A new politics from the left?

A new politics from the left?

By Hilary Wainwright | Amandla! Magazine Issue 58 | 6 August 2018

Can it be achieved from within existing political institutions? Or does it require new sources of power to be built in society and the economy as a base for new political institutions?

The idea of a “new politics” is contested. It has been so since at least the rebellions of the 1960s and the economic crisis of the 1970s. From their different perspectives, radical left and neo-liberal right have struggled to create a new order to replace the post-war settlement of a regulated, “mixed” economy based on a paternalistic nation state, mass production and full employment.

It was the mainstream parties of the right, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, that broke first from that settlement. Their dominant positions enabled them to appropriate many of the half-sewn clothes of an emerging new left. This left was itself a rebellion against the paternalism and narrow horizons of the post-war consensus. In its response, the left either accepted neoliberalism as the de facto new order in the belief that they could manage it more humanely, or positioned themselves defensively as custodians of the old order.

Beneath the radar of mainstream political institutions, however, activists, were often influenced by the earlier new left. They had been taking initiatives in a new direction, experimenting with new principles of organisation. Some were defeated, others marginalised, others incorporated into the dominant neoliberal framework.

What has been revealed through this process, from the feminist movement of the 1970s, through radical trade unionism, community organising and co-operative business experiments, has been the need for new understandings of power and knowledge to help generate a new politics of the left.

These are focused, in particular, on the notion of “power-as-transformative-capacity” (most frequently, the power of civic social change), rather than exclusively pursuing “power-as-domination” (the power conventionally sought by political parties through governmental office).

A new approach to knowledge

This transformative capacity has its roots in the sharing of the practical – and often tacit – knowledge that institutions based on power-as-domination tend not to value. The ruling institutions of the post-war order have tended to presume that the knowledge that matters for government is the professional, science-based expertise of the civil servant.

In contrast, the understanding of knowledge implicit in the new politics of knowledge is that it is both practical and tacit as well as theoretical. In addition also (in contrast to the free market theorists) it is social. This points to forms of collaborative, co-operatively-managed production, in which state institutions at all levels act as facilitators. These institutions would be aware of the limited nature of their knowledge and recognise that they cannot pursue social goals with predictive certainty. Therefore they always need feedback and experiment. Hence the importance of participatory democracy being built into the institutions of a new kind of state and a new kind of party.

This approach underpins a distinct vision of socialism that does not hang on the notion of a centralised, ‘‘all-knowing’’ state. Rather it envisages the state as a facilitator and support for networks of autonomous, collaborative production. These are already being prefigured in the many co-operative, peer-to-peer and social enterprises stimulated by the revolution in information and communication technologies. The need for a new politics is converging with the opportunities (still precarious and contested) now opening up for a new economics.

Rethinking power

Syriza, Greece’s radical left party, was the elected government of Greece. It faced the institutions of the EU and the IMF, which explicitly refused to let elections interfere with existing economic treaties. This was yet another indication that electoral success is an insufficient source of the power – and practical economic knowledge – required to achieve the social transformations that both left parties and social movements desire.

Problems in the relations between parties and movements cannot be resolved by plumping for electoral politics over autonomous social movement activity or vice versa. An adequate strategy involves understanding the relationship between the two, and designing institutions through which to achieve the most effective balance, combining to maximum effect their different sources of power. As many others, I distinguish between two kinds of power.

• On the one hand, there is “power over”, which could also be described as power-as-domination. It involves an asymmetry between those with power and those over whom power is exercised.
• On the other hand, there is “power to”, the power to transform, or power-as-transformative-capacity.

Historically, social democratic and communist parties have been built around a more or less benevolent, paternalist version of the understanding of power-as-domination. Their strategies have been based on winning the power to govern and then steering the state apparatus to meet what they identify as the needs of the people.

The notion of power-as-transformative-capacity emerged out of widespread frustration at the workings of power-as-domination exercised by political parties of the traditional left. The distinctive feature of the rebellions of the 1960s and 70s was that people took power into their own hands. They discovered through collective action that they had capacities of their own to bring about change. These were not simply exerting pressure on the governing party to do something on their behalf. Their approach was more directly transformative. They were turning away from representation as the main focus of radical politics.

The distinction between the two forms of power is central to today’s experimental search for new ways of organising. Older methods, such as mass workplace-based labour organisation, have either been defeated or are inadequate to changed circumstances. At such a time, this distinction helps us to focus on the most appropriate forms of democratic political organisation in a context of extreme fragmentation, precarity and dispersal of working people.

The politics of knowledge: new politics from the left answers the free market right

A central and common theme of the rebellions of the 1960s and 70s involved overturning conventional deference to authority. They broke the bond between knowledge and authority. This break was combined with a pervasive and self-confident assertion of people’s own practical knowledge, as well as their collaborative capacity. It was pitched against the claims of those in authority to know “what people need” and accompanied by an inventiveness about the forms of organisation that would build that capacity.

These movements embarked on an uncertain, experimental process of democratising knowledge. In practice this led them to create (before the internet) decentralised and networked organisational forms. They shared and developed knowledge horizontally and broke from hierarchical models that presume an expert leadership and a more-or-less ignorant membership.

They pioneered these radically democratic approaches to knowledge in the 1960s and 70s. These laid the organisational and cultural foundations underpinning many subsequent civic movements, from the alternative globalisation movement to Occupy and the indignados, and in a cautious and peculiarly British form, the movement stimulated by Jeremy Corbyn.

A new economics for a new politics: converging logics

There is an implication of the fundamental importance of recognising power-as-transformative-capacity. It enables us to think systematically about making collaborative human creativity central to our strategies for new kinds of political institutions. 

There is a shift in emphasis away from the traditional centrality in left thinking on the “nationalisation” of key industries, towards a new collaborative, co-operative economics, in which state institutions play a facilitating and protective role. (This would no doubt involve the public ownership of utilities and infrastructure, though with significant degrees of decentralised management – for example, in energy). So power-as-transformative-capacity applies to production.

Power-as-transformative-capacity arises from both our individual creative capacity and our character as social beings. It rests on the importance of collaborative human creativity. But if collaborative human creativity is fundamental to how we understand political power, this raises questions for how we understand labour and production. Power-as-domination is the basis of capitalist production. The capacity to labour (in effect human energy and creativity) is sold as a commodity from which private shareholders profit. Is this compatible with the idea of citizens working together to transform society (exerting their power-as-transformative-capacity)?

The possibility of an economic transformation is based on treating collaborative human capacity as a common resource to be nurtured and realised for the benefit of all. The increasingly widespread framework of the “commons” can be applied to human creativity, noting its distinctively individual as well as social characteristics.

Human creativity is a necessary condition of the life of many other commons – water, land, knowledge, culture. Though it is individual-centred, it is also socially shaped. Dependent in good part on the nature of education, culture, and the distribution of wealth, it can be nurtured and developed, or suppressed, undeveloped and wasted. Just as natural resources of fundamental importance need protection and nurturing, so it is with human creativity.

ICT and new forms of organisation

There has been a severe weakening of workers’ traditional means of struggling for the dignity of labour and the conditions for collaborative human creativity. At the same time, there are contemporary tendencies that favour a collaborative, co-operative economics. This requires a critical examination of the contradictory consequences of the revolution in information and communication technology (ICT).

The nature of organisation and control around ICT, and the potential of open software and distributed production, is now a highly contested sphere. Leading corporations are successfully monetising and profiting from the voluntary, socially-driven activity of social media users and open software creators. The individualised nature of these creators, and creative users, militates against unionisation. But they are becoming organised as producers, forming co-operatives and other hybrid networks.

They use their high levels of technological understanding and the new ICT tools for connection, co-ordination and collaboration to organise in a productive and sometimes self-protective way. And they are doing so in a manner that is increasingly self-conscious and ethically, sometimes politically, conscious of the new social and economic relations they are creating as they work. Some of those engaged in and analysing these trends argue that a new mode of production is emerging around what they call “commons peer-to-peer production”.

I am not able to make definitive claims as to the systemic importance of these trends. But there is strong evidence that there is a new economic, social and potentially political force at work within this generation of individualised yet collaborative workers in ICT. It has both the potential and the desire to be transformative. Although it lacks the collective power of the traditional working class, it derives a diffuse but significant power from the fact that its skills and knowhow are at the heart of the new forms of capital accumulation, cultural production and communication, and political control and decision-making in a globalised context.

The experience of the collaborative commons as a production model provides living evidence of the possibility of sharing and socialising practical and tacit knowledge. It thereby challenges in practice the entirely individual entrepreneur model of the free market. Indeed, at least three of the eight design principles for managing a common resource set out by the Nobel prize-winning commons theorist, Elinor Ostrom, point to the importance of sharing practical knowledge through systems of participation and collaborative rule making.

The social movements of the 1960s and 70s broke the bond between authority and knowledge and established the social importance of tacit knowledge. Now the ICT revolution has created the conditions for an economy based on collaborative knowledge. In other words, these technological tools for effectively infinite sharing and collaboration created the conditions for power-as-transformative-capacity to be productive.

I want to stress, however, the protective and supportive function of state institutions in this new productive paradigm. Though the trend towards a sharing economy seems unstoppable, the social and economic form it takes is by no means certain. For these reasons, the state and politics are important in both challenging the corporate appropriation of collaborative human creativity and in creating material conditions for such creativity to thrive (for example, a basic, universal citizens income). 

Imagining the institutions of a new politics

After decades of failed attempts at rethinking / renewing / refounding, it is necessary to step back and take a long run at the challenge. This takes us as far back as theories of knowledge and the way they underpinned post-war ideologies.

These theories still influence the ways of thinking that animate the left and weaken the processes of renewal. For instance, there is a presumption that socialist planning is about centralising knowledge about production. Therefore a left party is about winning national office to take control of the commanding heights of the economy. This presumption still influences many left activists. Movements are understood as the foot soldiers of the election process, in exchange for which the party voices their demands.

By contrast, the notion of strategy and organisation that flows from my understanding of knowledge and of the individualised but also collaborative nature of creativity, sees the party as more of an outrider. It is a base for experiment and capacity building, rather than simply a means of winning electoral office.

It acts more as a catalyst to building power-as-transformative-capacity in the here and now, than as an army bent on capturing the citadels of power in the future. What are the practical implications of this for how a new kind of party is organised? Its work would need to be rooted in daily production and reproduction. Its task becomes to build and realise citizens’ capacities for self-government and social and economic transformation.

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