Thursday 31 December 2009

The Noughties – The Decade of the People on the Hillsides

Commentators will find many obvious ways of summing up the last decade but the phenomenon of the Noughties, in my view, has been the rise and spread of left-wing governments in South America.

From Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Evo Morales in Bolivia, these governments have inevitable flaws, their reforms often modest and the privileges of the old elites remain incredibly difficult to dislodge, but they are undeniably rooted in the genuinely popular power of the streets. In 2002, it was the poor from the barrios overlooking the Venezuelan capital Caracas who descended on the city to defend their democratically elected president after a US-backed military coup. In Bolivia, indigenous peasants and out of work miners descended from the poverty of the El Alto suburbs into La Paz to protest at the fire-sale of the country’s resources. In 2005, it was they that elected in a landslide victory Bolivia’s first ever indigenous president in the 470 years since the Spanish conquest.

But something else changed too: as John Pilger observes in his 2007 film The War on Democracy, “history is crowded with heroes who offer new beginnings. The respectability of great power and its games and deals and plunder always beckon. If these new leaders succumb, their biggest threat may not be from Washington, but from the people on the hillsides.”

Perhaps there is something peculiar to a continent that has suffered so much interference from outside (and in Chile’s case, outright fascism) that has created the conditions for South America’s democratic decade. Those who come down from the hills have demanded not only economic justice but also the return of the governance of their countries from tiny minorities who ruled for their own gain and in the interests of multinational corporations and US foreign policy. But a similar condition exists across the world. In Europe – in the UK – economic injustice may not be in any way as stark as faced by the poor of Caracas or La Paz, but the neoliberal experiment has been just as advanced.

And people, too, feel as distant from Westminster as they ever have. Yet in the aftermath of the MPs expenses scandal, a financial crisis that has seen little structural change in the way the banks operate and a heightened awareness that, in war, we are little more than a suzerainty of the greater American empire, it is depressing to realise this. In Britain, we are about to elect early in a new decade another right-wing government – possibly one even more right-wing than the privatisation-loving, corporation-friendly, Washington-obsessed governments of the Noughties.

So why are things so much more dispiriting? Is it that Britain has no people on the hillsides? Or is it that just there is nothing to inspire anyone to bother descending them for?

Another remarkable change over the last ten years has been how ‘anti-capitalism’ has become a recognised stand of political debate, a counter to the assumed invincibility of neoliberal dominance. We have travelled a long way since Seattle in 1999 and the global financial crisis and the threat of catastrophic climate change has added much weight to anti-capitalist arguments.

But we haven’t come as far as we sometimes might like to think. There is no recognisable ‘anti-capitalist movement’, more a disparate gathering of single issue groups, a dwindling number of advocates for the creation of ‘new worker’s parties’ and the occasional self-publicist. There is, nevertheless, a buzz of ideas, but these are still far from centre stage. In many ways this should be a surprise: debating the merits of and alternatives to the free market are no longer abstract discussions about the rights of individuals to buy a particular car or a pair of jeans, but about whether markets have been busy selling financial instruments that basically don't exist or whether governments have the right to sell our hospitals and schools to the highest bidder.

The political terrain was always going to be hard going but I think the problem often lies with us: with our inability to work together, to see the common enemy, to stop sniping at each other, to prevent ourselves becoming sidelined into ploughing enormous energy into the election of fundamentally flawed, unaccountable characters like George Galloway. More than anything else, it is about sometimes being unclear about what exactly we are against and what alternative we want to see – in the short term, as well as the distant future. So we oppose war because war is bad and about oil, speaking nowhere nearly enough in straightforward terms about American empire and war’s bounty for multinational business. We oppose climate change, arguing that market solutions will not work but finding the message that neoliberalism is an intractable barrier to carbon reduction is drowned out by the NGO messages calling for governments to ‘do the right thing’ (and then end up thinking that summit battles with the police are still some sort of victory).

And I also think we have a tendency to celebrate the successes of South America for their own sake, without seeing what lessons they may give to communities on our doorsteps. The victories of the people on the hillsides, the organisation of social movements of South America, are inspirations, not a reason to abandon political activism in Britain in despair (as some friends have already done).

But what about the short term? More collaboration, certainly, less scepticism about its likely outcome and for me, a very big step. I’ve never been a fan of electoral politics but willing to concede this. If, in my lifetime, politicians evolve out of a movement to defend the interests of unions, the working class and campaigning organisations, stand for and win elections on an explicitly anti-capitalist platform in opposition to both the mainstream political parties and the far right and then understand that if they succumb to compromise and the trappings of power, their biggest threat will come from the people on our hillsides, then I’d be happy. It would, at least, be a great leap forward.

How we reach even these dizzy heights is a matter for the next decade. Tonight is for marking the passing of the old, which for me means a few bottles of Singha and a plate of spicy noodles. Wherever my friends are, I hope they too have a very happy New Year.


HarpyMarx said...

Very good post Kevin,

"There is no recognisable ‘anti-capitalist movement’, more a disparate gathering of single issue groups, a dwindling number of advocates for the creation of ‘new worker’s parties’ and the occasional self-publicist."

There's been the relative success of Die Linke in Germany, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France and Left Bloc in Portugal. So why not here rather than the many left groupings operating in their own political vacuum with their own brand of sectariania? And there are more left groupings now than before 1997….. And most have floundered at the first hurdle. But what I will say is that the Labour Left has been a constant fixture while other groups have floundered. But it is about organising...

I think you are right about the 'buzz of ideas' but it is about bringing them together in some form of an alliance. People will be under attack whoever gets in whether it is the Tories or a hung parliament. One thing what we can do, parliamentary wise, is canvass for people who do represent the interests of the working class, however much they will be in a minority we should be working to get them re-elected/elected.

The PCS union has the campaign 'Make Your Vote Count' which questions PPCs about their views on public services, privatisation and so on. And we have to be organised to stop the fascists....

2010 is gonna be a tough year and very tough decade.

Kevin said...


This has been rattling around in my head for a while. I think we are all guilty of assuming the ill-will of 'comrades' will lead to the inevitable failure of greater collaboration, not least because it has often involved some grand strategy that one or other grouping, without fail, feels is important enough to want to control - not through the weight of argument, but through securing key positions and having the keys to the petty cash tin.

It is so easy to be cynical - I know, I'm terrible. But even though we disagree about the Labour Left, it is just so obvious that having John McDonnell - and Salma Yacoub and Caroline Lucas - in Parliament would be better than not having them there (I just wanted to say that out loud!)

It's also obvious that there are loads of us who want to be part of a movement towards socialism that doesn't involve the need to join a political party. But it would be great to feel part of a decentralised left bloc in Britain that operates informally at a personal and individual but largely disorganised level anyway.

Although I disagree with almost all of his Leninist politics, ex-SWPer Alex Snowdon has talked about the idea of a 'collective left-wing website' (see - the comments are interesting too). I think this would be a good start and I still think Red Pepper should get off its backside and provide this.

There is a lot to learn from Die Linke and the Left Bloc. I really need to find out more.

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