Dictating the Terms of Social Cooperation: Quick Sketch of a Normative Interpretation of DOTP

According to Marx, “supreme authority” should be vested in a “Council,” operating as “a democratic assembly, [in which] every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it” (Ethnological Notebooks, p. 150). And yet, he assigned a central role in revolutionary politics to what he called the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (DOTP), which he suggested would undertake “despotic inroads on the rights of property.”Syntagma-square-assembly

Should we understand the DOTP as instantiating the democratic ideal as he understood it, or as suspending the democratic ideal on a “transitional” or “emergency” basis?

The concept of DOTP has been subject to multiple interpretations.

  1. According to the predictive interpretation, DOTP is an anticipated phase of social development, likely to be instituted by anti-capitalist revolution, the long-term effect of which would be to instigate a “withering away” of state power, because the basis for the state in class antagonisms would diminish as class differences were displaced by post-capitalist egalitarian forms of social organization. On this view, DOTP figures as a stage in an unfolding developmental trajectory, in which capitalist institutions are transformed into post-capitalist, socialist institutions.
  2. According to the strategic interpretation, DOTP is the only pragmatically effective organizational vehicle suited for expropriating the capitalist class and abolishing exploitation and oppression, making it strategically indispensable as a means of laying the basis for communism. On this interpretation, DOTP is a strategic proposal, to be consciously adopted as a vehicle for effecting changes that can’t be effected by means of other, less authoritative measures or organizational forms.
  3. I favour a third, normative interpretation of DOTP. In any legitimate working-class revolutionary process, “the proletariat…must constitute itself [as] the nation” (M&E 1848), i.e., as a democratic public, instituting forms of grassroots-democratic decision-making that embody the normative ideal of “public autonomy,” or what Marx (1871) called “government of the people by the people.” Marx’s account of the Paris Commune makes plain that his embrace of DOTP is founded, not upon a Realpolitik assessment that democratic norms would have to be suspended on an emergency basis by an anti-capitalist revolt, but that, on the contrary, a DOTP would itself constitute a profound deepening and broadening of democratic politics.

This last, normative interpretation of DOTP is rooted in the “social republican” understanding of Marx’s politics, an interpretation that finds much of its support in Marx’s most important text after Capital, “The Civil War in France.” The idea that public autonomy is the core normative commitment of Marx’s politics is not as well understood as we might wish. In part, this is because some Marxists have misconstrued DOTP as a prescription for domination, albeit domination of the reactionary capitalist ruling class.

But, precisely in the first volume of Capital, Marx points us in the very opposite direction. The regime of DOTP is not to be a form of “domination,” but a throwing off, by the people, of the yoke of domination: “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (Capital, v. I, ch. 32). This is how Marx understood the idea of DOTP. The proletariat would “constitute itself the nation,” i.e., claim the mantle of democratic publicity, and put a stop to the domination of the people by the usurping class of exploiters. DOTP, in Marx’s sense, would be a “negation of the negation”: a “bursting asunder” of the “fetters” that block public autonomy. Thus, in no way can we think of DOTP is a repetition, or replication of the domination (Herrschaft) that we know well from bourgeois politics (i.e., “liberal democracy”). There can be no socialist state, strictly speaking, in Marx’s schema, since a regime of DOTP precludes all recourse to statism and Herrschaft. On the contrary, Marx understands DOTP as the kind of dramatic upsurge of grassroots democracy and popular self-rule that he described in his account of the Paris Commune as a “social republic.”

In a regime of DOTP, the people dictate the terms of social cooperation, in place of the rule of the usurpers. “Dictatorship” in this social-republican sense is not a prelude or transition to democracy. It is democracy, i.e., the “government of the people by the people.”

Are there ‘Good Protesters’ and ‘Bad Protesters’?

(Note: The following first appeared as a blog post at the Briarpatch Magazine website, on 12 June 2014. I re-post it here because its content is related to themes discussed on this blog. Briarpatch offers original reporting, insight, and analysis from a grassroots perspective: http://briarpatchmagazine.com/)

By Stephen D’Arcy

One of the enduring ideas to emerge from the diversity of tactics debates of recent years has been the idea that the activist left should refuse to distinguish between “good protesters” and “bad protesters.” The concern emerged in the wake of the acrimonious infighting among the organizers of the Seattle anti-WTO protests in November of 1999. After the protest, in the course of which black bloc participants had engaged in high profile property destruction (mostly targeting chain retail store windows), organizers argued bitterly about who “belongs” inside the activist left.

9uth december student cuts protests as govt votes

Some critics went so far as to claim that bloc participants were not “real protesters,” but outsiders who had no place in the movement. Unwittingly, or perhaps in some cases strategically (as a device for enhancing their own “mainstream” credibility), these organizers had adopted the rightist trope of the protester as “outside agitator” and “troublemaker,” a supposedly suitable target for police repression, unlike the “good people” whose protests are law-abiding and respectful.

The use of this language by some organizers against others, and the way it seemed to confer legitimacy on the criminalization of some protesters, led many people to highlight the toxic and self-destructive implications of accepting this good protester/bad protester distinction into the discourse of the activist left.

To be sure, mainstream journalists, editorialists, politicians, and police officers will inevitably reach for the good protester/bad protester contrast, as a way of conceding on the one hand that people have a right to protest, while insisting on the other hand that the most forceful and disruptive forms of protest deserve stigmatization and criminalization. We expect that sort of thing from the authorities and their boosters in the mainstream media. But to allow this sort of thinking into the left’s own way of talking about itself would – as the aftermath of the Seattle protests illustrated – do great damage to the activist left and its capacity to maintain solidarity against repression.

The ensuing backlash against the “bad protester” stigma was, and still is, a healthy, positive thing. It insulates the left, to some degree, from the danger of being drawn into supporting the efforts of the police to crack down on confrontational protest.

But this refusal to indulge in “bad protester” talk also carries with it a danger: that we might too crudely equate the good protester/bad protester contrast with normative thinking more generally (where “normative” means addressing what we should or shouldn’t do). The danger, in short, is that we might mistakenly assume that what needs to be rejected is all reflection and discussion about the merits of protest tactics, including their ethical merits. If we make this leap, embracing an austere amoralism, a collective refusal to think normatively and ethically about our tactical choices, we risk fatally weakening our capacity to learn from mistakes and strengthen our movements by means of critical self-reflection and debate.

Having it both ways

Can we have it both ways, however? Can we both: 1) repudiate the trope of the good protester/bad protester contrast and 2) engage in normative, critical assessment of the merits of different tactics? The answer is yes, we certainly can have it both ways. But we need a bit of clarity about what we’re doing.

First, note something about the “bad protester” idea. It does not take the form of internal self-reflection by movement participants about possible mistakes made within the movement, by some of us, our comrades, so to speak. Instead, it externalizes the (alleged) mistakes, and claims that those making certain tactical choices are not even members of our movement, but outsiders who have no place in the left. It stigmatizes them as “criminals,” “vandals,” and “troublemakers,” that is to say, as something other than co-participants in our struggles for social and environmental justice.

Karl Marx defined “critique” as “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” This idea, that our movements and struggles need to engage in self-clarification, by means of self-critique and internal debate, does require that we raise and debate concerns that we have about one another’s choices. We rightly argue about these things: Was that tactic helpful? Was it needlessly divisive within our own ranks? Was it too deferential to the police? Was there enough consultation with key movement allies? Did it attempt to substitute the boldness of a tiny number of people for the self-activity of a larger group, in whose name the action was taken? This kind of debate – “the self-clarification of our struggles” – is a far cry from any stigmatization of confrontational protesters as “criminals” and “vandals”; yet it is clearly and unflinchingly normative. It is reflection and debate about what we should be doing, and why.

The best militancy

Of course, there are better and worse ways to conduct this kind of discussion, and some ways seem better able to steer us away from complicity with “bad protester” stigmatization. In my book, Languages of the Unheard, I adopted a specific style of normative talk, using the concept of civic virtue as the primary normative framework. The question I addressed is, what is protest like when it is done well, at its best? Why do we admire the protester who exemplifies the civic virtue of “admirable militancy”?

By pursuing this line of questioning, I tried to give content to the idea that some militancy embodies a kind of exemplary excellence, worthy of our admiration and emulation. The best, most admirable militancy, I argued, would encourage those most directly affected to take the lead in securing the resolution of their own grievances, rather than paternalistically usurping their agency. The best militancy would enhance the power of people to govern themselves through reason-guided public discussion (typified by Assembly democracy), rather than exacerbating their domination by intransigent elites and unresponsive systems of power.

This emphasis on articulating an ideal – one which highlights excellence, but also clarifies where we sometimes go astray, succumbing to paternalism or substitutionism – avoids, in my view, the trap of complicity with “bad protester” vilification. A different, and in my view more troubling normative approach, might focus on drawing a sharp line between “permissible” and “impermissible” protest. What would worry me here is that this approach would risk allowing the focus to shift from understanding what makes excellent protest admirable, to the very different question of what people are “forbidden” or “permitted” to do, morally, as a matter of duty. This in turn would encourage us to focus on assigning blame and issuing imperatives.

In moral philosophy, we would call this a difference between a “virtue ethic” of protest and a “duty ethic” of protest. It seems clear that a virtue approach, like the one I have tried to use, is much better suited to help us navigate a course between two errors: on the one hand, a blame-fixated moralism which risks fuelling the vilification and stigmatization of confrontational protesters; and on the other hand, a crude amoralism that disavows the concepts of “better” and “worse” and thereby blocks the kind of “self-clarification of struggles” that enable movements to learn and grow.

Are there “bad protesters,” then, or not? A proper answer to this question requires a bit of subtlety. It is that sometimes resistance to injustice – which is good – can be done in ways that fall short of our best models of protest excellence, and these failures are properly subject to critical scrutiny from comrades, on a peer to peer basis. But when we criticize our fellow protesters, and when they criticize us, for (allegedly) falling short in one way or another, we should view this as one of the learning processes that our movements embrace, to make our protest more potent and more consistent with our egalitarian and democratic principles and aims.

It has nothing to do with drawing a line between “us,” the “good protesters,” and “them,” the “bad protesters,” supposedly exterior to our struggle. It is, on the contrary, a way of clarifying, collectively, how we might better conduct our common struggle against our shared adversaries. In these debates we argue with one another, often sharply and passionately, about how we might do better; we do not argue against one another, as if we were on opposite sides, or as if any of us could endorse the criminalization or demonization of our comrades in struggle.

(Stephen D’Arcy is an activist and parent in London, Ontario and an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Huron University College. He is author of Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy and a co-editor of the forthcoming collection, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)

INTP Mayhem: A Counter-Meta-Review

(Note: The following 5,300+ word piece is a counter-review, responding to a “meta-review” which replied to my book review of Bromma’s book, The Worker Elite. Most people won’t want to descend this far into the lower depths of this debate. If you’re looking for some reviews of Bromma’s book, this would be a better place to look: http://kersplebedeb.com/posts/notes-on-the-worker-elite/)

By Stephen D’Arcy

Sometimes I complain that my activity as a lefty blogger is deprived of drama by the fact that nobody ever stops to denounce my posts, even when I take up highly controversial matters, like armed struggle or allyship discourse. I can complain no longer, since now one of my posts — my book review addressing Bromma’s The Worker Elitehas been subjected to a trenchant maoist “meta-review,” which in no uncertain terms lays out the case against “the likes of D’arcy” as a disreputable falsifier of Bromma’s views. The author of this so-called meta-review, J. Moufawad-Paul, posted his reply on his well-known blog, MLM-Mayhem.mao-zedong-statue-chongqing-cultural-revolution-era-relocation-02

On no less than nine occasions, the meta-review makes a point of affixing the label “dishonest,” not simply to “the likes of D’arcy” in general, but to D’arcy himself, that is, myself, or at least my review. According to Moufawad-Paul, “the dishonesty in D’arcy’s review” is so egregious that it “borders on the laughable.”

Supplementing the dishonesty motif with a second line of attack, Moufawad-Paul’s meta-review bluntly raises the possibility that the likes of D’arcy may not have done enough to have “embedded himself in working class struggles” to be a reputable participant in a debate over Bromma’s book in the first place. After all, only someone who has properly “embedded himself [or herself]” can “speak with … concrete certainty” about these matters. “Has D’arcy even been part of a union struggle…?”

Already, this fills me with self-doubt. Maybe Moufawad-Paul is correct when he classifies my writing as “the kind of idealist fluff produced by people who have never organized in a significant manner.”

Resisting the narcissistic impulse to make it all about me, however, I will attempt to feign an unshakeable nonchalance as I breeze past Moufawad-Paul’s polemical tone-setting gestures to fix my attention firmly on those of his points that I regard as earnest attempts to advance more-or-less substantive arguments against my stated views. After all, ritual denunciation is a formal requirement of the genre (maoist polemic), so it would be absurd for me to take any of it personally. Nevertheless, I hope readers (if any) will forgive the fact that my reply consists mostly of direct quotations from Bromma’s book, a maneuver necessitated by the sheer repetitiousness of Moufawad-Paul’s depiction of my review as brazenly and almost laughably dishonest.

It may be enough if I can attempt to do two things in this reply:

  1. First, I will try to re-affirm a point which I think can be established beyond any doubt (that The Worker Elite regards South Korean auto-workers, Californian nurses, and French tire-factory workers, among many others, as privileged workers, and precisely by virtue of being so privileged, as excluded from the ranks of the proletariat, and indeed as adversaries of the proletariat and allies of the ruling class).
  1. Second, I will show that one of my supposed acts of dishonesty, of which I am so repetitiously accused by Moufawad-Paul, consists of making a claim that my meta-critic himself affirms (that The Worker Elite rejects the possibility of doing class analysis without giving any central role to the concept of privilege, since Bromma’s class theory refuses to concede, to the likes of me, that we can understand the proletariat without deploying, at the very heart of our analysis, this “non-economic” notion, as Bromma calls it).
  1. Are Seoul autoworkers, California nurses, and French factory workers members of the proletariat, or not? And, if not, why not?

This line of questioning goes right to the heart of the matter taken up by the meta-review. I claim in my review (a) that Bromma regards the “workers” in question as non-proletarian, i.e., members of a class other than the proletariat, a “middle” class with interests that are in conflict with those of the proletariat, and (b) that Bromma bases this judgment on the claim that these employee-groups derive what Bromma calls “privileges” from their access to a share of wealth exploited from actual proletarians, which in turn creates a material basis for the predictable and de facto alliance between these workers and the capitalists who grant the worker elite their “privileged” status. If I am correct in both of these claims, then it would seem that – whatever my personal failings – Moufawad-Paul’s suggestion that I have both clumsily misunderstood and, even more so, dishonestly misrepresented Bromma’s position begins to appear ill-supported by plausible evidence.

Let me begin at the beginning. Moufawad-Paul says this: “The way in which D’arcy begins his review feels quite dishonest. He lists a series of bottom-up union movements based on significant demands and claims that The Worker Elite is treating these struggles as ‘the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges.’” When he says this, Moufawad-Paul is replying to the following question posed at the beginning of my original review:

“If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as “proletarian” struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class?”

Now, Moufawad-Paul seems, in this exchange, to cast doubt on my suggestion that The Worker Elite regards the union activity of nurses in Oakland, autoworkers in Seoul, and tire factory workers in France as non-proletarian struggles. If so, it would be an odd and also false (but no doubt scrupulously honest in intention) way of characterizing the content of Bromma’s book. In the case of Korean autoworkers, Bromma comes right out and says that they are members of the worker elite: “Decades ago, Japan was a trailblazer in institutionalizing a large Asian worker elite. But today it is far from unique. Heavy capitalist investment in the South Korean shipbuilding and auto industries has been accompanied by the growth of a worker elite roughly modeled on those of the West and Japan. In 2001, the average compensation costs for manufacturing workers in South Korea was almost $19 (US) an hour, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics” (pp. 37-38). Benefitting from years of “tough labor battles,” Bromma says, “unionized Korean autoworkers” now enjoy a “middle class standard of living” (p. 52; emphasis added). And these Korean autoworkers are not the only labourers who are consigned by Bromma to the ranks of the “worker elite.” “At the cultural, political, and demographic heart of the worker elite are male workers who do blue collar manual labor — teamsters, construction ‘hard hats,’ firefighters, machinists, well-paid manufacturing workers, etc.” (p. 18). Presumably the tire-factory workers in France fit precisely in this group: “blue collar manual laborers,” such as “machinists, well-paid manufacturing workers, etc.” It hardly needs to be added that nurses and teachers, too, fall in the “worker elite” class, and not in the proletariat. After all, they tend not to live in the kind of dire poverty that typifies the proletarian condition as understood in The Worker Elite. “A privileged standard of living,” Bromma says, “is a basic characteristic of worker elites,” and this “includes preferential social benefits – health insurance, pensions, vacation time, sick leave, unemployment insurance, etc. Economic privilege may also take the form of better education, home ownership, or greater access to infrastructure and services (transportation, the internet, indoor plumbing, etc.)” (p. 19). Helpfully, Bromma adds this: “Similarly, an exemption from child labor – something which is entirely ‘normal’ in the proletariat – is a characteristic of worker elite households” (p. 20).

So, I hope we can take this as basic factual information: Bromma depicts autoworkers in South Korea, nurses in the USA, and tire factory workers in France as members of the worker elite.

Why, then, does Moufawad-Paul say that my review’s opening question (about whether we should support the union activities of these groups as proletarian struggles against exploitation, or take our distance from them as struggles of a parasitic elite to defend their privileges) “seems quite dishonest”? Moufawad-Paul explains himself as follows:

“While it is true that Bromma is trying to examine the existence/persistence of a ‘parasitic elite’ in the working class, at no point is this author arguing: (a) that all union struggles are determined by this parasitism; (b) that this parasitism has to do with ‘unearned privileges’.”

Here I must object. First, Bromma is certainly not examining a parasitic elite “in the working class.” On the contrary, Bromma explicitly rejects the term “working class” as a misleading, unscientific term, because it conceals the antagonisms between what are in fact three distinct classes. The “worker elite” is not a fragment or layer within a class. It is a distinct class in its own right, according to Bromma. Bromma writes: “In fact, what is generally referred to as the working class isn’t really a single class at all, but a family of three separate classes: the proletariat, the worker elite (‘labor aristocracy’), and the lumpen working class (‘lumpen-proletariat’),” and “each has its own specific class interests and politics” (p. 4).

With that said, let’s return to the objection: Moufawad-Paul denies that Bromma believes “(a) that all union struggles are determined by this parasitism; (b) that this parasitism has to do with ‘unearned privileges’.”

Since assurance from the likes of me will hold no weight in this context, let’s look at what Bromma actually says on these points. “[I]t is an undeniable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat; by the oppression of nations and women; by war, genocide, and rape of the natural environment” (p. 11). These are what I meant when I said, “unearned privileges.” Bromma observes: “That middle class status doesn’t come about because of greater skill, either. Within modern imperialism, technical education and skills are themselves privileges” (p. 12). I believe that Bromma is very clear: the relatively (in global terms) high rates of pay, the pensions, benefits, and exemption from sweatshop conditions, that characterize the “worker elite” are regarded by Bromma as flowing from that class’s “intrinsically parasitic” position: these “treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat.” I have indeed depicted Bromma as arguing that struggles to establish or defend these beneficial terms of employment, these “treasured privileges,” are rooted in a “parasitism” that “has to do with ‘unearned privileges.’” Since I stand accused of being a serial fabricator of misrepresentations of Bromma’s view, I can only invite readers to judge the meaning of some relevant passages from Bromma’s book and draw their own conclusions.

“[The] class nature [of the worker elite] is fundamentally determined by its privileges” (p. 12.)

“There’s no magic income figure delineating the boundary of the proletariat…. As we have discussed, non-economic factors are decisive in the definition of worker elites. And privilege may look different in different societies” (p. 34).

“Most of the profits that pay for worker elite privileges have come historically from colonial theft, extortion, and exploitation” (p. 36).

“Their principal economic concern isn’t survival, but maintaining and enhancing their middle class status” (p. 35).

“The more reforms the proletariat demands, the more opportunity there is for the worker elite to appropriate those reforms and turn them into privileges. Ripping off the proletarians’ struggle, the worker elite succeeds at their expense” (p. 17).

“In fact, union membership is a typical badge of worker elite status. Every day in every part of the world, worker elite unions negotiate corrupt deals with capital and trash the interests of the proletariat” (p. 62).

“Proletarians can use unions to fight oppression, to strengthen their unity and combative power. Worker elites can use unions to achieve and solidify privilege…. All these differences are political, but at the most basic level they reflect differing class agendas” (p. 62).

“The proletariat must defeat the hegemony of the worker elite’s organizations, and battle to control its own…. This multifaceted struggle will only be successful if it is understood as a deep conflict among distinct classes with different material interests, rather than as just an abstract question of program, political line or ideology” (p. 63)

“Korean auto assembly workers …still have a reputation for struggling hard against corporate attacks, including a current wave of casualization. But the terms of conflict have changed dramatically. The workers are now defending elite jobs” (pp.68-69).

“Class struggle is going on every day inside the [so-called] working class. It’s time to choose where our class loyalty lies – with the proletariat or with its minders in the worker elite” (p. 75).

“Flattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges – like the right-wing populists do – leads to disaster for the proletarian forces” (p. 57).

“The worker elite also likes to define itself as a champion of the underdog, holding the front line against the rich. This is a dishonest and self-serving narrative. In fact, the worker elite as a class embodies accommodation with the bourgeoisie and betrayal of the proletariat” (p. 52).

“[I]t is an unavoidable fact that the worker elite is an intrinsically parasitic class. The treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat….The ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]…to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie” (11-12).

“The parasitic and patriarchal agenda of this [worker elite] class must be defeated” (p. 74).

On the basis of passages like these, and many more like them, I suggested at the start of my review that Bromma, in The Worker Elite, takes the view that struggles like those of US nurses to protect their pensions and benefits, of Korean autoworkers to protect their job security, and of French factory workers to secure generous severance packages, were all struggles of a privileged elite – outside the proletariat – acting to defend its unearned privileges. Was my summary of Bromma’s view “quite dishonest”? Was it even mistaken? Was it less accurate than Moufawad-Paul’s claims (1) that Bromma is investigating parasitism within the working class, rather than between antagonistic classes, or (2) that Bromma doesn’t believe that parasitism is the leading variable determining the behavior of “worker elite” unions? I leave it to the reader (?!) to judge.

But notice: I actually quote Bromma on the points in dispute, whereas – and this strikes me as an extraordinary fact – Moufawad-Paul’s “meta-review” does not quote a single sentence (let me repeat it: not a single sentence!) from Bromma’s book. We are asked to believe that he has read the book that he so insistently claims that I have misrepresented, and without hesitation or qualification I take him at his word on that score. But at no point is a single sentence, much less the dozens that one might expect, marshaled as evidence that my interpretations are mistaken. Instead, the sheer repetition of magic words like “dishonesty” and “misrepresentation” are offered in lieu of textual citation and quotation.

With this observation, I turn to the second point that I hope to establish here.

  1. Can we understand the specificity of the class position of the proletariat without deploying the concept of privilege (as I claim), or not (as I suggest that Bromma claims)?

On this point, I’m optimistic that all parties – the likes of Bromma, the likes of Moufawad-Paul, and the likes of D’arcy – can converge toward a shared understanding of where they disagree. I believe that the Bromma/Moufawad-Paul position on this specific question is that, in order to properly understand the specific class position of the proletariat, we must take note of the fact that some working people (namely, the worker elite) gain access to privileges, in the form of benefits funded by the exploitation of other, less well-paid workers (namely, the proletariat). If we fail to note this, according to (as I claimed in my review) Bromma and (it seems) Moufawad-Paul, we will mistake some non-proletarians for members of the proletariat. This, in turn, would be disastrous, at least according to Bromma as depicted in my review, because it would obscure from the proletariat itself that those teachers, construction workers, nurses and autoworkers – far from being allies (much less members) of the proletariat – are adversaries of the proletariat and allies of the bourgeoisie (the capitalist ruling class).

I don’t know whether Moufawad-Paul would agree with Bromma that nurses, teachers, construction workers and autoworkers are, to the extent that they act in accordance with their class interests, class enemies of the proletariat. Possibly not. But there can be no doubt that Bromma believes this.

Bromma writes: “The worker elite…continuously attacks, restricts, and undermines the proletariat’s struggle for freedom. The predominantly reactionary role of this privileged class flows directly from its material interests” (p. 75).

“Along with their fellow middle classes, the worker elite everywhere makes defense of privilege their top priority” (p. 55).

“[T]he labor elite is always looking to augment its privileges, and will routinely betray the proletariat to gain more” (p. 54).

“When the worker elite wishes to employ the proletariat for leverage, its ‘anti-establishment’ aspect and rebellious rhetoric may come to the fore…At the same time, true to its fundamental class nature, the worker elite will work to control, manipulate, and eventually defeat such rhetoric” (p. 46).

“It’s time to choose where our class loyalty lies – - with the proletariat or with its minders in the worker elite” (p. 75).

But while Moufawad-Paul can’t plausibly substantiate any doubt that Bromma thinks of the worker elite as aligned with capital in a class struggle against the proletariat, which the proletariat must defeat, there is a further, slightly more subtle point to be addressed. Was I misrepresenting Bromma when I said that The Worker Elite uses “a privilege approach to class analysis”?

Here’s the relevant passages (describing the privilege approach to class analysis) from my review:

“In the privilege approach, class is understood as a location in a system of differences, but not primarily, or at any rate not exclusively, as a two-way antagonism between boss and worker. Just as important as the boss/worker conflict, from this point of view, is the antagonism or differentiation between differently located groups of workers. The differences between them — that is, the ‘privileged’ position of some working people, which sets them apart from other workers — may very well, according to this approach, necessitate that we treat differently positioned workers as constituting different, antagonistic classes: a privileged class of elite workers that benefits from unearned advantages that are denied to members of the genuinely ‘proletarian’ class of workers.… In contrast to the exploitation view, the privilege conception of class encourages us to view advantages or gains made by some (but not all) groups of working people, not positively, as ‘victories for our class,’ but rather negatively, as unearned advantages, subsidized by the continuing impoverishment of the lower paid, less advantaged workers.” (Quoted from my review of Bromma.)

Now, Moufawad-Paul could not credibly cast doubt on my attribution to Bromma of the view (1) that the worker elite is not part of the proletariat, (2) that it isn’t in the proletariat because it has special privileges to which the proletariat is denied access, and (3) that these privileges are subsidized or “funded” (as Bromma puts it) by the impoverishment and exploitation of proletarians, which (4) renders the worker elite a parasitic class. This analysis, as I have established here by means of extensive quotation, is clearly a key theme in Bromma’s book. But what Moufawad-Paul does want to dispute is that we can usefully distinguish between an exploitation approach and a privilege approach to class analysis.

Moufawad-Paul writes: “What Bromma is actually saying is that exploitation (yes, D’arcy, exploitation) is what determines the stratification of the working-class at the centres of capitalism and elsewhere, thus producing a measure of privilege for some workers due to the greater exploitation of others. The entire analysis [of Bromma] is driven by a theory of exploitation, which is treated as something that generates differentials of privilege, and so the entire ‘privilege vs. exploitation’ narrative concocted in this review [by the likes of D’arcy] is off-the-mark. Are there workers who are more exploited than other workers, and are there workers who benefit from the exploitation of their counterparts? This is one question The Worker elite attempts to address.”

Other than the part about my review being “off-the-mark,” I agree with this comment, at least most of it. I say in my original review that Bromma’s worker elite is “parasitic” precisely because it benefits from the exploitation (yes, meta-critic, exploitation) of the proletariat. I say this at least twice. The first time I say it is when I quote Bromma’s claim that “the treasured privileges of the worker elite are funded by the ongoing capitalist exploitation of the proletariat,” and that “the ruling class diverts a portion of the wealth that it [exploits]… to cultivating and maintaining worker elites, which in turn are persuaded to abandon and attack the proletariat and other enemies of capital….Its prized middle class status comes from a preferential social contract, approved and paid for by the bourgeoisie” (Bromma, p. 11-12, here presented as quoted in my review.) The second time I make the point is when I write: “Bromma…views class mainly through the lens of the concept of privilege. (I say ‘mainly,’ because Bromma does make use of the concept of exploitation, but it has a secondary role, largely to support the book’s analysis of ‘worker elite’ privilege).” Thus, I do acknowledge that Bromma uses the concept of exploitation in the “worker elite” class analysis. However, I say it has a “secondary role.”

Is the role of the concept of exploitation really “secondary” in Bromma’s approach to class analysis? And is the concept of privilege really primary in that approach? What Moufawad-Paul claims — I think — is that these two concepts are not really separable: that, in order to analyze class exploitation properly, we have to use the concept of privilege. Although I disagree on the substance of that claim, I take heart in the fact that, by taking this view, Moufawad-Paul has come around to endorsing the interpretation of Bromma (as insisting that class analysis needs to foreground privilege) that I offered in my review. In other words, Moufawad-Paul seems, unless I’m up to my old tricks, etc., to be saying that, for Bromma, you can’t analyze class with using the concept of privilege. This is, very precisely, the view that in my review I dubbed “the privilege approach to class analysis.”

That privilege approach does not reject exploitation. But it denies that two groups of workers that are both exploited by the capitalist class in the same general way (as wage labourers, employed via the labour market to work for capitalist firms) are just for that reason members of the same class. According to the privilege approach, a further crucial question has to be asked, before we can analyze the class position of these two groups. Is one of the groups privileged, in the sense of gaining access special advantages, like health insurance, pensions, a living wage, job security provisions in a collective agreement, etc., privileges which (according to Bromma) are “funded” by capitalist exploitation of the other group of workers? If so, then these are not two ‘layers’ or ‘sections’ of one class – the proletariat. Instead, one of these groups of employees are proletarians, and the other – the privileged group – are not proletarians, but members of a “middle class,” a “worker elite,” which has interests that are antagonistic to those of the proletariat.

I take it that this is the view that both I and Moufawad-Paul attribute to Bromma: that we can’t analyze class positions without deploying, at the heart of our analysis, the concept of privilege. I call it the “privilege approach.” I concede that my terminology is not that of either Bromma or Moufawad-Paul. But I certainly do not concede that I have in any way misrepresented Bromma’s view. I have not, for instance, made Moufawad-Paul’s apparent mistake of thinking that Bromma regards the worker elite class as simply having “non-proletarian consciousness.” No, clearly Bromma regards the worker elite as a different class, whose interests are antagonistic to those of the proletariat, quite apart from their “consciousness.” When Bromma calls the worker elite “an intrinsically parasitic class,” the idea is not that they have “non-proletarian consciousness.” It is that they benefit from the exploitation of the proletariat, and that they have therefore a material interest in maintaining the subordination of the proletariat, in collaboration with the capitalist class. The conflict between the proletariat and the worker elite, Bromma says, is “a deep conflict among distinct classes with different material interests, rather than…just an abstract question of program, political line, or ideology” (p. 63).

Having established that my attribution to Bromma of the view that we can’t do class analysis without using the concept of privilege (as a necessary supplement and corrective to the concept of exploitation, which might make a construction worker or a factor worker seem like a proletarian, which would be disastrous according to Bromma), I want to draw the discussion to a close by underlining the point where we disagree. I believe that exploitation is not co-central (alongside privilege) in Bromma’s class analysis (which I think is what Moufawad-Paul is trying to say), but firmly consigned to a secondary role.

Since my testimony is tainted in this setting by the profusion of dishonesty charges, I will — as above — mostly just quote Bromma’s statements on this issue.

To say that “privilege” is primary and “exploitation” is secondary in someone’s approach to class analysis is to say this: that economic factors, e.g., exploitation, are not treated by them as decisive variables in assigning a group of people to a class, and that non-economic factors, notably privilege, are instead treated as the decisive variables. I regard this as, if not an obvious way to interpret “primary” and “secondary,” at least a non-eccentric way to interpret these terms. If this makes me dishonest, in the maoist frame of reference, then so be it. I take my stand here: I claim that anyone who regards privilege, not exploitation, as the decisive variable in assigning a group of employees to a class, thereby treats exploitation as secondary, and privilege as primary.

Having said that, I can get right to the point: Bromma comes right out and says that economic factors, e.g., exploitation, are not decisive in class analyis (specifically, in determining the boundaries of the proletariat), and that privilege is instead decisive.

Let’s look at Bromma’s words:

“There’s no magic income figure delineating the boundary of the proletariat…. As we have discussed, non-economic factors are decisive in the definition of worker elites” (p. 34).

But which “non-economic factors” are “decisive”?

Bromma replies: “[The] class nature [of the worker elite] is fundamentally determined by its privileges” (p. 12).

Bromma adds, even more bluntly: “The worker elite is a mass class, comprising hundreds of millions of middle class workers around the world whose institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat. In short, entitled middle class workers” (p. 5; emphasis added).

Note two things about this passage: first, it the “institutionalized privileges [which] set them [the worker elite] decisively apart from the proletariat.” Hence, if it is dishonest for me to say that according to Bromma privilege is decisive in setting industrial and white collar workers in places like Korea or Canada apart from the proletariat, how much more dishonest must Bromma be, since Bromma has inserted these very words into the opening pages of the book! Second, note, too, that Bromma accepts, indeed introduces, the summary formula: “entitled middle-class workers.” Was that my mistake? That I said “privileged” instead of “entitled”? Was this my “quite dishonest” “misrepresentation”? If so, then, once again, Bromma is the worse offender, since the label “privileged” is applied to the worker elite again and again in the pages of The Worker Elite, as I have shown, and by no means only in the quoted passage about how “institutionalized privileges set them decisively apart from the proletariat.”

Even Moufawad-Paul himself insists, re-stating the point that I had attributed to Bromma both in my original review and in this rejoinder, that the class location of the “worker elite” is determined by “a differential of exploitation that produces a differential of privilege” (Moufawad-Paul). This formula demonstrates the key point: that exploitation gains its importance precisely because it generates what Bromma calls the “non-economic factor” which is “decisive”: “institutionalized privileges [which] set [the worker elite] decisively apart from the proletariat.”

Conclusion

Needless to say, I could go on. And on. If nothing else, I have proven that. I had thought that it would be fitting to make the length of this counter-meta-review exceed the 75 pages (with large font and photographs) of Bromma’s book itself. I even imagined a scenario where I would include the entire book within my counter-meta-review, one quoted passage at time. But I have a job and kids, so for now, I will cut it short, with the teasing promise that I may add further instalments, if the appetite of readers for a more thorough examination proves too great to ignore.

I should probably end with the question that began my original review:

“If a group of unionized nurses in Oakland, California, goes out on strike, to oppose their employer’s attempt to gut their pensions and benefits; or a group of autoworkers fights with the police in Seoul, South Korea, over an employer’s plan to lay off members of their union; or if a group of tire factory workers in the French city of Amiens holds a manager hostage, to negotiate better severance packages for laid off workers — should these actions be understood as ‘proletarian’ struggles against exploitation, which ought to be actively and vigorously supported by the socialist Left? Or are these, on the contrary, the struggles of a parasitic elite attempting to defend its unearned privileges, which have been gained largely at the expense of the actual proletariat by means of a corrupt bargain struck with the capitalist ruling class?”

Bromma, clearly, takes the second view: that such struggles are those of a parasitic elite attempting to defend unearned privileges, which it secures by way of an alliance with capital against the proletariat. This is an interesting claim. If it were convincing, it would have far-reaching consequences, many of which Bromma makes explicit (e.g., that we would have to choose which class we want to support in the class struggle between proletarians and the worker elite, including the construction worker chosen to illustrate that supposedly parasitic elite on the cover of Bromma’s book). That it advances, in clear and unflinching detail, such a provocative and interesting claim is reason enough to read Bromma’s book. Contrary to Moufawad-Paul’s suggestion, I don’t urge people to avoid reading the book. But let there be no doubt about this: I think Bromma’s central claims are mistaken. To the extent that they become more influential, I would think this a bad thing. But it has never occurred to me to suppose that dishonesty was needed to debunk those claims. We have marxism, i.e., “social scientific socialism,” to do that, and misrepresentation would only get in the way.

The Intractable Marginality of the Activist Left

Strikes are only one form of struggle, and perhaps less and less important as the years pass. But the disappearance of strikes — documented in the accompanying graph — is not an anomaly. It reflects a pattern of diminishing overall levels of oppositional social mobilization. Although there aren’t (as far as I know) statistics on it, it is obvious that levels of social struggle generally, in the Canadian state, are lower now than at any time since written records have been kept. There was, to be sure, an upswing during 2011-12, which saw important outbreaks of Indigenous protest (INM, pipeline and fracking struggles, etc.), the Occupy movement, and the Quebec student strike, but this partial revival of large-scale popular protest proved to be short-lived. And there are still, as always, ongoing forms of low-intensity resistance, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of popular defiance and rebellion. Overall, however, the aggregate level of oppositional social struggle in recent decades has been disastrously low.strike-levels-over-time

Since participation in social-movement struggles is basically the only setting (other than a few university courses and a few tiny and isolated leftist groups and collectives) where people have the opportunity to learn about leftist ideas and strategies, the radical Left is trapped in a position of intractable marginality, lacking any plausible path to “mainstream” relevance, i.e., any capacity to secure a meaningful role in shaping the ideas of large numbers of people or wielding any substantive influence. In this sense, there has been a deep and broad collapse of what Marx called popular “self-activity” (“Selbsttätigkeit”) — a terrifying lack of self-organized struggles of broad masses of people for social and environmental justice. We lack, therefore, the expansive pool of social antagonisms and conflicts upon which the Left could in former decades rely for infusions of enthusiasm, critical insights about the nature of the systems we oppose and how to defeat them, and what Rosa Luxemburg called “the forward-storming combative energy” of broad popular movements.

First of all, this collapse of self-activity has to be acknowledged as an accomplished fact. Blaming the activist Left for its own marginality is like blaming the dead fish when a pond dries up after years of catastrophic drought. The pathologies of the Left — chronic sectarianism, exaggerated levels of self-doubt (self-hatred?) about the utility of leftist politics, incapacity to engage with a broad public outside of leftist subcultures, the near total shift of focus from organizing against systemic racism and sexism to obsessing about racist or sexist utterances by celebrities or public figures as these are debated on social media, and so on — these are all symptoms, not underlying causes, of the fact that the levels of social struggle are so low that the Left has no context, no “habitat” (so to speak) in which to operate on a healthy basis. Inevitably, it shrivels up and loses its former vitality and dynamism. It is cut off from everything that once nourished its growth and vigour. To be sure, we can offer the usual self-critiques. But let’s not allow our thinking to be unduly clouded by naive hopes for a tiny and isolated, yet healthy and dynamic activist Left. This is a deeply incoherent expectation.

Second of all, we really should try to develop a healthy respect for our own utter dependence, as radical leftists, on events that remain almost entirely beyond our control. By its very nature, the radical Left can only play a constructive role if there are broad-based popular struggles with which it can engage, and by which it can be transformed. But it can never — and certainly not now — manufacture such struggles by force of will or by sheer organizing prowess. It has to wait, more or less helplessly, for relevance to be thrust upon it by events (even if it is condemned to be incapable of admitting to itself how limited its capacities really are — after all, who likes to admit to being helpless?).

But this respect for our dependence on levels of popular self-activity that we cannot effectively generate by our own devices also entails some guidelines about how to think about the challenges we face. The struggles on which alone the Left can base its regeneration will not come from the radical Left itself. But the Left itself has to cultivate a capacity to recognize them when they do appear. This was something we learned during the emergence of the Occupy movement. It took weeks for some ‘old school’ leftists, and months for others, to recognize it as an important social struggle. (Many still doubt this.) One recalls the reaction of 1950s leftists to the emergence of Students for a Democratic Society and, a few years later, the Black Panther Party. Many leftists of the previous generation did not even recognize these as key opportunities for the Left to secure a new importance and relevance for radical politics, which it largely lost during the 1950s. Instead, they insisted that these upstart organizing initiatives were “doing it wrong,” i.e., too distant from the the way the Left looked in earlier decades. When a healthy Left re-appears in the context of future broad-based movements, it will be because it puts into practice the old Boshevik slogan: “Study the old, create the new.”

And yet, even the Occupy movement remained far too small in scale, compared to the levels of popular self-activity that would be needed to offer the radical Left a new viability for its project of destroying racism, sexism, colonialism, and capitalism. So our eyes have to be fixed on any signs of broad-based popular mobilization, especially when it reaches beyond the ranks of radical “scenes” and “subcultures,” whether these be anarchists punks, marxist grad students, or loose networks of ‘social justice’ advocates on twitter or tumblr. That, however, is the scary part of all this. This idea that the Left has to wait for something (1) that doesn’t now exist, (2) that the Left can’t create by its own efforts, and (3) that seems only likely to emerge from struggles of a sort that happen less and less often, and seemingly on an ever smaller scale. It’s terrifying, of course. But it’s the only reality we have, and we have to begin by acknowledging it.

Ideally, we will draw the crucial lesson from these developments: that struggles are precious, and that broad-based struggles that draw in hundreds of thousands of people from outside the ranks of our activist scenes and subcultures, are especially precious. Only these can save us. On the other hand, our very predicament — our intractable marginality — makes it perhaps more likely that we’ll draw the opposite conclusion: that most people are ‘sheep,’ or that they are ‘not the real proletariat,’ but a privileged elite that stands in our way, etc. Our marginality, in short, makes it likely that we will remain largely oblivious to our need to be rescued by a hoped-for resurgence of broad-based mobilizations reaching, and indeed orginating, well beyond our own ranks. The actually existing radical-activist Left tends to respond to adversity by digging in its heels, insisting all the more confidently that it already has all the answers it could ever need, if only people would listen.

Still, looking on the bright side, the irrelevance of the activist Left limits the damage that its pathologies can do. When large-scale, sustained, and broad-based popular mobilization returns — as surely it must, eventually, albeit not necessarily soon enough to avert catastrophe — the scenes and subcultures of today’s activist Left will be swept away and replaced in the same way that those of the 1950s Left were swept away and replaced in the 1960s. But what can we do, today, that will leave something useful behind for those who will one day cast aside our present-day fixations as they build something that we remain unable to foresee?

What is Social Republicanism?

workers-republicBy Stephen D’Arcy

Politics is about the establishment and exercise of public power. Sometimes, this power is bound up with the state form, but sometimes it is not. John Holloway, for instance, has drawn harsh condemnation from the state-friendly sections of the Left for having proposed a politics that would consist, not of “taking the reins” of the state, but something crucially different: popular empowerment through self-organization from below, or as he would say, politics as the workers’ movement’s “potentia” (power-to), in contrast to the state’s “potens” (power-over).

Arguably, one of Holloway’s contributions to marxism has been to remind us that the state form is only one way of organizing public affairs. In a state, public power is organized in the form of (1) structures of professional coercion, like police, prisons, and standing armies, (2) structures of bureaucratic administration, e.g., ministries and departments in which professional ‘public servants’ are organized in a command-and-control hierarchy, so that lower level administrators implement directives issued by higher level administrators, and (3) structures of representation, e.g., parliaments and other sorts of elected legislatures, staffed by professional politicians, who legislate ostensibly ‘on behalf’ of the broad public.

Historically, many people on the Left, even many marxists, have imagined that the state form could play a liberating role. Their proposal has been to create a “workers’ state” or a “socialist state.” The professional army would be a “red” army, the ruling party would be a “communist” party with “professional revolutionist” politicians, and the bureaucracy would be “socialist” bureaucracy.

On the other hand, many leftists (including Marx himself) have suggested, on the contrary, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (Marx, 1871). After all, they point out, the state form is designed, from top to bottom, to preclude popular empowerment, and to rigorously police grassroots participation in public affairs so as to domesticate and channel it in ways that insulate elites from public accountability and popular control from below. The state form’s pervasive reliance on “professionalism” (of the army and police, of bureaucrats, and of politicians) signals its strict rejection of active participation by ordinary working-class people in directing public affairs. By definition (and the relentless confirmation of historical precedent), in a state, the broad populace is to be administered and governed, rather than being the government. The role of “citizens” in the state form tends to consist of voting, on the one hand, and obeying the law, on the other. Marx, in particular, contrasted the state form with what he called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was not to be a form of “domination” (Herrschaft), but a throwing off, by the people, of the yoke of domination: “the expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” (Capital, v. I, ch. 32).

But if there is to be a politics – an establishment and exercise of public power – that repudiates the state form, what form could it take?

One answer, favoured by Marx himself among others (Connolly, Luxemburg, etc.), is that a non-statist post-capitalist polity would take the form of a social republic.

Marx’s main example of a social republic is the Paris Commune of 1871, a revolutionary regime in the city of Paris, which defied the official state and established what Marx called “a working-class government,” until it was suppressed by armed force and tens of thousands of its participants were murdered by the French state. Although the Commune identified itself as a “social republic,” Engels said, no doubt rightly, that “the Commune…had ceased to be a state in the proper sense of the word.” It was not a state, but it certainly embodied a politics.

This example of a non-state politics, corresponding more or less to Holloway’s notion of replacing the potens of the state with the potentia of popular self-organization, draws our attention to a theme in the marxist tradition that hasn’t received the notice that it deserves: the theme of “socialist” or “social” republicanism. Many of the “classical” marxists, including Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others, aligned themselves explicitly with republicanism. And Marxism may fairly be regarded as one part of the (much) wider republican political tradition, as noted by historians of republicanism, like Quentin Skinner and Alex Gourevitch.

Nevertheless, as Marx well understood (and explicitly discussed), there are many different understandings of the meaning of “republicanism.” The qualifier, “social,” is particularly important. But even the term social republic is susceptible to multiple interpretations. We saw, in the 20th century, the creation by revolutionary means of a broad range of republics, both avowedly non-socialist (e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran and the “postcolonial” republics of India and 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties) and avowedly socialist (e.g., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the People’s Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to name only a few). Which (if any) of these corresponds to Marx’s conception of a “social republic”?

If we try to clarify the concept of republicanism, or social republicanism, by turning to the lively debates about republicanism in recent years within political philosophy, we find that the concept of a social or socialist republic seldom if ever comes up. Instead, all of the attention goes to the notion of civic (not social) republicanism.

In order to make a start on remedying this defect of the recent debates on republicanism in political philosophy, I want to outline a coherent, and in my view attractive conception of social republicanism, as a normative ideal of anti-capitalist politics, implicit in the republican tradition represented by Karl Marx, James Connolly, Rosa Luxemburg and others. (This, by the way, is the normative conception implicit in my book, Languages of the Unheard.)

Social republicanism can be expressed in the form of eight core principles.

  1. (A Regime of Public Autonomy) That no regime of governance is legitimate except to the extent that those subject to that regime effectively govern themselves through reason-guided public discussion, as (for example) in popular assemblies, workers’ councils, traditional Indigenous self-governance practices, and other forms of public autonomy that are appropriate to the context and culture of those involved.
  2. (A Social, Not just a Political Republic) That not only narrowly political (state) institutions can threaten or usurp public autonomy, but so can any unresponsive system of power, including markets, bureaucracies, formal or informal relations of colonial domination or exploitation, inequalities of income or decision-making power (as in the workplace), and structures of racial or gender subordination.
  3. (Autonomous Counter-publics) That the establishment or safeguarding of public autonomy may require the organization of autonomous counter-publics, to insist on and defend the legitimate interests and rights of (to borrow Nancy Fraser’s jargon) “subaltern collectivities,” both within specific organizations (e.g., women’s caucuses in unions, etc.) and in society as a whole (so that autonomous social movement organizations are embraced by social republicanism as constituent features of any social republic, considered as a regime of public autonomy).
  4. (Civic Comradeship) That the participants in a regime of collective self-governance ought to cultivate relations of civic comradeship with one another, acting only in ways that are consistent with giving due weight to the dignity of each and the welfare of all, in keeping with the principle of solidarity (“an injury to one is an injury to all”).
  5. (The Socialist Civic Virtues) That the demands of public autonomy on the one hand, and civic comradeship on the other, require the cultivation and exercise of what Luxemburg called “the socialist civic virtues,” including willingness to confront injustice with militancy and to support fellow workers and civic comrades with solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid.
  6. (Jurisdictional Contestation) That wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of law and public policy, republicans are committed in principle to a practice of jurisdictional contestation, counterposing the insurgent democracy of oppositional political forms (popular assemblies, traditional Indigenous political processes, insurgent legal systems, etc.) to the heteronomy (domination) of the official political process, with which social republicanism normally engages only with a view to hastening its subversion and overthrow.
  7. (Prefigurative Socialization) That, in the same way and for the same reasons, wherever public autonomy is absent from the domain of production and distribution, social republicans are committed in principle to a practice of prefigurative socialization, counterposing the economic democracy of community-based, egalitarian cooperative economics and the “solidarity economy” to the colonial domination, class exploitation, and ecocidal destructiveness of the capitalist system that social republicans undertake to destroy.
  8. (Defence of the Social Republic Against Usurpers) That, as a corollary of its commitment to civic comradeship among equals in a self-governance regime, social republicanism is committed — in the absence of such a regime, or in the event that the social republic is attacked by its enemies — to support all democratic and egalitarian struggles to establish and maintain the self-rule of what Marx called “the mass of the people” (die Volksmasse) in contrast to the ever present danger of the (re)assertion of rule by what he called the “few usurpers” (wenige Usurpatoren).

This normative ideal – social republicanism – contrasts starkly with the quasi-liberalism and conciliatory attitude toward capitalism typical of “civic” republicanism. And yet, due to its concern to reject domination, to uphold civic solidarity, and to demand the exercise of civic virtue, this conception is located squarely within the broad republican tradition.

The fact that social republicanism is not a statist, but an anti-statist view, is no doubt its most controversial feature. For some, the idea of a politics that dispenses with the reassuring bossiness of the state and its officials is unsettling. This is the dizziness of democracy, the vertigo of public autonomy: that our liberty has to be our own act, that our emancipation can only ever be a self-emancipation. Scary or not, it is upon this idea that social republicanism stands or falls.

Two Models of Anti-Racist Struggle: Allyship and Self-Emancipation

There’s a tendency, which I have observed over many years, for lots of white people to want to frame anti-racist struggle in ways that highlight and foreground their own agency and capacity to contribute. No doubt, this tendency is rooted in good, commendable intentions. Many white people quite rightly want to contribute, and so they look for guidance about how they might contribute as usefully and effectively as possible. The result is that the capacity for white people, as white people, to contribute to anti-racism gets surprisingly extensive levels of attention within activist circles, much more so than would have been the case in the heyday of North American anti-racism (if that’s what it was), in the days of Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Combahee River Collective. Well-intentioned or not, we should stop, I think, to reflect on the possibility that all this attention to white people’s agency in the struggle against racism might create a certain imbalance, at least, in our analysis and discussion of the aims and methods of anti-racist organizing.Free Huey newton, Black Panther Rally San Francisco, May 1, 1969  Leaping wi Mao Book   sheet 294 frame 42

This habit of highlighting the role of white people in anti-racism can find expression in a number of different ways. Traditionally, white liberals in the USA foregrounded their own role by imagining that the courts and the official political process (or, in the most preposterous version, FBI agents!) were the spearheads of anti-racist social change. More recently, some activists whose discourse is motivated by political radicalism rather than liberalism have adopted a different way of foregrounding the agency of white people. They do so by conceptualizing anti-racist struggle, at least to some substantial extent, in terms of what they call “allyship.” In this discourse, a central reference point (although certainly not the only reference point) in anti-racist politics is the figure of the “anti-racist ally,” which is understood to be a type of white person.

The concept of allyship in general, and the anti-racist ally in particular, did not first emerge from within the domain of social-movement strategy. Instead, it was imported into social movement activism from the outside, from the social work profession, e.g., from the work of people like Anne Bishop, whose 1994 book, Becoming an Ally, played a role in popularizing the term (in its current meaning). Allyship, in this context, should not be confused with a similar-sounding word, “alliance,” which has a very different meaning, and which is an irreducibly strategic concept. This other word, “alliance,” refers to the confluence in struggle of large-scale social forces, like social classes or social movements, that take up one another’s demands in the context of a joint commitment to reciprocal solidarity and mutual aid. By contrast, “allyship” is undertaken by individuals, not by entire movements. Allyship is a sincere commitment on the part of a privileged person (and, in the context of anti-racism, that means a white person) to offer ongoing support to individuals, groups, or organizations that are excluded from that kind of privilege, and to take direction from them about the form that support should take.

To advocates of the allyship model of anti-racism (like Anne Bishop, Tim Wise, and others), anti-racist struggle is, if not mainly, at least crucially a matter of white people (1) recognizing their privilege (the benefits that racial hierarchies confer on them); (2) identifying ways in which they are complicit in practices that maintain and reproduce those hierarchies; (3) working to withdraw from or interrupt such practices; and (4) taking direction from people of colour, mostly on an individual basis, about how the would-be ally may be contributing to racial hierarchies, and how they might act differently, to oppose instead of perpetuating those hierarchies.

I do not propose to offer any criticisms of this model of anti-racist struggle, either with respect to its effectiveness at weakening the grip of racism in capitalist societies, or with respect to its capacity to broaden and deepen social movements devoted to destroying racism. For the most part, my intention here is only to highlight the fact that the allyship model is directly in tension with an older, competing model of anti-racism, which does not in fact foreground the agency of white people, but on the contrary treats the struggle against racism as an activity wholly led and largely carried out by racialized people (people of colour) themselves. The most influential advocate of this competing model, which is sometimes called the “self-emancipation” model of anti-racist struggle, is Malcolm X. But it has had other important advocates, including CLR James, and organizations like the BPP, SNCC, and many others.

One might suppose that this “self-emancipation” model is in fact consistent with the “allyship” model. According to this optimistic thought, these two views are not in tension, because while it is true that anti-racism is a self-emancipation struggle, it is also true that anti-racist allyship on the part of white people plays a secondary, but also important role. This sounds plausible, in the abstract. It would be a neat resolution of the tension between these models if they could be parcelled out in this way: self-emancipation for people of colour, supported in a secondary way by the allyship role for white people. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s self-emancipation model of anti-racist struggle differs from the allyship model of anti-racism not just in terms of whose anti-racism it addresses, but in terms of how it positions both racialized people and white people who oppose racism. So, apparently, there can be no tidy accommodation between these models (which doesn’t mean that they have to be mutually antagonistic).

Let’s take a closer look at the points of divergence, where these two models seem to be enduringly in tension with each other. Four points of divergence stand out.

1. Whose Agency is Foregrounded? First, as already suggested above, whereas the allyship model emphasizes the importance of white people in acting to oppose racism, to unlearn it and repudiate the advantages they derive from it, and so gives white anti-racists a crucial role in anti-racist politics, the self-emancipation model relentlessly foregrounds the agency of people of colour in liberating themselves through their own self-activity and self-organization. Anti-racist struggle, according to the self-emancipation view, is something that racialized people, people of colour, undertake in order to free themselves from oppression and subordination. White people, in this conception, are neither expected nor invited to contribute, as white people, any more than labour unions invite supportive participation from employers as a class.

2. Allyship versus Alliances. Second, the self-emancipation model assigns a very different role to white people in the process of anti-racist struggle. While white people are not foregrounded in the self-emancipation model, neither are they excluded entirely from it. Their role, however, is understood in terms of alliances between large-scale social forces or social movements, in which white individuals figure alongside others. In Malcolm’s conception, once racialized people have organized themselves, autonomously, to fight for their own emancipation, they may indeed find it advantageous, from the point of view of maximizing the potency of their struggles, to seek out alliances with other movements or organizations. For example, organizations pursuing the self-directed struggle of African-American people to free themselves from racial oppression may decide, once their own capacity to self-organize and lead their own movement has been secured, that an alliance with (multi-racial) labour unions could assist the movement in its struggle. In that case, the African-American liberation movement could work to develop an alliance, for mutual advantage, between these two movements. Were the terms of such an alliance to be worked out in practice, formally or informally, white people would then have a clear way to participate in the self-emancipation struggle of African Americans: they would be participants in an alliance, such that their organizations (unions, in this case) were committed to making a priority of the demands and aspirations specific to the African-American anti-racist struggle (and vice versa). In such alliances, “an injury to one” is supposed to be treated as “an injury to all.” Therefore, injuries to African-Americans would be treated as if they were injuries to union members generally, including non-racialized (white) union members. In practice, such an alliance might work well sometimes, and badly at other times. In this context, I only want to point out that, in principle, the self-emancipation model of anti-racism also offers a role for white people, as participants in (macro-level) alliances with the self-emancipation struggles of people of colour. But it does not foreground white people, and their agency, as central to anti-racism.

3. Should Whites Oppose Racism as White People, or as Participants in Allied Movements? This brings up the third difference between the two models, which is that, whereas in the allyship model white people participate in anti-racist struggle as white people, that is, in their capacity as a group that is privileged by racism, in the self-emancipation model their participation is not rooted in their own whiteness. Rather, it is rooted in their participation in social movements and social-movement organizations that are aligned with (in the example I have been using) the Black self-liberation movement. Thus, they participate, not as people with white privilege invited to sacrifice their own privileges on the basis of a moral duty, but in their capacity as people pursuing their own struggles (union struggles, environmental struggles, feminist struggles, and so on), but fighting alongside alliance-partners who perhaps share a common enemy, or overlapping strategic objectives, and so lend support to each other’s struggles on that basis. The spirit in which solidarity and support from allied groups (including white anti-racists) is understood within the self-emancipation model is well-captured by the principle promoted by Indigenous activist groups in the South Pacific region (namely, what is now called Queensland, Australia): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

4. Where Does the Power to Contest Racism Reside? Finally, the self-emancipation model proposes an understanding of where the power to contest racism lies which is starkly different from the understanding implicit in the allyship model. The starting point of the allyship model is that “privileged” groups are powerful, because of their many advantages, and therefore bear a special responsibility to offer aid to weaker groups. By contrast, the starting point of the self-emancipation model is that the oppressed themselves have the capacity, the potential power, to liberate themselves by their own self-activity, using the tools of collective struggle and self-organization (and making such cross-movement alliances as they deem to be necessary and appropriate). This is not just a difference of emphasis, but a wholly different way of framing the struggles of the exploited and oppressed and thinking about how others can or can’t offer support and solidarity.

Now, it might seem that an obvious weakness of the self-emancipation model is that it “lets white people off the hook,” so that they do not have to work in any way to support anti-racist struggle. “How convenient for them!,” some might say. In fact, however, this is a misunderstanding of the model. The point is not that white people don’t have to contribute. It is that their contribution is not grounded in their whiteness or their status a privileged group, but in their participation in struggles and organizations that should, and often (at least on paper) do bear a commitment to working in alliance with anti-racist self-emancipation struggles. White people should actively support anti-racist demands and struggles as environmentalists, as feminists, as union members, as anti-capitalists, and so on, since these movements and the (best) organizations that make them up are committed to aims and struggles that are “bound up with the liberation of” racially oppressed people, who are struggling for their own liberation alongside allies that they have chosen to take on as partners in linked and overlapping (“intersecting”) struggles.

Importantly, there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that the allyship model is more demanding toward white people than the self-emancipation model. Rather, the difference is that the self-emancipation model grounds those demands in the responsibilities created by participation in cross-movement alliances, rather than grounding them in obligations that stem from the injustice of differentiated access to privilege. There should be no doubt, however, that the self-emancipation model gives us ample reason to denounce white environmentalists, union activists, feminists and others who fail to take fighting racism seriously, or refuse to make it a priority in their political activities and personal lives.

Although the self-emancipation model seems to stand out as the more sophisticated and politically astute model, it may not be necessary to reject the allyship view as wholly incorrect. Perhaps in practice there could be a productive tension between these two approaches, so that each model enriches the other by generating insights to which its counterpart would otherwise remain oblivious. That possibility can’t be discounted. But, at the very least, we need to acknowledge that the tension here is real. In particular, we should be alert to the price we pay when we allow the allyship model to take up so much space in activist discourse that it threatens to overshadow and obscure from view the insights of the self-emancipation model.

Environmentalism as if Winning Mattered: A Self-Organization Strategy

[Note: This article was first published on the internet as a contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications in 2009, where it seems no longer to be available. This version is substantially revised.]image

By Stephen D’Arcy

Many people doubt that the environmental movement can actually defeat its adversaries and achieve its key aims. After all, it seems clear that winning would mean introducing sweeping social change and a new kind of sustainable and socially just economy. But the forces arrayed against this kind of change – including corporations, governments, and many affluent consumers hoping to raise their consumption levels – seem to represent too powerful a force to be overcome by a relatively small and seemingly powerless group of environmental activists.

These doubts about the capacity of environmentalists to win are confined neither to the movement’s self-serving and greed-motivated adversaries in business and government, nor to the many indifferent bystanders who cast an equally skeptical eye on all attempts to transform society by means of popular mobilization from below. As it happens, many environmental activists themselves are no less convinced that failure is all but inevitable.

When this sort of pessimism overtakes environmentalists, they tend to adopt one of several familiar responses. First, there is the response of those who retreat from the movement altogether in favor of “lifestyle” environmentalism, replacing their former activism with “conscious” shopping. Second, there are those who reject activism as naïve compared to their own approach of apocalyptic “survivalism” which leads them to prepare for the day when “civilization” collapses, such as by stockpiling food or learning how to hunt and gather. A third group responds to the apparently bleak outlook for environmental activism not by leaving the movement, but by remaining active while seeking to cultivate “friends in high places,” linking arms with Big Business or the capitalist state in a mode of “mainstream” environmentalism that tries to promote “environmentally friendly” capitalism and “socially responsible” corporations. A fourth group also remains active, but replaces the aim of winning with the more readily attainable aim of making a moral statement, by serving as a “moral witness” or by “speaking truth to power.” Finally, a fifth group also accepts the inevitability of failure but tries to seize every opportunity to put on public display the purity of their own uncompromising and self-righteous (albeit relentlessly impotent) radicalism, as a form of self-congratulatory “posturing.”

There is nothing to be gained by adopting a judgmental or holier-than-thou attitude toward people who adopt such responses. Why condemn such choices, which are all more or less understandable adaptations to the admittedly distressing predicament of contemporary environmentalism?

Nevertheless, we do need to see these stances for what they undoubtedly are: failures (in some cases) or refusals (in others) to develop a strategy for winning. Yet a strategy for winning is precisely what we need. The scale of the general environmental crisis is well known, and needs no special emphasis here: we are only too well-informed about the potentially catastrophic impact of plutogenic (caused-by-the-rich) climate change, the degradation of air quality, the erosion and poisoning of soil, the disappearance of forests and spreading of deserts, the despoliation of both fresh water sources and oceans, the historically unprecedented rates of species extinction, and so on. If nothing is done about any of this, it is not because there is any uncertainty about the gravity of these threats (notwithstanding cynical attempts by Big Business to fund “denial” research from “free market think tanks,” as a transparent ploy to muddy the waters of public discussion).

Something must be done, clearly. And most people certainly want more to be done. Globally, according to a survey of world opinion in 2010, “84 percent of those polled globally said the problem was serious, with 52 percent saying it was very serious. The number of people saying that it was not a problem averaged just 4 percent.” Even in the United States, where public awareness about environmental issues is lower than anywhere else on earth, “in 2010, 70 percent of US respondents described the problem as serious and 37 percent described it as very serious.” According to Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org (which conducted the poll), “most people around the world appear to be impatient that their government is not doing enough to address the problem of climate change.” Indeed, “on average across all nations polled, 60 percent want climate change to get a higher priority, 12 percent want a lower priority.”

Evidently, inaction on the part of governments does not reflect any pressing need to “change attitudes” or “educate the public.” If governments and corporations were even modestly responsive to public opinion, the prospects for implementing real change would be much more favorable for our side than they actually are at present.

The widespread pessimism about the movement’s prospects for success is impossible to explain without relating it to a widely understood insight registered in another recent opinion poll. According to a 2012 Harris Poll, 86% of Americans believe that “Big companies” have “too much power and influence in Washington.” An even higher percentage, 88% of Americans, believe that “political action committees that give money to political candidates” also have too much power and influence. Conversely, a full 78% of Americans believe that “public opinion” has “too little power and influence in Washington.” Americans, it seems, understand the workings of their political process rather better than many people give them credit for.

It should be clear, therefore, that we need a strategy for winning, and we need to develop it sooner rather than later. The approach that I pursue in this article will be to identify strategic objectives for weakening and ultimately defeating the adversaries that stand in the way of doing what science, morality, and good sense dictate must be done: transforming our destructive, unjust and unsustainable social order into a democratic, egalitarian and sustainable one.

A SELF-ORGANIZATION STRATEGY

The strategy that I propose here is a self-organization strategy. By that I mean that it looks, not to business or government, but to the voluntary organizations established and operated by the exploited and the oppressed, as the key drivers of change.

A self-organization strategy looks not to business or government, but to the power of grassroots action and horizontal cooperation as the keys that can unlock a way forward for environmentalism.

In the context of discussions about environmentalism, however, it is particularly important to highlight the distinction between two importantly different types of “voluntary organization” external both to business and government. The kind of self-organized grassroots action groups proposed here are certainly, in a literal sense, “non-governmental.” But most environmentalists use the term “non-governmental organization” to refer to something very specific: “NGOs,” in the sense of formal organizations run by a paid staff, perhaps with a dues-paying but passive membership or a passive donor-base in the general public, such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and so on. These NGOs represent the most visible and well-funded, but least effective face of modern environmentalism. Although they are themselves voluntary organizations, they do not normally rely on community-based self-organization as the driver of social change. On the contrary, for the most part, mainstream environmental NGOs opt for some combination of a statist approach, focusing on lobbying efforts to promote public policy remedies (e.g., regulation or taxation), and a “green capitalism” approach, focusing on preaching the benefits of “corporate social responsibility” and encouraging the exercise of “consumer power” to incentivize corporations to limit the scale and scope of their destructiveness.

So the first thing we need to do in order to develop a plausible self-organization strategy for the environmental movement is to make a distinction between different sorts of non-state associations.

Besides formal NGOs with passive memberships (for which I will reserve the label “NGOs”), there are three other sorts of non-state, non-business, community-based associations that we need to take into account:

  1. Social Movement Organizations (SMOs): As I use this term, these are participatory activist organizations (formal or informal), in which members/participants actively organize themselves, at the grassroots level, to engage in popular mobilization or public advocacy, as part of a social movement, such as the environmental movement, the disability rights movement, the feminist movement, or anti-racist movements.
  2. Class Conflict Organizations (CCOs): The most high-profile example is trade unions. It is crucial to add, however, that rank-and-file caucuses within unions are also CCOs. So, too, are workers’ centres, living wage campaigns, struggles for migrant worker rights, and other working-class struggle organizations, including many socialist and anarchist organizations (as long as they are not, or not mainly, oriented to campaigning in elections), organizations fighting for childcare access for workers, workplace health and safety, an end to sexual harassment of women workers, a higher minimum wage, and so on.
  3. Popular Autonomy Organizations (PAOs): These are institutions through which communities of people gain some autonomy to govern themselves, relatively free from the dictates of market domination and bureaucratic administration. Examples include traditional self-governance institutions of Indigenous communities, as well as forms of community-based, horizontal economic production and distribution. Other key examples include co-operatives (housing, retail, financial, and worker co-ops). To cite a historical example, during the Irish Revolution, there was an oppositional Dáil (assembly) operating in antagonism to the official (UK) state, linked to a parallel, insurgent legal system (“the Dáil courts”). In some more recent contexts, such as contemporary Venezuela, there are other types of PAOs, such as community councils, which make decisions outside the formal state apparatus. In several cities in Brazil, in Kerala, India, and other places, participatory budgeting popular assemblies are probably best described as PAOs, although in these cases there is a degree of integration with the state that makes them hard to classify as entirely as forms of “self-organization.” (Arguably, they represent a kind of reclamation of power and autonomy by grassroots self-organization into a domain previously monopolized by state institutions. A similar point could be made about co-operatives vis- à-vis the market economy.)

From a political-strategic point of view, the difference between NGOs on the one hand and SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs on the other, is crucial. When I speak here of a self-organization strategy, I am not talking about NGOs, but rather about SMOs, CCOs and PAOs. This is because, although I favor a non-statist strategy that rejects any and all attempts to find allies in the corporate class, I also reject the model of organizing that typifies (according to the way I use the term in this article) NGOs: the top-down model of an environmentalism-from-above, in which ordinary working people figure as donors or, at best, letter-writers and petition-signers, rather than active participants in a process of grassroots popular mobilization and self-organization.

By “self-organization strategy,” then, I mean an approach to environmental movement-building that satisfies two criteria. First, it focuses on organizing for change within the “community-based” or social sphere, as opposed to the personal sphere (which lifestyle environmentalists and eco-survivalists prioritize), the economic sphere (which “green consumer,” “natural-capitalism” and “corporate social responsibility” advocates prioritize); or the state sphere (which mainstream lobbying NGOs and most Green Parties tend to prioritize). Second, within social sphere, it highlights, not top-down NGOs, but grassroots SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs as the key organizational vehicles for mounting a challenge to ecocidal capitalism and for constructing anticipatory post-capitalist alternatives that model sustainability and both social and environmental justice.

TWO PHASES

By definition, a strategy for winning will sketch out a path – a “line of march,” as they say – for getting us from where we now stand to where we need to be, if we are to win our struggle and impose defeat on our adversaries.

Because “where we need to be,” in this case, is in a post-capitalist, democratic, sustainable, and socially just economy (see Hahnel, “Protecting the Environment in a Participatory Economy”), the path along which we need to move will involve breaking the resistance of an adversary that we know will remain, to the bitter end, implacably opposed to everything we are trying to accomplish: the giant corporations that dominate our economy as well as our political process. We have, therefore, a formidable opponent, with enormous resources of every sort, determined to fight against our efforts every step of the way. By comparison, we environmentalists are at the present time alarmingly weak and ill-prepared for the task of winning this fight (this in spite of the vast monetary resources at the disposal of the big NGOs that monopolize the public face of the movement but have no intention of mobilizing for a serious fight against Big Business).

How should we proceed? I propose that our movement should think about a strategy for winning as falling into two phases. The first phase — which I call the resistance phase — will be devoted to weakening our adversary and strengthening our own side. In the resistance phase, we will be able to fight effectively, to win political ‘battles’ in many cases, and always to lay the foundation for a future decisive victory. But we will not yet be ready to actually win. The second phase — which I call the transition phase — will only begin once we have successfully carried out the strategic objectives of the resistance phase, that is, after we have weakened the corporate class and its political representatives and strengthened our own forces to the point where a direct challenge to the hegemony and power of corporations will stand a realistic chance of succeeding. In the transition phase, we will not just be fighting a defensive struggle to resist the environmental havoc wreaked by corporate greed and capitalist maldevelopment; we will be launching a struggle to force — by mobilizing the social power of grassroots self-organization — a transition from capitalism to a sustainable, environmentally just post-capitalist economic democracy.

From these considerations it follows that a self-organization strategy for the environmental movement will take the form of two sets of strategic objectives: first, resistance objectives which, when carried out, will so weaken the ecocidal ruling class as to make a direct grassroots challenge to its power possible; and second, transition objectives which, when carried out, will launch us on the path toward a building a new society. 

THE RESISTANCE PHASE

The strategic objectives of the resistance phase are each to be pursued simultaneously. There are four of them:

  1. To construct an anti-corporate alliance of Indigenous communities, workers’ organizations, and environmental protest groups, based on a serious, sustained commitment to practical solidarity at the grassroots level.
  2. To build cost-raising protest movements, directed against all forms of environmental destruction, framing these struggles whenever possible as struggles for environmental justice, including Indigenous self-determination, economic justice and public welfare.
  3. To promote prefigurative community-based alternatives to capitalist production that model sustainability, solidarity, popular autonomy, and environmental justice.
  4. To re-establish vital currents of ecologically oriented anti-capitalist radicalism, for instance, eco-socialism, anarcho-Indigenism; social ecology; left eco-feminism; and so on.

I will say a few things about each of these objectives in turn.

Cost-raising Environmental Justice Protest Movements

The first resistance-phase strategic objective is to build cost-raising protest movements against all forms of environmental destruction, framing these struggles whenever possible as struggles for environmental justice and/or for prioritizing the public interest over corporate profits. To explain this objective, I need to explain (a) the idea of a cost-raising movement, and (b) the rationale for a focus on environmental justice and people-over-profits.

A key assumption upon which the self-organization strategy is based is that governments and corporations are not responsive to moral principles, to arguments about the public interest or what is best “for our grandchildren,” or to appeals to reasonableness, scientific evidence, and common sense. Instead, governments and corporations are self-interest-motivated institutions. That is to say, they act almost entirely based on cost/benefit analysis, factoring in not the public interest but the interests of the elites who rule these institutions. This insight has to inform how we “do activism.”

If corporations and their political representatives in the capitalist state are self-interest-motivated, and base their behavior on cost/benefit calculations, then we can explain their unwillingness to allow constraints on their environmentally destructive policies and practices as a side-effect of the fact that they benefit from their freedom to destroy the planet, and that it would be costly to them if they were no longer allowed to exploit and despoil the Earth.

If that analysis is basically correct, which few can seriously doubt, then something should follow about the kind of strategy we ought to adopt in trying (in the short term) to challenge their behavior and defend the planet and its occupants from the ecocidal effects of capitalist production and accumulation: if we want them to stop, we have to change the balance of costs versus benefits, until destroying the Earth is more costly than refraining from doing so.

That is the basic idea of a cost-raising movement: we inflict penalties on the rich in response to plutogenic environmental injustice and destruction, in order to change the cost/benefit calculations of elites, until they change their behavior (while recognizing that there are limits to how successful this effort can be as long as the economy remains profit-driven and undemocratic).

How can we raise the costs of environmental destruction? One way is to impose monetary penalties. If we know anything, we know that capitalist elites are responsive to monetary incentives. This is well understood by today’s environmentalists, even when their politics are in other respects extremely weak (e.g., PETA, WWF). It is the premise behind boycotting tactics, which are widespread, and also eco-sabotage, which is less widely practiced but quite high-profile and also well understood.

A less obvious, but ultimately more effective form of cost-raising occurs when a movement threatens, not just particular monetary losses, but the reproduction of the privileged social position of Big Business itself. Ideally, this should be our aim in building an environmental protest movement.

If the environmental movement can convince corporations that popular opposition to the environmental destructiveness of Big Business is driving large numbers of workers, students, poor and unemployed people to begin to question, not just the particular actions of individual companies, but the dominance of corporate power itself, then the movement will have a real capacity to intimidate corporations into at least limited forms of compliance with the imperatives of sustainability and environmental justice.

Because the corporate elite will never change its behavior by the force of rational arguments, our capacity as activists to influence their decision-making is always indirect: by creating a level of dissent, both wide enough (encompassing masses of people, from multiple sectors of society, including Indigenous communities, labour unions, student groups, etc.) and deep enough (opposing not just a particular policy, but the whole corporate agenda and the corporate power structure that imposes that agenda), that the corporate elite has grounds to worry that its position of unquestioned privilege and societal ‘hegemony’ or leadership is being placed in jeopardy by the environmentally destructive behavior that is fuelling this dissent.

So, a cost-raising protest movement would aim, first, to mobilize and politicize masses of workers and students, Indigenous people, poor and unemployed people, women and communities of colour, and others to speak out and protest against environmental injustice. Second, it would seek to educate and ultimately radicalize those politicizing people by demonstrating to them that the destruction of the Earth is being propelled by the greed of corporations and the servility of the state in relation to those corporate interests. And, third, as the movement grew and more people begin to turn against the corporate agenda and develop a willingness to oppose it and demand that governments refuse to serve it, the movement would aim to force some corporations and governments to make significant concessions to the movement, out of elite fears that their privileges are threatened by the growing and deepening opposition to corporate power being fuelled by a popular backlash against environmental injustice and destruction.

But why the focus on “environmental justice” and “prioritizing people over corporate profits”? Why not focus on fostering a new “deep ecological” consciousness or a post-productivist “paradigm shift,” etc.?

There are multiple reasons, from an intellectual point of view. But, from a strategic point of view (which is the crucial one here), it needs to be underlined that a focus on environmental injustice and people-over-profits is a necessary part of a larger emphasis, which is built into the self-organization strategy, on popular mobilization and the building of an anti-corporate alliance. Talk of a movement that would be “neither left nor right,” that would be based on some kind of expanded ethical consciousness or a “neo-primitivist” repudiation of modernity, or any of the multitude of “consciousness-raising” forms of environmentalism, rather than a clear-eyed focus on defeating Big Business as the key enemy of the environmental movement, will only lead us down the road to defeat. We are seeking, on the contrary, a strategy for winning. And a focus on fomenting popular indignation and resistance against the corporate elite is crucial for any plausible strategy for winning.

Moreover, the environmental justice movement is founded on a moral as well as a strategic insight: morally, we ought to be clear that environmental destruction does disproportionately affect people who are subjected to socially organized disadvantage (such as Indigenous people, workers, the poor, racialized groups, women, most people in the global South); and strategically, we have good reason to use this injustice to help channel and mobilize popular anger in constructing an anti-corporate alliance between social justice movements, labour movements, and environmental movements.

A Grassroots Labour/Community/Environmental Alliance

The second resistance-phase strategic objective is to construct an anti-corporate labour/community/environmental alliance at the grassroots level. This is not so much a separate objective in relation to the first, but rather a way of thinking about the forces we need to unite in the course of building an effective environmental protest movement that is willing and able to confront corporate power.

As part of a self-organization strategy, this objective has to be distinguished from a superficially similar strategy, sometimes called a “blue/green alliance” or “labor/environmental alliance” strategy or a “turtles-and-teamsters” strategy, which is almost always understood to be (or at least practiced as) a top-down approach in which union presidents meet with NGO executive directors to plot a joint legislative lobbying agenda (see bluegreenalliance.org and apolloalliance.org). This extends all of the weaknesses of NGO-orchestrated spectator-activism into the workers’ movement, and the self-organization strategy entirely rejects this approach. True, unions are CCOs, not NGOs, in the sense I give to these terms. But in their capacity as government lobbying groups, which is the aspect of unions that are front-and-centre in most high-level “blue/green alliance” efforts, unions actually function much more like NGOs, notably in the sense that their members figure in these projects as passive dues-payers rather than as active participants. By contrast, the self-organization strategy proposes to develop forms of grassroots self-organization, not to build alliances between various top-down organizations hoping to bolster their bargaining power when lobbying politicians. One consequence of this is that I don’t mean to single out unions as such, but rather working-class organizations, including groups organizing living wage campaigns, campaigns against sexual harassment of women in the workplace, solidarity campaigns with workers other parts of the world, and so on. Unions are important in all of this, of course, but so are other expressions of working-class self-organization.

Note also that I am talking about a labour/community/environmental alliance, not just a labour/environmental alliance. The reason is simple: the labour movement and the environmental movement need each other, to maximize their anti-corporate mobilizing capacity, but both of those movements also need to align themselves with grassroots efforts in the feminist movement and the anti-racist movement, with anti-poverty movements and with Indigenous movements. In the absence of this broader community-alliance orientation, the labour and environmental movements will be undermined internally, because they will not be challenged to respond effectively to the grievances of many exploited and oppressed people in the wider society, and they will be undermined externally, because their mobilizing capacity will be more limited.

Building a labour/community/environmental alliance against Big Business will be difficult, even though important work on this front has already been done over a period of decades. We are not starting from scratch by any means, but neither can we rest content with things as they stand today. In building on the work of previous generations, we need to cling to the basic principle of all solidarity-building: to remember that an injury to one is an injury to all. This means that the grievances and aspirations of all groups in this alliance — women, Indigenous peoples, poor people, people of colour, workers, environmentalists, and so on — need to be taken seriously and given prominence and weight in the decisions and actions of all the other groups. For environmentalists, this means cultivating an anti-colonial environmentalism, a feminist environmentalism, a class-struggle environmentalism, a poor-people’s environmentalism, an anti-imperialist environmentalism, and so on. For this reason, as for others, the framework of environmental justice is crucial for building our movement into an effective anti-corporate force.

One final point. The labour movement can be an unusually difficult ally for environmentalists (and, sometimes, vice versa), because unions tend to have a bias in favour of protecting present-day employment sources, even if those employment sources are unsustainable and violate principles of environmental justice. Why bother working to strengthen such an alliance? The answer is clear: unions, and other working-class organizations, are especially strategically important for all anti-corporate social change movements because it is the working class that has, uniquely, the capacity to deal the most crushing blows to capitalist production: to shut down workplaces. In the absence of an effective and longstanding alliance between working-class organizations and environmental organizations, it is simply inconceivable that the environmental movement can win an enduring and decisive victory.

The demand for free retraining and “green-job” employment guarantees (in unionized jobs) for workers displaced by environmental progress must be front and centre in all the discussions and actions undertaken by environmentalists.

Sustainable Community-based Alternatives

The third resistance-phase strategic objective is to create and support anticipatory community-based alternatives to capitalist production that model sustainability and environmental justice.

Protest, surely, is not enough. In part because of the discrediting of earlier Left social reform projects (the statist command-planning economies of countries like the USSR, and the welfare-state bureaucratism of European social-democracy), it is crucial that the environmental movement give serious attention to pursuing a “build-it-now” strategy, constructing non-capitalist, sustainable production and distribution vehicles before the defeat of capitalism. In order to position our movement as offering a credible and viable alternative to capitalism, we need to draw people out of their immersion in and dependence on the capitalist mode of production and draw them into “counter-capitalist” alternatives that model sustainability and environmental justice. The viability of post-capitalist economies cannot be left to the realm of plausible-sounding speculation.

It is worth recalling that, when the socialist Left in Europe was (arguably) at its strongest, in the years prior to World War I, it had been an entrenched, taken-for-granted feature of socialist strategy to build a strong co-operative movement, with close ties to both unions and socialist organizations. In general, and with many important exceptions, neither the socialist Left nor the environmental movement has given enough attention to building this kind of counter-economy in recent decades. (In fact, both socialists and environmentalists have tended to overemphasize state-sector investment in “green” infrastructure, seeming to accept as a “given” the hegemony of the capitalist state and its bureaucratic structures.) Nevertheless, the “social” or “solidarity” economy of co-operatives and other non-profit, grassroots, egalitarian, and non-statist forms of community-based economic democracy is in many ways thriving. It consists of an array of counter-capitalist institutions such as food retail co-ops, community gardening and urban farming co-operatives, local participatory budgeting processes, ecologically responsible worker co-ops, transnational grassroots fair trade arrangements, and experiments in participatory economics. And it already has broad appeal and deep roots in many communities in most countries. Building this sector, and encouraging it to evolve in the direction of a class-struggle, anti-colonial environmental justice orientation, must be made central to the struggle for a sustainable post-capitalist social order.

Vital Currents of Ecological Anti-Capitalism

The fourth and final resistance-phase strategic objective singled out by the self-organization strategy is to establish, or re-establish, vital currents of ecologically oriented anti-capitalist radicalism.

It is no secret that anti-capitalist radicalism in North America has been in decline since the 1970s, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But it should be equally clear that a strategy for winning for the environmental movement will need to be able to draw on a strong anti-capitalist Left as a source of analysis, strategy, and vision. Ultimately, to take up the task of winning, environmentalists will have to merge with anti-capitalists. This merger will require a double transformation: the anti-capitalist Left will have to move toward an ecologically informed critique of capitalism, and environmentalists will have to move toward an anti-capitalist interpretation of ecology.

This double shift has been underway for decades. Social ecology, which emerged from the anarchist Left, was one pioneering political current promoting this convergence. More recently, eco-socialism and ecological democracy have emerged from the Marxist Left to give further impetus to this process. Meanwhile, an anti-corporate sensibility has taken firm root in much of the environmental movement, especially among environmental justice activists, even if the grotesque alliances with Big Business undertaken by some high-profile, well-funded establishment NGOs have obscured the strong and growing rift between environmentalists and bosses that exists at the grassroots level.

Many will be tempted, in a predictable way, to think of fostering currents of anti-capitalist radicalism as a task best pursued in small membership organizations or ‘sects’ that promote the Correct Program, as interpreted by the group’s founders. A self-organization approach proceeds differently, by means of a proliferation of “political centres” (to use Hal Draper’s term). Political centres are not membership organizations but publishing and popular education projects that cultivate the emergence and consolidation of identifiable political currents (social ecology, anarcho-Indigenism, eco-socialism, etc.), while allowing these currents to maintain ongoing dialogue with a wide array of activists, not just actual or potential joiners of a membership organization. Some examples of political centres would be: Defenders of the Land, the Eco-socialist International Network, Monthly Review, the Institute for Social Ecology, and so on. Creating political centers instead of programmatically uniform membership organizations sets up a healthier dynamic and draws the Left away from zero-sum competition for members and toward a healthy ongoing dialogue among comrades who see things differently and want to make their case to each other without reifying differences into organizational boundaries that divide activists unnecessarily.

Part of rebuilding a strong anti-capitalist Left, which can play a key role in bolstering and radicalizing the environmental movement, is working to create “two, three, many” political centers or currents of ecologically informed anti-capitalist radicalism, each of which can attempt to make a real contribution to moving our struggles forward, but none of which can credibly claim to monopolize insight or to be the voice of the movement.

THE TRANSITION PHASE

Once the strategic objectives of the resistance phase are carried out, the situation of the environmental movement will be radically transformed. Instead of being a relatively weak and badly positioned movement, despairing at its incapacity to defeat a formidable adversary, it will find itself in a position of relative strength, backed by (1) powerful environmental-justice protest movements, (2) a strong anti-corporate alliance between working class organizations and environmental SMOs, (3) an array of healthy and well- functioning counter-capitalist alternative economic institutions comprising an egalitarian, sustainable and democratic prefiguration of a post-capitalist future, and (4) a resurgence of anti-capitalist radical currents, which would now be informed by an ecological awareness largely missing from the radical politics of the past.

The once-mighty ruling class, meanwhile, would be everywhere on the defensive: fighting off the demands of mass protests; its waning hegemony challenged by a powerful anti-corporate alliance; discredited by the visibility of viable alternatives to profit-motivated production; and locked in an ideological struggle against the growing influence of radical anti-capitalist environmental vision and analysis.

From such a position of strength, the environmental movement could finally take up directly the task of imposing defeat on its adversary. Specifying strategic objectives for a transition struggle is, necessarily, more speculative in a time like the present, when transition tasks are not on our agenda. But, reflecting on struggles taking place in countries like Venezuela (where the Left is stronger and more advanced, on the whole), and factoring in what can be learned from a study of upsurges of mass radical action in earlier decades, it is possible to sketch a few key objectives that can give content to the idea of a “transition phase” of the struggle to defeat capitalism and launch the project of constructing a just and sustainable post-capitalist economic democracy

Somewhat schematically, I would propose that we think of the transition phase as having four strategic objectives to carry out:

  1. To organize anti-capitalist environmentalists into a common front of radical community organizations (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), capable of tactical concentration for united action;
  2. To establish the hegemony of the anti-capitalist common front within the mass environmental movement, so that it exercises a consensual, acknowledged leadership role in pointing the way forward for large sections of the broader movement;
  3. To gain for the common front and its allies a degree of community-based “social” power, resting on the capacity to deploy general strikes, mass protest, and mass civil disobedience campaigns, on such a scale that the community-based opposition constitutes a community-based counter-power that can effectively challenge the economic power of corporations and the coercive power of the state;
  4. To secure the transfer of ever more extensive governance functions to community-based self-organization (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), so that “social” sector institutions ultimately displace — rapidly whenever possible, gradually whenever necessary — both “private” and “state” sector institutions from their role in running the economy, the healthcare and education systems, providing social services, etc.

The first three of these transition-phase strategic objectives could be carried out simultaneously, and over a period of years. The fourth transition objective could be pursued simultaneously with the others, but only completed at the culmination of the whole strategic project, by actually breaking once and for all the resistance of Big Business, and embarking on the construction of a sustainable, socially just post-capitalist social order, based on community organizations (“councils”) in workplaces and neighborhoods.

I will say a little bit about each of these transition objectives.

A Common Front

The first transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to organize anti-capitalist environmentalists into a common front of radical community organizations (SMOs, CCOs, PAOs), capable of tactical concentration or unity in action.

Note two points about this proposal. First, it is not a political party. It is, above all, not a party aiming to win state power, whether by means of elections or in some other way. On the contrary, it is an organized formal alliance of multiple grassroots “civil society” (community-based) organizations, with a mass constituency rooted in neighborhoods, communities, and workplaces. Second, however, note that the common front proposed here is something that can do some of the things that party-building advocates rightly regard as strategically necessary for defeating Big Business. It can coordinate tactical concentration and convergence: united action by the anti- capitalist opposition to challenge corporations and the state, and ultimately attempt to defeat them once and for all. And it can serve as a an organized vehicle for the radical, activist wing of the wider movement to make its case to the general public for militant and decisive struggle against Big Business and the capitalist state.

The precise form to be taken by a common front of this kind will have to be worked out by activists attempting to actually build it, in the context of a strong mass movement with influential ecological anti-capitalist currents (conditions that do not now exist in North America). The only point upon which a self-organization strategy insists is that it be an organization for popular mobilization, public advocacy and other forms of grassroots self-activity, as distinct from a political party attempting to win elections or install itself atop the capitalist state (a structure that, by its very nature, organizes people by means of structures of representation, bureaucratic administration, and coercion, precisely so as to preclude self-organization and participatory self-activity from below).

Anti-capitalist Hegemony

The third transition-stage strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to establish the hegemony, or acknowledged leadership role, of the anti-capitalist common front, within the broad-based environmental movement.

As always, the reason for adopting a strategic objective is that it seems like a necessary element of a strategy for winning. If the environmental movement is to be successful, then it will have to come to pass, eventually, and as soon as possible, that the radical, anti-capitalist wing of the movement, which promotes a real challenge to the rule of Big Business, and which is committed to fighting for sweeping social change, will find itself increasingly acknowledged by the mass base of the movement as the force that has the right approach to pushing the movement forward. Today, of course, this is far from being the case. But it would be fruitless to try to conceive of a strategy for winning against Big Business that doesn’t envision a situation — probably a time of profound social crisis — in which the anti-capitalist wing of the movement emerges as the acknowledged leadership of the struggle.

Of course, here we need to ward off possible misunderstanding. By saying that the anti-capitalist wing of the movement, as organized into the common front of radical SMOs, CCOs, and PAOs, has to emerge as the acknowledged leadership of the broader movement, I do not mean that it should exercise authority over the movement or make decisions on its behalf. I mean that it must be able to count on broad-based support from the wider movement, so that if the common front calls for a general strike, workers actually go out, and if it calls for mass civil disobedience, then masses of people take up the call. This is not a matter of authority; it is a matter of the most advanced and militant sector of the movement forging a consensus within the wider movement in support of a certain line of march, which masses of people ‘buy into’ as representing the most compelling proposal for how to move the struggle forward during a time of acute social crisis.

A Community-based Counter-power

The third transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy is to gain for the common front and its allies a degree of community-based “social” power, resting on the capacity to deploy general strikes, mass protest, and mass civil disobedience campaigns, on a scale that can effectively challenge the economic power of corporations and the coercive power of the state.

We know where corporations get their power — they control the means of production; and we know where the capitalist state gets its power — it has a monopoly of legal coercive force; but we need to be equally clear where the environmental movement gets its power. Environmentalism’s strength, and therefore its capacity to win, depends crucially upon its capacity to exercise a kind of power that is neither economic nor political but social, that is, it is the community-based power of grassroots self-organization within “civil society.” In short, its power resides in the organizational capacities of social movement organizations, class conflict organizations, and popular autonomy organizations.

A strategy for winning, therefore, must include a strategy for building up the social power of the movement to such a degree that it can actually rival the degree of power that corporations and their political underlings in the capitalist state can jointly muster. It is a tall order. But we know from the history of revolutionary movements that, under the right conditions, when an emboldened and militant mass movement confronts a weakened and ineffective ruling elite, the social power of militant, broad-based movements can topple regimes and institute sweeping social change. That is just a plain fact of modern history. If all four of the resistance-phase strategic objectives have been successfully secured, the environmental movement will be rather well positioned to begin building up this kind of social power.

The way to do it, though, is not in the usual way that social power is built up, which is by building grassroots organizations that collectively address people’s needs and advance their aims. Instead, building up the kind of power needed to challenge the ruling elites of capitalist society directly will require that the strongest weapons in the arsenal (so to speak) of grassroots popular struggle: general strikes, militant mass demonstrations, and mass campaigns of civil disobedience. These tactics, when supported not just by small and isolated groups (as is often the case today), but by a broad and powerful constellation of social movements that is unwilling to take ‘No’ for an answer, can generate vast concentrations of social power, certainly enough (when the circumstances are favorable) to rival the power of a compromised, weakened ruling class.

Transferring Public Authority to Community Organizations

The fourth transition-phase strategic objective of the self-organization strategy, and the one that more than any other gives content to the aim of “winning,” is the objective of securing the transfer of ever more extensive governance functions (including running the economy, the healthcare and education systems, providing social services, etc.) from “private” and “state” sector institutions to the “social” sector of community-based self-organization (i.e., to grassroots SMOs, CCOs, PAOs).

To complete this transfer would be, in and of itself, to have defeated capitalism (but not necessarily to have consolidated a coherent and well-functioning alternative, which presumably may take time). But there is no reason to delay this work until we reach the climax or the end-point of the struggle against the rule of Big Business. In principle, it can begin today. Clearly, though, in the transition phase of the movement, when the community-based Left is very strong and the ruling class is weak, it will be an especially opportune time for the community-based organizations to try to wrench governance functions away from corporations and the state.

In each case, when a governance function is captured by grassroots self-organization and taken over by the community-based “social” sector, a key task will obviously be to reconfigure these functions (economic, administrative, technical, pedagogical, medical, etc.) in ways that are consistent with our core values and ultimate aims, namely, political and economic democracy, social and environmental justice, and ecological sustainability. This, of course, will be a continuation of work being done throughout the resistance phase (see the third resistance-phase strategic objective).

One question that arises in this connection is whether we should think of this transition — this transfer of governance functions from the hierarchical and authoritarian institutions of capitalism (corporations and the state) to the egalitarian and democratic institutions of a radicalized grassroots civil society — as taking place gradually, emerging (through struggle) over a period of many years, or abruptly, by means of a relatively brief revolutionary process. Both scenarios have an element of plausibility to them. However, it is just common sense to acknowledge that those periods which witness sudden upsurges of civic engagement, in which popular participation in public affairs is both more widespread than usual and takes more insistent forms than usual, and which we call “revolutions,” are golden opportunities to be seized upon to push the transition process as far as it can possibly go. In that sense, the self-organization strategy is clearly a revolutionary strategy. But there is no reason to wait for such an upsurge before beginning to undertake the transition, nor is there any reason to cease struggling for still more far-reaching change after a revolutionary upsurge has died down. This opportunity-driven approach to revolutionary transition — gradual transformation whenever necessary, rapid transformation whenever possible — seems to be the approach of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, which is as good a model as we have before us today (in spite of the well-known limitations of its approach to sustainability and other issues and its more extensive use of the state than a self-organization strategy would encourage).

CONCLUSION

The self-organization strategy is designed to offer what many approaches to environmental activism stop short of proposing: a strategy for winning.

It is distinctive for two main reasons. First, it looks neither to the “personal” (lifestyle) sphere, nor to the “economic” (market) sphere, nor to the “political” (state) sphere, but instead to the “social” (grassroots self-organization) sphere of society as the key locus for building a powerful movement for challenging corporate power and constructing a sustainable and environmentally just alternative. Second, within the sphere of broadly “social” self-organization, it looks not to the high-profile and well-funded environmental NGOs as key agents for organizing collective action, but instead to the social movement organizations, class-conflict organizations and popular autonomy organizations that serve as the primary vehicles for the self-organization of grassroots activism in the environmental movement and in other struggles for political and economic democracy and for social and environmental justice.

(Stephen D’Arcy is the author of the book, Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, and a co-editor of the book, A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.)