AN « EXCESS » OF DEMOCRACY (1/3)
As we become increasingly dominated by the pursuit of economic growth, what campaigners can learn us from #occupy as well as previous radical movements in our attempt to forge a new kind of political economy based on a framework of equality, mutuality and respect for nature.
The philosophy and experience of radical movements in the 1960s and 70s are complementary to the ideas of the direct action movements today. It is here to examine the possibility of forging a new kind of political economy by assimilating the best of both of them.
The Occupy movement’s ability to create platforms out of our closed political system to force open a debate on inequality, the taboo at the core of the financial crisis, is impressive. It is a new source of political creativity from which we all have much to learn.
One cannot fail to be impressed by the similarities between the late 1960s and 1970s and the current movement. There are both within the same strong feeling of power “from below” that comes from the dependence of the powerful on those they dominate or exploit. There’s the creative combination of personal and collective change, and proper rapport between resistance and experiments in creating alternatives here and now. There’s the repulse of hierarchies and the creation of organizations that are today described as ‘horizontal’ or ‘networked’ – and that now with the new technology tools for networking (Twitter, Facebook …) have both more potential –but it should also lend to greater distortion…
Here come back the same old problems: informal and unaccountable leaderships, tensions between inclusion and effectiveness. The Tyranny of Structurelessness, a strong assay of American feminist Jo Freeman inspired by her experiences in the 1970s in favor of the liberation of women and addressing, in particular, those unforeseen difficulties from the perspective of the movement women’s liberation, may be well read.
But that was 40 years ago – even before the widespread use of faxes, not to mention personal computers and mobile phones. Reflecting on these marginalized earlier movements possibly take forward the debates opened by Occupy and the Indignados.
From social rebellion to capitalist transformation
The fate of the energies and aspirations of that rebellious decade is a long and complex cluster of stories. Considering their relevance today, I want only to point to a historical process that was not generally anticipated at the time and still is not fully understood today. This was the ability of capitalism, which sought a way out of its stagnation and crisis, to feed opportunistically on the chaotic creativity and experimental culture-restless of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
For example, in the 80s while attacking unions, corporate management was also dismantling the military-style hierarchies characteristic of many leading companies and decentralizing the production process. A new generation of managers, especially in the innovative industries, assumed that more tacit knowledge by workers would infer a valuable source of increased productivity and higher profits – as long as workers have little or no power on their real redistribution.
Another prime example is how, in the endless pursuit of new markets, marketing experts were able to identify and anticipate business opportunities in the broad perspective and wants of a growing number of women with own income.
The key underlying feature of these and similar trends is that much of the innovative nature of capitalism’s renewal in the 1980s and 1990s – strengthened by the credit expansion– came from external sources to both the society and the state. In fact, frequently its origins lay in the resistance and the search for alternatives to both.
In other words, capital proved very much more agile in responding and appropriating the new energies and aspirations stimulated by the critical movements of the 1960s and 1970s than did the parties of the left – for which these movements could have been a force for democratic renewal.
Now, with the credit that supported the social turmoil of this particular period of capitalism having become toxic, the search for alternatives is back again. Even the Financial Times, much to our astonishment, insisted in a series of articles on the crisis of capitalism to conclude that “at the heart of the problem is widening inequality”.
Are we witnessing in the combination – not necessarily convergence – of unease within at least the cultural elites, the growth of sustained popular resistance and public unhappiness, the emergence of what Karl Polanyi called a ‘counter-movement’ to the socially destructive consequences of rampant capitalism? And to what extent might the ideas of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s influence the character of that counter-movement?
A fundamental break
To answer this we need briefly to remind ourselves of the essential nature of the original social critique driven up by the 1960s/70s movements and in particular the nature of its potential break with the institutions of the post-war order: their paternalism, their exclusions, their narrow definition of democracy and the assumption that production and technology were neutral values.
Essential to the character of this assessment was its aspiration, more in practice than in theory, to overcome the deleterious dichotomies of the Cold War between the individual and the collective/social; freedom and solidarity/equality; ‘free’ market versus ‘command’ state – dichotomies that were refrozen through neoliberalism and the conditions in which the Berlin Wall fell.
The ideas and practices of the feminist’s movement are particularly explanatory. This movement arose partly from the gender-blind inconsistencies and from unfulfilled promises of radical movements of the time. It deepened and extended their transformation, adding ideas emerging from women’s specific experiences of breaking out of their subordination.
Especially important here was an emphasis on the individual as social and the collective as based on relationship between individuals: a social individualism and a relational view of society and social change. After all, the momentum of the women’s liberation movement was encouraged both by women’s desire to develop as individuals and their determination to end the social relationships that blocked these possibilities of progress. This required social solidarity: an organized movement.
The nature of its organization was shaped by a constant attempt to create organizational forms that combined freedom and autonomy – what every man struggles for– with solidarity, mutuality and values of equality. The result – cutting a complex and tense story short – was ways of relating that allowed autonomy, coordination and mutual support, without having to go through a single center. It’s what might be called an early solution, pre-ICT (*), a form of network organization.