A Civil Society Strategy for Revitalizing the Left

September 23rd, 2011

Published on ZNet (Source: Socialist Project: The Left’s Role in Its Own Decline), by Steve D’Arcy, September 15, 2011.

What happened to the North American Left? Why is it that, even now, when capitalism seems so obviously unappealing, unsustainable and unfair, the Left cannot mount a more serious challenge to the Right or its grim austerity agenda? Indeed, what happened to the Left’s former ability to mobilize huge numbers into powerful social movements, to inspire working-class people with appealing visions of post-capitalist alternatives, and to strike fear into the hearts of elites who once worried that the Left posed a credible threat to their power and privilege? … // 

… A Civil Society Strategy:

The Left, in other words, must turn its attention back toward civil society: union locals, cooperatives, social movement organizations, mutual aid projects, popular assemblies, and other community associations. These expressions of grassroots democracy and popular self-organization – operating independently of both the market economy and the state – offer the Left the crucial benefit that they do not replicate the alienating and disempowering character of corporations and governments (although the Left is unfortunately overpopulated with bureaucratic and staff-led union and NGO apparatuses that today emulate the administrative systems of elite institutions). Instead, these grassroots civil society organizations embody the ‘every cook can govern’ spirit of the classical (pre-WWI) Left.

When the Left does engage with the state, as it sometimes must, its default demand should be to transfer power from corporations and the state to civil society. Such a civil society strategy is arguably already implicit in the notion of a community-based socialism. For example, whereas a statist strategy would demand that the government’s budget adopt welfare-maximizing priorities, a civil society strategy would demand that budgeting power be ceded to a grassroots participatory budgeting process, centrally involving open public assemblies. Whereas a statist strategy would demand ‘public housing’ owned and operated by the state, a civil society strategy would demand that state funds be used to establish democratically self-governing non-profit housing cooperatives, collectively owned by their members. And whereas a statist strategy would demand ‘nationalizing’ banks as ‘public enterprises,’ a civil society strategy would demand that banks be dismantled and reconstructed as genuinely democratic and member-controlled financial cooperatives (‘credit unions’), operating in the public interest. This transfer of power and control from corporations and governments to civil society associations should be seen as the main aim of the Left. From this point of view, ‘winning’ for the Left means replacing the power and prerogatives of corporations and governments with empowered participatory self-governing associations within civil society.

How We Resist Neoliberalism:

There is no doubt that a civil society strategy for the Left raises a number of difficult questions. Above all, it poses a very serious set of questions about how the radical Left should fight back against neoliberalism, notably in its contemporary guise of the ‘austerity’ agenda. Given that neoliberalism’s primary policy aspiration is to privatize public services, and to replace public administration (the ‘public sector’ economy) with market regulation (the ‘private sector’ economy), shouldn’t the Left be defending the state (the public sector) against neoliberal privatization?

For better or for worse, what the Left needs in addressing this question is nuance. We have to be able to distinguish between (for example) transferring control of a public housing complex to a private landlord (‘privatization’), in pursuit of the corporate/neoliberal agenda, and transferring control of that same public housing complex to the residents themselves (‘cooperative conversion’), under pressure from grassroots popular mobilization. If we refuse to make this distinction, either by celebrating privatization as a victory against the state or by vilifying cooperative conversion as if it were itself a type of privatization, we fall into one of two familiar traps: the temptation to see the state as the main enemy, letting corporations disastrously off the hook, or (more likely among leftists) the temptation to align ourselves politically with the ill-fated project of ‘public administration socialism,’ in which the Left plays the role of supporting the capitalist state as a bulwark against corporate power.

This is at the heart of the Left’s historic failure to champion freedom and democracy against not only their corporate enemies, but their bureaucratic-statist enemies, as well. Once taking this path, the Left quickly finds itself defending the state against the negative experience of it that so pervades the lives of poor and working-class people, even to the point of championing the increase of taxes on workers as ‘progressive’ because it supports the state.

The Left, or at least the radical Left, needs to remember that its project by definition demands that sweeping social reorganization and reconstruction from below be entertained and where possible carried out. Sometimes, this means tactically defending public services, run on a non-profit basis by the state, against the immediate threat of profit-motivated privatization, which we rightly oppose as a step in the wrong direction altogether. But ultimately, the Left must aim higher than state-administration: the Left must aim to replace both the profit-motivated private sector economy and the bureaucratically administered public sector economy, in favor of a community-based, democratic and egalitarian post-capitalist economic democracy. This means that we must admit the obvious: that publicly owned enterprises and public services offered by the capitalist welfare state do not meet this standard by any stretch of the imagination. Our project demands a civil society strategy, not a statist one. What we fight for is not a bigger, more expansive state, but more democratic and egalitarian forms of grassroots popular self-organization: a more participatory and community-based set of economic and political institutions, controlled from below by working people themselves.

Above all, a civil society strategy is necessary because our world needs a Left that can inspire hope, not just for a more productive and well-administered society, but for a freer, more democratic, less alienating society, controlled directly by its members, as opposed to being controlled by administrators, supposedly acting in the public interest. This ideal of a ‘community-based socialism’ was a vision that once united the entire radical Left – Marxists and anarchists, guild socialists and Owenites, syndicalists and council communists – and I think there is reason to hope that it could some day do so again. (full long text).

(Steve D’Arcy is a climate justice and economic democracy organizer in London, Ontario, Canada. He can be reached here mailto:steve.darcy@gmail.com. This article appeared as part of Rabble’s “Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons” series).

Link: Steve D’Arcy’s ZSpace Blog.

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