Beyond the age of austerity, a new pattern of resistance and revolution emerges

by · July 22, 2011

Tahrir Square, 15 July 2011


In apparently “normal” times we Marxists are given a hard time, derided for our economic determinism about the crisis-prone nature of capitalism, scoffed at for suggesting that revolutionary movements could possibly occur in modern times, and accused of totalitarian impulses if we suggest that conscious revolutionaries should try to cohere their forces. Often the most strident criticisms come from those who are apparently closest to us politically, Leftists who share our anger at the injustices of existing society but adhere to social democratic principles.

So it was during the long economic upturn of the early 1990s to 2007, when talk of new paradigms and the victory of consumer capitalism bewitched many usually critical and clear-thinking minds. That all came crashing down with the GFC, and dreams of a social democratic, Keynesian revival similarly foundered with the rise of the age of austerity — one that has propelled a worsening of the crisis across Europe and done nothing to revive the United States’ spiral towards financial purgatory.

Yet even when the global recession broke, many who were willing to admit that maybe capitalism hadn’t resolved its terrible contradictions were soon trumpeting the crisis of the mainstream Left as conservative governments went on the front foot. Above all, they pointed to the passivity of ordinary people in the face of crisis, numbed into not resisting. They spoke too soon: Since the events in Tunisia we’ve seen the biggest wave of subaltern resistance since the period of the late-1960s to mid-1970s, surpassing even the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-91 in its scope and radicalism.

A revolutionary wave has swept the Middle East, breaking decades-long dictatorships and rapidly destabilising mechanisms of imperial control. The Eurozone has been struck by multiple movements challenging the central bankers’ demands for ever-crueller austerity, with mainstream politics under deepest challenge in Greece and Spain. Even the United States, so long a place where the working class seemed to be in a state of permanent defeat, has seen eruptions like that in Wisconsin. And every time a struggle has pulled back from its most radical stance, there is a new locus of resistance ready to spring up elsewhere.

Strikingly, in this interconnected world, the organisational forms, language and methods of activism first provide inspiration and are then adapted to local circumstances. We’ve seen this, for example, with the invocation of camps in city squares, starting in Egypt, then in Spain and finally fusing with repeated general strikes in Greece — in each case playing multiple roles: organisational hub, political centre, liberated zone of radical democracy and symbolic assertion of collective stewardship of the commons. There are irreducibly national characteristics to each revolt, and yet the international connections and implications are hard to miss.

It was such a scenario that Adam K Webb envisaged in an underappreciated paper in the International Political Science Review in 2006 (an abridged version can be found here). His prescient thesis was that the triumphalism of globalised capitalism was built on fragile foundations: On the one hand, neoliberal restructuring had weakened capitalism’s legitimacy. On the other, economic globalisation shifted blame for this from national elites onto a vast, faceless economy that cuts across borders. In this new world, crisis could spread more rapidly across borders and resistance movements were more likely to seek transnational solutions because nation states no longer provided a buffer against global economic forces.

The great revolutions of the past came when the old regimes faced some kind of crisis against a background of longstanding discontent. They then blundered in reacting to it, because they were too politically rigid to do otherwise.

The present order is hard but brittle. The lack of accountability that frustrates its subjects in time of peace can cause a rupture when crisis hits.

Denying people a meaningful outlet at the national level may work well enough for now—but when push comes to shove their discontent will emerge globally, on the same scale as that which provokes it. And the old regime will have nowhere to run.

It is just such a constellation of forces that has been unleashed in the wake of the global financial crisis, although it remains to be seen if the potential Webb describes can happen on the ground.

Revolution as process, economic and political intertwined

Importantly, 2011 is a year where the word “revolution” pertains to a referent that is not a singular event but a process. This is most clear with Egypt where ideological attempts to reduce the revolution to a narrow liberal democratic frame have been dispelled by the actions of the masses themselves. It is not just that the “Second Day of Rage” on 8 July shifted the movement up a gear to challenge the interim military regime, but that there has been an unbroken chain of struggle at the base of Egyptian society shaping the terrain on which corporate and state actors scramble to reassert some modicum of initiative. In an essential article on Open Democracy last month, Phil Marfleet identifies three main networks of activists driving the struggle: Rapidly growing independent trade unions in the workplaces, peasants and small farmers in the countryside, and local community organising in defence of the revolution in urban centres.

Egypt’s revolution continues, driven by intense pressures from below. There is every sign that unresolved problems of daily life are proving more and more important — that “economic” matters are being combined with demands for political change in increasingly complex ways. Can the generals feed the people? Who will employ jobless youth? Will employers pay the minimum wage? Can the fallaheen [peasant labourers] retrieve their land? Who has power in the new Egypt? While headlines in global media focus upon candidates for the presidency and new parties jostling for electoral advantage, the dynamics of change are being shaped at the grassroots — in workplaces, villages and in the city streets where the revolution began.

Despite some analysts recording each attempt by the ruling military council to crack down as a defeat for the movement, in fact many of its decrees are observed only in the breach, its legislative interventions virtually powerless in the face of popular self-organisation.

Significantly, there is a synergy between economic and political demands that strains against liberal democratic paradigms in which these spheres are apparently separate. The square protests that brought down Mubarak were finally successful with the irruption of a strike movement by workers. That victory then inspired a multitude of strikes around economic demands, but also taking up social and political issues. There has been an insertion of working class representation into the political arena with organisations like the Democratic Workers Party. This in turn has laid the basis for new iterations of both political and economic demands in the revived square protests — such as the central call for a new Budget including the long promised minimum wage.

It is important to grasp what is going on here in a way that mainstream Left commentators find impossible because they take as given fundamental divides between economic, political and ideological spheres of social structure and contestation. The Egyptian revolution’s social character lies not in its immediate institution of a new hegemony (that’s clearly a long way off as I write this) but in the fact that the apparent autonomy of these domains collapses under the force of the entrance of the mass of ordinary people onto the stage of history.

1968 through the lens of the 1930s

Such dynamics are also at work, in a less concentrated form, in mass struggles erupting in Europe and elsewhere. In Greece repeated rounds of austerity have not just shredded the living standards of millions of workers (a median cut in income of 15 percent) but are now being carried out in clear contravention of any semblance of democracy. Demands for debt default, Eurozone exit and bank nationalisation have gained mass support despite the failure of any mainstream political party to articulate them. In Spain the movement has been unable to find as much traction through traditional institutions of the Left, but has also articulated a radical (sometimes utopian) rejection of the whole of official politics, finding widespread support among the populace. Even in the UK, where elite hegemony seemed impregnable after three decades of Tory and New Labour variants of Thatcherism, student protests, large scale strikes and a stunning establishment crisis in the guise of Hackgate have dissolved the hubris of Cameron’s class war from above.

Australia has not been immune from this pattern, although the relative shallowness of economic problems (to date) and the specific weakness of the Gillard government have created a crisis of elite authority alongside only sporadic and delimited explosions of resistance. Indeed, Australia is still stuck in a scenario where fake partisanship can appear to dominate politics even as one state sees the biggest protests of public sector workers in decades. Because the class lines have not yet been drawn as clearly as elsewhere, it is easy enough for sections of the Left to think their task is to prop up neoliberal reforms like carbon taxes rather than develop an independent program of their own. Yet it is difficult to imagine such an unstable concoction lasting forever as chill economic winds seem to drift ever closer. The economic interconnectedness that was one of neoliberalism’s great strengths is also its Achilles’ heel in times of crisis.

The revolts in the Middle East and Europe look very much like 1968 at one level, and so currently seem distant from today’s Australian situation, shaped as it is by the political defeats of the Left and working class over the last three decades. Yet on another level there is a fundamental difference: When 1968 happened the long “Golden Age” of capitalism was only beginning to fray at the edges. Resistance emerged when rising expectations and confidence from below — economic and political —increasingly clashed with the system’s ability to deliver. In the end it was economic crisis that opened a space for elites to re-establish control via a program of restructuring that later became neoliberalism. Today’s context is one of decades of neoliberal class war from above followed by the deepest global crisis since the 1930s. The ruling class starts with little room to dole out reforms to placate dissatisfaction. Rather, the opposite is true and they are leading the attack.

Thus struggles that erupt will inevitably be more bitter, and the conclusions drawn from economic privation will flow more directly into political questioning. This also implies that politics will be more central than ever, because simply saying that “we shouldn’t pay for their crisis” (as fundamentally true as that may be) will not deal with the need for an alternative program — not one designed to salvage the elite from their morass, but one that can articulate the energy and aspirations of the subaltern groups into an alternative hegemony. These will not be the only policies and programs on offer as reactionary forces seek to recast the crisis in terms of nation, race and other divisions.

This is where the third objection to Marxism comes in, the objection to drawing together the most conscious elements within a shared project of debate and discussion about the way forward, with the intention of shaping the course of the struggle through the concrete application of policies and a program that can point a way out of the crisis. To be effective against the networks of corporate and state influence and power so starkly revealed by Hackgate, our side needs to collectively strategise too. Significantly, unlike the capitalist crisis and the return of resistance, this aspect must be consciously built. Objections to something so straightforward in a period of crisis and revolution are in fact simply defences of the existing order, no matter what human cost that order seeks to extract in order to survive.

This is the final of three parts. The first looked at the long-term economic problems behind both neoliberalism and the age of austerity, while the second looked at the specificity of Australia’s political crisis and strategic issues for the Left.