A Radical-Left Response to the ‘Gun Control’ Debate

By Stephen D’Arcy

The mass killing of twenty-six school children and education workers in Connecticut, a little over a year ago, horrified everyone concerned about public safety. It also re-ignited the longstanding debate about ‘gun control,’ and whether there is anything more that can or should be done to protect people in their neighbourhoods and workplaces from attacks by violent people armed with assault-type weaponry and wearing body armor. Normally, the debate is dominated by two positions: a “libertarian” position that favours the unfettered right of people like Ted Nugent to bring an assault rifle into a coffee shop or a school whenever he chooses, and a “liberal” position that wants “the authorities” to be empowered to exercise unilateral power from above in imposing gun regulations deemed by politicians to be “sensible.” Is there a third position? More specifically, is there a radical-Left position, based upon the values and principles of egalitarian democracy and worker empowerment? 

I believe that there is such a position, but that it has not been adequately articulated, with the result that many on the Left have come to believe that the “libertarian” and “liberal” positions are the only ones available. The following comments attempt to introduce a Left perspective into the debate, sketching the elements of a community-based, radically democratic approach to firearms regulation.

The present situation in many jurisdictions (such as Utah, to give an extreme example) is intolerable, from an egalitarian and democratic point of view. What makes it unacceptable is that (i) it shows callous indifference to the most basic standards of workplace health and safety, allowing anyone, including open fascists and violent police officers, to bring guns, in some cases even assault weapons, into workplaces and classrooms; (ii) it prevents workers and communities from taking grassroots action to limit the capacity of fascist or quasi-fascist militias to set up and train paramilitary organizations (of which there are several dozen in the US), whereas if anyone on the Left attempted to do the same thing on a similar scale they would be brutally suppressed by the state, regardless of the law, as history amply illustrates; and (iii) it assigns sole authority to regulate or not regulate firearms to the least trustworthy institutions in society, employers and the capitalist state, completely disempowering workers’ organizations and neighbourhood-level community organizations.


This situation can and should be changed, by bold action from below, to reclaim public authority that now wrongly resides with employers and the state. Such authority ought to be exercised democratically, by participatory-democratic public assemblies. Only democratic regulation of firearms by the people, in workplace and neighbourhood assemblies, can be relied upon to put the public interest ahead of the interests of elites in (a) maximizing the unchecked power of the police, and (b) insulating far-Right militias from public accountability or limits imposed by those most endangered by such groups, especially the racialized groups and immigrants that are their main targets.

In practical terms, a community-based approach to gun regulation would begin by establishing Public Safety Assemblies in every neighbourhood, and Workplace Safety Assemblies in every workplace. These Assemblies would be empowered to impose substantive limits on the carrying of weapons within the areas of their jurisdiction. No employer or state agency should be able to force workers or other persons to endure unfettered gun-wielding by strangers entering their neighbourhoods or work sites. If such risks are to be taken, it should require prior authorization by democratic assemblies of the people who live and work in those places. These Assemblies would offer a means by which such authorization could be granted, or denied, on a democratic basis.

Among the substantive regulatory proposals that such Public Safety or Workplace Safety Assemblies could entertain, any of the following can serve as examples: that only persons with permission of the Assembly may carry assault weapons in the workplace; that no police officers may carry weapons into the workplace or neighbourhood, except under specifically enumerated circumstances set out by the Assembly, or with special permission of the Assembly; that the storing of weapons by openly racist militias within the jurisdiction of the Assembly shall be prohibited; and so on. Such proposals could be rejected by the Assemblies, of course. The point here is that it should be up to workers to decide whether or not such regulations make sense for their workplaces; and it ought to be up to residents to decide whether such regulations make sense for their neighbourhoods.

Note that this proposal is not like conventional forms of “gun control,” as advocated by many liberals. Because community-based gun regulation relies on democratic control from below, by workers’ and neighbourhood Assemblies, the process is actually neutral between those who believe that arming people more heavily would improve public safety and those who believe that restricting firearm use, at least in certain areas or by certain people, would improve public safety. The Assembly process would require people to deliberate publicly with their co-workers and neighbours about the merits of various proposals. In some cases, this might lead to ‘stricter’ controls; in other cases, the controls might be made ‘less strict.’

For example, under a community-based gun regulation system of this type, Starbucks workers would be empowered (as they are not, as of now, as a matter of company policy) to designate their work site as a gun-free zone. Conversely, those same workers could decide to allow open or concealed carry of firearms in their workplace. Or they could allow workers to be armed, but not customers. And so on. The most basic commitment of a community-based approach to gun regulation is not a commitment to ‘strict’ or to ‘lax’ gun regulations, but to democratic gun regulation, from below, on the basis of empowered, participatory deliberation in public by workers and neighborhood residents.

This proposal cuts against the “libertarian” impulses of many on both the Left and the Right. But where libertarianism promotes, not liberation, but the disempowerment of workers and community members, and serves objectively to insulate the police from public control, and to embolden fascists to militarize their operations, we ought to choose egalitarian, horizontal Assembly democracy over “libertarian” misunderstandings of freedom.

Community-based, democratic firearms regulation, on a horizontalist, participatory-democratic basis, is an idea whose time has come. It ought to be embraced by the Left, both for the benefits it offers in terms of public and workplace safety, and for the challenge it poses to the unchecked power of irresponsible elites to usurp powers that rightly belong in the hands of the people.

[Note: An earlier version of this text was posted on ZNet]

Militancy as a Civic Virtue

{The website, Rabble.ca, has posted this excerpt from my book, ‘Languages of the Unheard.’}

“What we must see,” Martin Luther King once insisted, “is that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Recourse to rioting, he suggested, is seldom a marker of irrationality or mob psychology. More often, it is an attempt by marginalized people to find their voice, to gain a hearing, to assert their refusal to be silenced or ignored.

King’s remark was as controversial as it was illuminating, yet he stopped short of depicting riots as defensible. He insisted only that they were understandable — a frustrated response to persistent injustice that made some sense in the face of long experience with intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power. But his wording hints at the possibility of a stronger view: that these outbursts of rebellion might sometimes be defensible, even admirable, because they make it impossible to ignore the grievances of the exploited and the oppressed.

What if we, today, were to adopt this interpretation of riots? How might this idea transform our understanding and evaluation of these spontaneous revolts? And could this understanding be extended to other forms of confrontational protest and rebellion: to general strikes, sit-ins, road blockades and occupations, to the monkey wrenching saboteur, the black bloc street fighter or even the armed insurgent? Could these forms of militancy be regarded, in the same way, as languages of the unheard?

In pursuing these questions, there can be no better guide than King himself, whose writings and speeches are peppered with enthusiastic references to what he called “the marvelous new militancy” of the 1960s. This book borrows freely from the terminology that he uses when discussing confrontational protest. Key themes, especially in the opening chapters, emerge directly from engagement with his work: an account of the militant’s vocation as giving a voice to the voiceless; a definition of militancy as grievance-motivated, adversarial, and confrontational collective action; a typology of defiance, disruption, destruction, and armed force as four distinct styles of militancy; and finally, an insistence on the importance of distinguishing — although I diverge from his way of distinguishing — sound from unsound militancy.

But not everyone will join me in endorsing King’s judgment that “militant organization” is “indispensable … to our struggle” for democracy and social justice. Indeed, militancy has many critics. Some are relatively easy to dismiss, for instance, the grim, law-and-order crackdown advocates, well described by King himself as being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Their weak attachment to the importance of social justice and public autonomy is reason enough for them to wring their hands when they see bold action against racism or poverty, colonialism or sexism. Other critics of militancy, however, are sincerely committed to the resolution of urgent grievances. Their concerns about using confrontational means to this end, therefore, cry out for a serious response. These are the many social justice advocates whose liberal attachments to notions of equality and democracy are genuine, and whose numbers swell the ranks of many popular demonstrations and social movement organizations.

Their concern — which I call the liberal objection — is that by resorting to forceful pressure, rather than consensus-building and reason-guided public discussion, the militant protester in effect reverts to force, rather than dialogue, and in this way breaks with the democratic ideal. Can militants offer a principled reply, or do they have to follow those advocates of militancy (notably, anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos) who disavow the claim to be on the side of democracy, thus seemingly conceding the liberal’s main point?

I believe that a principled and convincing rebuttal to the liberal objection is available to militant protesters. And this is what I offer in this book: a normative standard, by appeal to which it can be shown when and on what basis militancy is a support, not a danger, to democratic norms.

In the response that I propose, I break with King in one crucial respect . Unlike King, I am unconvinced by one of the most popular standards of legitimacy for militant resistance, namely, the fixation on the difference between “violence” and “nonviolence.” Time and again, one hears that protesters went too far by resorting to violence, or that the people who indulge in violence are not really part of movements for social and environmental justice or for political and economic democracy. The violent protesters are said to be part of the problem, not the solution. The standard that I propose draws the line between justifiable and unjustifiable militancy at a different point: the crucial contrast is between democratic and undemocratic, not between violent and non-violent.

The distinction between violence and nonviolence cannot be the basis for distinguishing justifiable from unjustifiable protest, because the very idea of “violence” always already presupposes some degree of unjustifiability. If I push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a nearby child, I am using physical force. But am I committing an act of violence? Most of us would be reluctant to use the word in this way. In contrast, suppose that I push the same man to the ground in order to block him from accessing a building that I am picketing, in the context of a general strike. Here, many would be only too quick to reach for the word “violent”; others, still, would hesitate. Consider a third case: What if I push that same man to the ground to express my contempt for his religion? In this case, perhaps everyone would agree that this is a violent act. And yet, in all three cases I perform an act of the same type, namely, pushing a man to the ground. Why do we not describe all of these actions, or none of them, as violent? The answer is clear: we are reluctant to call any act violent if we regard it as admirable and morally sound. This is one reason why one hears so little talk of “violent self-defence.” Self-defence is considered morally acceptable, so we resist describing it as violent.

The implications are both obvious and important. To ask, Is violence acceptable? is already a mistake. In effect, it amounts to asking, Is unacceptable force acceptable? Instead, we should pose questions that are far less loaded, and for this reason far more interesting: Is it acceptable to participate in a riot? When, if ever, is it defensible to use or threaten to use armed force? What about arson attacks against unoccupied buildings? Can black bloc street-fighting tactics ever be justified, and if so, under what conditions?

These questions are more challenging. It is easy to declare, in a rather self-satisfied way, that all violence is unacceptable. But as long as this is only a covert way of saying that it is unacceptable to use unacceptable force, it tells us nothing. If one were to say that it is wrong to push a man to the ground to prevent him from stabbing a child, this would at least qualify as a substantive position on a controversial question. On the other hand, it would show ar ather shocking undervaluation of the importance of protecting children from physical attacks. As a practical matter, almost everyone who claims to oppose all violence would in fact support the use of physical force to repel a child’s attacker. We should, therefore, regard sweeping pronouncements against all violence with a suspicious eye. For the most part, these declarations are a way of hiding the difficult questions behind a veil of superficial moral certainty. In this book, I aim to address real questions with direct, if sometimes controversial, answers that are grounded in a principled position about what makes confrontational protest — in very many cases — defensible as an aid to democracy.

I call my articulation of such a position “the democratic standard.” Its aim is to vindicate the conviction that, for the most part, militant protest is good for democracy. The democratic standard has two parts. First, it offers an interpretation of the democratic ideal, which equates democracy with public autonomy, that is, the self-governance of people through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion. Second, it proposes a set of four principles of soundness, which jointly spell out when and on what basis it is consistent with the democratic ideal to set aside discussion and apply forceful pressure through adversarial, confrontational protest.

In developing this standard, I have drawn together two strands of my own background. On the one hand, I am a long-time social activist, shaped by my participation in grassroots social movements, including the Occupy movement and other experiences of popular resistance. These experiences have helped me to appreciate the importance of assembly democracy and the building of grassroots social power outside of and often in direct opposition to the institutions of the official political process. On the other hand, I am an academic political philosopher, specializing in normative democratic theory. The conception of democracy proposed in this book, which I call autonomous democracy, is a kind of anticapitalist radicalization of a view that has gained wide acceptance among democratic theorists today, “deliberative democracy.” This is the view that democratic legitimacy is a function not so much of voting (or of preference-counting generally), but of “voice,” the capacity to raise one’s concerns in a public forum and to have these concerns addressed through a deliberative process that gravitates toward consensus.

The assembly democracy of the activists and the deliberative democracy of the philosophers converge on the view that a political community or social structure should be recognized as democratic to the extent that it proceeds on the basis of the self-governance of people through inclusive processes of reason-guided public discussion. In my variant of this conception of democracy, it is especially important that the authority of these discussion processes should be neither usurped by unaccountable elites nor overridden by institutions or systems of power. If intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions ignore the decisions that emerge from such discussion, thereby denying voice to many people, then democracy is fatally undermined. Democracy, according to this view, is a process of hearing stakeholders and resolving conflict through inclusive and empowered processes of collective decision-making.

Nevertheless, reality will routinely disappoint expectations founded upon this idealized conception. In practice, we can be quite sure that intransigent elites and unresponsive institutions will repeatedly stand in the way of democracy as dialogue. Politicians will often brazenly disregard public opinion, declaring that there is no alternative but to impose an unpopular but business-friendly tax policy. Corporations will often act out of shameless indifference to the public interest, appealing to the higher authority of market forces as if this were a sufficient justification for their contempt for social justice.

And this is why democratic theory needs a standard for discerning when militancy is appropriate. When, precisely out of respect for the ideal of self-governance through reason-guided public discussion, is it justified to take action on a different basis: not as partners in a deliberative process converging toward consensus, but as adversaries locked in struggle, fighting to defeat a corporation that is unmoved by the force of the better argument or a politician who refuses to listen to reason? It is this sort of guidance that the democratic standard is designed to offer: guidance about when and on what basis one might sometimes be entitled, or even obligated, to adopt a course of militant resistance, when reason-guided discussion alone is helpless in the face of unreasonable power.

At the heart of the democratic standard lies a set of four principles. These criteria can be used to determine when militancy is consistent with democracy, and what kinds of militancy are consistent with democracy in specific contexts. The principles are explained in detail in chapter three, but for now, I will confine myself to bluntly stating them:

1. Opportunity Principle: Militancy should create new opportunities to resolve substantive and pressing grievances, when attempts to do so through reason-guided public discussion are thwarted by intransigent elites or unresponsive institutions.

2. Agency Principle: Militancy should encourage the most directly affected people to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances.

3. Autonomy Principle: Militancy should enhance the power of people to govern themselves through inclusive, reason-guided public discussion.

4. Accountability Principle: Militancy should limit itself to acts that can be defended publicly, plausibly, and in good faith as duly sensitive to the democratic values of common decency and the common good.

Together with the underlying democratic ideal from which they are derived, these principles make up the democratic standard that is applied to controversial cases of militancy in this book.

Stephen D’Arcy is an associate professor of philosophy at Huron University College, Western University. A long-time social activist and protest organizer, he teaches and writes about democratic theory and practical ethics.

[click here to read on rabble.ca]

[click here for more info on the book]

The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary

By Stephen D’Arcy

If a handful of time-travelling activists from our own era were somehow transported into a leftist political meeting in 1970, would they even be able to make themselves understood? They might begin to talk, as present-day activists do, about challenging privilege, the importance of allyship, or the need for intersectional analysis. Or they might insist that the meeting itself should be treated as a safe space. But how would the other people at the meeting react? I’m quite sure that our displaced contemporaries would be met with uncomprehending stares.

It’s not so much that the words they use would be unfamiliar. Certainly ‘privilege’ is not a new word, for instance. But these newcomers to the 1970 Left would have a way of talking about politics and political action that would seem strange and off-kilter to the others at the meeting. If one of the time travellers told others at the meeting to “check their privilege,” it’s not that anyone would disagree, exactly. It’s that they wouldn’t understand what was meant, or why it was supposed to be important or relevant.


Reflecting on the chasm of mutual incomprehension that divides today’s Left from the Left of the 1960s and 70s, we should resist any rush to judgment. Instinctively, some people — whether out of nostalgia or out of deeply held political convictions or both — will recoil from the vocabulary of today’s activists. There is no shortage of (usually older) critics who complain about the focus on “privilege” and “calling out” in the contemporary activist scene. But we should not be seduced by the broad-brushed dismissal with which these critics, whose political sensibility was shaped (for better and for worse) by the 70s New Left, reject the politics that pervades today’s activist subcultures. We should remain open at least to the possibility that some aspects of the new vocabulary may offer important insights, even if we retain our reluctance to embrace it wholesale. Conversely, some partisans of the post-New Left will insist that any resistance to the new jargon must be rooted in an attempt to cling to privileges which, allegedly, the new discourse threatens. This, too, reflects a narrow-minded sensibility that renounces the very possibility of learning from engagement with perspectives that contest one’s own basic assumptions. It is this fundamentalist sensibility that has earned “the Twitter Left” and the “social justice blogging community” a sometimes well-deserved bad reputation, but it shouldn’t be allowed to insinuate itself into the real-world activist Left.We can reverse the scenario, and the picture looks similar. If a group of time-travelling activists from the heyday of the New Left, members perhaps of the Black Panther Party, the Organization for Afro-American Unity, or Students for a Democratic Society, were transported to a political meeting of activists in our own time, they might quickly begin referring to the need to unite “the people” in a common struggle for “liberation,” by constructing “an alliance” based on “solidarity.” In this case, the problem would not be one of understanding, so much as credibility. They would be understood, I imagine, at least in general terms. But would they be taken seriously? The terms in which they express their politics — the people, liberation, alliances — seem like (and indeed, are) a throwback to an earlier era. It seems likely that they would be deemed hopelessly insensitive to the specificity of different struggles against privilege. They would be accused, perhaps, of glossing over key issues of “positionality” and “allyship” by referring not to “folks,” as most contemporary activists would, but to “the people,” as if it were unitary and shared a common set of experiences.

In fact, neither of the two political vocabularies considered here should be deemed to be either above reproach or beneath contempt. Both are ways of articulating the politics of people committed to the struggle for social justice, so they deserve, if not necessarily our endorsement, at least our willingness to listen and, where possible, to learn.

Two questions really do have to be addressed, however, in the face of this terminological fork in the road:

  1. First: why are these vocabularies so different? Does the emergence of the new vocabulary, roughly in the 1990s, reflect a learning process, so that we can think of it as more sophisticated and illuminating than the jargon of the 60s and 70s New Left — the product of a new sensitivity to key issues that were previously overlooked or badly understood? Or does its emergence, with its symptomatic timing in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era and the wave of defeats inflicted on the Left in those years, indicate that the new vocabulary is not so much innovation as errancy, straying from radical politics in the direction of a de-fanged adaptation to defeat and political marginality?
  2. Second: why, if at all, does it matter that they are so different? Are these just competing styles of speech and writing, or do they embed within them contrasting sets of assumptions about the nature of the Left, its main targets or aims, the appropriate way to respond to injustice, and the place of the Left in the wider society?

Without claiming to have figured anything out, I touch on both questions below. But before turning to that, we need to get a feel for these two vocabularies, and how they differ. Consider the following table. In the left column, several keywords of the New Left era are listed, along with their definitions. In the right column, each word is paired with a keyword from today’s activist Left, which has largely displaced the older term.

“Oppression”: a pattern of persistent and systematic disadvantage imposed on large groups of people, in many domains of social life, including employment, social status, treatment by the legal system, vulnerability to violence, and more; e.g, racial oppression, gender oppression, etc. “Privilege”: a set of unearned benefits that some individuals enjoy (and others are denied) in their everyday lives, by virtue of their place in a racial or gender or other ‘identity’-hierarchy, e.g., male privilege, white privilege, cisgender privilege, etc.
“Exploitation”: a feature of economic systems, including capitalism, in which unpaid labour is extracted from working people for the benefit of a relatively small number of exploiters, who comprise, in economic terms, a ruling class. “Classism”: an attitude of scorn, condescension, or disrespect toward persons of low income, similar to what once was called “snobbery” or class-based “elitism.”
“Alliances”: the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces (like social classes, or social movements), as part of a strategic orientation toward the coordinated pursuit of common aims. “Being an Ally”: a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged individual to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups or organizations that oppose that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.
“Consciousness-raising”: a process of popular political education, in which learners are viewed as already having an implicit grasp of critical insights about injustice and social change, but invites them to participate in a collective learning process in order to become fully aware of these insights and their implications through dialogue with peers. “Calling Out”: an approach to challenging “folks” who show a lack of insight or concern about issues of privilege, in which they are confronted by peers and urged to “check” their privilege. A regional variant in parts of the US is the phrase, “calling people on their shit.”
“Solidarity”: a stance, within and between social movements, of treating “injuries to one” as if they were “injuries to all,” and resisting them in common, as matters of shared priority, rather than as the concern only of those under attack. Example: The I am Trayvon Martin slogan used in anti-racist protests in 2013, which echoed the old labour-movement principle of solidarity (“An injury to one is an injury to all.) “Positionality”: a practice of acknowledging the specificity of one’s social position, especially one’s access to privilege, which may make one incapable of understanding or speaking authoritatively about the ways others are impacted adversely by the operation of privilege. Example: the I am not Trayvon Martin” meme” from 2013, which urged white people to refrain from identifying with African-American resistance, for reasons of positionality.
“The People”: a label for the totality or potential collectivity of those who are not members of the small, ruling elite; it is usually seen as including workers, the unemployed, small farmers, students, and almost all women, people of colour, and so on. “Folks”: a term that refers to groups of people, in the plural, without suggesting that they comprise a singular totality that could be united in one common struggle, which may be precluded by the difference of their experiences and degrees of privilege.
“Liberation”: a term used to refer to ultimate victory in struggles against systems of oppression and/or exploitation, e.g., national liberation, women’s liberation, black liberation. Cf. “emancipation,” e.g., the emancipation of women, the emancipation of the working class. “Safe[r] Space”: the attempt to create occasions or locations wherein the adverse effects of privilege on marginalized people are minimized in everyday interpersonal interactions, notably by encouraging “folks” in those spaces to “check their privilege” and by “calling out” any failures to “be an ally.”

Some immediate caveats and qualifications are necessary, to ward off misunderstanding.

First, the new vocabulary is used almost exclusively by the English-speaking Left in a few countries, especially Canada, the US, and (to a lesser extent) the UK. Elsewhere, such as in Latin America and southern Africa, the Left has its own distinctive vocabularies, which would have to be analyzed separately.

Second, the old vocabulary is still in use today. Indeed, many people use both vocabularies, or at least draw from both, even if they have a primary vocabulary that dominates their speech and writing about activism. But it seems clear that the first vocabulary has faded and continues to fade from use within today’s activist subcultures, as the second one continues to gain ground.

Third, it is possible to use one set of words to express the other set of meanings. That is, one can retain the words, “solidarity,” “oppression,” or “consciousness-raising,” while using them in a way that is shaped by the new vocabulary, so that by “solidarity,” you mean acknowledging positionality; by “oppression,” you mean individual privilege; and by “consciousness-raising,” you mean calling people out. Conversely, one can use the new terms, but give them the old meanings. For this reason, if one hears a contemporary activist use the word, “alliance,” which would be a rare thing, it is worth stopping to ask, Do you mean the confluence in struggle of large social forces like classes or social movements, or do you mean privileged people being committed as individuals to offering support to those adversely impacted by privilege, and taking direction from them? Only in this way can you confirm which vocabulary is being used, strictly speaking.

Fourth, my remarks refer to ‘ideal types,’ not the exact ways that every activist talks. In other words, although my account of the post-1990 activist vocabulary is intended to be recognizable by everyone familiar with contemporary activist subcultures, it is probably a bit more reflective of some ‘scenes’ than others. For example, it will be immediately recognizable, I think, to anyone familiar with the work of Tim WisePeggy McIntosh, Melissa Harris-Perry (recently described in The Atlantic as the USA’s foremost public intellectual), or many of today’s ‘social justice blogs.’ but my core contrast (in the two columns) may appear overdrawn and exaggerated to people whose contact with activist subcultures is mainly through grassroots protest organizing. In organizing contexts, most activist speech is infused with a pragmatic focus on getting things done, so some of this jargon recedes into the background. Nevertheless, I would be surprised if anyone (familiar with today’s activist subcultures) claimed not to recognize the terminology that I attribute to today’s activists.

Having said all that, I can now proceed to my two main questions, listed above (why are the vocabularies different, and how much does it matter).

So, why are these vocabularies so different? What accounts for this mutation in the mode of speech typical of Left political activists in recent decades? A close examination of the two systems of terminology reveals some underlying principles that are driving the transformation. In particular, one can discern the operation, just below the surface, of three fundamental shifts.

  1. A Shift in Priorities from Ultimate Victory to Challenging Everyday Impacts. The older vocabulary looked at capitalism, racism, and sexism (for example) as social systems or institutions that could and probably would be defeated, once and for all, in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, activists of that era defined and described their movements as struggles for “socialism,” “black liberation,” or “women’s liberation.” By contrast, the new vocabulary tends to suspend judgment on (without denying) the prospects for ultimate victory, and to focus its attention on challenging everyday impacts of capitalism, racialization and gender, in the here and now. This prioritization of resistance to everyday impacts infuses, not only the way activists today talk, but also how they choose what to do. For example, what is happening in this meeting, today, is emphasized much more, because it is not seen merely in instrumental terms as a means to destroy systems of domination. The meeting itself is generating impacts that have to be challenged as they arise. Addressing problems of “process,” which once would have been seen as a “distraction” from an urgent liberation struggle, is now seen as part and parcel of what the Left is for.
  2. A Shift of Focus from Analyzing System Dynamics to Analyzing Interpersonal Dynamics. The old vocabulary assumed that political analysis should study large-scale, often transnational social systems and structures, centuries in the making, e.g., systems of oppression and exploitation. In contrast, the new vocabulary assumes that race and gender and other forms of privilege are enacted in everyday, interpersonal interactions. This is key to the concept of “privilege.” It is likened to “an invisible backpack” of advantages or monopolized benefits that some receive and others are denied. Privileged persons gain these benefits whether or not they even know or acknowledge it. Thus, whereas activists in the late 60s and 70s were keen to use history and political economy to develop a sophisticated analysis of the historical process, centuries-long, that established European colonial domination of much of the world, the new vocabulary both reflects and encourages a change of focus, toward how racism (for example) is enacted or reproduced in the everyday interactions of white people with racialized people, as individuals or in groups. The analysis of the power dynamics of these everyday interpersonal interactions has tended to gain in prominence and sophistication, in parallel to the relative de-emphasis of the importance of political economy and critical sociology within the activist Left.
  3. A Shift in Emphasis from Commonality (Among Social Groups) to Specificity. The vocabulary of the 60s and 70s grew out of and contributed in turn to the construction of broad-based popular movements, in which hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people participated. By contrast, the vocabulary of today’s activists emerged in a completely different, and arguably much less favourable context. One symptom of this is a change in emphasis from the search for commonalities that could be the basis for building alliances and expanding the base of support for militant mass movements, to grappling with the barriers to joint organizing and common struggle. In brief, the old vocabulary emerged in a context where opportunities to encourage solidarity and collaboration were actively sought, whereas the new vocabulary emerged out of the frustration of failed efforts to bridge gaps between people and organizations that reflected real differences. There is a certain optimism in the idea of “consciousness-raising,” or the concept of “the people,” that seems naive and unconvincing to many of today’s activists. The shift from “consciousness-raising” to “calling out,” for instance, reflects (and encourages) a loss of confidence in the capacity of people to learn about, understand and oppose forms of inequality that do not adversely impact them as individuals. These doubts are, in turn, elaborated in terms of positionality and privilege.

Taken together, these three shifts go a long way toward explaining the transformation of the way activists talk, which has been noticeable at least since the 1990s. But is this a turn in the right direction? Or has the activist Left gone badly astray?

As we try to assess both the gains and the losses of this change, it is necessary to acknowledge two fundamental, and incontrovertible facts:

First, it is true that the vocabulary, and the practice, of the Left in the 1960s and 70s had several serious problems. There is no denying the fact that their movements were vastly more potent, and drew in vastly more people from all walks of life, than any political organizing that happens on the Left today, with the possible exception of the Occupy movement during its height. And yet, many people entered and participated in those movements in spite of serious concerns about the persistence, within movement activities, of sexist behaviours and attitudes, forms of machismo that were at once misogynist and homophobic, and ways in which (in some organizations and struggles) college-educated, middle-income white people tended to dominate the proceedings and set the agendas. To the extent that the movement was plagued by problems of this kind, the 60s New Left’s practice belied the radicalism of is official rhetoric, and made its universalistic claims about the “unity” of “the people” ring hollow. It seems clear that the attentiveness in today’s Left activist subcultures to interpersonal dynamics within the movement reflects a genuine learning process. It is a step toward beginning to address problems that were, in effect, glossed over and ignored by phrases like “the people” and a complacent view of the prospects for building genuine “solidarity” and “alliances.”

Second, however, it is also true that the series of shifts from the old vocabulary to the new one has entailed certain losses. In particular, the relative de-emphasizing of system-level causation, in favour of a new emphasis on the importance of individual action or inaction, tends to weaken the integration of everyday Left discourse with the theoretical analysis of systems like capitalism and colonialism. It is true that, in exchange, we have a vocabulary that better enables us to focus on class privilege and settler privilege. But if we are to defeat colonialism and capitalism, we cannot do so one person at a time, or one interaction or relationship at a time. The systems themselves have to be named, understood, attacked and overthrown. This issue is, obviously, closely connected to the loss of a focus on liberation. A liberation focus and a systems focus share a common understanding: that the purpose of the Left is to defeat systems of exploitation and oppression. Challenging immediate impacts is important, but not enough. It is necessary, but by no means sufficient. Moreover, the way we challenge everyday impacts should be informed by our understanding that they are not produced simply by individual actions, but by the operation of large-scale systems. The Left needs a vocabulary, and a self-understanding, that highlights and foregrounds the importance of constructing and expanding anti-systemic movements that aim to defeat systems of oppressive and exploitative power. It is hard not to think that the older vocabulary better expresses this insight, even as it obstructs our access to other critical insights that are also indispensable.

One could certainly say more about the gains and losses associated with adopting either of these two vocabularies. But perhaps it is enough, in the context of a blog post, to have sketched an approach to thinking about the question. Both vocabularies have been formed to address indispensably important concerns, so we should be reluctant to give up on either one. The most important thing, I would suggest, is to refuse to allow either of these two ways speaking, writing and thinking about Left activism to evade the challenge raised by its counterpart. Personally, I would be reluctant to give up an expression like, ‘the people,’ and to take up ‘folks’ in its place. But I hope that the way I talk about the people is disciplined by a certain amount of sensitivity to the motivation that has led some activists to drop it from their vocabulary. On the other hand, I hope that people who have embraced the newer way of articulating Left politics will (begin to, or continue to) see the importance of highlighting issues of system dynamics, large-scale alliance-building, and ultimate liberation, rather than letting these urgently important matters disappear from view entirely.

What is the State? A Public Autonomy View

By S. D’Arcy


Anti-austerity protesters in Athens, outside the Parliament, 2011.

The concept of democracy as “public autonomy” stands directly opposed to its counter-concept: the state, the great dissolver, usurper, and corrupter of the democratic impulse.

Of course, this suggests that, lurking behind the concept of public autonomy, there must be an implicit “state theory,” or at least some rough conception of the core features of the state form, which is taken for granted. Indeed there is (a rough conception, although not a theory). Here I want to spell out the basics of that conception, in the simplest possible terms.

In broad outlines, the state consists of four main types of structures, and four further types of processes:

  1. structures of representation, such as parliaments or legislatures;

  2. structures of bureaucratic administration, such as the ministry of education, or any one of many regulatory agencies;

  3. structures of judicial decision-making and judicial review, such as courts and tribunals;

  4. structures of armed coercion, such as the police, the prison system, and the military;

  5. processes of policy-formation, such as backroom lobbying, the production of reports, and public hearings;

  6. processes of ideology-propagation, such as government campaigns of ‘civic education’ and ‘national unity’ cultivation;

  7. processes of system-steering, such as the use of monetary policy to affect aggregate demand in the economy, or the deployment of tax incentives to encourage people to purchase houses; and finally,

  8. processes of service-provision, such as employment counseling, public education, and government- organized (not just funded) healthcare delivery.

(The four processes are spread out across the four structures, especially the first two.)

On one level, calling all eight of these diverse structures and processes “the state,” as if this were the name of a unitary entity, is intellectually questionable. No doubt, there is much to be said about what differentiates these eight state functions. But what all these structures and processes share is a joint commitment to the insulation of nominally “public” decision-making authority from the direct and unfiltered influence of actual public participation.

If there were an “essence” of the state, it would be this: the establishment of structures and processes that institute and/or defend forms of nominally public authority that are protected from actual popular power, either because they establish conditions for participation that are inherently disempowering (like voting for a representative, or filling out a form), or because they block entry to all but the few who can pass through a forbidding filtering system, or because they ensure that power flows from the top down, but not the other way, or (as in the case of service-provision by the state) they encourage the re-definition of social problems as personal or psychological rather than as politico-economic.

If there are democratic aspects to the way the “liberal” state operates, these would have to be understood as, at best, a type of rigidly indirect democracy, that is, democracy in which popular influence can be exerted only indirectly upon the direct decision-makers. For the most part, though, it seems best to acknowledge that the whole thrust of the state is toward protecting key systems of power (in and out of the state) from the perceived threat of public empowerment.

All of these are points about modern states as such. Even a post-capitalist state would — as Marx pointed out — serve as a direct barrier to the extension of democratic control over society. But what makes the capitalist state so particularly effective at performing the disempowering function of the state is that it adds to the above eight elements a further, decisive constraint: the imposition of constitutional limits on the scope of public authority over the exercise of “private” power. In short, it constructs and defends a “private sector” beyond the reach of public decision-making.

The capitalist state disempowers, therefore, both because it is a state in general, hence inherently disempowering of mobilized publics, and because — through its liberal constitutionalism — it institutes and enforces a sharp protective barrier that limits the scope of public decision-making authority in such a way as to insulate the huge concentrations of private power at the centre of modern society, the Corporations, from even the pretence of accountability or responsiveness to the public interest or the popular will. This idea that the state may not intrude on key decisions about investment and the allocation of social labour and resources, but must instead defer such decisions to “the private sector,” underlines the uncompromisingly anti-democratic nature of capitalist states, regardless of what party is “at the helm” of them at any given time.

With their power thus protected, corporations can always wield the threat of shifting their investment capital toward jurisdictions that prioritize private profits over the public interest, and away from jurisdictions that threaten to experiment with public policies that are responsive to considerations of social or environmental justice. The imperative is always in play: give the corporations what they want, and no one has to lose their jobs (although they may do so anyway). Threaten their bottom line, however, and there will surely be a price to pay in lost jobs and reduced tax revenues. This familiar dynamic, a standing system of blackmail, ensures that the capitalist state not only dissolves or precludes public autonomy; it also actively establishes corporate power over the whole policy-making process, including (perhaps especially) the process of making policies that ostensibly “regulate” or “constrain” corporate behaviour. The power of the energy industry is nowhere greater than in the energy regulatory system itself. The same goes for the banking industry, and the food industry: the regulations that supposedly rein them in are in fact direct expressions of their own power, dictated unilaterally, for the most part, by hand-picked industry functionaries in and out of government.

What does all this tell us? Mainly, that Marx was right. The problem with the state is not that the wrong people are in charge of it. No, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes,” he insisted. On the contrary, by its nature the modern state is “a public force organized for social enslavement…, an engine of class despotism.” He was right to conclude that, rather than expending our energy on getting hold of the engine, or trying to redesign the engine, we were better off trying to “smash” [zerbrechen] it. This is so, even if (as he also says) some “social functions will remain in existence…that are analogous to present day state functions.” For instance, public services will still be provided after the breaking of the state form. The insulation of such service provision from participatory-democratic oversight, and deliberative-democratic input, would certainly have to end, however. So, too, would the stranglehold that private concentrations of power now wield to steer public policy decisions in the interest of business elites.

Under modern conditions, Marx said, “the precondition for every real people’s revolution” was ”no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it” (Marx’s italics; Letter to Kugelmann, 1871).

In his book, Changing the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway calls Marx’s idea, “refraining from taking power.” To be more precise, he distinguishes between two kinds of power, and he favours not taking power of only one of these kinds. There is, first, power-over others, public heteronomy, which is what the state is constructed to generate. But there is also, second, power-to (“changing the world,” in Holloway’s idiom), or humanity’s capacity for creativity and cooperation, which in politics finds expression in public autonomy or collective self-governance. This form of “power,” this “anti-politics” of power-to, Holloway wants us to liberate and expand. However, we do that not by seizing the state, but by refusing to allow our creativity and cooperation to be expropriated by the state. Our power-to-do can retain its liberating power as potentiality only in the form of community-based popular self-organization, which is exactly what the state is designed to reject.

To confuse the empowerment of popular self-liberation with some sort of “taking over the state” is the gravest error that a socialist can make. It is to choose as one’s favoured political vehicle a social form that Marx rightly identified as “an engine of despotism.”

George Jackson on ‘the 1%’ and ‘the 99%’

By Steve D’Arcy

The idea of a class struggle between ‘the 99%’ and ‘the 1%’ is Marxist in origin, having been introduced by Black Panther Party member, George Jackson, in the early 1970s. More recently, of course, it reappeared in the discourse of the ‘Occupy’ movement, where it infused a certain type of class politics into the self-understanding and public profile of the movement.


George Jackson, 1941-71 (art by Santiago Mazatl)

Jackson on the 99 percent

In his posthumously published 1972 book, Blood in My Eye, Jackson wrote: “Revolutionary change means the seizure of all that is held by the 1 percent, and the transference of these holdings into the hands of the remaining 99 percent” (p. 9). (Note: all page references are to George L. Jackson, Blood in my Eye [NYC: Random House, 1972].)

No one doubts that Jackson strongly identified with Marxism. “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao,” he wrote in his other book, Soledad Brother, “and they redeemed me.” But is this way of understanding the fundamental antagonism between the ruling class and ‘the people’ ultimately compatible with Marxist theory? Some people who identify with Marxism are doubtful. They suggest that the blunt contrast between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is “fundamentally too vague to be useful as an analytical tool.”

For some, the objection is a matter of arithmetic: the ruling class, they say, actually comprises more than 1% of the population. But this objection seems to miss the mark, because no one (including Jackson) intends the formula to be understood in such a hyper-literal way, as a numerical estimate of the exact ratios. Rather, the notion of the 1% signifies the tiny minority of people whose wealth and power vastly exceeds that of most people. This small ruling elite arguably makes up the main adversary of the oppositional movements of the exploited and the oppressed. In the same way, the 99% should not be mistaken for a precise numerical formula. It simply points out the antagonism in principle between the profit-motivated ruling class and all of those many millions of people whose well-being is sacrificed and whose aspirations are thwarted by the systems of power that impose oppression, exploitation and alienation on the bulk of humankind, in a variety of ways and to varying degrees.

Marx on the ‘Immense Majority’ and the ‘Nine Tenths’

Karl Marx, being rather more upfront about the irrelevance of numerical precision in this context, referred (in the 1848 Communist Manifesto) to this vast segment of society simply as “the immense majority.” He described the anti-capitalist movement as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” Elsewhere in the same work, he got more specific, identifying this movement with the 90%, subtracting nine percentage points from George Jackson’s catch phrase.

In Marx’s words,

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”

Should we conclude that, precise numbers aside, Marxism can well accommodate the basic thrust of Jackson’s 99% phrasing, give or take a few percentage points? Perhaps. But there are further objections to consider.

Differentiation within the 99%

A second objection is that the formula glosses over, or even actively conceals, antagonisms that exist within Jackson’s “99%,” or indeed within Marx’s “nine tenths.” There are, for instance, class differences within what Jackson calls “the people,” dividing working-class people from middle-class people, such as professionals, managerial employees, and small business owners. These middle-class people are not part of the investor class (the 1%), but they are not really or entirely part of the working class, either. Marxist theory labels these intermediate class positions “contradictory class locations.” (It should be said here that the upper echelons of the professional, the managerial, and the small-business classes actually overlap or merge with ‘the 1%’; conversely, at the low-paid and precarious end, the line between these ‘intermediate’ groups and the wider working class becomes blurred. I can’t explore these nuances in this article, however.)

Importantly, the interests of ‘professionals’ can sometimes clash with those of workers, because professional labour is partly de-commodified by guild-like ‘associations,’ like the ‘medical associations’ of doctors and the ‘bar associations’ of lawyers, which create a partly distinct set of interests and political priorities, as well as distinct advantages, notably more autonomy at work and higher pay and status. In the same way, although only the richest upper-level managers gain entry into the 1%, people in lower- and middle-level managerial or supervisory jobs can find that their interests diverge from workers in very direct and clear ways, since their work may entail hiring, monitoring, and disciplining workers. Finally, people who own small businesses or family farms, very few of whom could plausibly be seen as members of the ruling class, often count on hiring low-paid and precarious labour as part of their business model. In these ways, there can be class conflict within the 99%, and the phrase seems to downplay, if not to deny this possibility.

In the same vein, other kinds of antagonism or tensions within the 99%, which are just as important, also need to be taken into account. For example, there are entrenched hierarchies that differentiate women from men; settler populations from Indigenous peoples; non-racialized from racialized groups; and so on. These hierarchies of systemic advantage and disadvantage within “the 99%” seem to some people to cast doubt on the usefulness of the catch-all phrase, ‘the 99 percent.’

It would be foolish to deny the seriousness of these criticisms, and no doubt we should keep them in mind at all times, to avoid turning Jackson’s 99% concept into a source of obfuscation and confusion. But it is worth noting that Jackson did not see these two points as being in tension. He was alert to both the possibility of a broad anti-capitalist alliance (addressing the grievances and aspirations of the 99%), and the necessity to acknowledge and address actual or potential conflicts of interest and aspiration within that proposed alliance.

Just after highlighting the fundamental clash between the 1% and the 99%, Jackson notes that “we must understand the racial complexities that exist” (p. 11); he highlights the importance of “internal colonialism” (p. 10); he notes that African-Americans are, but whites are not, subjected to routine police violence; he highlights the political differentiation between rightist and leftist workers (p. 63); and so on. But he sees these “complexities” as posing a political challenge for the oppositional struggles, a task to be taken up by the broad anti-capitalist movement: “to devise a policy,” that is, a program, “which takes account of…racism,” as well as colonialism, sexism, class differentiation, and other sources of potential divergence and conflicts of interest. This, he suggests, is the common task of all “sections of the left revolutionary movements” (p. 11).

If the jargon of the 99% and the 1% makes it harder to “devise a policy” within the anti-capitalist movement that can “take account of” the “complexities” and internal antagonisms that do (or threaten to) obstruct the emergence of a common front against the ruling class and its system, then we should dispense with Jackson’s formula. But, in a time when a broad, differentiated yet united movement against the system seems so sorely lacking and elusive, it may be that what we need most is to reawaken the very ambition, now largely absent, to construct an anti-capitalist alliance that draws in a wide array of forces, while recognizing the autonomy and distinct integrity of movements that cannot be simply collapsed into a single, undifferentiated super-movement. Alliances, by definition, are forms of coordination and strategic convergence of differentiated forces. They are not fusions that deny or suppress the specificity of different participating organizations, groups and projects. Nevertheless, an alliance entails a process of realignment, in which partnered forces assume a coordinated posture of common opposition to a shared main adversary.

George-Jackson-Lives-The-Black-Panther-newspaperEnduring Insights

It is worth recalling at this point that Jackson was a Leftist of a different time and place, when the level of struggle was much higher, and the political debates on the Left were linked intimately to the construction of mass organizations and the conduct of broad-based and militant popular struggles. We should not succumb to nostalgia, but it can’t escape our notice that Jackson wrote at a time when one still spoke of “forging alliances,” the confluence in struggle of large social forces, not just about “being an ally,” which is understood nowadays to be a process of personal growth undertaken largely by individuals (as opposed to mass organizations, movements or classes). Today, terms like “alliances,” “liberation movements,” and “revolution,” have largely dropped out of the activist vocabulary (examples: 1, 2), so it is a challenge for some to understand Jackson’s mentality and his strategic sensibility. But Jackson wanted to build — starting right away — a militant mass movement that could topple capitalism, imperialism and all forms of oppression and exploitation. His concern wasn’t how to live together within the systems and constraints of capitalism, racism, sexism and imperialism, but how to destroy them, by means of a broad-based popular struggle from below: what he called “the protracted war of the worker bees” (p. 83).

It was, I suspect, just this concern — the concern to construct, precisely on the basis of our insistence on “the complexities,” a broad but militant anti-capitalist alliance — that motivated Jackson’s introduction of the formula of the 99% versus the 1%.

There is no doubt that Jackson well understood the magnitude of this ambition. And he worried that revolutionaries might be tempted to stop short in the pursuit of it:

“If the 1 percent who presently control the wealth of the society maintain their control after any reordering of the state, the changes cannot be said to be revolutionary….If the 1 percent are simply displaced by another 1 percent, revolutionary change has not taken place….A social revolution after the fact of the modern corporate capitalist state can only mean the breakup of that state and a completely new form of economics and culture” (p. 9).

In this respect, too, Jackson’s revolutionary spirit foreshadowed what was best in the Assemblies movement, which spread from North Africa to Southern Europe, and eventually to Zuccotti Park and beyond, with its resolute repudiation of official politics and its zeal to create the new.

To be sure, there are large parts of George Jackson’s political strategy that we can clearly see, at least in retrospect, to have been doomed to failure. In particular, his support (e.g., pp. 66-70) for what I have described elsewhere as “the clandestine cell model of armed struggle,” which he depicted as the basic form of revolutionary politics in our time, proved to be disastrously mistaken. Not all of his proposals have aged equally well. But his passion to construct a broad anti-capitalist alliance of the 99% against the 1% seems to be one thing that George Jackson got exactly right.

Why Rebellion is Rare, or Why Solidarity Matters

It is widely claimed, especially by marxists, that working-class people have both an interest in rebelling against capitalism, and a capacity to overturn the system by means of their own concerted action. I, too, endorse this claim.

But, supposing it’s true that workers would benefit from rebellion, why do they in fact seem so reluctant to rebel? Why is anti-capitalist revolt both rare and, by and large, relatively unpopular, at least in most parts of the world?

A common answer is that working-class people do not rebel because they are in the grip of an ideology, relentlessly promoted by schools, mass media and the culture industry. According to this theory, the ruling ideas are those of the ruling class, and the hegemony of pro-capitalist belief systems and value systems overrides the class interests of workers, leading them to embrace an alien, bourgeois world-view. In short, the compliance or acquiescence of workers is explained in terms of their alleged internalization of a conception of society that undermines their willingness to revolt against the system that exploits and oppresses them. According to this view, workers are behaving in an irrational, self-defeating way to the extent that they refuse to revolt. But how likely is it that they would persistently act in ways that are self-defeating? There’s something about this explanation, the “ideology” theory, that just doesn’t ring true.

Another explanation appeals to affluence to explain the absence of revolt. Maybe relatively highly paid workers — the “labour aristocracy” — are “bought off” by the system, because they benefit from it in ways that lower-paid workers do not. The problem with this view is that, like the “ideology” theory, it assumes that at least the lower-paid workers are acting in self-defeating ways whenever they fail to carry out a revolt that they would benefit from. Again, it is hard to see why they would behave in that way for a long time, decade after decade, if the whole time they had more to gain from acting otherwise.

I think we can bring out what both the ideology theory and the labour aristocracy theory are missing, by presenting a kind of parable, which conveys vividly the predicament of the workers’ movement today. (Note that, as to the substance of the views conveyed in the parable, I claim no originality; many social scientists have raised these points about rebellion and rationality, in more or less similar ways, for the past 40 years. See Heath 2000, for a recent application.)turkey

Imagine that a passenger jet is carrying 200 passengers. Two of the passengers, however, have used makeshift knives to commandeer the plane. Call them the 1%. Their intention is to use their position of power to extract money from the others, under the threat that non-cooperating passengers will be penalized in various ways, such as by being denied food or a proper place to sit. Conversely, the most cooperative passengers would be given advantages, including extra comforts and more freedom to move around. We can call the penalized passengers, “the worse off,” and the rewarded passengers, “the better off.”

It occurs to many, perhaps even to all of the passengers that 2 hijackers, in spite of the weapons that they have at their disposal, could easily be overpowered by the combined force of 198 others. And yet, no one challenges the hijackers at all. But why not?

Should we imagine that they are lulled into complacency and apathy by the comfort of their seats? Could it be that they are too immersed in the on-flight movie that is being shown on screens throughout the plane?

No. Their ready compliance is due neither to their level of comfort, nor to the distractions of the entertainment they are allowed to enjoy. Instead, what happens here is what is known as a “collective action problem.” A collective action problem exists whenever the action that would be most advantageous to a group of people, were they to cooperate with one another, is not advantageous to any of them individually in the absence of such cooperation. As a result, each of the individuals is in the position of being reluctant to “stick their necks out.” In my passenger jet case, no one tries to overpower the hijackers, because doing so alone would be at least self-destructive (because they would fail, and then suffer penalties, ending up not better off but worse off), if not suicidal. It is only advantageous to attack the hijackers if enough of one’s fellow passengers also do so, in the same way and at the same time. If that sort of large-scale coordinated response is unavailable, it is fruitless to try to confront the hijackers one or two passengers at a time. For each individual passenger caught in this situation, the most advantageous thing to do is to try to make the best of a bad situation. But the only way to do that is to try to be one of the most compliant passengers, in the hope that one can thereby gain entry into the “better off” group, rewarded for acquiescence. After all, the hijackers, who are now in a position to confer benefits and harms on the other passengers, have promised extra comforts and freedoms to the most compliant passengers. While attacking the hijackers will surely make one worse off, currying favour with them might actually improve one’s position.

To be sure, if rebelling against them seemed likely to end the whole ordeal, most of the passengers would probably be willing to take that risk. They would have a strong incentive to do so, as long as the great majority of the other passengers could be counted upon to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in this struggle. But in the absence of a coordinated, large-scale response, rebelling as individuals, in ones and twos, is just plain irrational and self-destructive. It simply can’t succeed. No doubt a few passengers will try, hoping to set an example for the others, perhaps expecting to spark a wider revolt. But when the others see how easily the rebellion is crushed, the most likely effect will be to reinforce the impression of most passengers that the only option is to make the best of a bad situation, doing what they can to please the hijackers in order to extract some relative advantages.

This, in a nutshell, is the structure of the situation that the workers’ movement finds itself in today. Collectively, we have the potential power to topple the ruling class and its systems of exploitation and oppression. By large-scale withdrawal of labour, and refusal of socio-political compliance, the workers’ movement (that is, the oppositional struggles of the exploited and the oppressed) could bring the system grinding to a halt and deprive elites of the social basis of their power and authority. Moreover, we would benefit greatly from doing so. And yet, in practice we seem powerless to resist. Indeed, when we do resist, our efforts usually fall flat, since it is clear both to ourselves and to our adversaries that we are unable to mobilize our forces on the scale and with the intensity, coordination and persistence needed to pose a real challenge to the system.

At the very centre of the crisis of the Left is a collective action problem, essentially identical to the one that plagues the passengers on that flight. Small groups here and there try to put up a fight. But they are easily defeated by the superior strength of the ruling class. Were all of the exploited and oppressed, or even most of them, to challenge the system at once, in a sustained and coordinated way, there is no doubt that the rebellion could prevail. But this kind of coordination does not exist, and everyone knows that it does not exist. As a result, revolt against the system just does not seem like a plausible or appealing course of action for the vast majority of people. Why stick your neck out, when you know you cannot prevail?

What is the way forward, in the face of this impasse?

What is missing, obviously, is coordination. Each individual or isolated group needs to be able to trust all the others that, when one person or group sticks their neck out to fight, all the others will “have their back” and take up the fight. This is the missing ingredient. But how can we begin to address this “atomization,” this sense that we all stand alone, wishing we could stand together?

Traditionally, the workers’ movement knew exactly how to address this problem. It systematically cultivated, and even “enforced” in certain ways (above all, during a strike or boycott), a set of norms and practices that reinforced habits of reliable coordination: the movement took great pains to inculcate the familiar “proletarian values” of cooperation, mutual aid, and solidarity. The power of the workers’ movement rested on the widely shared understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Injustice anywhere was recognized as a threat to justice everywhere.

Unfortunately, there has been a long term process of “decomposition” of these forms of solidarity and cooperation, brought about by changes within the workers’ movement itself (the bureaucratization of unions, the displacement of self-organized practices of mutual aid by professionalized, state-administered social services), the legal reconfiguration and ‘domestication’ of ‘labour relations,’ the reorganization of workplaces to disempower and de-skill workers, the reordering of the forms of life available to workers (suburbanization, car culture, etc.), and the enclosure and commodification of most opportunities for recreation and the production and consumption of popular culture, among many other factors. The effect of all these (and other) transformations has been to weaken the grip of expectations of mutual aid and reciprocal solidarity within and among the organizations of the labour and social movements. The grip of those proletarian values has steadily weakened, to the point where now the “bourgeois” norms of competition, social climbing, and careerism have come — paradoxically — to prevail even within the working class, which for so many generations scorned these ruling-class aspirations and counterposed to them the socialistic ideals and material practices of solidarity and cooperation.

In the wake of this long-term process of decomposition, what is needed now is a similarly long-term process of recomposition. The exploited and the oppressed have to take up the challenge of constructing new forms of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, while reinvigorating (where possible) the old forms. One part of this will be the emergence of new styles of struggle, more effective in today’s context than the domesticated and de-fanged varieties of collective action that now predominate, too often integrated into the official political process or the state-supervised labour relations regime. But just as crucial will be the cultivation of effective vehicles of cooperative production and distribution that can draw us out of the seemingly totalitarian reach of market and commodity relations, on the one hand, and bureaucratic ‘command-and-control’ systems, on the other hand. A resurgence of grassroots collectivism could offer a much-needed reminder of our capacity as human beings to support and sustain one another, outside of and against capital and its state. Community-based, self-organized forms of cooperation and “solidarity economics” not only could exist, but they already do exist, albeit under constant pressure to collapse into the capitalist forms of organization that they attempt to eschew. No less important, the workers’ movement of today must learn to push back against the total privatization and enclosure of popular culture, by finding ways to produce and share cultural expressions that articulate the grievances and aspirations of the exploited and the oppressed in ways that are harder to recuperate or co-opt within the confines of capitalism and commodification.

The Left should not allow its anxiety in the face of non-statist forms of “localist” cooperation and solidarity to discourage it from offering much-needed support for so-called ‘prefigurative’ forms of working-class self-organization. The latter take many forms, from cooperative workplaces and popular assemblies to community gardens and collective kitchens. The absence of red flags and anti-capitalist manifestos should not obscure the fundamental antagonism between these egalitarian and democratic projects and the logic of capitalism that they so obviously reject.

Only a concerted and persistent commitment to this process of renewing and regenerating the shared sense that “an injury to one is an injury to all” can begin to turn the tide, reviving the deep bond of mutual trust and commonality of fate that nourished the struggles for justice and democracy in decades past.

In what sense did Marx propose to “smash the state”?

It is well known that one of the formative political experiences of Marx’s life was his effort to mount a public defence of the Paris Commune of 1871. The Commune was the most dramatic and, to Marx, the most inspiring anti-capitalist revolt of his time. As the Franco-Prussian War wound down, the workers of Paris rose up and deposed the French State’s authority, replacing its rule with a new form of popular self-organization that, in Marx’s memorable phrase, did not reproduce or reorganize the state, but “smashed” it.

But what did Marx mean by “smashing the state”? And what was the nature of this Commune that he held up as a model for anti-capitalist revolution?

Should we think of the Commune, as some do today, as a “workers’ state”? Or should we think of it as, on the contrary, a form of participatory-democratic, specifically anti-statist, community-based working-class self-organization?

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Defender of the Commune, Paris 1871

Here, Marx and Engels actually make it hard to say quite which interpretation they would endorse, because sometimes they use language encouraging the statist interpretation of the Commune, and sometimes they deny outright that it was a state, “in the proper sense of the word.”

A typical statist reading can be found in a comment by Engels, in 1891, that the Commune “shattered” the “former state power,” and “replaced” it with “a new and truly democratic one” (628; page #s refer to Tucker, ed., Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed.). But this suggestion, that the Commune created a “new and truly democratic” state, seems to contradict something Engels said in 1875, when he asserted bluntly that the Commune “was no longer a state in the proper sense of the word.” Indeed, so insistent was he that the Commune was not a state in the proper sense, that he proposed, speaking on behalf of Marx and himself, that socialists should “replace [the word] state everywhere by Gemeinwesen [community], a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word, commune” (Letter to Bebel, 1875).

For his part, Marx also seemed ambivalent. On the one hand, he seemed to be alluding to the state when he called the Commune “a working-class government” (634). On the other hand, he regarded the most important lesson of the Commune to be the insight that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” (629). This insight, that we can’t just “take power” by putting the workers’ movement at the helm of the administrative, coercive and legislative apparatuses of the capitalist state, was in fact the only correction to the argument of the Communist Manifesto that he ever explicitly proposed. The Manifesto had failed to insist that a working-class revolution would have to smash the state, rather than taking it over, Marx concluded.

Rather than getting bogged down in verbal technicalities about the meaning of the word “state,” let’s look at what Marx thought the Commune was doing, and try to see, substantively and concretely, what he meant when he said that it smashed rather than taking over the state.

To save time, I’ll get right to the point: As Marx says, “While the merely repressive organs of the old governmental power were to be amputated, its legitimate functions were to be wrested from an authority usurping pre-eminence over society itself, and restored to the responsible agents of society” (633). In other words, the state power, exercised from above, was replaced by community control from below. Thus, the Commune “got rid of the standing army and the police,” according to Marx (632). “The whole of the educational institutions,” he adds, “were cleared of the influence of…the State” (632). “Judicial functionaries,” he tells us, “were divested of” their “sham independence,” and placed under community control. Or, as he vividly puts it, “like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable” (632). Moreover, and also like all other public servants, they were to be paid an average worker’s wage (632). Both the legislature of professional politicians and the administrative branch of government were to be fused (632) into the Commune’s democratic assembly, delegates to which were, once again, “elective, responsible, and revocable,” and paid the prevailing worker’s wage.

The basic idea of smashing the state, as Marx uses this term, is evidently quite clear from these passages, and countless others like them in Marx’s main work on the Commune, and his main contribution to so-called “state theory,” The Civil War in France. What he means by “smashing the state” is that the various elements of state power – the coercive apparatus; the administrative apparatus; the legislative-executive apparatus; and the judicial apparatus – this whole system of state power is either (a) abolished outright (“amputated”), or (b) in cases where it has what Marx calls “remaining legitimate functions,” these are placed under direct community control by the working class, from below.

Community control, as Marx understands it, includes four elements: that all functionaries are paid the prevailing wage in the community, and are elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the community. Thus, smashing the state, for him, means two things: abolition of all illegitimate functions, and subordination of legitimate functions to direct popular control from below.

Now, every reader of Marx will agree that he regards this process as a “conquest of political power” by the working class, or as some now say, the 99%. But is it a state? Certainly workers were governing; they were “dictating” the terms of social cooperation. Workers ruled Paris for the two months that the Commune lasted. But all of this is consistent, perhaps most consistent, with Engels’ formulation: that the Commune was “no longer a state in the proper sense of the word,” but a form of community-based working-class self-organization, or what Marx called “the proletariat organized as the ruling class” (490).

Dictatorship, yes; state, no.  Conquest of (social) power, yes; conquest of state power, no.