Straddling the dawn of the new millennium a new wave of global movements saw that in revolutionizing the world the ‘the real new Winter Palaces’ to storm were the institutions at the helm of globalization, namely the World Trade Organization (WTO), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the G-7 and G-8, – until then largely invisible to political parties, the media and parliaments, and therefore to public opinion.
The first institution they had the foresight to storm as from the 1990s was then then little-known OECD, which had proposed the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (the infamous MAI). The protests that were unleashed – the first of a truly international character – were described as ‘the first online guerrilla war’.
In fact, it was the first experience of meeting up via the internet, and of achieving at least a provisional victory, in that the MAI ended up being shipwrecked for the time being. And this same approach was used in successive attempts to reach multilateral accords, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), with which we are still grappling.
Nevertheless, while the huge anti-globalization mobilizations – in Seattle against the WTO in 1999, in Genova against the G8 in 2001 and so forth until the most recent events in Hamburg last July – did not succeed in disrupting the power of their adversaries, these mobilizations did have a healthy political effect: they exposed to the world where the true sanctuaries of power lay, revealing the new real Winter Palaces.
The mobilizations of Seattle and Genoa did have a healthy political effect: they exposed to the world where the true sanctuaries of power lay, revealing the new real Winter Palaces
Even the smaller, more local – and more numerous – movements against environmental destruction have played an important role in raising and developing awareness of the environmental risks we now face, another issue that is, if not ignored, certainly largely marginalized by political parties.
That said, while it is important, simply denouncing is not enough to change things. And the lack of risk-taking eventually becomes a weakness in these very same movements which, discouraged by their helplessness, see their numbers drop and become increasingly fractured.
This is why I think it is necessary to address this issue with less triumphalism and to examine the causes of their inadequacy in order to address them.
Here are a few considerations:
First, all left-wing parties were born – and this was their initial strength – from the womb of the labour movement. It could be said that every ‘real’ party, legitimized by a history that bears witness to the capacity of real social representation, is born from a movement. Only ‘fake’ parties emerge from vertical decisions, which are therefore void of any historical and social roots. Unfortunately, in recent times, many of the latter parties have emerged but, naturally enough, did not last.
We must also bear in mind, however, that social representation today is far less linear than in the past – and thus, in many ways, more difficult. There is no longer a ‘good old’ working class; a community that is geographically concentrated, socially homogeneous and shares the same economic and cultural conditions.
Nowadays, labour (the market) has changed profoundly and we are now in an arena that is still exploited by capital, but is crushed by fragmentation and the spread of deceptively autonomous work, usually concealing a lack of clear contracts. The most symbolic case is of course Uber, which has itself led to the ‘Uberization’ of a significant part of the labour market – think of the ‘couriers’ and other delivery professionals, for example. The workers are isolated and crushed, making it increasingly difficult to apply the same collective agreements unions were once able to negotiate.
Second, to the conflict between capital and labour have been added new intersecting contradictions, which have only gained general awareness in recent decades. Here, I wish to highlight the intersections between the contradictions of class with those of gender and ecology, though these are by no means the only ones: increased mobility has heightened the racial, ethnic and religious contradictions that globalization has forced us to live together. Before these were ‘foreign’, now we are face to face with them at the supermarket.
All this means that, unlike how it used to be in the past, the social agent of change is far less homogeneous and increasingly unable to be the immediate subject of necessary transformation that Marxism and all its variants attributed to the working class. Capitalist development does not unify but differentiates and dismantles different subjects.
I would also take issue with what Negri and Hardt affirm in their popular book, Multitude, regarding ‘general intellect’, whereby the diffusion of work with a very high intellectual content which, in producing social relations rather than material goods, would almost naturally lead to the emancipation of labour. The spread of intellectual work does not in itself have a progressive function, however, because it simultaneously produces depoliticization: its contents are ‘cleansed’ of their connections with politics, shaped by the dominant hegemony and thus condemned to subordination.
So, the ‘Aufbehung’ (sublation) defined by Marx as the social engine of change in the here and now, is less and less spontaneously created. Today, this change can only be achieved by an anti-capitalist bloc that could unite what is currently divided. In turn, this rebuilding can only take place as a high-level project in which the various alternative subjects can join together and overcome their immediate conditions.
Building unity from diversity
It is no coincidence that while the exploited are the 99% and the exploiters the 1%, as we like to repeat, this overwhelming majority can and will never win: united in protest, it falls apart when it has to become proactive.
A movement is not enough. There is a need for the mediation of an organized subjectivity; able to overcome the particularities, to rebuild the connective tissue that binds society and politics.
Because a movement is not enough, there is a need for the mediation of an organized subjectivity; able to overcome the particularities, to rebuild the connective tissue that binds society and politics. An alternative subjectivity can exist only with free human beings, and we can only be free if we are aware and therefore released from the social determinants produced by the specific context that gives rise to them.
This is precisely why today more than ever we need a party – by which I mean an organism that can concentrate theory, experience and discipline as well as strategic vision.
Third, the richness of diversity must certainly be safeguarded, and it was undoubtedly right to challenge the arrogant claim of the dominant culture to be ‘universal’, denying status to all the others. I think, however, that the ‘Rainbow’ image to which movements often resort is at risk of being derailed. I therefore believe in the need for a critical revisiting of a particular interpretation of UNESCO’s Convention on Cultural Diversity.
Cultures are not seeds or fauna that must be preserved in immutable diversity. Cultures lose their anthropological purpose if they do not change and if they do not interact with one another; if they do not reject the confines of a small garden in which to cultivate their own diversity for the purpose of self-consumption; if they do not become – as they should – active elements in a dialogue that should aspire to build a common universal, both replacing the vision unilaterally imposed by the West as well as overcoming the narrowness of their own respective views.
In this sense, we can understand that the immediacy which characterizes movements must be superseded by a subjective effort to avoid its subjugation and strive against the perpetuation of cultural ghettos. To construct a real universality implies a long and difficult dialogue-based approach and achieving the conditions that would allow all cultures to truly participate in the process. (By way of illustration, 85% of the information we consume comes from Western sources.)
Fourth, we need to understand what we mean by political party, not only because of the moral and cultural impoverishment of the parties we have inherited makes this difficult to discern. The mistrust and rejection of existing parties is now rampant as they are seen as mere instruments with which to win power. And yet without parties – that is, organisms capable of spurring individual action, of consolidating a collective will around a global project, of opening a channel of communication between society and institutions – democracy is reduced to very little.
So, we can understand the growing disenchantment. To vote every five years or so simply to say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ has nothing to do with democracy; the executive branch of government now faces a very dangerous crisis as it is increasingly detached from its social fabric and purpose.
Democracy cannot be understood only in terms of individual rights and guarantees either, almost as if it were a sort of compensation – I am referring here to the example to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, now incorporated in the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon, which weakened one of the most important collective rights: the power to contribute to political debate.