Whither Social Movement: Exploring Problematique and Action Strategy: Soumitra Ghosh

04 July 2015
In today’s context of intensifying attacks of capital on the lives and livelihoods of people and growing people’s resistance, this paper was put forward for a wider discussion by the author, who is a social and mass movement activist working among the forest communities of North Bengal. The views are entirely his own. – RS Editorial Board

The Context

One of the biggest and most visible problems plaguing the anti-capitalist social movements of today is the statist framework which conditions, shapes and governs their thoughts and actions. Thus the political praxis which should ideally be moored in a post-capitalist (hence post-state) vision of society, is seldom reached, and the movements are stuck in the morass of extremely limited actions informed by their purely normative and emotive thoughts about how the present society should function. The war-cry of justice is aired, millions take to the street demanding it, yet this ‘justice’ is rarely explained in terms of the real and the grounded. It is taken for granted that the state will be transformed from its overtly pro-capital avatar to a more radical one by this means or another because the movements want it to change: what is forgotten that history has seen hundreds of experiments with such ‘changed’ states—each one of which failed in the long run, and led to a more coercive rule of capital.

Also, today’s social movements are non-violent and democratic, which in reality means that they prefer working within the framework of parliamentary democracy, and where that is absent, fight for it. Once again, the history of the institution of parliamentary democracy is forgotten: willy-nilly, it’s ignored that historically—more so going by today’s neo-liberal situation—such democracy is intrinsically linked with capitalist production systems and the hegemony of capital in both our societies and polities.

This belief in ‘democracy’ assumes a belief in the so-called democratic state—one guesses that this is largely due to the prevalence of welfare capitalism in the post 2nd world war era; it offered(to a greatly altered extent—still does in some parts of the world) mitigation of the more poignant excesses of capitalist profiteering in terms of glorifying and protecting labour, instead of brutally exploiting it, which in turn translated to increased wages for all, an all-encompassing social security net and so on. Though for the left, true democracy was only achieved when the state mutates to its socialist avatar, the institutional left operating within the democratic state systems started believing in it. In time, this naïve belief killed it—the trade union movements were the first victims. Capital mutated to the post-modern or the neo-liberal, the manufacturing sector was gradually dismantled and its centralized production processes disbursed all over the globe, and as to even the core rationale of capitalism’s being, its unbridled profiteering, it depended more on the little-understood and often obtuse hokey-pokey of speculations in the finance capital sector.

Because capital mutated, the state mutated too, and the grand dream of a sustainable capitalism held perpetually in check perished—none but the government leaders and the international institutions comprising them remotely talk about it these days, and nobody believes in it any more, with the un fortunate exceptions of social movements. Among social movements, we do not include corporation-style NGOs which serve the capital and help it in its corporate social responsibility tasks, or those which the state overtly and covertly floats or supports. By social movements here we mean only those movements and groups which critique the neo-liberal profiteering and the state’s mutated role as a crony supporting and facilitating that.

The Problematique

Do the social movements have a problematique at all? If defensive manoeuvres against various forms of neo-liberal aggressions occupy most of their time, and if such defence comes mostly in seeking reliefs from the state(demanding ‘justice’ in abstraction as well as legislative reforms and judicial action) as well as various international bodies like the UN and the world bank, how could the movements be expected to frame the problematique of how the capitalist production system has to be challenged, and a credible alternative has to be posited?

Doing both of the above means doing away with the belief in state and international bodies as a dispenser of justice in bulk and abstraction and also in small doses over for a longish period of time—it needs to be understood that nothing but profit matters any longer—capitalism as a political system has embarked on a death-run of self-destruction; it can neither regulate nor mutate itself in a way which will help or favour the toiling people, the victims of state-capital aggression. Small reliefs can be possible in states which are relatively weak and the movements are in a political position to influence it—but even those reliefs prove transitory if the state is expected to safeguards those: pro-people legislative reforms can be taken back, a progressive policy can turn regressive with a change in the government.

When we say that capitalism has embarked on a course of self-destruct, we do not attach any time-frame to it. This can still take a long time, depending on the system’s capacity to survive the insurmountable challenge of climate change and also, the resistance from its victims, both nature and human societies. Neither nature nor labour can be appropriated ad infinitum, nor can all resistances be perpetually co-opted or subjugated. Mitigation and adaptation are possible only to a given extent—after that the fall is bound to come.

However, because all these are still in the future, and the movements need something more tangible than a faith in history, they tend to look forward to reliefs: from coercion, from poverty, from displacement and natural disasters. Working endlessly on a defensive-relief mode sap the movements of the capacity of effective political reasoning—sometimes they simply fail to create a long term vision for themselves and the society at large, and sometimes the necessity of the moment exhausts them. Thus, such movements keep on living, praxis-wise, in a de-historicized and de-contextualized vacuum, in a besieged present that refuses to end. This creates desperation, out of which three possible results emerge: 1. The movements become staunchly relief-centric, which, whether they like it or not, make them more dependent on state. The final expression of this, politically speaking, is such movements’ becoming active participants in a parliamentary democracy governed by capital and its crony state, preceded by the belief that they can usher in ‘systemic’ changes by contesting elections, 2. Organizationally and politically, the movements start suffering from an inertia, and ultimately lose its resistant edge, and 3. An outright rejection of non-violent democratic form of movement and organization in favour of covert armed insurrection.

Among the three, the last merits a discussion here—this can take various forms and shapes starting from the slightly dated leftist guerrillas to globally more widespread ethnic and religious armies. In many cases, failure to obtain desired relief within the parliamentary democracy framework leads to emergence of such movements. However, except the leftist forces (for instance, the Maoists in India), other armed insurrections have often no ( or very limited) political goal vis-à-vis changing the resent status quo comprising capital and state—mostly it’s a question of controlling key(commercially profitable) natural resources (for instance, in middle-east), and seizure of state power(in some cases, creation of new nation-states/autonomous regions). Even in the case of leftist forces, the insurrection is projected as a revolutionary war that aims at seizing state power, and replacing the capitalist state with a revolutionary republic. Once again, history has taught us enough lessons about how such republics of the past had functioned. Not going into the details, it can be said that mere seizure of power by an armed group of people can never be taken as an example of transformative politics, we have to learn from what actual changes had taken place in the production systems, and more importantly, how durable those changes were.

The Importance of Framing the Problematique

Unless and until the right problematique is framed/found, the movements of anti-capitalist resistance cannot be expected to act as effective agents in bringing in social and political transformation. Short-term or immediate goal sets will not sustain the movements, if they fail to situate themselves within the larger political context. For the purposes of our discussion here, this larger political context is not limited to the present time-space, it is something that has to understood through dialectical reasoning, by encompassing the follies/achievements/lessons of the past and the challenges/probabilities of the future. Rather than emotive and normative, it has to be realized in an unbiased objective manner, even it means no immediate relief, and has promises hidden deep inside only of a murky and apparently uncertain future.

Our hypothesis is that the movements have to consciously distance themselves from the lure of operating within a ‘known’ present, which contains capital, state and the immediate resistance. Because, in its present capitalist form, parliamentary democracy cannot bring durable social changes, the problematique has to include the state in its entirety, which in turn includes parliamentary democracy, and also its known post-capitalist revolutionary variants, largely rejected by history. The present state has to be envisaged as it is, a political and institutional expression of capital and/or totalitarian economic control.

Only when we have the right problematique, a right praxis can be hoped for: an understanding of the political context will guide a movement’s political programme and action strategy. If the movements have to move away from state-centrism and the capitalist project; it has to start thinking of non-state and non-capitalist spaces still surviving in our midst; along with defending and strengthening those, they have to posit, coherently, more such spaces, where the movements can survive and flourish, and ultimately, unleash the true and free productive power of the masses. If the capitalist project has to be opposed, the non-capitalist, non-state spaces created and defended by the movements have to posit socialized production systems instead of securing private property. These systems have to be outlined and defined adequately to be suitable for practice within the framework of a generally regressive, often increasingly right-wing, state and an invasive market economy.

Building a Utopia?

Given the current level of dominance and visibility of capital, a socialized production system functioning within the market economy framework might sound paradoxical and utopian. However, the success of social movements depends on their capacity to show/establish/defend various models of socialization of the means of production, and an economy which is based neither on private property nor state subsidies. According to the present hypothesis, the movements knowingly or unknowingly defend/practice a non-capitalist, often post-capitalist system of economy. Hence, these cannot be defined or categorized in terms of typical trade union movements, which had got stuck in the somewhat hopeless economism of endless wage negotiations with capital and state; in the neo-liberal era trade union practices can at best raise a pitched demand for a return to a more humane and welfare face of capitalism. And this sounds more utopian than our hypothesis of establishing socialized/non-capitalist production systems, and putting nature and human labour at the center of those systems instead of profit. Which means decisively and consciously moving away from the orthodox framework of wage-profit and labour-capital while arriving at the praxis: today’s wage workers—being consistently rejected and undermined by the neo-liberal—should not limit themselves to demand a share of capitalist profit in form of increased wages, but take the battle inside the core grid of capitalism and become the owners of the means of productions wherever possible. As capital moves away from the tangible manufacturing sector and the task of producing ‘productive assets’ to the intangible and virtual economy of software-driven high frequency stock trading and various forms of speculative trading in financial derivatives, the manufacturing sector economy itself can be taken over and rebuilt by the erstwhile wage workers and small and primary producers like peasants, artisans, forest dwellers, coastal and mountain communities. There is no point in endlessly demanding relief/incentives/subsidies from a state which is increasingly losing whatever regulatory powers it had over capital.

In essence, we are talking about a transcendence here, not only of both economy and society but also in the objectives and forms of anti-capitalist movements: what we say call for a continuous and focussed action that will resist capitalist invasion of the surviving social/communal production systems and also create, bit by bit, piece by piece, new self-supported socialized systems. What are now small and sporadic islands of resistance will thus be linked, without affecting or destroying the distinctive nature of each island—thus the essential plurality of ground level actions will not be compromised and yet there will be a whole. The fragments will remain fragments and yet coalesce politically with a shared vision of a society and economy transformed.

Challenges to the Hypothesis: State’s Response and Engagements with It

Given the present organizational state of social movements as well as more orthodox versions of anti-capitalist movements like trade unions and the institutional/party left, can we reasonably expect such a convergence and reorientation of anti-capitalist movements?

Several pertinent questions can be raised about the practicality of the hypothesis we are trying to build. What, for instance, will the state do as the movements embark on the collective task of transforming the capitalist society? Will or will not the affected millions of wage workers and the jobless, the displaced and the threatened peasants and other nature-dependent communities be protected by the state against the predatory capital? Will or will not the movements demand state protection any longer? Can the state, with its centralized bureaucracy, and in many places, increasingly stronger military apparatus, be dismantled and replaced by voluntary confederations of independent collectives of free producers? Will the inter-movement solidarity be potent enough to resist both state and capital?

Because we are attempting here only a hypothetical construct, all such questions cannot be possibly answered. Let us however, tackle a few. How will state respond to a movement which it cannot assess nor bring to a negotiation framework? It depends largely on whether the state in question is aware of the political design of the movements and feels threatened by it. One can come across many instances of movements which could successfully evade more brutal and coercive kind of state response for decades through a judicious mix of common sense and a objective analysis of the nature of the state. That the state might be on the warpath against non-violent democratic movements has to be a given; at no point of time, the state can be taken for granted. However, even in the neo-liberal crony capitalist era, the relationship between state and capital in various societies is neither homogenous nor linear; and despite great military-bureaucratic centralization, not all states remain perpetually strong. If movements could assess the state’s points of political vulnerability (there can be many), an effective strategy of engaging with the state can be formulated without compromising the political objectives.

Will or will not the affected millions of wage workers and the jobless, the displaced and the threatened peasants and other nature-dependent communities demand protection by the state against the predatory capital? This, once again, is treacherous ground—the question pre-supposes the existence of a munificent state in the line of the ‘king shall deliver justice’. We have seen strong trade union and social movements crippling themselves with the belief that negotiations with the state can keep on delivering justice for the communities they represent—one good legislation or a good judicial order(by ‘good’ we here mean something that offer protection against neo-liberal aggression) has been interpreted as tokens of the political will of state. It is important to remember that today’s state is a capitalist tool of potentially coercive governance; it can offer effective protection only to the capitalist system and not its victims. We do not say that making demands to state or seeking judicial redress will be altogether redundant strategies—saying this will be premature. Such actions form (and will continue to form) intrinsic parts of the interim strategy of many movements for years to come. It needs only to be seen that movements develop a deep strategy as well so that they are nor left with an action deficit when such strategies fail or backfire. Also, such interim strategies should be specifically informed by the movements’ long-term political strategy; the ‘interim’ should be strictly taken as interim.

For the time being we won’t take up the question of military challenge from state, and the possibilities of retaliatory violence by movements. We envisage the future collective/s of movements as an open process, which learns from past mistakes, including its own and is flexible enough to be adaptive to the challenges as they surface. Learning a few lessons from the history, we only refuse to succumb to the apparent lure of revolutionary violence as the sole means of effecting social transformation. The important thing is to politically define the revolution, in concrete terms, and to visualize the nature of post-revolutionary societies. The so-called socialist models we had in the past will not work anymore; we have to build new and working models not in the post-revolutionary future but in today’s challenged present. Violence and non-violence are questions of localized strategy which movements themselves will decide.

Challenges to the Hypothesis: the Question of Surplus Production

In our hypothesis, we talk of defending/building post capitalist socialized production systems. How will this be achieved within the framework of capitalist market economy? This poses by far the biggest challenge to the hypothesis: in order to survive economically, the social/communal property regimes the movements defend/build have to engage with the market. This means entering into various monetary and non-monetary interactions with an economy that thrives on individual greed and private profiteering, and has to produce surplus. How can the two production systems—socially and politically opposed—coexist?

As yet, we don’t have a single answer to this. Several models have been attempted from time to time: small producers’ guilds to counter the monopoly rule of big corporations(for instance farmers’ guilds), co-operatives by artisans and workers, forest and agricultural commons that produce its own food/building implements and sell the surplus to generate revenue to support health, education and a range of other welfare programmes.

The really important thing here is the issue of surplus production and distribution: the irony of the situation lies in the fact that many successful social property regimes today work and survive because of the surplus they produce and sell in the open market to generate monetary revenue. Wherever there is a surplus that can be sold as marketable commodity, there has to be an owner who controls the production of the surplus—how can the entire community own it, particularly in a market economy? With huge sums of money are at stake, will not the ownership of the surplus and the control over production relations turn into major discordant issues over time and enhance(or create) new inequalities and disparities even in a true commons situation? Will not the market take over and create a new class of privileged people? Talking of India, these questions become doubly relevant when we look at the present state of the diverse spectrum of communal properties that continue to exist to this day — communal rights and ownership are now often conterminous with rights of selling community-held resources in the marketplace. The market has found an ally in the financially mobile elite (clan leaders, village chiefs) within the community and the result is not only environmental degradation but also growing class differences within the erstwhile ‘community’.

It is a moot question how usable values turn into ‘surplus values’, and for how long such values can remain separate in a situation where market continues to dominate. One answer might be development of local markets or participating in larger markets under communal supervision. Another answer might be outright rejection of outside market altogether. Both of these can be practised simultaneously, if the movements in question remain politically and collectively awake to the dangers posed by market economy, and at the same time do not ignore the practical question of food and livelihood security.

Perhaps there is no single answer to questions, doubts and paradoxes that proliferate as new struggles emerge and newer forms of movements come into being. Despite many ideological confusions and clear and present dangers of both co-option and repression, social movements for establishing commons/socialized production systems as an alternative to capitalism and class oppression must be projected and championed.

Challenges of Organization Building and Organizational Strategy

One could broadly differentiate social movements from the orthodox institutional left by a general absence of centralized structure and declared vanguardism in decision-making. Movements at the grassroots as well as their alliance formations have diverse organizational entities, most of which lack coherent organizational strategies at all. Movements often tend to be depend more on spontaneous mobilization and individual charismatic leaders than methodical organization building. That the movements remain silent on how the diverse and extremely localized resistances will reorient themselves as catalysts of social and political change beyond their niche focus and geographic boundaries has much to do with the absence of organizational structures. Even in cases where such movements have a perspective on state and capital (as in Occupy), the inherently anarchic and a-structured mode of organizational functioning dissipates the political momentum and hinders the movement as a whole. Also, how will the large majority of movements without clearly expressed long-term objectives (such as the local struggles for reclaiming the commons) come together and coalesce politically? What will be the organisational process followed that will retain the local nature of such struggles and yet be effective beyond the local level?

The organizational process of any mass movement and its politics feed each other. Objectives of radical socio-political changes become ineffective in absence of an adequate organizational process that can identify issues, take up specific programmes and implement those in a time bound manner. Unfortunately, the organizational process of most movements do not yet correspond to definitive political objectives: even movement alliances of a professedly anti-capitalist nature could seldom successfully communicate political ideas to community groups making up those alliances. Only where, after years of struggle, people have started realizing that the battle is a political one and that people’s power need to be built through a protracted and pitched battle with the state, capital and other forces, the movements could act with political significance. The usual variety of organizationally anarchic, and politically undecided alliances do not carry the movements forward to the vision of building post-capitalist societies.

Therefore, movements and their alliances should bother with the strategies of organization building, and decide, once the organization comes into being, how that will run. Top-down and too structured processes, as those followed by the institutional/party left, will obviously compromise and disrupt the inherent plurality of most social movement formations. Less obviously, apparently unstructured movements too could follow top-down processes, especially if the movements have middle-class/intellectual leadership. Decision-making in such cases becomes an exclusive elitist exercise, the political and class orientation of the leaders (even their personal ego and aspirations) dominate movements.

To make our hypothesis work, social movements have to come out into the open and declare their politics. To do this, they must have adequate organizational strategies, which are clearly understood and shared by grassroots groups making up the movements. Immediate/short-term priorities of movements and practicalities of defensive actions have to be contextualized, both politically and organizationally, in consonance with the ultimate objective of building/defending non-state and non-capitalist social/political spaces, of socializing the private. The movements, singly and collectively, have to understand that the best form of immediate/defensive action is positing/practising alternatives to capitalism. The slogan of the movements should be ‘revolution here and now’ and not in a remote distant future.
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The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.