Zach Levenson: Thank you, Gareth. Next up, we’ll have some comments from Mattie Armstrong-Price.
Mattie Armstrong Price: I’m very excited to have a chance to discuss this excellent book and more generally, the prospects of social transformation in the present. My remarks are mostly directly responsive to the first chapter of the book. So, Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age opens with a broad historical introduction, followed by an extended conceptual essay on social movements by Colin Barker. We then get a series of case studies focused on recent revolutionary sequences from Poland and South Africa in the late 1980s to Egypt in the early 2010s. Finally, theoretical reflections by Neil Davidson, which we heard some about just now, round out the collection.
I particularly enjoyed Colin Barker’s reflections in chapter one on the dynamics and potentials of social movements. While outlining how movements can be corralled into reformist bounds, Barker nevertheless wants to render plausible the idea that social movements could have and could yet open onto revolutionary sequences. Reading his chapter, it’s impossible not to hear the echoes of Barker’s practical experiences in particular cycles of struggle as he describes how mass movements change their protagonists, how they open up new scenes of collective decision making, or how they pose challenges that would have been hard to imagine in more normal times.
I think many readers will recall their own experiences of movement times or will make associations with historical sequences that they know well. His chapter reminded me, above all, of education and antipolice organizing in California from 2009 to 2014. Barker notes that periods of mass struggle are enabled by the political activation of new layers of the populace at certain moments to a quantitative leap in the scale of participation not only in one-off mobilizations, but also in more enduring organizing projects.
This observation about quantitative jumps brought me back to November 2011 at U.C. Berkeley, when a few hundred people gathered to set up an encampment and were promptly struck by police batons. A few hours later, after videos of police violence had circulated online, the number of people on the quad ballooned into the thousands. That evening an impromptu assembly called for a day of strike, which was attended the following week by tens of thousands.
Those of us who had been active on campus in the months leading up to these events were almost totally unprepared for this jump in participation, which dramatically changed the dynamics of assemblies. In retrospect, at our largest assembly, I think we should have tried to extend the strike, perhaps make it indefinite, rather than focusing on re-establishing the encampment and scheduling a day of action for a few months later. Maybe this would have helped keep possibilities a bit more open in the wider context of Occupy Oakland and the west coast port shutdowns.
But looking back, it’s also apparent how quickly all of this happened to us, how the moment could have been missed even more than it was, and how this sequence had some meaningful longer term effects. While the occupy movement in northern California was not nearly as transformative as the historical cases discussed in the book, the contributors nevertheless tend to evaluate the conjunctures they consider with an ambivalence that feels familiar to me.
Whether the early 2000s gas war in Bolivia, or the fall of apartheid in South Africa, many of the episodes recounted in the book resulted in major political breakthroughs from the collapse of oppressive regimes to the nationalization of industries. These breakthroughs occurred in movement times when organizers effectively put a hitch in the flow of public life and suddenly politics became the active concern of the broad majority. After an effective sequence of left indigenous struggle in 2003, “All of a sudden, gas is on the lips of everyone,” to quote contributor Jeffery Webber, himself quoting Claudia Espinosa. This quote does a really good job of capturing that all of a sudden there is a political situation that the broad majority is responding to, engaging with, or confronted with. The episodes recounted in the book illustrate some of the transformative potentials of mass movements in our time.
But they also highlight the various limits that recent movements have run up against. And in some cases, as in the chapter on the Egyptian revolution, these stories cannot but be told in a tragic key. We read of movement forces being coaxed back into the normal rhythms and rules of political negotiation, of leaders balking on the eve of a general strike, of repressive forces effectively crushing revolts, of exhaustion and fracture, of Western capital entering the breach opened by mass uprisings, and generally of the inability of antagonistic forces to build bridges into and beyond situations of dual power.
What are we to make of all these unsatisfying endings? Are mass movement still plausible incubators of revolutionary change. The book is pitched as a defense of the project of socialism from below at a time when, at least in the North Atlantic, the politics of social democracy appear to many to be the only semi-plausible game in town. Naturally, I don’t count myself among this number. But as the editors of the book admit in their introduction, the prospects for socialism for below appear a bit murkier these days than they might have a few decades ago. There’s a refreshing sense of uncertainty, of groping for the exits in dimly lit rooms that comes through in the book’s framing chapters.
Rather than jumping directly into the question of which way forward for the left then, I want to close with two observations that I hope will add some interesting layers to our discussion of this critical and pressing question. So first, and this picks up on something Gareth said as well, when considering mass movements in our time my mind turns to women’s strikes, such as those in Argentina or Poland in defense of abortion rights and to recent insurgencies against anti-Black police violence in the US.
Neither struggle has been catalyzed or centrally orchestrated by organized labor. Both at least seemingly turn on identity categories other than class. But I don’t think that socialists should have cause for concern about such things, or at least not too much. Those involved in remaking unions into movement organs can, I think, help build rank and file capacities and forge linkages with broader social movement forces, perhaps most effectively through the prioritization of issues of racial and gender justice. These issues tend to transect workplace and non-workplace settings, and they often highlight fundamental questions about surveillance and policing in and around the workplace, questions that inevitably must also be confronted in the context of wildcat or mass strikes.
Finally, in a somewhat more provincial vein, I want to say something about the current conjuncture in the US. In the face of Trumpism and spiraling social crises the Democratic party recently has been leaning on those to its left for activist energies and for social democratic policy proposals. We’ve seen Biden frame such proposals as tools to more effectively engage in imperial rivalry with China. To contest such social imperialism from the left, a mass movement focused on questions of war and imperial power will be required. But traction on these questions has been hard to find since 2007 or so, at least on a mass scale in the US.
In his chapter Colin Barker, quotes Rodrigo Nunez’s account of how particular groupings can perform, “vanguard functions at opportune times”. If we’re wondering who might perform such vanguard functions for a renewed internationalist movement, it’s hard to look past the lines of collaboration and shared analysis being woven between Palestine, solidarity movements, black liberation as projects and indigenous struggles. That’s where I want to end. And thanks again to everyone for putting on the panel and I look forward to the questions.
Zach Levenson: And so next up, we have Lucí Cavallero, live translated by Liz Mason-Deese.