Tuesday, 12 April 2016

RASEL: Open assembly or libertarian socialist cadre?

There have been a lot of debates within RASEL over the last year which I hope this post helps clarify. I think the main question comes down to whether we are an assembly or cadre.

Question 1: Assembly or cadre? Is RASEL (a) an example of an open community group? That is, a group of 'active' (activist) community members? Or (b) is RASEL a group (cadre) for libertarian socialists?  Or is it both? (From the below discussions, I think there are problems with trying to be both.)

It should be noted that we are not the only organisation which faces this type of question. A parallel example that might help us think about this is the International Workers of the World syndicalist union. Syndicalism means they want the union to eventually be massive and take over all wageplaces in a revolution. It is supposed to an anti-capitalist organisation. However, it has members that are not anti-capitalist. Its preamble to the constitution reads:
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

 My understanding is that originally (and maybe still now, technically) people who join the IWW are supposed to agree with this statement in order to join. People are supposed to join and become organisers, promoting the idea of anti-capitalism and syndicalism. However, in reality it often doesn't work like this. Often the IWW helps wageplaces* organise themselves and then these wage labourers (e.g. cleaners) often set up their own branch even if they are not all anti-capitalist syndicalists. In other words they are organised how the IWW wants them to organise, but otherwise they are not supporting syndicalism. In the IWW there are sometimes debates as to whether there should be branches like this, or if it should only be open to anti-capitalists.

Although there are differences between the IWW and the Radical Assembly, and RASEL, I think we have a similar kind of debate to address.

(2) Membership: I've said from the start that I favoured a membership. This was on the assumption (without really thinking about it) that we are (b) a group for libertarian socialists. I couldn't see why we would be open to people that weren't showing their dedication to creating libertarian socialism. For me building libertarian socialsm means people are primarily concerned with building community groups (type (a) groups) that could lay the basis for a future socialist society.  We wouldn't focus on growing RASEL, but would instead try to grow community groups we start, or pre-existing residential groups such as 'Our Forest Hill' (we'd also try to influence such groups politically), or other types of community projects that get people used to collectively allocating resources and making community decisions.

However, having no membership and being open to nearly everyone makes sense if we are (a) an example of a community assembly ourselves. Only a tiny fraction of the population share our more or less libertarian socialist politics so if we want to be a community group we can't be open to only people that share our goals. We have to be open to a whole range of perspectives. Type (a) groups also don't need to have an agreed strategy. They can deal with problems as they arise, as I assume community groups will do in the future.

I get the feeling at the moment RASEL is stuck between being (a) and (b) at the moment. Or trying to be both. We are very open, unfocussed, laizzes faire, and we don't really have an anti-capitalist strategy (we didn't come up with one at the strategy day), which is something you'd expect from a type (a) open community assembly. But simultaneously, we have quite an exclusionary libertarian socialist ideology laid out in our principles (exclusionary in that not many people share it). So not many people want to join. So we're open and non-strategic, yet tiny all at the same time. The worst of both worlds. We are acting like an active community group, asking people from our tiny group to go to this action and that action. Meanwhile the organising work such as making the stall (and banner, and fliers/posters) has has taken about 6 months. If we include public education as cadre-type work, we also haven't made any videos or articles or podcasts. Our educational readings, presentations and discussions have ended up being just for each other rather than the public. Basically, I can't see what community organising we're doing as a group. So we're not a cadre. But we're also far too small to be a type (a) community group.

(3) Censorship: On Facebook I've favoured having a 'page' only type set up, where the people that regularly come to meetings (unofficial members) invite people to our activities or post our information. I've wanted to not have the FB group or have it closed to only the members (about 15 of us) to discuss things. I think this restrictive FB policy makes sense if we are a type (b) group. I didn't understand why we were letting anyone join the FB group and post almost anything. For example, stuff about Momentum. We aren't working with Momentum (although I wouldn't be opposed if people wanted to), so I didn't see it as suitable to be posted by random people we don't know. It was distorting the message of 'the group' (people that go to meetings) and distracting from our projects. If we're going to let people post stuff about Momentum, or any other political stuff the group isn't involved with, why not let people post other irrelevant stuff about sports or shopping, or holidays? Where do we draw the line? However, if we are a type (a) open group it makes sense for anyone in South East London to be able to join the FB group and post pretty much what they like. That we also have an FB page which the informal membership controls implies to me we are trying to be both (a) and (b).

I think we need to think about and clarify what RASEL is to help us clarify our tasks.

*Note I'm trying to not to use the word 'workplace' or 'worker,' as I think it reinforces gendered ideas of work that overlook house work as being work.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Thoughts and review of 'Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work'

Authored by Nick Srnicek and Alex Willaims, (2015), Verso.

The title

I was reluctant to read the book 'Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work'. Almost everything about the title of the book put me off. For a start, and this is perhaps a matter of taste, the phrase 'Inventing the future' struck me as extremely grandiose and pretentious. 'I bet they're idiots', I thought to myself, upon first hearing the title. 'Pretentious, self-aggrandising, ungrounded, twits. I bet that book sucks.' Having said this, it should be remembered that publishers often have a say over book titles.

My second problem with the title was more analytical, and it seemed this was less likely to be an issue with the publishers. They use the phrase 'post-capitalism' in the title. Is this some trendy, uber-non-offensive way of saying 'socialism'? When I hear such phrases, alarm bells start ringing, and I suspect I'm about to engage with someone apolitical. Someone that doesn't see the necessity of class conflict. Furthermore, the word 'post' implies a patience with capitalism which I don't have. I’m reminded of when Paul Mason turned up at Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything conference and he gave a talk in which it seemed he thought advances in technology would eventually lead rather naturally to an alternative type of economy (although I couldn’t quite grasp what kind of economy he was talking about). And he didn’t mention class struggle. I'm not a post-capitalist, I'm an anti-capitalist. I don't want to wait for capitalism to somehow naturally run its course and develop into something different. God knows how long that will take and how much more damage will have been done to people and planet in that time. No. I want people to come together to force through a socialist revolution right now. In fact I'm a bit vexed it didn't happen yesterday.

Thirdly, 'a world without work', suggested that this was a book about vision. This is fine, but choosing this one feature of a future society to focus on - labour practices (or lack thereof), seemed problematic. What about the political set up? The decision making? The title suggested an automated utopia, but an automated world is only a utopia for all people if they have equal control over goods and services. Again, is this going to be a communist/socialist world? And did the authors plan on laying out some ideas for getting there? If not, the book seemed more or less a waste of time. There are already many utopian schemes such as 'the Venus Project', which don't seem particularly relevant to anything.

But I decided to read the book. A friend of mine had started reading it and, talking to her, I got the impression that the book was as scathing about the state of the current-day revolutionary left as me. So I thought it might be interesting. Another reason I thought I should check it out was that one of the authors is speaking at the Radical Assembly's Future Society event, which I don't really plan on going to, but it would be good to know what other people in the network are thinking about. Then I found out Verso had a 90% off sale, so it would cost me less than two quid. Nothing else on the Verso site jumped out at me so I decided to give Inventing the Future a shot.

The book

The book started with a critique of the current day activist left, which I mostly agreed with. They criticise the lack of large scale revolutionary thinking, and also the reactive, fire-fighter politics, and politics of protest prevalent on the left today. I was largely happy with this critique, and think this chapter is probably worth a read.[1] After this critique of the current left's 'folk politics' as they call it, I was waiting for a discussion of how the left could, as a solution to this situation, build mass, powerful working class institutions, perhaps on an international scale which pose a genuine threat to the reigning order. However, such a discussion never came.

Instead, they talked a lot in the book about the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), Friedrich Hayek’s neoliberal think tank. Established in the 1940's, the MPS helped set up several other think tanks, which Srnicek and Williams (S&W) claim are largely responsible for the changes from post-war Keynesianism to our current 'neoliberal' global economic set up. The authors' central proposal was that the left takes influence from this organisation by building its own network of think tanks and becoming influential in education and the mainstream media. I was disappointed by this strategy suggestion to put it mildly.

Firstly, S&W fail to acknowledge that insofar as these neoliberal think tanks gained popularity with power centres, it was because their ideas are supportive of increasing the power of the bourgeoisie. Where their ideas conflict with bourgeois power, they are largely rejected. No head of state considers really implementing Austrian economics, and letting the major banks fail, for example. Further, rather than being masterminded by the MPS, economic shifts towards neoliberalism have largely reflected shifts in the balance of power between, in blunt terms, working class organisations and the bourgeoisie.[2]  The idea that this process was driven by any think tanks seems to be a bizarrely naive misreading of history.

Further, the suggestion that leftist think tanks could replicate the supposed ideological success of the MPS, seems fanciful to say the least. This is not to say I don't think the left should have a network of think tanks or try to be as influential as possible in all forms of media and education (although keeping in mind the problems that come with engaging with especially the mainstream media). However, it is ridiculous to suggest the mainstream media and education systems would ever let revolutionaries become anywhere near hegemonic.

Some of S&W's other suggestions were fine, even inspiring. Their proposal that the left needs to reclaim the territory of big visions, progress and utopian thinking was welcome. I enjoyed the discussion of the long term vision of fully automated society in which people are provided for and all are free to pursue their own interests. I could also get on board with some of the reforms they suggest as stepping stones, including universal basic income and a four day working week. They also mention various interesting tactical ideas such as 'proxy strikes' in France where workers don't declare a strike, so still get paid, but allow the community to blockade or occupy the workplace.

However, there are some issues around their future society and reform proposals. Firstly, it is unclear how they are applicable to rural, peasant societies which still exist in large parts of the world. But even further than this, as mentioned, the book isn't very helpful in terms of providing a credible strategy for how the left in the West can get from where it is now, in a state of weak 'folk-politics', to a globally hegemonic movement with the power to achieve fully automated luxury communism, or even the intermittent reforms. So whilst the book has some interesting ideas, it is not really a very practical guide for revolutionaries, as one might hope from the grandiose title 'Inventing the Future'. In fact the core strategy suggestions from S&W, if taken seriously by enough current activists (you never know), could possibly manage to weaken the revolutionary left even further. An impressive feat.

On the other hand, in terms of proposing “the left’s” go-to revolutionary utopian ideas, then the book does this in a lively, and thought-provoking way in parts. And the critique of the present day “left” is largely worth paying attention to. Plus it’s not that long. So overall I found it a good effort and worth reading.  

[1] Having said this, I’m not sure how original the critique is. I feel I’ve been reading similar critiques for the last 10 years. John Sanbonmatsu’s ‘The Postmodern Prince: Critical Theory, Left Strategy and the Making of a New Political Subject’ (2003), Monthly Review Press, is an early example. A recent example is this Scott Jay blog post ‘The postmodern left and the success of neoliberalism’: http://libcom.org/library/postmodern-left-success-neoliberalism.
[2] See David Harvey’s book ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’. There are free PDFs of it online. S&W try to refute Harvey’s arguments in the book but I don’t think they do a good job of it. They argue that because Keyensianism was dominant and was seen as being in the interest of capitalists, this shows neoliberalism was not brought about due to class interests. But they fail to consider that Keyesnianism was temporarily seen as being in the interests of the bourgeoisie to make concessions to the working class in the face of a well-organised, potentially revolutionary working class.