enterprises.
Crucially, all of the above would have to emanate from the constituent power of the movements and be channeled directly through the democratic processes of the confluence platforms. Since the basic outline sketched out here would be fiercely contested by those who retain their concentrated forms of economic power and privileged access to key nodes in the administrative apparatuses of the state, nothing will be given up for free. The conflicts will be fierce. Even with our friends in power, the movements can only ever win something like a “charter of the commons” through the concerted mobilization of autonomous counterpowers.
In the end, the construction of social power cannot be pursued in isolation from the consolidation of the power that has already been accumulated. As Bookchin put it, “social revolutionaries, far from removing the problem of power from their field of vision, must address the problem of how to give power a concrete and emancipatory institutional form.” That institutional form—the ultimate objective of the social revolution—he called the “Commune of communes.”
Expanding the horizons of possibility
Needless to say, we are still very far from the kind of pre-revolutionary situation outlined above—let alone the post-capitalist society it should eventually give rise to. The moment we put down our readings and get on with the difficult task of organizing ourselves on the ground, we find that same capitalist barbarity still staring us in the face. The sheer scale of the task ahead of us is daunting. Not only do we have to devise innovative new ways to defend ourselves from, and ultimately destroy, the voracious appetite of capital; we also have to reinvent the left and the very meaning of revolution in the process.
By necessity, then, we are in it for the long haul. The common project of the 21st century left will inevitably unfold over the course of decades. It is therefore more fruitful to think of revolution as a protracted process rather than a singular event with a clear beginning and end. This is not about storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace; we need to set our sights much further than that. No one has ever won (or survived) a marathon by sprinting to the finish line. In many respects, we will have to free ourselves from capitalist time and set our own political pace.
Unfortunately, however, there are some things that simply cannot wait. Pressing concerns like climate change and the refugee crisis compel us to act now, simply to save human lives and the planetary life-support systems on which they depend. This is another reason why a dynamic and versatile left capable of rising to the challenges of our times will need to rest on a broad ecology of organizational forms—each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each operating according their own particular temporalities. At this point in history, obtuse left-wing sectarianism may quite well prove to be the end of humanity.
Yet it often seems that the future remains trapped between the internecine squabbles of two seemingly irreconcilable “lefts”: an old one centered narrowly on taking power, and a new one still struggling to come to terms with its own potential. Beyond the haughty impotence of the former and the apparent perplexity of the latter, the theory and practice of building power offers fertile and expanding political ground for a new anti-capitalist politics. We must now explode the tensions between them into a common project that can begin to give a concrete and democratic organizational form to the restive constituent potential that is craving to assert itself from below.
As we gather force and move along the process of construction, we will gradually notice the horizons of possibility expanding: the higher we rise, the farther we see; until, one day, all that meets the eye is the glorious sight of rebel cities everywhere rising up against the common enemy, humanity resolving at last to “throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.” Until then, you will find us in the streets: preparing the ground, laying the foundations—building power.