As with most of the other advanced capitalist countries, Britain is far from having recovered from the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath. Inequalities of income are at a record high and despite some recovery in average real incomes there are millions of people on the poverty line, as attested by the hundreds of thousands forced to use food banks. Housing shortages are on the rise and public services, especially health and care, have been dramatically cut. On the international scene war rages in the Middle East and planetary warming continues without effective restriction. Yet in Britain the capitalist ruling class continues to dominate and exploit the great mass of the people without facing any serious opposition. For the bourgeoisie it is business as usual.
During this period, and to some extent before, there have some large movements trying to oppose and curtail the oppressive and exploitative activities of big firms and the capitalist state which represents and enforces their interests. Perhaps most prominent has been the Stop the War Coalition formed after the 9/11 attack in 2001. It mobilised millions of people to oppose the wars being waged on Afghanistan and Iraq and yet failed to achieve its objectives. The best which could be said of it is that it has helped generate public scepticism towards British military adventures abroad and thus make the politicians a bit more hesitant before they embark on any further debacles.
Another long-running anti-war movement is the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a significant part of Stop the War, For nearly sixty years CND has campaigned for British nuclear disarmament but without any success. Currently CND is trying to get Parliament to vote against the Trident replacement programme but almost certainly this will not succeed. With the formation of the Coalition Government in 2010 and the ruthless implementation of its cuts programme for public services various anti-austerity campaigns have emerged. The most prominent one currently is the People’s Assembly which has shown itself capable of mobilising large numbers of people to attend protest meetings and demonstrations. So far this has had no significant impact on stopping and reversing austerity measures.
The truth we have to face is that most broad, popular campaigns to bring about progressive change of one sort or another have failed to achieve their declared aims and objectives. A partial exception to this general rule is the environmental movement consisting of organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. They have succeeded in creating a wide public awareness of the seriousness of environmental issues and British and other governments have felt it necessary to respond in terms of definite policies on renewable energy, etc.. The major problem here is that only effective international policies to prevent environmental degradation could succeed and in a world of competing capitalist imperialisms this is unlikely to happen.
The ostensible aim, the manifest function, of the type of campaigns mentioned above is to bring about some significant change in state and business policy but typically they do not succeed, either partially or wholly. Given that so much well-intentioned time and energy has has been invested in these campaigns it is very necessary to examine the reasons for their failure and attempt to find a more positive way forward.
A MODEL OF THE PROGRESSIVE CAMPAIGN
The typical leftist campaign begins in response to some sudden, dramatic development, e.g. the 9/11 attack, or in opposition to some new government policy, e.g. NHS privatisation. A number of people and/or organisations, usually based in London, convene a meeting at which it is decided to set up a committee to campaign on the issue of concern. A national conference and/or demonstration is called for to mount a public protest on this issue. Also people in other localities are urged to form groups in support of the emergent campaign and to mobilise people to attend the national demonstration. Subsequently groups around the country engage in activities such as holding public meetings, marches and demonstrations, street campaigning, petitioning and lobbying MP’s.. These activities are strictly within the law and pose no threat to the authority and stabilityof the State.
Such campaigns sometimes do succeed in arousing a significant section of public opinion to the cause, e.g. Stop the War Coalition, but they do not usually sway the government of the day, most Members of Parliament and local councils where relevant. Despite their lack of success in achieving their objectives these sort of campaigns can exist for long periods, in the case of CND for nearly sixty years. The long-established progressive political campaigning methods are persisted with even though they are not working. As time goes on support for such campaigns tends to fall away because of their perceived ineffectiveness. The remaining supporters carry on in the blind hope that somehow if they keep going everything will turn out all right eventually.
Clearly, these sort of campaigns do not fulfil their manifest function, to bring about some significant change in State or business policy. So what is going on here? Perhaps these campaigns have a less obvious, largely unnoticed role in contemporary society, a latent function. I suggest that this is the case and that their real, effective function is to contain dissent within boundaries and limits which pose no serious threat to the powerful and privileged in contemporary society. This is not the conscious intention of the people setting up and leading such campaigns and it is not brought about by wicked manipulation by State agents. Rather it is the outcome of people operating within the framework of the dominant bourgeois ideology which sets very definite limits to what they are prepared to think and do. People who want to engage in activities more challenging to the status quo such as various types of direct action are perceived as “irresponsibe” and “disruptive”. The attitude of most campaign supporters is “I’m not going to do anything which breaks the law or gets me into trouble”. The State does not have to bring in large numbers of police to contain the campaigners because they are very good at disciplining themselves.
THE ROLE OF THE MIDDLE STRATA
The participants in these progressive campaigns are mostly members of the intermediate strata situated between the capitalist ruling class and the working class. In particular it is the intelligentsia, various types of professionals and technicians, who are noticeably present. Also there are significant numbers of the manageriat, managers and administrators, particularly those employed in the public sector. The objective class position of these people in capitalist society generates a definite type of social consciousness.
In some respects the roles played by these people in their managerial and administrative positions are similar to those of capitalist proprietors and high state administrators. This determines that their social consciousness develops so as to view society in the same way as do the real rulers. To a considerable degree they identify with the status quo. At the same time the position of middle strata people is like that of the working class. They are employees of private firms or state bodies who receive their instructions from above and can easily be dismissed from their positions. This determines that they harbour varying degrees of resentment against the ruling class and are willing to put up a certain amount of opposition to them.
Most middle strata people have a relatively privileged position as compared with the working class. They are reasonably well-paid in fairly secure jobs and have a material stake in the existing social order. In particular many are buying houses with large mortgage repayments. This predisposes the midstrats to be cautious about coming into serious conflict with the State and employers because this could result in them losing their jobs and the accompanying pension rights. This is one reason why they are rather timid about taking serious political action.
Given their intermediate position between the capitalist class and the working class the middle strata have a contradictory class consciousness whereby they are pulled in two different directions at the same time. For most of these people most of the time it is the bourgeois side of their consciousness which prevails. This means that any popular protest movements in which they predominate will be severely limited in the degree to which they are prepared to oppose the existing capitalist order. Only a minority of middle strata people are prepared to put up really serious opposition to the status quo.
It is not being suggested that if only the majority of participants in these popular campaigns were working class then everything would be different, that the campaigns would be far more radical in their aims and actions. On some issues – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. – working class people often have more reactionary attitudes than do middle strata people. Just the same as with the middle strata, the working class are predominantly under the influence of bourgeois ideology which is imparted to them through the education system, the media and popular culture in general. At the same time, the conditions of the everyday existence of working class people generates an oppositional, more combative type of consciousness. In “normal” times this is the predominant side of their consciousness only among a minority of the working class but when they do move into action they are usually far more militant than the actions taken by the typical predominantly middle strata campaign.
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF POPULAR CAMPAIGN
The Main Issues
For the last few decades the life situations of working class and middle strata people in Britain and the other advanced capitalist societies have been under attack from the capitalist class, both in the form of large business corporations and the State which serves their interests. Earnings and conditions of employment have been deteriorating, the former both relatively in terms of the incomes of capitalists and absolutely in many cases following the financial crisis of 2008. Changes in employer policy, supported by State changes in the law, have made employment less secure, attacked employees’ rights and reduced the value of pension schemes. Millions of people are juggling with combinations of insecure part-time jobs in order to sustain a minimal standard of living. The trade unions have shown themselves to be incapable of doing anything to assuage this assault on the mass of the people.
Welfare provisions of different kinds have been in the eyesights of the neo-liberal reformers. Hardly a day passes without the British Government announcing some new restriction and reduction in the benefits received by unemployed, sick and disabled people. There has been little success in resisting this assault on the so-called “welfare state”. Indeed, the openly declared aim of reactionary politicians is to dismantle the apparatus of social support created during the “post-war settlement”. An important part of this right-wing push is the drive to dismantle the National Health Service and local social services. This particularly impacts on the more disadvantaged sections of the population.
There is a rapidly deteriorating situation in the provision of housing. The stock of social housing has been steadily run down by successive governments and private landlords are getting away with extracting extortionate rents from tenants. There are simply not enough new dwellings being built. The sort of people who were able to take on mortgages a few decades ago now find it extremely difficult to afford home purchase. The reduction in housing benefits means that many people are having to move out of their homes into cheaper and inferior accommodation.
The rate of migration into Britain and the other developed countries in Western Europe has been increasing. This has put pressures on wage levels and the availability of housing. Reactionary politicians have seized on this development to stir up racist sentiments, particularly among the working class, so as to divide them and distract people from real solutions to the pressures on their living standards. Existing campaigns against racism are not very effective as they do not seriously engage with the working class. There is a rise of chauvinistic and racist politics across Europe. This needs to be combated.
The above four issues are the main ones on which popular campaigning should be focused. This is because they are the ones which most immediately impact on the lives of the great mass of the people. There are other important matters that radicals and revolutionaries need to take up. In particular we need to generate opposition to British imperialism’s economic exploitation of people abroad and its devastating military adventures. Also we need to engage with the very real threats to humanity posed by growing environmental problems. But we are only likely to mobilise more people to take effective action on these issues if they have built up confidence and become politicised in the course of fighting to defend themselves in dealing with the immediate problems they face.
The traditional leftist campaign, e.g. People’s Assembly, aims for mass participation, to get as many people involved as possible. In practice supporters are largely middle strata and activities undertaken are rather tame so as not to alienate more timorous people. These two factors alone render these campaigns rather ineffective.
There are two main sections of the population who should be targeted for participation:
Working class people – they still constitute around two thirds of the population and are much more negatively impacted upon by the matters mentioned above than are the middle strata.
Young people – the relatively deteriorating situation of young people, including those from the middle strata, with respect to education and jobs means that their life chances are significantly less than those of previous generations. Thus many of them question and are sceptical about the existing social order.
The initiators of radical campaigns are usually middle strata people. This is all right provided that their efforts are focused on bringing about the involvement of the above elements. Also it must be understood that any genuinely radical campaign will only initially attract the participation of a very small number of the target groups. But where a few lead others can follow.
Any worthwhile campaign which seriously challenges the capitalist status quo needs to employ militant, challenging methods which really cause the bourgeoisie and their agents some discomfort. Various types of direct action should be taken up and developed. These could include graffiti and fly posting, withholding local taxes, sit-downs, blockades, occupations, stunts, sabotage, confrontation and disrupting IT systems. Some of these types of activities are ones which a relatively small number of people can apply effectively.
It must be clearly recognised that sections of the ruling class and their State will strike back with a vengeance if activists succeed in making some real trouble for them. Legal and illegal methods can be used. We don’t want to be martyrs – they’ve been too many of those. Also it must be recognised that even if the activists mainly apply methods which are not violent to people our enemies will strike back most forcefully if they consider it necessary. We should act with care, caution and cunning in taking on the enemy. But if the activists show courage in hitting out at the enemy then this will encourage others to join us. What is to be avoided are the dead left rituals in which leftists in Britain are currently bogged down.
One target is the capitalist ruling class in the form of big business and wings of the capitalist state, e.g. politicians, local councils, government agencies, etc.. Another target consists of the working class and disaffected sections of the middle strata. In so far as a radical campaign strikes effective blows at the bourgeoisie it would gain the attention, interest and participation of some of these people. The propaganda of action is more effective than the propaganda of the word, i.e. more leaflets, newspapers, pamphlets, books, etc..
The immediate, short-term aim of a radical campaign on a particular issue, e.g. housing, is to defend and advance the immediate interests of the working class and the less privileged sections of the middle strata. A defeated, demoralised working class will not be open to believing in the possibility of real social change. At the same time the broader, long-term aim is to undermine and destabilise capitalist society. For most people, coming to seriously question capitalism as a whole only comes about as a result of the lessons learned during the course of protracted struggles on specific matters. In the first instance the raising of political consciousness and the development of revolutionary consciousness is a practical rather than a theoretical matter. People will only become interested in and receptive to more radical ideas because their own life experiences have predisposed them to see the world in a radically different way.
We know from long experience that the traditional leftist methods don’t work. There needs to be a radical rupture with the old dead left rituals and, through practice, the development of new, more effective methods of class struggle.