The shock of the new: anti-capitalism and the crisis

Issue: 134

Jonny Jones

In February of this year the Tory employment minister, Chris Grayling, launched an astonishing attack on the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) while live on national radio. Responding to a campaign against a government “workfare” scheme which puts unemployed people to work for no pay, Grayling claimed that the SWP were “part of a broader anti-capitalist trend on our society. Campaign groups are waging war very deliberately against big business”.1 The fact that the government were spooked enough by the campaign against workfare to say such a thing indicates that anti-capitalism is indeed back on the agenda.

The past 18 months have seen the transformation of anti-capitalist politics across the world. The period has given rise to a multiplicity of struggles: from the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to the movement of the indignados in Spain and the similar protests in Greece; from the student revolt in Britain to the rise of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) to the global explosion of occupations that took place after the 15 October day of action. Across the world battle lines were drawn in the popular consciousness of millions, in the terms first popularised at the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, between, on the one hand, the “1 percent of the population [who] have ended up with all the benefits of the last ten years of economic growth, control the wealth, own the politicians”, and, on the other, everybody else: the 99 percent.2

The events of 15 October could easily lead to talk of the rebirth of the anti-capitalist movement. But it would be more accurate to see what has happened as the emergence of a new form of anti-capitalism. For while there are striking similarities with the movement that unfolded after the Battle of Seattle in 1999, there are also clear differences which have led to significant differences in practice. As Seumas Milne pointed out after 15 October, when occupations spread around the world:

these occupations echo both the spirit and organisation of the anti-corporate movement that erupted in Seattle in 1999. The tactic of occupying a symbolic public space (as opposed to strikes, sit-ins and marches) can be traced back to Greenham Common in the 1980s through a string of often dubious “colour revolutions” over the past decade.

But it’s this year’s drama in Tahrir Square (acknowledged with an Egyptian flag at the London camp) that has given it such evocative power. And while the 1990s anti-capitalist globalisation protests took place at a time of boom and speculative frenzy, today’s occupations are targeting a global capitalism in the deepest crisis.3

The new anti-capitalism, then, has emerged hand in hand with the return of revolution to the stage of history and in the midst of an economic crisis that has exposed capitalism as not merely a nasty system but an unstable one.

While the 15 October protests announced the arrival of the new movement to the world, it would be a mistake to limit this new anti-capitalism simply to the Occupy movement. It is more accurate to think of the various national manifestations of revolt against the crisis as being part of a movement of the 99 percent, and the spirit of this movement touching upon almost every campaign and mobilisation that occurs. This polarisation between top and bottom, between rich and poor, has struck a chord with those resisting austerity or struggling for democracy. For the radical left, and especially the US left, the concept of the 99 percent has been an enormous step forwards in terms of class consciousness: “The Occupy movement, in its opposition of the 99 percent to the 1 percent, creates, in highly popularised form, a class analysis that is consistent with Marxism”.4

The new movements have also given rise to a flurry of writing, journalism and theorising, both in print and online, on their nature and their direction. The volume and breadth of this output show the huge levels of involvement in the protests and the eclectic nature of their ideological underpinnings. Familiar reference points for the anti-capitalist movement, such as Guy Debord and Michel Foucault, nestle alongside the likes of Clay Shirky, the New York University professor and theorist of the social effects of new media technology. The movements have also seen the re-emergence of variants of Marxist thought as a touchstone. Sometimes this has been directly through Marx’s own writings, but more often through the works of the likes of Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, writers who will be familiar to many of the participants in the last wave of anti-capitalist struggle, or new theorists such as Nina Power and Mark Fisher, who have themselves been participants in the new movements.

The eclecticism and urgency of much of this writing are perhaps best distilled in a book from an unlikely source. Paul Mason, the economics editor of the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight, posted a blog on 5 February 2011 called “Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere”.5 Writing less than a week before the fall of Mubarak, Mason put together a list of observations which he thought explained the dynamic of protest that was spreading round the world. A year later he published Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, a book in which he refined his list and attempted to expand his observations. While Mason insists that “the book makes no claim to be a ‘theory of everything’”, and that readers “don’t file it under ‘social science’: it’s journalism”,6 he goes on to attempt to present a systematic account of why the new movements have emerged: “Why is it happening now? Ultimately, the explanation lies in three big social changes: in the demographics of revolt, in technology and in human behaviour itself”.7

Mason’s “demographics of revolt” refer to the interplay between three sections of society: the “graduate with no future”, the urban poor and the organised working class. His technological changes are the rise of the internet and social media, and the ubiquity of new technologies, such as laptops and smartphones, on which to access them.8 His most extensive claim is that these technological changes have led to significant changes in human behaviour patterns and to the possibility of developing “a new model of human freedom” called “networked individualism”.9 These claims express some of the most widespread, commonsense ideas in the new movements. In this article I want to take issue with some of these claims, to unpick them and to try to show what in them is of worth and what must be discarded if we are to properly understand the situation and to develop a strategy for the 99 percent.

That being said, this article will only be able to touch on elements of what has happened and what has been written. I will, in the main, limit myself to discussing the movements in Europe and the US. While some of the biggest movements of the past year have been found in Latin America and, of course, the MENA region, it would be outside the scope of my experience to delve too deeply into them.10 Similarly, I do not seek to duplicate previous analyses of the events of the past 18 months which have been covered in this journal;11 nor do I seek to unnecessarily restate the substantial body of analysis of the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement built up especially by Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman.12 Rather I want to explore what is new about the movements that have arisen and what opportunities and challenges they provide for revolutionaries who seek to participate and intervene in them.

What’s past is prologue

The anti-capitalist movement that emerged in the wake of the Battle of Seattle in 1999 provided a new lease of life for radical critique of the capitalist system. This was despite developing out of relatively small beginnings. As Chris Harman wrote in the wake of events:

Sometimes the symbolism of events gives them an importance out of all proportion to the numbers of people directly involved in them. Such was the case with the protests outside the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation on 30 November 1999. The demonstrations themselves were not particularly large compared with many since. There were perhaps 30,000 demonstrators at the height of the protests.

But they signalled something of enormous importance. Almost exactly ten years earlier the fall of the Berlin Wall had been presented as the end of socialism, leaving capitalism in apparently unchallenged control of the world for the rest of humanity’s existence. Seattle was the eruption of a new challenge.13

The development of the new anti-capitalist movements was quite different. The demonstrations of 15 October 2011, which heralded the return of a truly global anti-capitalism, were enormous: well over 1.5 million people protested in 950 cities around the world. The biggest mobilisations were in Spain, where the indignados of the 15-M movement, who had initially called the day of action, brought over a million people out. In New York, home of the OWS camp that had provided the impetus for the global demonstrations, around 100,000 gathered.14 In Britain the mobilisations were much smaller, but still involved over 3,000 people. In every case the spirit of the Arab Revolutions and the subsequent mobilisations in Spain and Syntagma Square in Athens had enthused and radicalised those taking part in the protests. The contribution of OWS, posing its challenge at the heart of global capitalism and calling on the 99 percent to join it, was seismic. Occupations sprang up around the world, from South Carolina to South Korea.

But behind each sizeable protest was a process of development. Most had been initiated by activists who had been building against austerity since at least the outbreak of the crisis—though after 15 October many became the property of huge numbers of totally new activists. In Britain, for example, there had been a long series of events leading up to the day.

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 there had been a series of anti-systemic protests around the world. The SWP in Britain had initiated anti-capitalist protests in the City of London on 10 October and in Canary Wharf on 31 October at which hundreds of mainly young activists had run through the streets. This kind of protest was still, at this stage, an idea whose time had not yet come. Its arrival was hastened by the launch of the Israeli government’s “Operation Cast Lead” in December 2008, a savage assault on the population of Gaza, which led to enormous protests around the world. In London a demonstration called by the Stop the War Coalition, the British Muslim Initiative and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign saw up to 150,000 march on the Israeli Embassy. Police fought protesters who attempted to lay siege to the embassy.15

Alongside the protests there was a wave of student occupations calling on institutions to cut ties with Israel and adopt “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” policies. In the main these occupations were led by the radical left in coalition with anti-war and pro-Palestine students. But the occupations spread further than the usual bases of the left. This wave of occupations laid important groundwork for the events to come.

The first significant anti-capitalist protest in Britain during the crisis was the one held against the meeting of the G20 in London in April 2009. The demonstration took place just days after a trade union and NGO backed march of 40,000 people, but was of a very different character. Called by a coalition of anarchists and autonomists under the name G20 Meltdown, the protest gave many of the 4,000 or so in attendance their first taste of tactics which would become all too familiar: “kettling” and police violence. These tactics led to the death of a bystander named Ian Tomlinson at the hands of one officer, and saw a peaceful Climate Camp protest beaten out of the area by riot police as activists chanted in unison “This is not a riot!” and “The whole world is watching”.16

Climate Camp itself had been one of the main areas for anti-capitalists and autonomists to organise in Britain. However, after the demoralisation that swept the climate movement in the wake of the Copenhagen talks, Climate Camp found itself facing diminishing numbers. Despite orientating around the financial crisis by targeting the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh, it only managed to attract a few hundred to the camp. Debates in the camp were fascinating. As I reported at the time, some “explicitly referred to Climate Camp as a white, middle class organisation and discussed ways involve more working class people”.17 By 2011, the camp had wound itself up, putting out a statement saying, “Now is a chance to team up with the anti-cuts and anti-austerity movements and play a crucial role in the revolutionary times ahead. Anything but coordinated action is doomed to fail”.18 By this point the student movement had already shaken British society, and the Arab Revolutions were shaking the world. Many of the leading figures of Climate Camp—and, as in any “leaderless” movement, there were leading figures—were already involved in UK Uncut and would go on to play a key role in initiating the Occupy movement in London.

Similarly in the US there was a backdrop to the mobilisations for OWS: “Too easily overlooked in discussions of digital tactics is that the general assemblies of Occupy Wall Street had been preceded earlier in the summer by those of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, a coalition of trade unions and community groups against Mayor Bloomberg’s austerity measures. Many of the occupiers were members of this alliance”.19

One clear similarity between the movements of 2011 and the post-Seattle movement has been the question of whether or not they are, in themselves, “anti-capitalist”. Many at the London Occupy camp, which was forced to set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral after access to the adjacent London Stock Exchange was blocked by the police, have made a point of insisting that the camp is not about “anti-capitalism”, going so far as to remove the “Capitalism Is Crisis” banner that it inherited from Climate Camp. Similarly, the 15-M movement in Spain, while containing many activists who define themselves as anti-capitalist, was best known for its demand for “real democracy now”. For revolutionaries, however, it is important to be clear on the content of these protests. They are, like the post-Seattle movement, “anti-systemic” in that they “do not simply campaign over specific grievances—say, to do with free trade or the environment or Third World debt—but [are] motivated by a sense of the inter-connection between an immense variety of different injustices and dangers”.20 By these criteria, we should understand the movements as anti-capitalist, even when their opposition is couched in moralistic terms, or in the language of radical reform—there were, after all, significant reformist currents in the post-Seattle movement.21

One major difference between the post-Seattle movement and today is evident from the nature of their geneses. As Harman stated in the wake of Seattle, “A decade and more of frustration and disillusionment, of resignation and despair, had suddenly found a focus. Out of Seattle a new international movement began to coalesce”.22 The international character of the movement was more than just a sense of international solidarity: the movement coalesced around international mobilisations, most importantly the World Social Forum and its regional offshoots. While the movement had bases in different countries, its main activities were far more connected, both organisationally and temporally, on an international level. At the level of the nation state, many campaigns would sometimes find very few occasions on which to unite as a movement.

The new anti-capitalism is very different. Despite the extraordinary levels of internationalism that imbue the movements—in part because they are everywhere, in part because of the practical links through the internet and social media, in part because of the crucial role of the Arab Revolutions in forming them—there is, in practice, far less international coordination. Some might argue that, in fact, the lack of significant international coordination is an illusion and that there is tremendous “decentralised” international coordination. But any coordination that is happening is at a much lower level than previously. In part this can be attributed to the more informal nature of the networks that make up today’s protests, in comparison to the organisations and parties (Attac France, Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, etc) that formed the backbone of coordination last time around. Most important, though, is that each of the local movements finds itself locked into the fight of its life with its own national government, which is pushing through austerity and cuts on an unprecedented level. This means that the tempo of struggle in each country is different: the defeats and victories, retreats and advances cannot be measured on an international terrain so easily—though it is certainly the case that a victory or defeat in any one country will be keenly felt by those involved overseas.

The role of states in bailing out the banks and keeping the system afloat means that, unlike at the time of the post-Seattle movement, there can be no illusion that the state is not a crucially important actor in the struggle. No longer are they just deploying the police—though they are doing that, and with increasing ferocity—but they are also imposing the cuts that are generating the bitterness and anger that has given rise to the protests in the first place. These movements are not simply a moral rejection of the worst impacts of neoliberalism, but a fight for the future of all involved.

The end of “the end of history”?

In a chapter entitled “Nobody Saw it Coming: How the World’s Collective Imagination Failed”, Paul Mason argues that the outbreak of revolt against the effects of the economic crisis marked the end of the period of “capitalist realism”. Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, describes this concept as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.23

Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action…

Neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past 30 years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a “business ontology” in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.24

Fisher’s concept has been very influential among many involved in the new movements, and provides a useful antidote to those who see the world as shaped by a “media conspiracy”. The strength of his concept is that, while he locates the origins of this malaise in the turn to neoliberalism, he sees the dominance of capitalist realism as having been “fought for and established” in the 1980s, a period which witnessed the collapse of Stalinism and the defeat of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. The fact that the “closure of the pits was defended precisely on the grounds that keeping them open was not ‘economically realistic’” was itself a reflection of that notion, that everything should be run as a business, no matter the human cost.25

Fisher’s capitalist realism is not simply reducible to neoliberalism. Indeed, he argues of the bailouts which followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers:

It quickly became clear that, far from constituting the end of capitalism, the bank bailouts were a massive reassertion of the capitalist realist insistence that there is no alternative. Allowing the banking system to disintegrate was held to be unthinkable, and what ensued was a vast haemorrhaging of public money into private hands. Nevertheless, what did happen in 2008 was the collapse of the framework which has provided ideological cover for capitalist accumulation since the 1970s. After the bank bail-outs neoliberalism has, in every sense, been discredited. That is not to say that neoliberalism has disappeared overnight; on the contrary, its assumptions continue to dominate political economy, but they do so now no longer as part of an ideological project that has a confident forward momentum, but as inertial, undead defaults.26

So the collapse of the banking system both reinforced capitalist realism and also undermined it. This opened up the possibility of a “relaxing of a certain kind of mental paralysis”. Combined with the effects of the bailouts and the crisis—particularly the attacks by states on public sector provision and a leap in unemployment—the conditions for the emergence of a serious “anti-systemic” protest movement were very much in place.

Fisher’s arguments, grounded in a Marxist critique of capitalism, provide a healthy counterweight to those who would argue that the neoliberal period saw the transformation of capitalism into something fundamentally different. This could be seen by the increasing dominance of the “network” metaphor to understand both capitalist production and the relationships between those subordinated by capital. Paul Mason draws on the work of Richard Sennett and argues that changes in capitalism have led to the emergence of a new ideal type of employee: “a person with weak institutional loyalty, low levels of informal trust and high levels of anxiety about their own competence” and who needs “’a thick network of social contacts’: their ideal habitat is the global city, at whose bars, coffee shops, Apple stores, dance clubs and speed dating events they can meet lots of equally rootless people… The revolts of 2010-11 have shown, quite simply, what this workforce looks like when it becomes collectively disillusioned”.27 Mason connects this new type of person with a new way of doing things through the prism of Manuel Castells’s idea of “the network society”, arguing that “the combined impact of the social network and the individualistic self would facilitate a clear break with the old forms of organisation, including parties, unions and permanent campaigns”.28

The problem with this line of argument is that, far from breaking with the conceptual framework of capitalist realism which Mason argues was destroyed by the new movements, it internalises and reifies it. As Kevin Doogan argues in his New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work, the works of Sennett and Castells belong very much to the wave of theory that accompanied neoliberalism and in which “market forces appear naturalised”:

Whereas discussion of “old capitalism” might invite consideration of social classes as agencies and the distribution of income as outcomes, new capitalism is a confluence of narratives that captures and represents the world in terms of abstract, self-sustaining social processes. In the absence of strategic actors such as governments, corporations or classes, social processes appear disembodied, “all motion no matter”… Little wonder then that this mode of representation finds such appeal in neoliberal circles.29

The reduction of analysis of society to abstract processes, then, is one that is fundamental to much of the talk of a “network society”. Doogan suggests that if there were a similar shift in medicine, “it might lead to a ‘new haematology’ exclusively concerned with the flow of blood round the body, yet remaining wholly uninterested in the heart”.30 It is possible to see the flipside of this tendency in some of the modes of organising that have been thrown up by the new movements. In the Occupy London camp, for example, there has been an overwhelming obsession with “process” as opposed to “ideology”. This often means in practice that a lot of time is spent discussing how decisions are made rather than making decisions.

The concern is that by asserting these concepts as matter of fact truths, boosters of the network society who argue there has been a fundamental transformation of class relations become “left wing harmonies in the neoliberal chorus”31 at just the point at which the neoliberal chorus has been shown to be very much out of tune.

The network sobriety

The fall of Stalinism, the rightward drift of social democracy and the decline of the revolutionary left during the period of capitalist realism has meant that many new activists eschew both traditional reformist organisations and revolutionary socialism in favour of new “commonsense” forms of activity that seek alternative solutions to the problem of organisation. The elevation of the tactic of occupation to a strategic imperative partly stems from an attempt to overcome the need for a political party with the occupation of physical space—an organising centre where “organisation” remains informal and consensual. Similarly, the concept of the network is one that arises time and time again in the new movements. Often it is used to suggest that “old” forms of organisation are unnecessary. However, this is usually achieved by airbrushing the role of organisations out of the story altogether.

Throughout Mason’s book there are references to individual members of organisations without ever pointing out their membership. This serves to obfuscate the real range of social actors in the protest movements. In his discussion of the British movement, for example, one would come away thinking that the radical left had played no role in the student movement. In fact, it was the radical left who had led students into Millbank, initiating the now legendary siege; it was the radical left who initiated the “Day X” protests that saw 130,000 students walk out in protest two weeks later. Mason does not even mention organisations such as the Education Activist Network or the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, while the role of university occupations in generalising the movement is greatly overstated. In the discussion of UK Uncut its growth from a single protest to 15 protests three days later is not explored at all. You are left with the impression that this was another Twitter-generated movement. In reality, organisations like the SWP (who were on the first UK Uncut protest) called on their members to organise and join protests wherever they could. This is not to downplay the energy and ingenuity of those who devised the UK Uncut campaign in the slightest—one of the most inspiring things about the events of the past year has been the extent to which the radical left and many anarchists and autonomists have been able to cooperate fruitfully around many issues. Nor does it suggest that social media have not played an important role in UK Uncut and other campaigns. It does, however, suggest that abstract discussion of networks and social media will not get us very far in understanding how the new movements grew and developed.

One of the fundamental incongruities in Mason’s arguments about networks is on the question of strategy. Despite his repeated assertion that “the network defeats the hierarchy”, the picture of the movement in Britain that Mason leaves us with is bleak. The “horizontalist” movement which grew out of the student occupations is left in “a crisis of direction that it is still struggling to recover from”,32 the reason being that there was a “problem which youthful, socially networked horizontalist movements would have everywhere when things got serious: the absence of strategy”.33 In a previous article on the role of social media in social movements, I argued that this very problem would emerge and that online networks would not be a solution to strategic questions:

Mason argues that “ideas arise, are very quickly market-tested and then either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves into the mainstream culture or, if they are no good, disappear”. But what does Paul mean by good or bad? Does this have any bearing on how effective they are in bringing about fundamental social change?… The danger of deciding tactics by waiting to see what catches on opens the possibility that activism that is very rewarding in the short term is taken up at the expense of strategic thinking about the long-term goals.34

The tendency to reify networks fundamentally leads us up a blind alley when trying to understand the movements or to develop strategy. In fact, it is quite unnecessary to polarise between “network” and “organisation”:

Networks are not an alternative to organisations—a network is just an analytical device that sociologists (and computer scientists) use to understand relations between actors (or nodes). Networks may contain organisations, and organisations may contain networks, both formal and hierarchical and informal and non-hierarchical, as well as everything in between.35

So in posing a network as an alternative form of political action to organisation, the real arguments and differences between activists tend to be mystified. In fact, what is happening is the rejection of centralisation in favour of decentralised decision making. Given the problems that decentralised networks of activists have had in formulating effective strategy, it becomes necessary to conceive of a method of activity which employs a level of centralisation. However, one of the objections offered by proponents of networks is that centralism, and the political organisation that it implies, tends towards the development of leadership elites. For example, Aaron Peters and Guy Aitchison, two activists who were heavily involved in the student movement of 2010, argue that:

those who back the power of networks are content for the movement to remain precisely that, a social movement, held together by on and offline networks, and formulating a shared identity and set of political goals in an organic process of bottom-up deliberation, whereas those who want central organisation…argue for the effectiveness of hierarchy, a form of organisation which is any case inescapable, as de facto leaderships emerge in a process described by Robert Michels at the beginning of the 20th century as the “iron law of oligarchy”.36

Colin Barker summarises Michels’s view as “organisation engenders both oligarchy, the emergence of leaders who can prevent challenges to their rule, and conservatism, the diversion of democratic movements from their original goals”,37 which Michels believes stems in part from “the incompetence of the masses [which] is almost universal throughout the domains of political life”.38 Michels is undoubtedly pointing towards real tendencies within political organisations but he does so from a reactionary and elitist starting point and without a material explanation of where such tendencies might arise from, accepting what Duncan Hallas described as “a secularised version of the original sin myth”.39 But, as John Molyneux points out:

In opposition to Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” there exists, in any party or organisation whose leadership does not wield the combined sticks and carrots of state power, an almost universal “law of democracy”. In any voluntary organisation where membership does not itself confer material privilege…there is an element of democracy in that the leadership requires the consent of the rank and file in the form of its continuing membership and support.40

If we can move away from both the false dichotomy between network and organisation, as well as the fatalism that assumes that all political organisation is destined to slide into a hierarchical and anti-democratic organisation, it becomes possible to conceive of organisational forms which have the ability to resolve strategic and tactical questions in a necessarily democratic manner.

In this sense, one can understand the revolutionary party as a network: one that is not hierarchical but centralised, in order to most effectively develop strategy and implement tactical decisions. The strength of the party form in this respect is that it allows for a method which is both centralist and democratic, which allows for both swift action and an inclusive method of decision making that does not simply give power to those with the time, skills and energy to be absorbed in “process”. This network of revolutionaries will in turn be part of other networks, such as networks of activists in the anti-cuts movement, rank and file networks in the trade unions, student left networks, etc. It is the very fact of this cross-cutting nature of political activity that allows members of the party to maintain an understanding of the levels and unevenness of class consciousness among workers and other activists. They will learn from the advanced layers of the class with whom they are engaged in campaigns and activity, but they will also be able to gain an understanding of the views of less politically conscious workmates. This network is then able to feed the experience of the class to a democratic forum that can centralise it and attempt to formulate strategic outlooks and implement tactical decisions. This is necessarily a two-way relationship and one which relies on deep political trust among the leading activists of the organisation at national and local levels, as well as between them and those workers they seek both to learn from and influence. Socialist organisation has historically taken a number of forms, but in order to be effective against capital it must be made up of a well-rooted network of revolutionaries who are at the heart of the struggle.41

The youth are revolting!

An undeniable feature of the wave of the new movements has been the presence of young people and students at its forefront.42 It is not difficult to understand why this would be the case. On top of the attacks on higher education which have accompanied austerity programmes across the world, there has been a huge and disproportionate growth of unemployment among young people:

Our generation has produced the largest-ever cohort of unemployed youth, according to the International Labour Organisation. The ILO’s data show that youth unemployment spiked in an unprecedented way over the past four years—by 50 percent more than in previous recessions.

The epicentre of this crisis is located in the Arab world. In a region where two out of three people are under the age of 30, some estimates put the youth unemployment rate as high as 40 percent. In Europe, the overall rate tops 20 percent. In Spain and Greece, nearly 45 percent of young people have no job. In the United States, the Labor Department pegs youth unemployment at 18 percent, which is almost certainly an underestimation.43

In Britain, “Unemployment among 16 to 24 year olds has risen sharply. In 2004 the figure stood at 12 percent. By the onset of the recession in 2008 it had risen to 15 percent, and by 2010 one in five was unemployed… In London the figure stood at 22 percent in 2011”.44

Paul Mason identifies “a new sociological type: the graduate with no future” as central to the movements:

The financial crisis of 2008—which would bankrupt states as well as banks—created a generation of twenty-somethings whose projected life-arc had switched, quite suddenly, from an upward curve to a downward one. The promise was: “Get a degree, get a job in the corporate system and eventually you’ll achieve a better living standard than your parents.” This abruptly turned into: “Tough, you’ll be poorer than your parents”.45

Mason blurs the distinction between graduates and students who have not yet graduated, but the point stands: a sense of having one’s future snatched away has been a strong motivating force behind the emergence of such large numbers of young people on protests across the world.46 However, while the immediate motivations of graduates and students entering struggle might be different from those of previous generations, it is questionable whether their response has been qualitatively different to those we have witnessed in the past. In 1987 Chris Harman wrote:

The student population is not a homogeneous class within capitalism, but a heterogeneous grouping of young people who come from different classes and who are destined to enter different classes on completing their studies. Their situation structures them in such a way as to rule out stabilised, continuing forms of organisation, similar to the trade union organisations of wage labour.

This situation as a transitory grouping between the major classes also means they are very sensitive to elements of social crisis in society as a whole. They often react to these before other groups in society. The student population suddenly erupts in an explosive fashion. Protests develop out of nowhere to involve thousands of students in a matter of days.47

This seems to be an accurate reflection of the way in which students fit into the system and have reacted to the crisis this time around. It reflects the continuing fact that “students are not tied eight hours a day to a workbench or office desk. They can get together to discuss and mobilise in a way that those who work full time can rarely do.” The dynamic also applies to unemployed youth, since “young people…can show a level of verve, imagination and fighting spirit that has often been knocked out of their elders by the daily grind of the existing system”.48

The massive increase in the number of people going to university has meant that the dividing lines between students, young workers and unemployed youth have been increasingly blurred. New graduates often remain friends with people who are still at university. For the unemployed graduate living in the city, hanging around the old college and going out to student club nights often provide both a welcoming and cheap social environment. So significant layers of non-students remain part of that milieu which can rush into struggle, yet they are unencumbered by having to attend lectures or keep a regular timetable. These people have been key to sparking the Occupy movement, the indignados protests in Spain and the similar occupations of squares in Greece. So the emergence of students and unemployed youth at the forefront of struggle this time around in many ways fits with previous patterns of revolt.

Mason suggests that the lines between the graduates, urban poor and organised working class are increasingly blurred. However, in his account, he seems determined to shoehorn various groups of people he encounters on his travels into seemingly quite inappropriate categories. Simon Basketter argues, “Too often Mason’s categorisation relies upon a superficial sociological view. For instance, striking tax collectors in Greece become part of Mason’s new graduate class rather than being treated as part of the labour movement”.49 Mason’s tendency to generalise from anecdotal experiences on his travels leads to a lack of clarity on the important questions of class.

Much of the media is concerned with drawing a “generational gap” between young protesters and their elders. Mason suggests that before the outbreak of struggle in 2011 “those in power comforted themselves” with the thought that there might be “an ‘age war’ between the baby boomers and the iPod generation”.50 So Martin Wolf writes in the Financial Times that the “reason the world’s youth is in a revolting state of mind” is that they are at a disadvantage to the older generation—locked out of the job market but doomed to look after the ageing generation of “baby boomers” when they retire. His solution: in countries with a young population, his asinine suggestion is “to create a dynamic economy that brings hope of gainful employment”; in higher-income countries with older populations, however, “older people must work longer than they expected, without making the young believe their opportunities are blocked for what must seem like an eternity”.51 A New York Times column written shortly afterwards opined: “Spending on education will be cut while mortgage subsidies and entitlements for the elderly are untouchable”.52

These arguments blur the real divides in society. The gap is not between young and old but between rich and poor, the 1 percent and the 99 percent, the boss and the worker. Making workers retire later or cutting pensions is of no use to the younger generation who will at some point want to retire and enjoy a decent pension, confounding those who hoped for a generation gap to blunt the radicalism of the movements.

Perhaps the most important of the developments in the new anti-capitalist movements, then, has been the speed at which new and younger protesters have linked up with the labour movement. In part, this can be seen as a reflection of the fact that “the increased numbers of students in work…means students are more likely be sympathetic to workers’ struggle. Arguments for solidarity with workers have gained a lot of traction in the movement. Conversely, most working class families will have a child in either further or higher education”.53

So it should not be a surprise that students and school children in France should strike, occupy and protest against raises to the pension age; that students in Britain should join picket lines with their lecturers; or that Occupy movements on both sides of the Atlantic should reach out to the labour movement. However, it should not be assumed that these links are automatic or indefinite. In many cases, the intervention of socialists and other radicals has played an important part in winning arguments and solidarity.

Who are the 99 percent?

In an article “Revolutionary Organisation and the ‘Occupy Movement’” Paul Le Blanc makes the important point that Occupy has popularised a class analysis that is consistent with Marxism:

The modern-day system of corporate rule and exploitation overseen by the wealthy 1 percent (and their servants in the upper fringe of the 99 percent) is what we mean by capitalism. The heart and soul, and great majority, of the 99 percent are the working class (blue collar, white collar, unemployed, etc). The goal of establishing the democratic control of the 99 percent over our economic and political life is what we understand as socialism.54

The class analysis that Marxists can offer is of great strategic importance. One of the positions that socialists must fight for in the movement is that class is about more than just your identity, what you think you are. As the Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix explained:

Class…is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. Class is essentially a relationship—just as capital [is] “a social relation of production”. And a class (a particular class) is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of social production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of the degree of control) to the conditions of production (that is to say, to the means and labour of production) and to other classes. The individuals constituting a given class may or may not be wholly or partly conscious of their own identity and common interests as a class, and they may or may not feel antagonism towards members of other classes as such. Class conflict…is essentially the fundamental relationship between classes, involving exploitation and resistance to it, but not necessarily either class consciousness or collective activity in common, political or otherwise, although these features are likely to supervene when a class has reached a certain stage of development and become what Marx once…called “a class for itself”.55

This sums up the complexity of Marx’s conception of class and helps to explain many of the objections we encounter in discussions about the working class. None of this is to suggest that changes in the composition of the class are not constantly occurring, or that there are not differences across the class. But as Paul Blackledge argues, Marx’s conception of class:

showed how capitalism’s complex process of exploitation creates not only a myriad of differences across the labour force, but also common relations that cut across differences of income, occupation, status, etc. It is these common relations that make a class a class. Marx’s model of exploitation does not lead Marxists to dismiss differences within the working class. Rather it points to a material basis for solidarity across these divisions.56

Many involved in the movements will be sympathetic to arguments that the working class is no longer important; that it has been outsourced to the developing world; that it is just one among a number of equally important actors in struggle. Many of those involved in the movements will identify themselves as “precarious”—unemployed, underemployed, on a temporary contract or even simply in fear of falling into one of those categories. Guy Standing has written of a “precariat”, described as a “new, dangerous class” which has developed interests quite apart from those of the working class.57 This idea has been excellently criticised by Richard Seymour in a recent article, in which he points out that “precarity cannot be the basis for political strategy in itself” but can be part of “forming a new, radical majoritarian politics with an anti-capitalist core” and with the working class at its heart.58 The political implications of the theory of the precariat have been exemplified in the Occupy Oakland movement. Todd Chretien and Jessie Muldoon summarise an article under the name “Oakland Commune”, in which:

After a ludicrous distinction between “the working class” and “proletarians”, Oakland Commune asserts that “the strike no longer appears only as the voluntary withdrawal of labour from a workplace by those employed there, but as the blockade, suppression (or even sabotage or destruction) of that workplace by proletarians who are alien to it”.

From this internal logic, although completely divorced from the logic of the class struggle, the author continues: “The coming intensification of struggles both inside and outside the workplace will find no success in attempting to revitalise the moribund unions”.59

Chretien and Muldoon, both socialists who have been closely involved in Occupy Oakland, argue that “these types of ideas are currently voiced by the majority (or at least a very large portion) of the General Assembly in Oakland” and that notions of a “precarious proletariat” that “counsel hostility to existing unions and make no attempt to reach out to the tens of thousands of sympathetic workers in Oakland, lead directly to adventurous political practice”.60 Indeed, similar ideas pervaded sections of the Italian left in the 1970s and led to disastrous consequences.61

With this in mind, it is particularly unfortunate that Slavoj Zizek, a popular figure among anti-capitalists attracted to Marxism, has advanced a very confused conception of class in a recent article for the London Review of Books. In “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie”, Zizek claims that “the bourgeoisie in the classic sense…tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence” and that this group “extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists”.62

Zizek is trotting out an old argument. Almost 20 years ago, Alex Callinicos wrote an analysis of the development of a “new middle class” in which he pointed out that the categories which Zizek lumps together as the “salaried bourgeoisie” actually consist of “distinct class positions”, at the extremes of which there are:

on the one hand, those senior managers and administrators who are effectively salaried members of the capitalist class, and, on the other, there are those white-collar employees who are actually members of the working class. The latter embraces not only the mass of clerical workers, but also the majority of those in what are called the “lower professions”—school teachers, nurses, draughtsmen, lab technicians, social welfare workers.63

If anything, after decades of neoliberalism and the marketisation of public services such as health and education, wider layers of this group now identify themselves as workers and look to working class methods of resistance to counter the government’s attacks. Zizek seems to have missed this, and suggests that his reading of the situation “throws new light on the continuing ‘anti-capitalist’ protests. In times of crisis the obvious candidates for ‘belt-tightening’ are the lower levels of the salaried bourgeoisie: political protest is their only recourse if they are to avoid joining the proletariat”.64

Zizek’s position is based on a fundamental misreading of the way in which, as Ste Croix wrote, “exploitation is embodied in a social structure”. Far from being part of a “salaried bourgeoisie”, those protesting about the attacks on their living standards form part of what Marx described as “the collective worker”. As Kevin Doogan explains, “Many of the compositional changes in the workforce and adjustments in employment patterns [are due to] the growth of jobs in education, health and social service provision…since a large component of labour power is allocated to ‘its own’ welfare and reproduction”.65 Rather than protesting to avoid joining the proletariat, the enormous mass strikes of public sector workers in Britain and across Europe have been of crucial importance in re-establishing a powerful sense of class consciousness. The 30 November strike of 2.5 million people, the biggest strike in Britain since 1926, was imbued with the spirit of the 99 percent.

The return of working class action on a global scale has meant that the new anti-capitalism is developing alongside the labour movement. The most impressive example of this is in the US, where the Occupy movement, particularly in New York and Oakland, made tremendous links with organised labour and gave the working class movement a new lease of life. Union outreach groups were among the first formed on the camp, by activists including socialists and class-struggle anarchists. As Nick Dyer-Witheford explains:

After 17 September action, and before the 15 October day of global action, crucial moments for Occupy Wall Street were the marches between 27 September and 5 October, when occupiers were joined by Communication Workers of America, on strike against communications giant Verizon; the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), protesting the amalgamation of Continental and United airlines; the New York City Transport Workers Union (TWU), which went to court to prevent police from ordering union drivers to bus arrested demonstrators to jail; and other unions of teachers, construction workers and the public sector. Occupiers in turn sallied out to support Teamsters on strike at Sotheby’s art auction house.66

In Oakland protesters issued a call for a general strike in the city, which saw 15,000 people march and shut down the port as dock workers from the historically militant branch of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to cross picket lines. In a country where the left has been marginalised for decades, this emergence of anti-capitalist politics closely allied with sections of the working class has been of extreme importance. The left find themselves involved in a debate about the way forward for Occupy now that the camps themselves have been dismantled.67 But the impact that the movement has had already can be summed up by one lecturer who, when asked for her highlight of Occupy, replied, “The highlight for me hasn’t been a moment, and it hasn’t been down in Zuccotti Park itself exactly, but is a direct effect of their actions there and around the city. They’ve shifted the discussion to where it belongs. And I think they’ve given people—certainly me—a sense of hope and inspiration”.68

In Britain, despite the Occupy movement being much smaller, the effect that it had on wider society was profound. Two senior clergy from the Church of England were forced to resign over the handling of the encampment, and the leaders of the political parties had to start discussing “capitalism” and how it could be made more “responsible”, more “popular” and less “predatory”. The issue of bankers’ bonuses became a political hot potato as millions were disgusted at the enormous amounts offered to those running banks that just three years earlier had been bailed out at workers’ expense.

More concretely, the St Paul’s camp was visited by thousands of people before it was dismantled by bailiffs in the early hours of 28 February. Workers attended trade union days that were called by socialists through the outreach working group. Occupy London had a highly visible contingent on the 30 November demonstration in London. Crucially, electricians who were engaged in a long-running dispute with eight corporations visited the camp on a number of occasions, and occupiers attended their pickets. This campaign was led by rank and file activists in the face of opposition from the union bureaucracy. But electricians pushed the union to ballot for strike action which finally forced the bosses to retreat. The companies that employed the electricians knew that strike action would shut off the taps of profit upon which they depend and also bring about fines for the late completion of building projects.

The dismantling of the camps (which could only be a temporary feature in the face of the organised power of the state) and the impasse of horizontalism means that many involved in the movements will be grappling with questions of organisation and agency: how do the 99 percent win? Simultaneously, there is a sense in which all the struggles socialists find themselves at the heart of at the moment feed into one another. The events of the crisis on a global stage, the attacks workers are facing around the world, mean that people are generalising quickly and that the movements are alive with a sense of internationalism and radicalism. The fact that the mask of democracy has slipped from capitalism so easily in Greece and Italy, as bankers are installed to carry out cuts, means that the connections between the fight against austerity and the revolutions against dictatorship in the Arab world seem far from abstract. And on the streets and in the workplaces of Greece we can see a working class movement in Europe where rank and file workers have seized the initiative in many areas, seizing control of workplaces, bringing the country to a standstill and preventing the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF from imposing its “solutions” on the economy. This raises the spectre of genuine democratic control by the masses over their lives: of socialism.

The fact that the exploitation of wage labour is central to the capitalist system means the position of the working class within it remains unique. The implications of the “collective worker” are that there is a basis for solidarity across the class and that the ability to disrupt the flow of profit is generalised to disrupting the reproduction of the system as a whole. It is for this reason that Marxists stress the centrality of the working class for any anticapitalist project. Workers have not only a material interest in organising collectively to combat the ravages of capitalism but also the strategic power to bring it down and replace it.

Of course, this is not an automatic process. Both rank and file and revolutionary organisations need to grow, strengthen and deepen their roots. But the links between anti-capitalism, the power of the working class and revolution have not been so clearly seen for decades. This offers socialists a real opportunity to not only build the movements, but to build a working class, revolutionary spine within them.


1: Chapman and Gysin, 2012.

2: Graeber, 2011.

3: Milne, 2011.

4: Le Blanc, 2012.


6: Mason, 2012, p2.

7: Mason, 2012, p66.

8: See my article “Social media and social movements” for an analysis of the role of the internet in protests-Jones, 2011a.

9: Mason, 2012, p142.

10: Jeffery Webber has provided excellent analysis of the movements in Latin America. For his discussion of the Chilean student movement, see Webber, 2011; and on the TIPNIS revolt in Bolivia, Webber, 2012. This journal has extensively covered the revolutions in the MENA region.

11: This journal has examined many of the movements referred to in this piece. See particularly: Callinicos and Jones, 2011; Swain, 2011; Durgan and Sans, 2011; Trudell, 2012.

12: See Harman, 2000; Callinicos, 2003; Harman, 2004; Callinicos and Nineham, 2007.

13: Harman, 2004, p3.

14: Bhattacharyya, 2011.

15: See Assaf, 2009.

16: A short film depicting the violent treatment of Climate Camp protesters can be seen at

17: Jones, 2010.

18: ” target=”_blank”>

19: Dyer-Witheford, 2012.

20: Callinicos, 2003, p15.

21: For more on reformist anti-capitalism, see Callinicos, 2003, pp76-80, and Harman, 2004, pp5-7, 11-12.

22: Harman, 2004, p3.

23: Fisher, 2009, p2.

24: Fisher, 2009, pp16-17.

25: Fisher, 2009, pp7-8.

26: Fisher, 2009, p78.

27: Mason, 2012, p68.

28: Mason, 2012, p138.

29: Doogan, 2008, p44.

30: Doogan, 2008, p45.

31: Doogan, 2008, p11.

32: Mason, 2012, p57.

33: Mason, 2012, p63.

34: Jones, 2011a, pp91-92.

35: Jeewa, 2011.

36: Aitchison and Peters, 2011.

37: Barker, 2001, p25.

38: Michels, cited in Barker, 2001, p25.

39: Hallas, 1971.

40: Molyneux, 2009, p153.

41: For an excellent brief defence of democratic centralism, see Harman, 1978.

42: For an extended discussion of the “Global Youth Revolt”, see Zill, 2012.

43: Zill, 2012, p18.

44: Jones, 2011b, p40.

45: Mason, 2012, pp66-67.

46: In an earlier issue of this journal, I argued that the riots which broke out in London in August 2011 could be seen to “embody a revolt against the diminished prospects of receiving things that a group felt they were entitled to or likely to acquire”, such as employment, Education Maintenance Allowance and higher education, and that “this affront to a sense of entitlement is more relevant than absolute poverty”-Jones, 2011b, p45.

47: Harman, 1987.

48: Harman, 2009.

49: Basketter, 2012.

50: Mason, 2012, p39.

51: Wolf, 2011.

52: Klein, 2011.

53: Swain, 2011, p103.

54: Le Blanc, 2012.

55: Ste Croix, 1984, p100.

56: Blackledge, 2011.

57: Standing, 2011.

58: Seymour, 2012.

59: Chretien and Muldoon, 2012.

60: Chretien and Muldoon, 2012. Their article is an excellent summary of the danger which this form of ultra-leftism poses to the movement.

61: See Callinicos, 2001, for more on the theoretical background and the political implications of such ideas.

62: Zizek, 2012.

63: Callinicos, 1983, pp85-87.

64: Zizek, 2012.

65: Doogan, 2008, p8.

66: Dyer-Witheford, 2012.

67: For more on the debates in the Occupy movement, see the US Socialist Worker’s online pamphlet:

68: International Socialist Review, 2011, p12.


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