The illusions of political representation

As many of the streets of Hong Kong remain occupied, the movement unmasks the nature of the power that it contests. If a guarantee of formal representative democracy was the stated motive for the protest, it has already become, as it was at its origins, far more. In the squares and streets of the city, the very notion of democracy is transformed; it is lived directly, in collective decisions, common actions, in solidarity and resistance, in creativity.

In this respect, the Hong Kong protest does echo earlier “occupation” movements for “democracy”: Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Zucotti park, Gezi park, and so many more streets and squares that at particular moments have become the assemblies of the people. If the year of 2011 was inaugurated by an “Arabe Spring” in Tunisia, it has become a “revolution”, if this word we mean, following David Graeber, a profound change in political common sense. And what is at stake is democracy itself.

“The similar movements that have erupted in Istanbul, São Paulo, Tuzla (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and in many other cities have all been founded on the same observation. The government, whether it is elected or imposed, is perceived as distant and, at best, useless: judicial, administrative and above all “security” institutions of the State have in effect no accountability to what one could call the “people” and serve no other interests than those of global finance.” (Le Monde 14/10/2014)

The effort then to understand these movements as simply aspiring to liberal democracy is grossly deceptive. And the attempt to domesticate them in pre-existing political forms (most notably political parties, such as for example, Podemos in spain or Syriza in Greece) is politically criminal, for it emasculates them of their most radical potential.
It is with this last in mind that we share the following reflection by Antonis Broumas and Theodoros Karyotis, entitled Syriza rising: What’s next for the movements in Greece? (The english language translation has been posted on numerous sites, beginning with Roarmag, as well as a spanish translation appearing in Periódico Diagonal. The original greek language version appears in the September issue of the Babylonia political review).

For us the content of the revolutionary project is for people to become capable of taking social matters in their hands, and the only means for them to attain this capability is to gradually take social matters in their hands more and more.

Cornelius Castoriadis (1979)

[W]hat is emerging is another society: the objective is power, not state power, but for people to organize themselves as powers in a different social context.

Raul Zibechi (2010)

Nowadays, social antagonism occurs in martial terms. Capitalist domination resolves its contradictions not by granting certain rights and privileges to the oppressed, as it has done in the past, but by imposing a permanent state of exception, where all measures of social engineering are justifiable and all protest is perceived as an initiation of hostilities. Reaching a new equilibrium remains a challenge, which will be addressed only by the social counter-power entering — or not entering — the centre stage of political life.

In this socio-historical context, the possibility of a left-wing government emerges in Europe, with the left-wing coalition of SYRIZA in Greece and newcomer Podemos in Spain in its vanguard, as a response to the prospect of neoliberal authoritarianism consolidated on a nationalist basis.

Periods of crisis are moments of social antagonism, in which the positions of contesting social forces are liquefied. In the present crisis, autonomous social movements emerge from the contradictions of modern capitalism as the main collective subjects with a potential for radical transformation and social change. They constitute the main opponent of capitalist domination in the present social confrontation and any conflicts inside the state and government apparatus are essentially a reflection of the ebb and tide of social mobilizations.

Despite being aware that the new world we long for can only come about through the struggles from below, we have to seriously contemplate the possibility of a left-wing government. The effects of such an electoral victory would be equivocal for grassroots movements, since, on the one hand, such a victory may tilt the power balance and, thus, provide breathing space to the movements in their confrontation with capitalist domination, but, on the other hand, it could accelerate the disquieting trend of co-optation and assimilation of social movements by the logic of state management.

Left-Wing Bureaucracy and the State

In theory, the communist left relates with the state in instrumental terms. The conquest of the bourgeois state is presented as a necessary evil on the road to workers’ power. This approach, however, is immersed — even on a purely theoretical level — in a series of contradictions. Even in its most sophisticated versions it fails to address the issue of the dialectic relation between the vanguard party bureaucracy and the autonomy of the world of labour, or the possibility of achieving a transition towards an egalitarian society, when there is such disparity between the means employed and the goals proposed.

But in social praxis, the historical experience of the relationship between left-wing parties and the state is even more complex and contradictory. In the 20th century, nearly half of the planet was governed by left-wing bureaucracies that exercised power separated from the social classes they were supposed to represent. In most victories of the left — electoral or otherwise — popular forms of organization, be they soviets, workers’ councils or assemblies, were summarily superseded by the centralized power of the new managerial class. But even where they did not capture state power, left-wing bureaucracies operated merely as agents of mediation and delegation of political power, rather than as a genuine expression of the collective subject of the labor movement. In an attempt to defeat the bourgeois state with its own weapons, they modelled their organizational structures on the most reactionary and hierarchical elements of the bourgeois state, thus stifling any attempt of the workers at autonomous self-expression.

Nevertheless, today much has changed since the heyday of the workers’ movements. In the European context, a possible conquest of state power by a left-wing party is no longer seen as a necessary evil, but as a strategic objective for mitigating the impact of the neoliberal onslaught on the social fabric. In modern left-wing mythology, the state is implicitly seen as the last frontier of “real” politics in opposition to the burgeoning social power of capital; hence the criticism of the essentially bourgeois nature of state power can easily be overlooked. This conception of the state, held by a majority of contemporary left-wing parties, is lagging even behind earlier approaches of the social democratic left, which at least retained a minimal connection with the strategic goal of social transformation.

Yet, the strategy of social salvation through the conquest of state power remains appealing to a part of the oppressed strata, who still preserve memories of the North European-style welfare state and think of collective mobilization as a means of pressure in order to extract concessions from the main agent of mediation of social antagonism, i.e. the state. Whereas it is tempting for many people to think nowadays of the post-war welfare state as the only meaningful and effective means of guaranteeing social and economic rights for the bulk of the population, it is evident today from a historical perspective that such an equilibrium was nothing but a temporary arrangement, limited in its scope, designed to appease the increasingly restless working classes of the post-colonial powers and avert the soviet menace.

Likewise, the present-day left-wing bureaucracies are not striving to represent the emerging radical social subjects in systemic politics, nor are they trying to foster the bottom-up emergence of novel conditions for our common existence, which are now pervasive in social mobilizations in every continent of the planet. Instead, they attend to the expectations of the vulnerable middle classes of returning to the welfare state of the past, where capitalist domination was still exercised in terms of social consensus and power equilibrium rather than crude imposition.

It is understandable that SYRIZA’s ambitious program of wealth redistribution in favour of the middle and lower classes arouses the imagination of European social movements; after all, in the present context, there is a certain quixotic heroism in SYRIZA’s neo-Keynesianism as set against the backdrop of an omnivorous neoliberalism, which, having plundered the Global South for decades, is now consuming the European periphery and will soon advance towards the centre. This explains the near-mythical proportions of SYRIZA’s fame outside of Greece and the great expectations the electoral ascent of this party has created. Contrast this to the pragmatism of its local supporters, who know very well that, even if they manage to capture state power, the party’s capacity for radical reform will be extremely limited.

We adduce that the aspiration of the compressed middle classes to return to a “humane” form of capitalism will not be fulfilled. The contemporary nation-state is undergoing a severe crisis, both because of the inherent contradictions in its institutions of representation and because of the expansion of the social power of capital and its non-state structures. Today, more than ever, the conquest of state power does not mean the conquest of social power. Besides, the contemporary confrontation is played out between the increasingly consolidated social power of capital and the social counter-power of the oppressed.

The radical social transformation of tomorrow will not be a product of the bourgeois state and its institutions of representation, but of the subversion of state institutions and the emergence of social structures of power immanent to society and inseparable from it. Under these conditions, the conquest of the bourgeois state by a left-wing bureaucracy can prove detrimental to the autonomous movements, if it does not help expand the vital spaces of development of their social power against the power of nation states and international capital.

Nevertheless, our rejection of the reformist avenue advocated by contemporary left-wing parties does not entail an uncritical adoption of revolutionary politics as defined in the 20th century. In a late capitalism of immaterial and fragmented labour, of disciplining through debt and scare tactics, of opaque centres of power far removed from the population they rule, there is no Winter Palace to storm and no prospect of defeating the enemy in military terms. The neighbourhood, the street and the public square have largely replaced the factory as the epicentre of social and class antagonism. Reconceptualising community, breaking out of social isolation, creating horizontal and participatory structures based on equality, solidarity and mutual recognition, and building networks among these structures are social acts that today constitute revolutionary praxis.

As has always been the case, truly radical social transformation can only be the product of a confrontation of a widespread and pre-existing mode of social existence with the structures of domination, not of the actions of an enlightened few who will redesign society in the interest of the many. Hence the newest social movements do not seek to reform the existing political and economic structures, but to build alternatives in the thousands of cracks of the current system, i.e., the places where capitalist values cannot prevail. They set the collective administration of common goods, through the self-management of the horizontal communities that emerge around them, against the atomism of the capitalist market and the bureaucracy of the state. Thus, they construct the material conditions of political autonomy, ensuring the social reproduction that the state and the market are no longer willing to provide and creating new imaginary meanings of social cooperation to substitute the dominant values of individual social mobility and material prosperity.

Autonomous Movements and Left-Wing Governments

The strain between autonomous movements and left-wing governments has been made evident in South America in the previous decade, with the re-emergence of the state-oriented left in the subcontinent. The tradition of autonomy has strong roots in Latin America, largely because of the political organizing of indigenous peoples, the most prominent — but not the only — example being the Zapatistas, but also because of the practices of a series of rural and urban movements whose struggles do not follow the beaten path: the landless in Brazil, the recovered factories or the piqueteros in Argentina, the water wars in Bolivia, and so on.

While these movements grew strong under conditions of neoliberal invasion, in the previous decade they had to face a series of progressive governments, themselves products of the social unrest caused by the neoliberal onslaught: from the modest social democracy of Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina, to experiments in radical political transformation such as that of Chávez in Venezuela.

A first obvious result of the predominance of left-wing governments was the mitigation (but not the complete elimination) of repressive tactics. The withdrawal of government support from the thugs of the landowners and the paramilitary organizations, the decrease in instances of torture and imprisonment, made a big difference for these movements, which have paid a heavy toll in blood for their political action.

Another positive aspect was the cessation of many spectacular and destructive neoliberal projects. However, many “progressive” governments, using the discourse of “economic development”, reinstated those grandiose plans disguised as “investments of national interest.” Admittedly Venezuela, where a certain kind of popular autonomy flourished under the rule of Chávez, constitutes a special case within this paradigm. However, the insistence on fossil fuels as the motor of economic growth is most often pursued at the expense of local and indigenous populations. It is evident that all governments, right-wing or left-wing, remain committed to the capitalist imaginary of unlimited growth at any cost.

However, the largest threat presented by left-wing governments to grassroots movements is the loss of their autonomy. Left-wing governments admire the social movements for the solidarity bonds they form within them, for their connection to society, for their imagination and creativity in problem-solving and, most importantly, for how big a change they can bring about with scant or inexistent financial means. In this spirit, many Latin American governments tried to utilize the movements to pursue social policy objectives, turned many of the most prominent activists into bureaucrats, using welfare policies to appease the radical sectors, and waged a covert war on the movements that did not want to align themselves with the government line — even going so far as to accuse them of being agents of the right-wing forces.

Through this carrot-and-stick kind of politics, not only is the state not “enhanced” with the dynamism of the social movements, but the latter are subordinated to state priorities, losing their momentum and often dissipating. A similar situation was experienced in Greece when a “radical” social democratic PASOK rose to power in 1981, signalling the end of the political effervescence that characterized the period after the democratic transition of 1974, and assimilating many social movements within the corporatist regime it established. A similar case can be made about Spain and the Socialist government of Felipe González around the same time.

Contemporary Movements as Collective Subjects for Social Change

At the time of writing this article, a long cycle of social mobilization is coming to a close in Greece and around the world, leaving behind an important legacy of structures operating through direct democracy (workers’ cooperatives, local assemblies, social centres, solidarity networks, movements in defence of the commons, endeavours in solidarity economy) but also great fatigue and frustration, since the program of neoliberal reform is being carried out to the letter despite the best efforts — at great personal cost — of innumerable social activists. It is easy for this frustration to plunge collectives into introspection and allow certain parts of the movement — already prone to such practices — to return to the pursuit of “ideological purity” and the “real” revolutionary subject; a quest that in the 20th century has proven to be a one-way ticket to political insignificance and sectarianism.

The political vacuum brought about by this frustration and by the lack of a concrete vision of social transformation from below, is exploited by parliamentary left parties to reinforce the logic of political mediation and to turn themselves fundamentally into proxies of the desire for social change. Reiterating the practices of the 20th century, they use their hegemonic position to appropriate the political surplus value of social mobilization and to create structures of representation within the movements, curtailing or marginalizing the demands that do not fit into their political agenda and thereby diverting the action of social subjects towards the parliamentary road.

Admittedly, there is a long way ahead for the nascent horizontal movements before they manage to transcend their local and particular circumstances, connect with the wider political becoming, and create new political spaces where the terms of our common existence can be shaped — that is, progress from coexistence to cooperation. However, horizontal and prefigurative movements, despite being a minority, constitute today the main antagonistic force to the current system of domination that is quickly reaching its social and ecological limits.

Autonomous movements are inclined not to capture power, but to disperse it: imagining new decentralized institutions for the governance of social and economic life to replace bourgeois democracy, which is immersed in a deep structural crisis of social reproduction, political representation and ecological sustainability. That does not entail laying out a well-defined program of exercise of power, but forging bonds and institutions that will allow the synthesis of the specific and local with the general and universal. The struggles for the commons, for knowledge, land, water and health, leave behind a legacy of accessible and participatory institutions, which can form the backbone of a new kind of power: a power of the people, not of the representatives.

The endeavours in libertarian communitarianism point towards the creation of politically active communities and the use of local institutions as a bulwark against globalized capitalism and as an appropriate field of application of precepts of de-growth and localization. The promise of the self-management of labour, of worker cooperatives and peer production, indicates a path within, against and beyond the state and the market. In any case, the new constituent power will be diverse, reflecting the infinity of militant subjectivities that the domination of capital in all aspects of social life engenders.

Certainly there is nothing inevitable in the emergence of this new world, no teleological certainty that this will come about, in the same way that the deterministic predictions of the advent of a free society made in the 19th century remain unfulfilled. The struggle of the people to prevail over the dominance of capital will take place in the contingent field of social antagonism, and will depend on their determination to turn frustration into social creativity, to break free from restrictive identities and ideological certainties, to ignore the promises of mediation and to reinvent themselves as an instituting social subject.

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