JD Taylor examines dangerous possibilities for the People’s Assemblies – and reminds us that actions speak louder than words. Can the British left be less conservative, and will the People’s Assemblies provide the spark that ignites the flame?
Reasons to be cheerful? Dangerous possibilities for People’s Assemblies
These laptops and handheld gizmos we spend so much of our time gazing into are highly depressing devices. Take a cursory glance at the news for a quick refresh, if you dare. No doubt there’ll be some fresh new excess of corruption by our homogeneous political establishment, or some new low in welfare cuts, payday lending or NHS privatisation. Racism and suspicious deaths in custody continue to blight the widely-discredited Metropolitan police. Overseas, British soldiers are caught in yet another Iraqi torture scandal or murder. Skim down to the reactionary comments and sigh. Flick to Twitter or Facebook, where some bot has mined your search terms to flog you drunkenness, the consolation of online poker or even the opportunity to share a moment’s digitised intimacy with another lonely soul, at a price. But at least these communication devices are getting cheaper. There’s got to be some distraction from the growing homelessness, boarded-up businesses, poverty, and decay of our communities.
Since 2010 we’ve been hovering in a moment of indistinction. Ask the man or woman sitting next to you what they think of bankers, politicians, or Rupert Murdoch and chances are you’ll receive an expletive in response. The effort’s worth it though, as it underlines a general popular consensus that the power network that controls the national population, one that’s imposing yet another round of tax-cuts for the rich and privatisation of public assets, is one that is deeply unloved. So why is it still allowed to exist and go unchallenged on a daily basis?
In fact something new and exciting is happening. A wide number of separate voices committed to equality, justice and democracy have sprung up and made a good case for a new political movement and organisation. Left Unity and the People’s Assemblies movements are already gaining popular traction in bringing together communities opposed to austerity. With a number of national assemblies planned over the year, spearheaded by forward-thinking and hard-working figures like Owen Jones, there could be something to be optimistic about.
This all depends on how the assemblies are used. These days the internet gives us all the freedom we might need to bash out our opinions into the idiotic ether of forums and social media. Rabble-rousing and back-patting won’t prevent another unpopular government coming to power or poverty and living standards worsening. If the all-star national People’s Assembly in London on 22 June results in a few thousand people being lectured by the great and the good to have faith in the neoliberal Labour party and wait for their well-paid Trade Unionist cronies to one day maybe even suggest a general strike, then that’s ok. We’ll come away feeling good about ourselves like at the Stop the War marches, and the later TUC-led anti-cuts demonstrations over the last two years, where the same discredited tactics of A-to-B marches and SWP-era petitions were mobilised to spectacular effort.
But I don’t mean to be too cynical, because I really do believe that People’s Assemblies can work, particularly if their goal is communities coming together to seize power of their own affairs and demand justice. This final aspect is crucial. It happened back in Tottenham in August 2011, as angry relatives and residents confronted the police over the death of Mark Duggan. Autthority’s apparent power quickly caved in as a sham, and for three days in England everything felt possible. It also occurred in Tunisia, and later Egypt, as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi empowered enraged communities to turn out and confront police and government corruption.
In both cases, the message was simple: justice, truth, equality. It came attached to a particular enemy: the police or local government, and attached to a particular target: a police station or local town hall. Above all, it possessed a determination to confront and damage that target.
Recent congregations of the British Left have so far lacked that determination, lacked a gut message to attract the wider employed and welfare-dependent working classes to the campaign, and lacked an organisational vision of the movement ahead. The wider number of people are dispirited and bored by idealistic politics and the dubious voice of a white middle-class minority claiming universality. But if certain strategies are seen to be genuinely disrupting the establishment, then this cynicism could be abandoned.
And there are plenty of good tactics that could be used by the new people’s assembles:
- Put Britain’s enormous number of empty buildings to good use, and protest the further criminalisation of squatting, through occupations. Provide spaces for communities and run Black Panther style breakfast clubs.
- Empty police stations and abandoned council estates awaiting demolition/gentrification could provide temporary accommodation for the increasing number of homeless people.
- Banks now own so much of the nation’s infrastructure – like schools and hospitals – through PFI schemes, it’s a pretty raw deal that they continue to suck up public money, dish out bonuses and thrive whilst collective living standards decline. Occupying and redistributing the contents of their tills could boost community reinvestment.
- These days the only things being built are pound-shops and supermarkets. Learning from the Andalusian village of Marinaleda and its mayor Sanchez Gordillo, people’s assemblies could set up their own secular food-banks that source their supplies not from well-meaning donations, but collective raids from local supermarkets. “Community Supermarket Sweep” could catch on, uniting young and old and all the family in a fun day out.
- Parliament Square no longer has a fence around it – a camping trip to coincide with the re-opening of parliament could also be fun. #OPS, anyone?
A final possibility for disaffected Labour councils hit hardest by austerity in the North, and Wales, is to try out ‘Poplarism‘ – that is, a refusal to pay taxes or cooperate with central government. It’s named after the east London suburb and its radical Labour mayor George Lansbury, who in 1921 chose to use local tax-money to provide relief and support for the poor, rather than pay them on to central government. He went to jail briefly, as did many others, but the Poplar Rates Rebellion succeeded once influence and sympathy caught alight, and tax burdens between rich and poor districts were soon equalised by a national government fearing social unrest.
In any case, there could be some reasons to be cheerful. Hard work and passion is already mobilised, and the collective mood of the British people is increasingly one of anger, frustration, and a desire for revenge against bankers and politicians. Public confidence in our political masters is so low that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to ignite a flame that could quickly catch and spread. Bring on the popular revolt.
JD Taylor is a writer and PhD researcher from south London. His Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era was published by Zero Books earlier this year. @jd_taylor / drownedandsaved.wordpress.com
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