Tuesday, May 22, 2012

John Rees on democracy and the age of mass movements

From the Troubled Kashmir blog:

David Jamieson speaks to political commentator John Rees about mass movements, the modern world and the tasks of the left today.

John Rees is an activist, broadcaster and the author of numerous books including Imperialism and Resistance and the recently published Timelines: A Political History of the ModernWorld. He was a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition (UK) and is vice-president of the International Campaign Against US Aggression founded in Cairo in 2002. He is a member of the editorial board of Counterfire.

DJ: What, in essence, is the age of mass movements?

JR: It is simply a description of the pattern of class struggle since the turning point of the anti-capitalist demonstrations on Seattle in 1999. Since then the pattern of mobilisation has involved mass street protest as a central feature of radical politics, most strikingly in response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not exclusively so. Similar mobilisations have repeatedly taken place over economic issues, originally in the anti-capitalist movement and more recently in response to the recession. Similar characteristics can be seen in the student movement that erupted in the UK in 2010.

Of course these have not been the only form of the class struggle. There have been strikes, though mainly in the west single day mass strikes dependent on calls from the trade union bureaucracy. Interestingly the key aspect of these strikes is not their economic impact since this is limited in any one day action, but their capacity to pull workers into mass demonstrations very like those of the mass movements themselves. There have also been less formal outbursts of anger, like the riots in the UK last year.

DJ: When, and under what circumstances, did this situation emerge?

JR: The key determinants of this phase of struggle are as follows:

Firstly, the anger generated over decades by the failure of neo-liberal economics as instituted since the late 1970s when the welfare state consensus of the long post war boom was abandoned by the political elites.

Secondly, the new phase of imperialist conflict opened by the end of the Cold War in 1989. This phase is characterised by the US’s strategic dilemma of trying to arrest its relative economic decline by using its overwhelming military superiority to overawe its competitors and secure its imperial control of resources and geo-political bases of operation, particularly in the Middle East.

Thirdly, the fissure this has produced between the ruling class and a majority of the people on a range of important political and economic issues. This was later described as a ‘democratic deficit’. The term should be seen as describing the declining popular faith in some of the main institutions of capitalist society: government, parliament, elections, corporations, the press, the police and so on.

Fourthly, there is weakness of the trade unions, the main reformist parties and the radical left. The unions have been weakened by structural changes in the economy, by successive attacks by the ruling class and the inability of the existing trade union leadership to deal with these attacks. The reformist parties have, at least at a leadership level, adopted neo-liberal economic and social policies and neo-conservative foreign policies that are indistinguishable from main stream conservatism. The radical left has been unable to fill the vacuum created by this crisis in the mainstream organisations of the labour movement.

Fifthly, this combination of factors – economic and imperial crisis, democratic deficit and weak union and reformist organisation – has produced the mass movement as the characteristic response of those that want to fight the system. Stronger unions might have produced a response that involved greater levels of industrial action. Stronger reformist parties might have produced left reformist currents of greater attractiveness. But in the absence of these alternatives many people take to the streets and create movements of protest based on this kind of action, or on forms of direct action.

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