Syriza’s victory has left in its wake a wave of hope that an alternative to neoliberalist orthodoxy is possible. In this piece, originally published in Ceasefire on February 2nd, Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen examine the prospects of further breakthroughs elsewhere in Europe.
As in the famous photograph of the Parthenon, the peoples of Europe are indeed rising up – even if the KKE which hung those posters has singularly ruled itself out of taking any part in the remarkable confrontation with the Troika which its one-time comrades in Syriza are now engaging in. Across the continent there is quite rightly a huge wave of hope at seeing that there is an alternative to simply taking our neoliberal medicine and watching as work, education, health, democracy and common decency are hacked to pieces by our increasingly-indistinguishable rulers.
Leaving aside the many possible partial analyses – of the history of German occupation, British military support for the postwar assault on the Greek resistance, NATO’s support for the regime of the colonels, the splits and reorganisation of the Greek left after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the corruption of Greek social democracy, the twisting of arms and breaking of mandates to ensure Troika rule, the perverse effects of bleeding money out of the economy, the rise of “solidarity economy” in response to the destruction of the welfare state, the wave of workplace occupations, the radical Greek diaspora abroad and so on – how can we understand “the movement as a whole”?
Much “radical” writing on Greece is painfully simplistic – the Greeks were suffering, therefore they rose up (but, as activists know in practice there is no linear relationship between levels of poverty and levels of resistance – or neoliberalism would long since have collapsed without us having to make an effort and, more trivially, we would have seen comparable levels of struggle in countries like Portugal and Italy). Or, party-building is always and everywhere the thing to do (but the presence of far-left parties, and the latest new coalition, normally fails to have anything like the desired effects – such coalitions often lose votes by comparison with their previously separate components).
Let’s consider three badly-affected European countries: Greece, Spain and Ireland. The new Greek government certainly rests on a long process of party-building going back to the split between the “interior” KKE (oriented to local struggles) and the “exterior” one (oriented to Moscow). But Spain’s Podemos – now the first party in terms of popular support – has just been invented and stands not in any genealogy of left parties but in a long history of the “anti-institutional left”, going back through the indignad@s, the 2004 protests against the state’s attempt to blame ETA for the Madrid train bombings, the 2003 anti-war movement, the global justice movement of the early 2000s and before that the complex and well-established Spanish autonomist scene. In Ireland, despite the agreement between Sinn Féin’s PR machine and the world’s mainstream media that it is somehow the equivalent of Syriza and Podemos, the collapse of Ireland’s traditional post-colonial party system (two right-wing nationalist parties and a tiny Labour Party) has mostly benefitted independent deputies rather than either SF or the Trotskyist parties, whose alliance recently collapsed.
In other words, what makes the difference is neither party-building nor simple poverty. It is the disruption of the traditional political cleavage structures which have reliably delivered votes to the same parties despite (for example) social democratic parties’ long-term shift from representing working-class and labour interests to the technocratic management of neoliberalism. What has disrupted this depressing situation is above all the existence of large-scale popular movements: indignad@s and (where it took off) Occupy, labour struggles (including precarious struggles and workplace occupations), the development of “solidarity economy” projects meeting basic needs (food, housing, medical provision, education) outside of the remaining shreds of the welfare state, community organising in working-class and migrant neighbourhoods, direct action and the learning that comes from encountering the hostile response of state and media, and so on.
Refusing to pay for water
In Ireland, the experience of the struggle against water charges – the first step towards privatisation but also a massive cost for people who have seen indirect taxes soar, wages and benefits cut and massive emigration of the employable young – is striking. In many ways the success of the present movement is because of the failure of previous party-led efforts.
In 2012, the Campaign Against the Household and Water Tax, led by Trotskyist and anarchist groups, was very successful in persuading more than half the population not to register for payment of the tax. In 2013, one Trotskyist faction brought the campaign down in flames by insisting that non-payment was the only way, in a context where the state had provided itself with the mechanisms to extract punitive payment from welfare and wages. Few people were prepared to march up that particular hill without a credible strategy and the organisation fell apart. In 2014, a new movement came, seemingly out of nowhere, to generate some of the biggest protests in the history of the state, a huge level of direct action in resisting meter installation (in the teeth of police and private security thuggery and a campaign of media vilification) and refusing registration, and a massive crisis for the state.
We wrote We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism in April 2014 – before the rise of this movement, when Podemos was still just an interesting idea and Syriza was far from the levers of power. At that time we wrote:
“the way out [of the crisis of resistance] must lie not in a further reassertion of the narrow interests of organisational elites, be they community, NGO, or Trotskyist, but in strategies aimed at supporting the development of active movement participation and alliance-building on our own terrain. This is obviously easier said than done: in all likelihood, the next moves in action from below will not come from increasingly isolated movement organisations but from new mobilisations below the radar…. [G]iven the failures of organisational movement politics, however, there is every reason to believe that the new wave will, like the Italian 1977, come from outside existing organisational contexts.” (pp. 191 – 2)
The parties in government have seen their vote shredded, despite making concession after concession to undermine the movement (the state is now promising to pay all households €100 in order to pay the charges…) The Labour Party’s self-righteous deputy prime minister alternates between appearing on TV to equate having a water bomb thrown at her with the rise of fascism (a calmer analysis might note just how peaceful Irish protestors are given how many people’s lives have been made a misery thanks to her party – and how well working-class kids learn to throw things!), suggesting that owning mobile phones is a sign that protestors are rich, and claiming to incarnate resistance to austerity. Less ludicrous political figures hope that the Greek challenge will deliver some economic relief without them having to confront their European masters – who control the traditional retirement options for loyal politicians who have reached their sell-by date.
The new movement started outside the CAHWT and the far left parties but not out of nothing: it arose in working-class areas with long histories of community activism going back to the 1970s and often involvement in resistance to water charges in the 1980s and 1990s – although the movement quickly spread to conservative and rural areas. Sinn Féin and the left parties, together with some unions, have provided logistical support but have been hamstrung in calling for lawbreaking, are skittish about the “uncontrolled” nature of the mass demonstrations because of their genuinely popular character, and struggle to engage effectively with community groups who understand much better than the formal institutions just how far their participants have come and what the challenges are in taking them further.
Perhaps the most effective innovation, in a country where token demonstrations “against cuts” planned by union leaderships in bed with the Labour Party routinely consisted in bussing protestors up to Dublin, boring the will to live out of them despite the anger shown by sometimes massive turnouts and carefully leaving them in the middle of the shopping district on a Saturday afternoon, has been the holding of a national day of ultra-local demonstrations. Here people could see both what their neighbours thought (in a country where the fear of standing out from friends and family is huge) and assess the likelihood that their neighbours will stand with them in resisting meter installation or refusing to register – as well as bringing the protest to every little community and on local radio station.
As we write the struggle is about to enter a new phase, with the expiry of the (extended) deadline to register for the €100 bribe and various concessions on water charges. With the wider stakes raised by Syriza and the prospect of elections within the next year, the outcome is all to play for. What is certain is that after years of movement retreat (the joint product of the union rituals mentioned above and Trotskyist insistence on ever-smaller demonstrations as the only possible way to resist austerity), people who have learned how to fight with their friends, family and neighbours, have seen the police and media turn against them and the state make concession after concession will not go home quietly: we are set to see a generalisation of struggle across as-yet unpredictable swathes of Irish society.
The Modern Prince – or Prince Charming?
We are delighted (but unsurprised) to see the new movement successes across the European periphery: as We Make Our Own History argues, neoliberalism has reached its sell-by date and is in an organic crisis provoked in large part by the global mobilisations of the last fifteen years or so, which have intensified and spread to new regions (such as the Arab world) since the financial crash. In the book we also argued against the belief that being “radical” either means a horrified fascination with the structures of neoliberalism and the state as somehow unstoppable – or a desperate belief in political parties:
“Rather than Gramsci’s Modern Prince, it sometimes seems that many Marxists are on a desperate search for a Prince Charming, as though if there was no party to identify with they could no longer be Marxists. Where Prince Charming is not available at home, he is sought elsewhere: in southern Europe (Rifondazione Comunista, Front de Gauche, die Linke, Syriza…) or in Latin America (Castro, Ortega, Lula, Chávez…
[This] marks far more the impoverishment of this form of ‘Marxism’ and its inability to grapple with the question of popular agency. Marxism is not the position that in all times and all places the political party is the best way to organise (counterposed, presumably, to anarchism). Rather, we would argue that its defining feature in a much deeper sense is a commitment to structured popular agency, to representing ‘the interests of the movement as a whole’, and hence to strategies of alliance-building between movements, of identifying the most radical common potential, and of close attention to the interests underlying different tendencies within movements, not as a means of dismissal but as a means of understanding and preventing movement capture by elites…
[T]he Marxist emphasis has to be on the movement, not the party: a party is worthy of Marxist interest only to the extent that it is successful in placing the movement first. More broadly, the Marxist question should be one about how popular agency is currently structured – or the competing types of structure which movements adopt. Rather than fetishising a particular mode of organising either as universally valid (and hence defining a new Marxist ‘tradition’), or as sweeping all before it because it is new, the useful question is one of the relationships between different types of popular organising in a given time and place, and how they reinforce one another or cancel each other out, not only in the struggle against capital and the state but also in the internal struggle to articulate ‘good sense’ against ‘common sense’ and to become political subjects rather than objects.” (pp. 203-4)
The point in Ireland, for example, is not to choose between parties, unions, community activism and autonomous activism – in many cases these represent the same people in different parts of their life. It is to work within whichever of these we have available to us to push forwards the interests of the general movement rather than the narrow organisational interests of our particular context , and to find a way of respecting the specific logics of those we need to work with without capitulating to the logic of the lowest common denominator. At time of writing, the campaign’s complex steering committee seems to be managing this difficult balancing act.
Making our own history
In We Make Our Own History, we analyse movements in a developmental way – from the way in which people’s experience is structured by social relationships, to the “local rationalities” through which they attempt to meet their needs, in the “militant particularisms” which they articulate in conflict with elites, as they create “campaigns” linking multiple such particularisms around a specific issue or way of organising, when they build “social movement projects” tying together many different issues around the project of a different kind of society, and the “organic crisis” that their success in bringing different popular groups together around such a project can provoke.
Of course this development is by no means automatic: it is what participants have to do, and to argue through. It is also, more subtly, a potential which theory (the distillation of previous experience, what earlier activists have had to learn painfully or brutally in the first person) can enable us to see and therefore to move towards. Previously in Ceasefire (here, here and here)we have presented an analysis of the global context as one not fundamentally different from the actual historical experience of global waves of revolution (as opposed to the representation of such waves by commercial media or over-simplifying radical “celebrations” – which treat the rivers of blood that follow defeat as a source of cheap emotion rather than a reason for thinking very hard about our strategic situation).
In that analysis we argued that central to such movement waves is a regional crisis of hegemony, where elites are no longer able to rule as they have been accustomed, and ordinary people are no longer willing to go on being governed in the same way. How does the current situation look, after the Greek elections, the rise of Podemos and the Irish movement?
We argued that Europe, like South America, has seen a broad continuity since the “movement of movements” around the turn of the millennium – a movement which continued through the largest global protests ever on February 15, 2003 (where western Europe was the numerical centre of gravity), into the anti-austerity resistance from the onset of the financial crisis, the indignad@s and Occupy of the early 2010s and on to today.
We noted too that we have seen a long stalemate in which what might in other decades have been expected to be the irresistible force of mass popular mobilisations has met the immovable object of neoliberal policy – but where, also unlike previous experiences, the massive challenge to state power and legitimacy has not been effectively repressed; despite the shootings of protestors at Gothenburg and the killing of Carlo Giuliani in Genoa in 2001, European states cannot muster sufficient consent for lethal repression.
Popular consensus has provoked repeated wobbles among European elites over austerity – most recently, the turn to quantitative easing just before the Greek election. It remains to be seen whether the doubters will carry the day and give ground to anti-austerity forces. If they do, will this open a further breach for popular movements or will they be bought off? If the hard line of orthodoxy prevails, will movements back down or radicalise and mobilise further?
What can be said is that Greece, Spain and Ireland have seen the broad pro-austerity consensus of mainstream political parties, media and academics shattered by powerful movements from below. As we noted, crises such as these reshuffle the cards of the political game, disrupt traditional cleavage structures and reshape movement landscapes.
Greece, Spain and Ireland are not the EU; they are not even the totality of its crisis-ridden periphery which includes Italy and Portugal, but also France and Cyprus (and, in a very different key, the UK) – all countries where the pays légal represented at the level of voting intentions remains very different from the pays réel of increasingly-loud desperation and some inspiring, if isolated, movement experiences.
But the EU and EEA, after several decades, are not simply the sum of their parts. Economic policy, within the Eurozone in particular, ties together German lenders and Greek creditors, Spanish emigrants and stagnating northern cities, Irish refusals to obey and the headquarters of Troika policy. Elsewhere in Europe too, resistances cross-cut and tie together states which have never existed in isolation from one another: be it Blockupy in Frankfurt, resistance to fracking from Poland to the UK, or Norwegian climate jobs alliances, what happens in one part of the web resonates elsewhere in unexpected ways.
EU austerity policy is notoriously the priority of German conservatives in particular (and written into the rules of the Bundesbank), allied to a handful of northern states against the increasingly-vocal doubts expressed by French socialists and the Bank of England: if this rickety applecart is upset and QE does not solve all political problems, it is not clear what comes next.
In another key, the democratic legitimacy which was once central to the EU has been massively damaged in the crisis. We have seen the Irish sent back to rerun their referenda when they have voted the wrong way, Greek and Irish parties elected on one platform and switching to another at the behest of Brussels, Italian technical governments installed like receivers for bankrupt companies, and an increasing difficulty in imagining workable coalition governments in a string of countries now facing elections (not least, Spain and Ireland).
Of course any given wrinkle can be smoothed out, but popular movements are forcing a very big wedge into the contradiction between undemocratically-imposed EU economic constraints (many predating the crisis, or proposed beforehand) and the traditional modes of electoral legitimacy: witness the horror at Greeks actually voting for the (“far-left”, “extreme”) Syriza and even more that Syriza do not do the “responsible” thing which counts as elite common sense and instead respond to the popular feeling that enough is enough.
Comrades, what should we do?
What now? It is important to connect our local movement realities to the wider European context without trying to impose a one-size-fits-all analysis of what kinds of parties, unions, movements or whatever we want to see. As we argued in our earlier articles, it is not waves of popular movements that see the same thing expressed everywhere in the same way – it is advertising campaigns. Real popular struggles will not always look, in their context, like what we are involved in here. In this context neoliberalism is not our friend: the politics of opinion (now on social media) and the sectarian worlds of different kinds of left politics both serve us up a franchised package in which we are only told about the “right” kind of movement or organisation elsewhere – one of that tiny fraction which correspond neatly to the story being imported for our own niche market here.
We need, in the broadest sense, to break out from the politics of opinion as a substitute for action (or a way of highlighting our own alternative “cultural capital”), and rather than awarding each other stars or black marks for being more or less like “us”, start having the kinds of conversations – between different movements, between different local and national contexts and between different political and intellectual traditions. Movement diversity is a strength, not a weakness – it represents our ability to work together across what in Spanish are called “different realities”, different fields of struggle and the different-but-linked world we hope to see.
Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen are co-authors of We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism and co-editors of Marxism and Social Movements. You can read their three-part series of essays on revolutionary waves in Ceasefire: What Makes a Revolution?, Making Sense of Revolutionary Waves, and What To Do In A Revolutionary Wave.
Laurence Cox is an activist and social movement researcher who co-directs the MA in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at Maynooth and co-edits the social movements journal Interface.
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor of sociology at the University of Bergen. His research focuses on social movements in the global South, with a specific focus on India. Alf is the author of Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage and the co-editor of Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance and Marxism and Social Movements.
Latest posts by Laurence Cox (see all)
- In Praise of Ungovernability - February 12, 2016
- We Make Our Own History: Discussion and Book Launch - November 16, 2015
- First we take Athens, then we take Berlin? The Greek earthquake and the twilight of neoliberalism - February 9, 2015
- Community Education, Equality and Social Activism Masters NUI Maynooth - May 13, 2014
- Marxism and Social Movements - July 25, 2013