People, Get Ready
A New Democracy Editorial
Two million workers converged on Rome this April in the largest demonstration in Italian history. They were demonstrating against government plans to weaken job protections. A week later nearly 13 million Italian workers staged a one-day general strike. In Argentina workers and the middle class have brought down five presidents since December, 2001; workers have seized over a dozen factories there which they are now operating. In March China was shaken by its largest labor protests since the Communists took power in 1949. In Venezuela a US-backed coup by business and military leaders was defeated in 36 hours by a popular uprising. In Washington, DC on April 20 more than 75,000 demonstrated against the Israeli invasion of the Occupied Territories of Palestine and against the war on terrorism. In Germany in May, 2.3 million auto workers began a series of one-day "rolling" strikes. Two hundred thousand took to the streets of Madrid on May 19 against "War and Capitalism," chanting, "Another World is Possible."
Millions of people around the world are again finding their voices, asserting their values, taking to the streets, challenging elite power, imagining a new world, mobilizing for class war. Capitalism no longer offers any real hope of a better future. No one believes anymore that "the market" will make us free or that the rich gorging themselves on the fruits of the earth will somehow lead to a better life for us all. All the system can offer is what our leaders have promised: the terror of war and the "war on terror."
Forces are assembling around the world for conflicts that will define the fate of the planet for decades, perhaps centuries to come. A new era has begun, an era of mass mobilization, war, and revolution. Are we ready?
THE STATE OF THE MOVEMENT
Merely a glance at the mobilizations mentioned above suggests some of the weaknesses of the movement, as well as its strengths.
The struggle of the Italian unions, for example, is purely defensive, and the general strike seems to have been intended by union officials as a show of strength and a sop to the members rather than as a serious exertion of working class power designed to strengthen class forces for further struggle; according to press reports, even as they called the strike, labor leaders were already trying to negotiate a compromise with the government by balancing layoffs with a state-run unemployment benefits system. The one-day "rolling" strikes called by German union officials are a means of letting off steam and dividing the workforce by having one auto plant strike at a time. The Venezuelan uprising succeeded in restoring Hugo Chavez to power, but Chavez is a kind of South American caudillo with authoritarian ways who hasn't delivered on his promises to the poor and isn't mobilizing and arming the working classes to defeat elite power; in fact, after the failed coup Chavez called for reconciliation of the classes in Venezuela and acceded to many of the business elite's demands for more power. The April 20 demonstration in Washington, while a significant mobilization, was also defensive. It raised a number of different issues, all of them related, but not tied together in a coherent analysis or in an encompassing vision of fundamental change. While many of its participants surely had a new society in mind, the march did not challenge the legitimacy of the system that produced the problems it was trying to solve, and it did not call for a new society.
THE IRONY OF IT ALL
The demonstrations of the Chinese oil workers of Daqin illustrate the poignant irony of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. They are fighting a Communist government's capitalist privatization policies.
Capitalism and Communism, the two great systems of the twentieth century, locked in mortal combat for 75 years, turn out to have been two sides of the same coin, two different management strategies for controlling people, two different approaches to exploiting workers and raping the environment, two studies in anti-democracy.
The aggressive "free-market" capitalism which the world has been experiencing these last 30 years was undertaken by the world elite in response to the last great revolutionary wave to shake the world. That massive revolutionary upsurge began in the mid-1960s and threatened capitalist and Communist elites around the globe: in Poland and Prague, France and China and the US and Latin America. The revolutions of the day were defeated because they were trapped between the ugly alternatives of capitalism and Communism. For all their revolutionary energy and aspirations, people simply felt that they had nowhere to go, no vision of a new society which they felt confident would escape the existing models of class domination. The world elites–capitalist and Communist–were able to defeat the global revolutionary upsurge and mount a thirty year counteroffensive because the people of the world were disarmed by the lack of an inspiring revolutionary alternative to capitalism. Capitalism triumphed by default, echoing Margaret Thatcher's refrain: "There Is No Alternative."
The lack of a revolutionary alternative to capitalism bought the system time for its thirty-year counteroffensive. Now time has run out.
A REVOLUTIONARY ALTERNATIVE
There is nothing more necessary for the success of popular struggle in the coming years than a worthy revolutionary alternative to aim for. This alternative must inspire confidence that we can create a truly democratic, humanly fulfilling, successfully functioning new society.
There are developments in the struggle in Argentina that bear on this question and which may have great impact on all of us. In the weeks after the popular uprising of December 19-20, people began to meet on street corners in Buenos Aires and elsewhere to consider how to take further action against the corralito– the government decree impounding the bank savings of small savers. These informal meetings led rapidly to the creation of more than fifty popular assemblies in Buenos Aires alone, involving thousands of people, with weekly meetings of an inter-neighborhood assembly.
The concerns of the assemblies moved quickly from the corralito to the economic and political system in Argentina. In another promising development, the assembly movement and the piquetero movement of the unemployed and poor peasants have joined forces. The piqueteros have operated for several years in the countryside, blocking highways with mass sit-ins to pressure the government to provide economic assistance to the poor.
The assembly movement is an important exercise in direct democracy. It is still fragile and at considerable risk of being high-jacked by the unions and political parties of the left. From our admittedly scant knowledge, however, it seems to be exactly the kind of development that can lead to an authentic democratic revolution in Argentina.
The assembly movement faces huge ideological and political obstacles. In every modern revolution people have spontaneously created similar popular assemblies–in the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the French occupations movement of May, 1968 and others. It has been precisely these bodies of popular democracy that the existing regimes have defeated or that emerging elites have suppressed on their way to taking power.
The key obstacle to the success of direct democracy is the belief that ordinary people are not competent to govern society. This belief is not only endemic to capitalist assumptions about people; it is also central to what has been the chief anti-capitalist philosophy--Marxism. Capitalism and communism turned out much the same–as class societies in which a small elite holds the power–because they are based on the same view of people: that human beings, capitalists and workers alike, are driven by self-interest; that economic development is the basis of human development; that economic forces drive history; that elites act, while ordinary people–unless they are thrust onto the stage of history by economic forces beyond their control–are only acted upon.
This view of people can never result in a democratic society. It can only lead to tyranny of one form or another.The moral of the Communist experience is not that "revolutions always turn bad," but that revolutions based on a capitalist view of people always turn bad.
We began New Democracy in 1992 because we felt we had found the basis for a revolutionary alternative to all the existing systems. We had found it not in a text of Marx or Lenin or in some economic or historical theory. We had found it right in front of our faces–-in people's everyday lives. We formed New Democracy to put this new idea of revolution on the popular agenda.
We reasoned that the core of any political vision is its view of people: their values, their aspirations, their strengths and weaknesses, their role in creating the present society and their ability to create a new one.
The starting point of a new, world-wide revolutionary movement is an understanding that ordinary working people are motivated not primarily by self-interest, as capitalism would have it, but by their belief in solidarity and mutual aid; that the everyday struggle of ordinary people to provide for their families and to create supportive human relationships is the source of the good in society—both the material wealth and whatever positive human values may exist within it; that the struggle of ordinary people to humanize the world and to fill it with meaning is the force that drives history; that the class struggle is a struggle over the texture and meaning of human life and of the values that should shape it; that the successful conclusion of the class war requires the revolutionary transformation of society with working class values of solidarity, equality, and democracy.
Ordinary people, it seemed clear to us, already create the basis of a new society in the shell of the old in the best things that they do everyday with their families and friends and co-workers. Creating a new society is not an impossible step into unknown territory but a fulfillment of values and struggles that are already part of our lives.
This positive view of people is the basis of our confidence that direct democracy movements such as that in Argentina can succeed and that people can create a whole new kind of world reflecting a new set of values–the best values that have been in their lives all along.
WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
If revolution is our goal, what are the practical tasks that lie before us now? Here are a few:
–Spread a democratic vision of human beings. Democratic revolution depends on a positive vision of human beings. The most powerful capitalist propaganda is the idea that society is based on selfishness and greed because that's the way people are. The revolutionary movement must reject the capitalist view of human nature for a revolutionary view. This means rejecting elitist assumptions about people–they're racist, sexist, homophobic, stupid, need to be controlled, apathetic, only care about themselves–that are only too common in political movements, and starting instead from a positive view of people's abilities and values.
–Spread solidarity. Capitalism controls people by dividing us into groups and forcing us to compete–in school, on the job, as entire nations. As the system becomes more threatened, government leaders will increasingly turn to war as the ultimate social control. We need to reject competition with other working people and build ties of solidarity within our plants, our offices, our schools, our countries, and between blacks and whites and Latinos, men and women, Arabs and Jews–in short, among all the people whom the ruling elites are trying to divide. We should refuse to fight any war but the class war.
–Expose the system. Behind every important social problem we face lurks the system of class rule. The things that ordinary people face as problems–unemployment, low wages, overwork, poor schools, competition on the job, unaffordable housing, insecure retirements–are in fact solutions for the ruling class: solutions to the elite problem of how to manage us through fear and also make more money. Such problems as high stakes testing and the terrible stress our children face in school are consciously manufactured by the elite to cause students to fail and thereby to reinforce social inequality. We cannot solve these problems within capitalism. We should be constantly showing people in every examination of these problems that capitalism must be destroyed.
–Build independent labor institutions. The unions are dominated by capital and work on behalf of the companies to manage the workforce and keep it divided and demobilized. We need to build Solidarity Committees free of union control which enable workers to spread solidarity, spread the vision, build a revolutionary workers' movement nationally and internationally.
–Spread the conversation. What we believe and say to each other are the keys to building this revolution. Tom Laney, talking about building solidarity among auto workers, says: "People can participate in the solidarity movement without having to travel, go to meetings or write anything on email....People just need to trust their experience and common sense, to take sides, to be on the side of friendship and mutual support.... They only have to defend solidarity in their conversations and everything will change. Everyone will see that the best things they believe in and try to practice in every way they treat others in their families, neighborhoods and workplaces are the values that should be running the show."
–Build New Democracy. New Democracy is the only organization we're aware of – we're eager to find others – promoting this positive view of people and this idea of democratic revolution. The purpose of our organization is to develop and promote this alternative vision of ordinary people, to give us all the clarity and confidence to succeed.
We are a tiny organization which is having a large effect on national debates around education reform, health care, and labor. We need to do much more. To do that, we need your help. We hope you will read the Statement of Principles on our web site and, if you agree with it, become a member. We ask you to buy a subscription to our newsletter and sell subscriptions to your friends. Let friends know about our web site. Get a copy of We CAN Change the World: The Real Meaning of Everyday Life, available for only $9.95, for yourself and a friend. Send a donation to New Democracy, whatever you can afford.
From New Democracy Newsletter, May-August 2002.