3 Responses

  1. Steve Bloom November 12, 2013 at 5:10 pm |

    Williams’s caution that we should not counterpose things that ought not be counterposed is, of course, reasonable. And it did seem to me that there was a bit of that in Ross’s piece. It is a common mistake in debates on the left and it’s important for us to avoid it.

    But then Williams commits the same error: “What institutions or social power has the motivation and influence to transform society? Is it time banks, urban gardening and workers’ co-ops? Or mass strikes, giant demonstrations and the taking of state power?”

    Why not engage on both fronts? Why is it one or the other?

    In the past many counterposed the strategy of taking power to the strategy of prefiguration, on both sides of that equation. Many still do. I have come to the conclusion, however, that this is a theoretical error–especially now in the context of the environmental crisis. I say that about the present moment for a variety of reasons that I will not go into here because it would make this comment longer than I want it to be. For now let me simply state my opinion: prefiguration in the form of things like time banks, urban farms and workers’ coops can be a contribution to the process by which we prepare the mass movement to take power. They can also help create the social conditions where it actually becomes possible for an alternative power to take shape, not to mention doing something in the here and now to address the ecological crisis. (We cannot, after all, just sit back and wait for the revolution from that point of view.) Yes, we do still have to talk about taking power and aim in that direction. But it is not all we have to talk about or aim at.

    I disagree with Chris when he writes: “The vast majority of people, for a host of reasons, cannot ‘prefigure’ the future society. What they can do, is take part in struggle.” Our program should be more imaginative than that. Why not, for example, develop the idea of urban farms connected to food coops in every community so that everyone in those communities can participate in a prefigurative process? Surely that is not utopian or impossible. (There are already CSAs in many or most communities, at least here in New York City.) Why can’t traditional labor unions be in the forefront of those forces attempting to create such institutions? Why can’t that be part of the perspective revolutionary-minded activists bring to discussions in their unions?

    Our broad program for the labor movement today already includes a reduction in the work week. Why not, then, begin talking about the idea that time spent working on urban farms or in food coops, with appropriate compensation in the form of discounted prices or a share of what is produced, might become a generalized alternative to time presently spent in more alienated labor earning traditional wages, making it extremely attractive on a mass scale? Why can’t unions or religious congregations or other such groups of people sponsor housing cooperatives that would be constructed on ecological principles, offering units at below-market rates because they could be not-for-profit enterprises? How about skill-sharing websites that include things like child-care, elder-care, and housekeeping services? Why not community pantries and kitchens that would promote an eco-friendly diet, composting and other forms of recycling? Such social institutions could be created by people themselves, acting through whatever collective formations already exist, not requiring any state authorization and before we take power. Developing this list, and beginning to actually create such institutions, requires only that we–that is the anti-capitalist, class-struggle oriented and ecological left–start to devote some attention to it as a conscious project. This should not be counterposed to traditional forms of mass struggle leading to insurrection. All we have said in the past about the need for this and how to get there remains true. But there is an additional truth that also needs to be recognized today.

    If it is correct to say that right now most people do not have the opportunity to engage in projects of this nature that is a difficulty we can do something about. Our goal should be to make it not only possible, but a normal part of life for the vast majority of people to help prefigure the future eco-friendly socialist society we envision. That would transform their consciousness and it would transform the social conditions in which our present struggle is taking place.

    Yes, I believe there are strategic differences between the perspective that Williams and Ross present, related to this and other questions. But they are strategic differences that we should try to see as complimentary rather than contradictory. Let’s avoid a conversation in which there is any suggestion that the movement as a whole has to decide which is “the priority.” It is true that individuals need to make choices about what areas to be engaged in. No one person or organization can do everything. But I tend to think that most individuals and most groups will naturally be inclined toward one side of this duality or the other, setting priorities based on that preference. The movement as a whole should promote an atmosphere in which all of the positive choices made by any group or individual are welcomed by all, even if it is not the choice we ourselves might make. (Excluded from this should only be the truly negative practices of the environmental NGOs that both Williams and Ross seem clearly to be aware of.)

    Steve Bloom

  2. Tord Björk November 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm |

    Really interesting on movement strategy bringing the discussion a lot more forward than Chris first contribution. With Mikes comment one wonders if there is any difference left between the two contributions. That would be if Sasha and Mike are of the same opinion, priority should be given to local and regional struggles, “which is were the rubber meets the road”.

    So is there no time when priority should be given to global struggle? Were they wrong 1890 when a global international action day was called for with the demand 8 hour working day? Of course not, priority to local and regional and local struggle is creating stupid unnecessary contradictions.

    Is not the global action day against the Iraq war another good example on the need for global struggle. I would say it was a disaster far beoynd the hsitrical necessity and objective pssotibilties, not because of the global character, (although wrongly overestimated, 1st of May is the most succesful international action day, not the one time event in 2003). But for another reason. The political content was devastating narrow. While in the 1960s people in common refused to look upon the Vietnam war as an issue connected to economic realities like the global financial system enabling US to get money financing the war it was the opposite in 2003, people in common understood often that it was a war for oil. But according to the least common denominator tactic so much used by selfstiffling leftist pragmatics the opportunity to bridge the antiglobalization movement with its foucus on economics with the environmental movement with its focus on energy politics and oil the lasting mass movement opportunity was lost.

    Likewise is 350.org doing today when blocking the global justice movement from starting a global struggle against green economy/carbon trading/neoliberal environmental politics. Sasha seems to not be interested in global struggles challenging neoliberal politics here and now, only a wide array of local and regional concerns that one day might end up in something wider. Chris seems not interested either in spite of claiming to have another position, at least not on any concrete level. he states:

    “We need to do so resting on the basis of the antithesis of capitalist values. Namely: cooperation in place of competition; production for human need, not for profit, which means a sustainability ethic for production stretching seven generations into the future, and based on real, bottom-up, democratic decision making from the smallest, most local level on up. A society where humans see their self worth reflected in the relationships they establish with each other and the natural world, rather than the commodities they can buy.

    Only a global revolution, jumping from country to country, carried out by the vast majority of the world’s population, stands any chance of bringing about such a radically changed society, one which sets humanity and nature onto a socially just and ecologically benign course. That is a vision worth fighting for.”

    Here we have visions and values, but not a concrete struggle which becomes part of the daily struggle here and now. So we have one part saying everything starts from below (and primarily by pre figurative politics?) and local/regional and theo other saying we have to be pragmatic and see how 350.org develops while at the same time claim we have an ideoligcally advanced ideas to challenge capitalism building a national organization on anti capitalist values.

    The option excluded both by Sasha and Chris is the third option, global struggle for concrete demands and not only values, demands like agroecology the way Via Campesina does globally and just transition of fishery, forestry, transport, energy, industry etc. the way it is done by trade unions in South Africa together with environmentalists are doing or in Denmark. In Copenhagen the System Chnange not climate change declaration was approved by 50 000 people at Klimaforum09. The network that organized the forum continued. They have been able to get cooperation between main stream trade unions and small groups of fishermen, peasant and ecological groups. The initiator of Klimaforum09 was Permaculture international, not any anticapitalist group. It is not at all necessary to state you have to be against capitalism to become a movement that make something of interest for people in their daily liufe that not only put forward ideas about different values but also something more tangible. Green transition give jobs is the message from the alliance in Denmark. Is not the challenge to see how the struggle in Wisconsin against the attack on trade unions can be tied with the climate justice struggle rather than stating that the starting point is 350.org pragmatism in connection with idological anti capitalist avantgarde.

    A week ago Scandinavian environmentalist and trade unionists met in Malmö. Most of us see capitalism as a way to understand the root cause behind the simultaneous destruction of both the welfare state and nature, yet what we organize are campaigns with demands concerning climate change (in Sweden 40 organization against carbon trading among other things and just transition) while national and hopefully now more internationally demanding green transition to get jobs by a just transition of both industry and countryside economics. Of course we are positive towards intellectual analysis about capitalism and some write also like Asbjörn Wahl, chair of the International transport workers union climate committe.

    In the world of Sasha such things seems to not exist and if they do they are wrong, a main stream trade union can by definition not be interesting as it works on the global level. And for Chris living in this odd part of the world called the US it seems also outside reality, what is necessary is to challenge values, if there is already a concrete programme made by a global trade union which is now used in several Scandinavian countries and probably elsewhere maybe it is below the radar because it is not primarily stating capitalism as the main problem.

    But is it not about time to see that the US kind of single issue mass mobilization with couragues civil disobedience is at the end of the road. The civil right movment failed to develop any economic agenda, the environmental Earth Day was completly interwoven with corporate strategies and some ecofascism and the anti nuclear movement never was able to go beyond this limitations either nor the short lived Seattle protests. What is needed is not only pragmatic mass civil disobedience made holy. Pragmatic acclamation of what is a mass movemnt as by definition good is bad. Out of it does not necessarily something good come. It is not one more single issue mass protest movement nor one more ideological left wing avantgarde we need but a local, regional, national and international/transnational movement making resistance and promoting comnstructive solutions at the same time which challenge the present development model. This is what is going on in many parts of the world like when envrionmentalist and trade union cooperate for 1 million climate jobs in South Africa while at the same time supporting local struggle or in Brazil were Via Campesina struggle for a people’s project against corporate wpoer is a lot more advanced. There is a world outside the US, maybe some lessons could be drawn from there?

    Tord Björk

    Coordinator of global climate action days 1991-92 which was opposed by US global NGO groups like Climate action network as we claimed that the global struggle is based upon local conflicts and connected 500 places in 70 countries in these actions, a memory lost in the US and left wing dominated history writing of the movement. Since then the US NGO tactics and left wing opportunism as SWP in London have destroyed any attempts at calling for radical climate justice action days building on trust in local groups to make their own definition of the issue. Instead in practice a neoliberal agenda was promoted. Demands against carbon trading were excluded. Challenging the development model by stating local action or popular movemnts as the main historical agentand has been replaced by call for world leaders to do something. Triumph of the will of Trostkyism a la London and 350.org.

    Also international contact person for System change not climate change declaration in Copenhagen 2009 (which acknowledged the need of translocal alliances among direct producers like workers, fishermen, small peasants etc and did not limit itself to claims about the local against the larger levels). Opposing left wing domination of attempts to state anticapitalism as the main ideology for the whole movemnt as long as I have been active and seen so many attempts in this direction turned into intellectual careers and failed movements, always positive to discussions about capitalism in the movement as well as other oppressive ideologies and ways to organize society (racism, patriarchy, antirural bias etc).

  3. Mike October 3, 2013 at 6:37 pm |

    With this: “where Ross begins to talk about back-to-the-land movements of the late ‘60’s or the BoggsCenter in Detroit as examples we should look to for inspiration and emulation, I believe we do have strategic differences,” you may be finding “strategic differences” where none exist. Unless you are privy to other information about Ross that readers of his response are not…

    In any case, Ross’ response gives no indication that he follows a “prefigurative” (autonomist) strategy. All of his preceeding words and examples indicate that Ross proposes a grass-roots, mass- movement building strategy to challenge the power of the rulers, which incorporates initiatives like the Boggs Center. And, as the Greek workers who took over and ran the state television station showed, or as the workers at Republic Windows showed, or as the Black Panthers showed, such tactical initiatives have a vital role to play in the context of a growing and radicalizing social movement.

    Such initiatives play a quadruple role within a revolutionary strategy. They can certainly “prefigure” the type of grassroots democratic participation we champion. They can even offer some relief to the economic calamity faced by the most oppressed. They can empower participants to act collectively to challenge the capitalists and their state. And they can provide organizing centers and spaces, which have been progressively closed off to us under the neoliberal juggernaut.

    Where you do have a difference is on the issue of the role and trajectory of 350.org, and the relative place of local and national organizing. And here, both of you have valid arguments. First, any successful effort to challenge capital must have national and even international coordination and a national and international scope. The movement may not initially have this coordination and scope, but it must build toward it. But, none of this precludes a priority on local and regional struggles, which are where the rubber meets the road.

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