Posts Tagged ‘organisation’

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Democracy, revolutionary organisation, and the internet

December 8, 2013

This was originally written for the Socialist Workers Party’s (increasingly ill-named) ‘Internal Bulletin’, ahead of conference in early 2010, and shortly after I was suspended as a member, as detailed below. I was, as the piece makes clear, somewhat irked at the time by these spurious disciplinary proceedings, although in light of events over subsequent years it’s really very small beer indeed. Originally written from the viewpoint that the SWP could in some sense be reformed, it’s now painfully clear that this would be a hopeless task. It cannot be reformed, and nor should it be rebuilt. New organisations, not exercises in nostalgia, are now required.

I’m republishing the article here because the more interesting parts of the essay weren’t printed at the time. These are the first and last sections, on how the internet and communications technology changes the possibilities for political organisation. It was a mistake not to submit them for publication back then, but I think the issues raised (and the solutions suggested) are still of immediate relevance – perhaps more so now.

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Ashcroft and nostalgia computing

March 3, 2010

Ashcroft the non-dom close to brewing into a proper, old-fashioned Tory scandal:

Revenue investigators were last night facing demands to launch an inquiry into the tax status of Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire businessman bankrolling the Consevative party, amid new questions about how he was allowed to break a promise to permanently base himself in the UK to secure a seat in the House of Lords.

As anger grew over Ashcroft’s admission that he has secretly remained a non-dom for the nine years he has sat in parliament, there were separate calls for inquiries into his nomination for a peerage in 2000 and his tax affairs.

In a knowing 2010 twist on a mid-90s classic, the foreign businessman lavishing the cash about is actually English and resident here. It’s not nostalgia politics, it’s self-aware, ironic nostalgia politics.

Hopefully Ashcroft can be persuaded onto one of those I LUV 1994 programmes to talk about what japes they all used to have with the citrus fruit and the brown envelopes and whatnot.

The benefactors of Ashcroft’s tax-free largesse also have a whiff of something over-familiar. Wired magazine this month has a feature on “Merlin”, the computerised vote-targeting system, an update of Labour’s 1997 system, “Excalibur”. The Guardian blog has some details:

Merlin allows the party to combine information about a local area gathered from canvass sheets with Mosaic – a subtle classification of voter groups developed by the research firm Experian, which gives a detailed breakdown of 65 consumer “tribes” such as “cafe bar professionals” and “high spending families”. Crabtree writes: “Those socio-demographic categories let candidates see who lives in their patch simply by typing in a postcode”.

This sort of detailed voter information is the life-blood of an election campaign. But there’s nothing new about it.

For well over a century, mass, democratic politics has made use of this sort knowledge. Local activists have always had to know what sort of person they would find behind any particular door. Success in an election campaign would depend on knowing how to target messages. Years of practical, on-the-ground experience have built up inside the major political parties.

The Tories’ system effectively digitises that knowledge base, like copying vinyl records onto CDs. The same underlying information is there, just in a different format. So it’s not clear Merlin does anything more sophisticated than what a well-informed local party branch could do.

And a computer system, however sophisticated, cannot make the imaginative leaps that people can. Politics is a creative art. Initiative and imagination matter.

Except, of course, allowing local activists’ the initiative is something Cameron’s team have become rather wary of.

An expensive new system like Merlin would be a good way to challenge local control. And it might compensate for withered local organisations. In a tight election, that can matter. But it’s no magic wand.

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February 20, 2010

Flagging up this interesting post from Barrykade, which deals with similar issues (in its first half) to the one below here. I’ll even forgive him the apparently obligatory Monty Python reference.

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Althusser, and revolutionary strategy

January 13, 2010

One of Chris Harman’s last articles is printed in the new International Socialism Journal – an attack on Louis Althusser, in defence of Lukacs and the classical Marxist tradition. It’s timely, as Althusser is making an intellectual resurgence at present. As Harman says,

There is barely an issue of Historical Materialism that does not carry some article on him; his influence pervades the North American journal Rethinking Marxism; and long-established academics will refer to his ideas as if they can be taken for granted.

Partly as a side-effect of that, I had been re-reading his 1962 essay, ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination’; it struck me, as for some reason it hadn’t before, just how opposed Althusser’s concept of historical changes was to how Marxists had conventionally understood it:

…the whole Marxist revolutionary experience shows that. if the general contradiction (it has already been specified: the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, essentially embodied in the contradiction between two antagonistic classes) is sufficient to define the situation when revolution is the ‘task of the day’, it cannot of its own simple, direct power induce a ‘revolutionary situation’, nor a fortiori a situation of revolutionary rupture and the triumph of the revolution.

This is appears, on first brush, to be sharply opposed to a deterministic view of social change: the economic motor (‘the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production’) is not enough to, by itself, to produce a ‘revolutionary situation’. But Althusser goes on to remove any motor force for history:

If this contradiction is to become ‘active’ in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’ so that whatever their origin and sense (and many of them will necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’), they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity: when they produce the result of the immense majority of the popular masses grouped in an assault on a regime which its ruling classes are unable to defend. Such a situation presupposes not only the ‘fusion’ of the two basic conditions into a ‘single national crisis’, but each condition considered (abstractly) by itself presupposes the ‘fusion’ of an ‘accumulation’ of contradictions.

In other words, it is only in revolutionary situation itself that even the possibility of revolution can be seen; and, further, it is only when such a ‘ruptural unity’ emerges that the totality of society becomes visible. Prior to that point, the separate elements of the social whole – the economy, culture, politics, theoretical work – all proceed down their own neat tram-lines. It is unclear what mechanism, other than crisis itself, would ever pull them together: Althusser, arbitrarily, selects the economy as the determining force ‘in the last instance’, but even he recognises the theoretical weakness of this determination, within his own system. ‘[T]he lonely hour of the last instance never comes,’ he concludes.

Major social changes are left essentially to chance, and – being left to chance – render his system indistinguishable from determinism, both as a matter of empirical enquiry, and from the viewpoint of those seeking to change the world. The distance between Althusser’s view of society as distinct structures, and the classical Marxist view, derived from Hegel, that places the totality of social life at the dead centre of its understanding of the world, could not be greater.

In particular, Lukacs use of the ‘actuality of revolution’ is wholly opposed to Althusser’s equivalent concept, ‘overdetermination’. Lukacs, writing in the aftermath of the defeated European revolutions following the First World War, did not mean that revolution was always and everwhere a feasible possibility. Rather he meant that within every social situation, there could be derived a vision of society as a whole, if the viewpoint adopted was that of the working class looking back, as it were, from its successful revolution.

Of course, there are ambiguities in this; it isn’t enough to declare oneself to merely be the vanguard, and therefore correct; this has to be proven in practice, through discussion, debate, and struggle. But in practical terms, this means that there is always a revolutionary political strategy that can be adopted, by the revolutionary organisation, in any given social situation. There is always a weak link in the chain of events that will break open the situation, always a need for the identification of political priorities. Now, whether any purported vanguard of the proletariat will actually find that strategy is another question, naturally; but at least the possibility of such a strategy exists.

It is, perhaps, this underlying issue of strategy that accounts for Althusser’s slight return to favour. The decade since the upsurge of the anticapitalist movement has seen repeated arguments, from Antonio Negri onwards, on the fundamental irrelevance of questions of strategy to those seeking social change.

Alain Badiou, another thinker rising to Anglophone prominence in the last ten years or so, whose concept of the transformative Event otherwise bears – I think – a striking similarity to Althusser’s ‘ruptural unity’, is perhaps less dismissive of strategy, at least identifying the need for organisation and polemic, in the latter case often with great panache. The underplaying of strategy, however, is a common theme; we need to move beyond this, if we are going to break the Left out of its current deadlock.