Jeremy Corbyn has won the race for leadership of the Labour party, and the anti-austerity movement of the UK rejoices: “Finally we will see change”.
I sit in front of my twitter feed perplexed.
I think back to an event I attended a few days ago in London, entitled “Power, Hope and Delusion”. It was a conversation with activists from Spain and Greece on the role left-wing parties are playing in the fight against the current neoliberal agenda and on their relationship with the grassroots anti-austerity movements across Europe.
The speakers were Theodoros Karyotis from Greece and Simona Levifrom Barcelona, both active in the social movements in their countries and often blogging about them in English. Their main message was clear: do not be deluded that the change you want to see will come from the rise of the anti-austerity political parties.
As I write this article, I wonder, if in the current hype for Corbyn's win, the UK anti-austerity movement is prepared to listen to the advice of our European allies, or if we prefer to remain blinded by the hope finally given to us by a ‘long awaited’ leader.
I fear this hope. A hope based on the idea that change only happens from above, through existing political institutions, as that is where power lies. A hope based on fear and desperation for someone to protect us from above from the evil forces we are facing today.
Yes, the UK is a very different place from Spain and Greece, but the dynamics behind the rise of anti-austerity parties in these countries do not appear that far from where I am sitting, so I’ll try and share some of Theodoros’ and Simona’s points for those who are willing to reflect on them.
The speakers both insisted that first of all, we must not consider Podemos and Syriza as the official institutional arms of the social movements. Simona emphasised that “Podemos is not 15M”, while Theodoros spoke of a romanticisation of the relationship between movements and parties, and described it as an unhappy arranged marriage now on the verge of divorce.
There is a distinction to be made though, between the movements, composed of a multitude of experiences, and the individuals within them, that followed their own personal paths. Many activists in fact, with the rise of Podemos and Syriza, decided to shift their energy from the self-organised political spaces, to the institutional political processes. This was motivated by the belief that the institutional avenue was more impactful, but also in many cases by the practical need of each person to be able to rely on a stable income, while continuing to work in their field of interest. The choice of some activists to participate in the institutional processes has radicalised and transformed the parties, and given them further legitimacy within the social movements. Nevertheless in assimilating some of the most active members of the movements, the parties have noticeably weakened them, by subtracting valuable resources from the spaces of struggle where they were needed most and from the innovative projects initiated in the years after the uprising of the squares. We have experienced a similar situation in the UK, with many activists being absorbed by NGOs, and I suspect we will see this happening again with the shift to the left of the Labour party.the political parties can remain part of the picture, but only as one of the many nodes in a distributed horizontal system of actors, where one does not prevail over the other.
In Greece and Spain, not all have chosen that route, and many inspiring “nodes” of action, as Simona calls them, have been working incredibly hard to develop new structures around specific issues and expertise. We see both in Spain and Greece the formation and consolidation of a multitude of different initiatives based on self-organisation, horizontality, citizen empowerment and solidarity.
According to the speakers, the problem arises when the political parties exert a hegemonic position in the anti-austerity movement. As Theodoros said: “The electoral rise of the Syriza party resulted from the consolidation of the imaginary of the need for an “institutional”response to the neoliberal attack. In its rise to power, it created a hegemony within the anti-austerity movements, contributing to their demobilisation.” Similarly Simona has criticised Podemos, while emphasising the autonomy of the movement: “A hegemonic discourse that claims that organised civil society is only useful if it is inside the party brand, and that everything outside of it could threaten its leadership, can no longer stand up, luckily, amongst an empowered citizenry that is conscious of its responsibilities, the citizenry we have built with the Indignados.”
The hegemonic position is created by the belief that power lies solely in the institutional path. This delusion ignores on one side the weakness of the institutions in the current political and economic system, and on the other the importance of autonomous collective organising and action.
Theodoros described how states are an integral part of the current system and therefore, the political parties who try to run them, even if with the best intent, end up obliged to follow the logic of “pragmatism” over the values they stand for, as they are called upon to run the state in a way that is efficient for the market economy and guarantees the competitive advantage of the country within the system. Political decisions of our governments have always been strongly influenced by capital, but in a world where finance capital has become the dominant factor, the rapidity with which it can flee a country that does not welcome it, means that it needs to be courted, just as the Tory government is explicitly doing, but also as the left wing parties across Europe, including Syriza, have been forced to do.
This combination of the hegemony of discourse of the parties within the anti-austerity movements and their powerlessness within the system can have detrimental effects.For a radical transformation of the current socio-economic system, we cannot delegate any more to political parties. But what we can do, is put pressure on them to work with and for us.
In describing recent events Theodoros stated: “In its 6 months in power Syriza has betrayed each and every promise towards the social movements […] But, worst of all, it has helped convince the bulk of the population that “There Is No Alternative” to the measures of neoliberal restructuring.” The radical left wing party, that had promised real change, ended up admitting to its people that their only choice was to accept the Iron Lady’s prophecy. Not even Varoufakis’ soft capitalism was an option any more. As John Holloway said in a memorable speech in Thessaloniki this September, “not even Keynes can help any more. Keynes is dead!”
So if governments and political parties have very limited power over the globalised financial economy, what can they actually do today? What they do have is power over citizens, businesses and institutions that live and operate under their jurisdiction. They can either abuse this power, as many are unfortunately doing, or put it to good use.
That is where a party that puts freedom of citizens before control, human rights before corporate rights, and the protection of the commons before profit, can play an important role in making life within the existing economic and political system less harmful and more bearable. In his talk Theodoros recognised the role Syriza has played in bringing the topic of human rights to the forefront of the debate. This is really important in today’s difficult times, but nevertheless it is limited in its scope, as it only tackles the symptoms of the problems and not their causes.
Simona also suggested that the role of the parties can be that of “cleaning” and “keeping clean” the institutions. Purging them not only of the parasitical figures that inhabit them, but also of the obsolete processes that do not allow them to function by the people for the people. Both speakers spoke of the current state-market dichotomy as a relict of the past that we are still forced to coexist with, and they refer to the expanding discourse of the commons as opening up space for a new imaginary of the future.
The speakers insist that there is still a long way to go, and therefore, the rhetoric of “revolution” in the sense of a drastic over-throwing of the state, is not necessarily the right or only way forward. But if we think of the state as a combination of processes and “cogs” rather than one homogenous entity, we can attack it on multiple fronts, “clean”, dismantle and purge it of its faulty parts and rebuild what we need in a new way. Both insisted that in creating the new, we need to start from the local and that the transformations should happen with the direct participation of citizens. For Simona, the political parties can remain part of the picture, but only as one of the many nodes in a distributed horizontal system of actors, where one does not prevail over the other.
References were made to the transformation happening at the local level across Spain and Greece where the movements are gaining power in municipal institutions. When doing so, activists distance themselves from the movements, not to co-opt or weaken them, but on the contrary to emphasis their respect for them and strengthen their role. Ada Colau, the spokeswoman of the inspiring grassroots housing movement in Spain, said, just before being elected mayor of Barcelona: “Those who have stepped forward have done so while taking care to maintain the independence and autonomy of the movements, which maintain their own roadmap and mobilisations. We are going to need more social mobilisation than ever. Regardless of who wins. We can never go back to delegating democracy: it is voting every four years that has got us into this.”
For a radical transformation of the current socio-economic system, we cannot delegate any more to political parties. But what we can do, is put pressure on them to work with and for us. It is as much the responsibility of the political parties, as of the NGOs, of the trade unions and of the grassroots that we move forward in solidarity with each other, recognise the role each one plays, and share between us the limited resources we have.
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