“In the UK and other countries ravaged by unfettered capitalism, there are many signs of a new kind of resistance. Typically this involves mobilizing all possible sources of counter-power — economic, social, cultural — and different levels of political power, local as well as national and, very occasionally, continental. In particular, these efforts don’t just try to become or to lobby an elected government. They seek instead to disrupt the day-to-day oppressions and injustices on which the neoliberal order depends and to create new, emancipatory relationships of mutuality and democracy out of resistance, amid the wreckage of social democracy. Many non-state initiatives try to build a social economics based on common or cooperative forms of ownership, challenging on a dispersed and micro scale the logic of profit and private capital.”
Excerpted from Hilary Wainwright, who gives details on the roots and present dynamic of the Momentum and other movements associated with the ascendancy of Corbyin in the UK Labour Party:
“The scattered movement that came together around Corbyn has deep roots. In the 1970s, Benn advocated in a pamphlet a “new politics” that was at once international — a response to the worldwide rebellion against the US war in Vietnam — and focused on the very British problem of Westminster parliamentarism and the Labour Party. “[T]he student power movement, the Black Power movement and the discontent among trade unionists are very powerful and important new forces in society and the Labour Party has got to enter into a creative relationship with them,” Benn wrote.
In the decades since — which saw the destruction of Benn’s attempts to radically reform industry as a government minister, Thatcher’s bludgeoning of organized labor, and New Labour’s attacks on the party’s left — a generation of activists have grown up for whom “a creative relationship with the Labour Party” is inconceivable.
In a modest but often effective way — like their political cousins, the indignados in southern Europe and Occupy in the United States — they have defined their own politics, directly intervening in society without the mediation of political parties. Some of these activists — including from UK Uncut, Climate Camp, and Occupy London — ended up constituting the creative linchpin of Corbyn’s campaign (similar to many indignados’ active involvement in Podemos).
Then there is the older generation, Corbyn’s own generation, shaped by the new politics that influenced Benn in the late 1960s and ’70s. They were drawn into the Labour Party by Benn, repulsed by Blairism, and on the eve of the war on Iraq held the local meetings, gave out the leaflets, and booked the buses that brought two million onto the streets in 2003. (Corbyn himself was an active supporter of Stop the War, the national organization behind the antiwar demonstrations. He became its chair in 2011.)
These elder activists found their voice again through Corbyn’s reluctant candidature for Labour leadership. In a potent mix, they provided the local infrastructure that was then amplified by the younger activists’ outreach on social media. They were further aided by large numbers of trade unionists who have been fighting Thatcherism’s various iterations for the past forty years but never received the party’s support.
So can this hybrid movement make the Labour Party theirs? Or is the movement formed in the space that Corbyn opened up just squatting — soon to find the electricity cut off and the bailiffs coming round with police reinforcements?
For now, the two main sources of energy — party members and credibility with the wider public — are flowing relatively well. A recent YouGov opinion poll of Labour Party members, for example, found that Corbyn’s support had increased to 66 percent since his election. And although many of Corbyn’s opponents predicted a December 3 by-election in the northern town of Oldham would be a disaster for Labour, the party increased its share of the vote with a local moderate candidate to whom Corbyn and his grassroots supporters gave their full approval.
The campaign against Corbyn has been based mostly on the purported lack of electability of the longtime member of parliament (MP), though the Blairites are also fired by disbelief — how could the Left still be alive after all those years of defeat?
But alive it is. The appeal of Corbyn, like that of his longstanding ally and now shadow chancellor John McDonnell, does not spring from the kind of charisma that sets a leader apart from supporters, leaving them in passive awe. It is Corbyn’s closeness that is the source of his attraction and strength. He celebrated and empathized with people at his meetings, telling the recognizable stories of their daily lives, or those of people like them, and demonstrated with his leadership bid that it is possible to mold those shared experiences into the foundation for a collective power, an active, solidaristic hope (“Jez We Can,” his campaign slogan went).
Corbyn’s honesty and unpretentious style continue to resonate with the general public. Despite all the personal attacks against him — for not bowing properly, not dressing properly, not singing the national anthem properly — the arrows have largely failed to hit their target.
The most vivid example of Corbyn’s “new politics” has been his conversion of Prime Minister’s Questions into a “People’s Question Time,” crowdsourcing his queries so they come from Doreen in Wythenshawe, Mark in Coventry, or Sharon in Leeds. Cameron has been unable to dismiss these questions in his usual arrogant manner without fear of a public backlash. In the first weeks of Corbyn’s leadership, the People’s Question Time helped stabilize his position and convince some doubters of his genuine commitment to political renewal.
And then there’s his mandate. Blairites have to sleep with the fact that their candidate won only 4.5 percent of the vote, compared to Corbyn’s 59.5 percent. The other candidates were all far behind the victor as well, with the second place finisher receiving just 19 percent.
Though there is no shortage of pushy MPs who fancy themselves a moderate successor, none can rival Corbyn’s backing among party members and supporters. Sober commentators judge him to be secure for years to come and likely to survive possible electoral setbacks for Labour in the London mayoral elections or the devolved elections in Scotland.
Moreover, the late November vote over airstrikes in Syria indicated that Labour MPs are beginning to listen to their growing constituency memberships. Only sixty-six Labour MPs voted against their leader and for the airstrikes — in spite of media predictions that the figure would be one hundred or more.
This was not a result of the harassment of which pro-Corbyn people are being accused, but simply that government-imposed parliamentary boundary changes (and consequent reductions in the number of MPs) mean that MPs will have to compete against each other to be reselected. Under Corbyn’s leadership it is the members who decide. (Though it was Miliband who ended Blair’s habit of imposing candidates on local parties through the national executive.)
In sum, even with significant intra-party antipathy and constant attacks from the media, the new party leadership’s position is stable due to strong backing from Labour members, growing credibility among voters, and the resilience and energy of Corbyn and McDonnell, sympathetic MPs, and young activists. Whether Corbyn has enough space to begin setting the agenda, however, is another story. Sources of Momentum
Corbyn’s institutional attempt to sustain the energy of his campaign — aptly called Momentum — intends to create that space (and subdue hostile party forces in the process). The organization is led by the same generational mix that drove the campaign: people formed by the Bennite struggles for inner-party democracy in the 1970s and the new cohort of direct action organizers schooled in the principles of open, horizontal forms of organization.
Momentum is an effort to give an affirmative answer to the question of whether there were sources of power activated in the lead-up to Corbyn’s extraordinary victory that could be harnessed to transform the Labour Party. The character and work of Momentum also bears on the question of whether Corbyn’s insistence that there is an alternative to New Labour and Tory rule can be turned into a practical strategy for electoral office. Both hinge on whether and how a different kind of Labour Party can be forged, capable of winning a general election despite the greatly diminished might of the industrial working class.
Gaining leadership of a party that has atrophied and whose campaigns largely consist of direct, unmediated appeals to potential supporters is very different from the “long march through the institutions,” as the socialist activist Rudi Dutschke once put it. These institutions were created in a very different society that no longer exists, so a successful march requires changing society, changing the Labour Party’s relation to society — and only then beginning to remake the Labour Party’s own organizations.
The mismatch between these necessarily overlapping processes was evident at a founding meeting of a local branch of Momentum in Hackney, an eastern district of London once the site of large factories with well-organized workforces. Now the largest employer is Hackney Council; everyone else works in the City of London, delivery and transport, shops, restaurants, or a large number of small creative workshops and partnerships.
The meeting was a microcosm of the different strands of thinking and practice in the making of Momentum, as well as their limits. Chaired in the spirit of the new politics of consensus and openness, everybody spoke who wanted to, but no one could speak twice. This facilitated a process by which every position was laid out, and those who were trying to explore new ideas and express uncertain directions had the chance to speak as well. It was good-humored and respectful, and the spirit was one of unity and common cause despite sometimes-sharp differences.
Several older activists spoke with the certainty and precision of experienced stalwarts back on home territory: now that we’ve won the leadership, they insisted, it’s a matter of changing the party — resolutions to conference, replacing right-wing MPs, and so on. The familiar formula was expressed with great confidence that it would produce the desired left turn in the party, ready for government.
Others spoke from campaigns based mainly outside the Labour Party: Stop the War, the anti-austerity People’s Assembly, and others, stressing the importance of building these movements to change politics and hoping that Hackney Momentum would strengthen these campaigns by enlarging a common base of support.
Still others brought to the meeting urgent problems requiring immediate collective action, most notably an attack on schools. They hoped Hackney Momentum would become a hub for mobilization. Some were more tentative. A young man complained that the meeting was dominated by a language — of socialism, of class — to which he could not easily relate. An older woman stressed the importance of learning from local people, of reaching out and finding out what was going on in neighborhoods and streets and discovering people’s needs. At the end, people met in clusters of shared interests to discuss what Momentum could do.
The meeting indicated that there is a desire to come together to create some kind of collectivity around Corbyn’s principles and the need for change, but it didn’t look like it could lay the foundation for agenda-setting initiatives quite yet. A New Terrain
One of the lines of attack against Corbyn is that his leadership means a “return to the 1980s,” when Labour supposedly veered too far to the left. As a result, the story goes, the party lost a series of elections until New Labour’s heroic rescue.
There is little basis in fact for this account, but there is an interesting contrast to be made between Corbyn’s situation today and that of his mentor, Tony Benn, more than three decades ago. Benn’s campaigns took place at the moment when neoliberal policies were taking their hold over British politics.
But the central institutions of the social-democratic postwar settlement — a national economy, the welfare state, national collective bargaining, and trade union involvement in corporatist industrial policies — were still in place, if precariously so. Changing the Labour Party in order to intervene in industry, expand the welfare state, protect jobs, and improve working conditions made a good deal of sense.
In contrast, Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership at a time when neoliberal politics has come to dominate the Labour Party and taken over the UK state, stripping it of its more social-democratic features. Moreover, by eviscerating the welfare state and the infrastructure of a progressive tax system, neoliberal economics has all but destroyed the material basis for the provision of public good, or even of a moderately just, regulated, and redistributive national economy.
The prevarications of both former Labour leader Ed Miliband and his presumed successor, Andy Burnham, prove the point. Their goals are social democratic, but the world of a mixed economy, in which the profits of a productive capitalist sector could be taxed and redistributed to provide universal welfare, social security, and public infrastructure for the benefit of all, within a relatively closed, predictable, and controllable economy, no longer exists.
It has been replaced by a financialized global capitalism in which capital flows shape politics rather than vice versa. And in the case of eurozone countries, treaties or austerity packages imposed from on high serve to prevent progressive reforms.
In the past, social democracy’s symbiotic relationship with Keynesian macroeconomics worldwide shaped the internal debate in the Labour Party and other social-democratic parties. The question was about how far center-left governments should push the mixed economy toward socialization. Meanwhile, capital was willing share the spoils of rising profits, preferring this to worker unrest.
This context began to change as the postwar economy confronted deep problems — the 1973 oil price hike, stagflation, an intensification of global competition, financial instability, and the increasingly militant demands of workers. Businesses’s response was swift and punishing: a massive wave of factory closures and cuts that devastated municipal government and public housing and, consequently, working-class communities.
Capital killed the postwar accord — and it’s not coming back. Victories can be achieved here or there — for example, against water privatization or for protective legislation — but only when strong extra-parliamentary movements pressure the state and win support from sympathetic politicians.
Fortunately, in the UK and other countries ravaged by unfettered capitalism, there are many signs of a new kind of resistance.
Typically this involves mobilizing all possible sources of counter-power — economic, social, cultural — and different levels of political power, local as well as national and, very occasionally, continental. In particular, these efforts don’t just try to become or to lobby an elected government. They seek instead to disrupt the day-to-day oppressions and injustices on which the neoliberal order depends and to create new, emancipatory relationships of mutuality and democracy out of resistance, amid the wreckage of social democracy.
Many non-state initiatives try to build a social economics based on common or cooperative forms of ownership, challenging on a dispersed and micro scale the logic of profit and private capital and illustrating the potential viability of an economy based on socialist principles.
Others work to create networks of cooperatives and collaborative partnerships in energy, agriculture, food production, culture, and more (sometimes backed by progressive municipal councils). Alliances of workers and communities whose resistance saved public services from privatization (for example, water) attempt to organize these services along democratic and communist lines.
Precarious workers long neglected by traditional trade unions — hotel and restaurant workers, delivery workers, self-employed workers, and independent cultural producers of all kinds — build economic power on their own. And sometimes unions, in turn, introduce new organizational forms and branch out beyond traditional methods.
Unite — the UK’s largest trade union and a backer of Corbyn in the leadership contest— has started community branches, organizing unemployed people and supporting local community-based campaigns. The union is also using direct action tactics learned from UK Uncut and others to pressure suppliers of companies with whom the union is negotiating.
People who relied on the welfare state and are hit especially hard by austerity — for instance, disabled people and people facing fuel poverty — are self-organizing, connecting to broader alliances and pressing demands on MPs and councilors. Increasingly, citywide networks and convergences are choosing the city as the level most favorable to organizing both a platform and material strength.
And while they often favor parties and figures like Podemos and Corbyn, the people behind these initiatives also value their autonomy as a vital condition for efficacy and sustainability.”
Image by 70023venus2009