What is happening in France is a delight to witness. Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados of Spain, and now Nuit debout in France has recrystallised the opposition to neoliberal globalisation in the West after the movement’s post 9/11 dormancy.
The crafting of a new world beyond corporate globalisation, beyond capitalism itself, to no small degree depends upon the antineoliberal and anticapitalist movements of the South spreading to the North.
The occupying of public place and the gathering of open assemblies based on the principles of participatory democracy are to no small degree direct actions in response to moribund, supposedly democratic, political systems beholden to corporate power. The neoliberal reforms of the past 40 years represent a permanent revolution without end, and no place is allowed to be immune to them including France despite the cultural and social traditions of the French, which are so inimical to the peculiarly Anglo Saxon utopia of the self regulating market.
The wonderful thing about the uprisings is not just the solidarity displayed by human beings in all their diversity, of the noise, the art, the imagery, but also the living example of how it is that we may govern our affairs in common based on principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
There exists more than a whiff of Murray Bookchin’s communalism to these uprisings, so it is worth bearing in mind Bookchin’s own words regarding the alterglobalisation movement of the 1990s, “a politics of mere protest, lacking programmatic content, a proposed alternative, and a movement to give people direction and continuity, consists of little more than events, each of which has a beginning and an end but little more.”
Bookchin’s charge applied to the assemblies of North America and Europe are more than a tad unfair, the programmatic content and even the alternative are offered, but there is a sense in which they do have a beginning and an end and that end does not and cannot end in a revolutionary transformation of society.
This weakness exists not only with the current movements, but with Bookchin’s communalist vision itself. Indeed, Bookchin’s approach could be seen as a key source underpinning the weakness of the current movements.
To transform capitalist society requires more than just occupying public space, debating matters of public importance, and passing resolutions. The means of production remain in the hands of capital and so long as they do so there is no transformation of capitalist society no matter how fiery the rhetoric and how far reaching the resolutions.
To be sure the Nuit debout uprisings have been accompanied by a general strike, millions of workers have been mobilised, and they have rocked the “socialist” government of France now offering some concessions to the movement alongside the baton of the gendarmes. Globalisation, based on the free movement of capital around the world, entails a certain logic and any concessions won today will always be under threat tomorrow as the dynamics of globalisation demand that the neoliberal revolution be a permanent one.
For the uprisings to be truly transformative the means of production need to be in the hands of the public or at the very least significantly disrupted. Passing resolutions even to this very affect achieves little if ownership of the means of production, sitting in security behind the protective walls of the coercive state, remain unaffected.
There needs to exist a greater element of class struggle to the uprisings. In Bookchin’s latter, influential, writings class struggle was eschewed. In Bookchin’s vision popular assemblies of citizens will deliberate on economic matters, and it is they that shall make decisions regarding the production, allocation and distribution of resources. There exists no vision for how workers qua workers would own and manage the socialised means of production.
This programmatic gap, quite deliberate as Bookchin in his last years dismissed not only post leftist anarchism but also class struggle anarchism, leads to a gap in praxis or strategy that we can see with Nuit debout and so on. The gap in vision of how it is that workers would own and manage workplaces necessarily leads to a strategy that neglects class struggle.
What is needed, in addition to the popular assemblies that offer a vision in praxis of an alternative non statist politics, are assemblies of workers or workers councils within the existing means of production. These workers councils would deliberate, pass resolutions regarding the governance of the workplaces in which their number work, and in doing so would occupy industry through sit in strikes to give these resolutions affect. Should this happen at enough work places around the world we would be moving toward a genuinely prerevolutionary situation.
It has been said that the Nuit debout uprisings had their genesis in the idea that protestors should not go home after the next protest rather they should stay and occupy space. What if we decided as workers that we would not picket outside the workplace and then go back to work after the next big strike, that we would occupy the factory!
There is another sense in which the communalist vision of Bookchin is lacking. Not only does the neglect of workers qua workers lead to a deemphasis of revolutionary class struggle, it also ignores the powerful revolutionary possibilities opened up through a linkage of the cooperative movement with the assembly movements. Many workers today, more than commonly realised, work in cooperative enterprises.
A networking of cooperative enterprises with popular assemblies into autonomous social zones would create genuinely autonomous, continuous and self sustaining systems of social relations incorporating economic and political forms within the shell of the old, capitalist, society. These autonomous spaces might spread like wildfire as they federate at the local, regional, and global level. To act in this fashion is to build a new libertarian socialist society.
There is no reason why we should emphasise one form of struggle over another for each of them are critical. It might well be that workers councils within the existing means of production are more liable to grow and proliferate when the cooperative movement or the assembly movement or both crystallise from without. We do not know enough about social relations and human beings to make prescriptions for one form of emancipatory praxis over another a priori. This can only be done empirically. The Anglo Saxon emphasis upon a posteriori observation over a priori reason, at least here, is appropriate.
We should not too readily dismiss localist and cooperative movements under the rubric of “utopian socialism.” For us to go forward we need to liberate the mind from Marxist orthodoxies, and that applies to many a class struggle anarchist as well. Nearly all of us remain wedded to Marxist shibboleths, and surely the dismissal of utopian socialism from 1848 onward is one of these.
To create a new world, essential for both human dignity and survival, we need to rise up at night, at every place, and at every factory.