By George Buskell
I don’t think its controversial at this point in time to say that the world is getting worse. ‘Progressism’ and semi-teleological ideas about the inevitable move towards some kind of social progress are being rather depressingly disproven every day. Whilst there are certainly some positive stories in the news now and then – most recently the legalisation of gay marriage in the North of Ireland – speaking from a staunchly leftist viewpoint, there seems to be little hope to find. Sometimes, day to day existence feels like being a spectator of events rather than being a participant, like you merely perceive events rather than shape them — a feeling of powerlessness. If all the world’s a stage, sometimes it feels like being in the audience. Australia is on fire, an unspeakable non-human (and human) tragedy. Both the ‘new’ empire, the United States, and the ‘old’ empire, our own “United” Kingdom are being led by semi-fascist aristocrats with little empathy for us plebeians who live with the consequences of their decisions. Whenever the future is brought up in conversation, it’s often with a looming sense of dread. War with Iran, climate change, Brexit. After the disastrous General Election last December, some of the most amazing, energetic and hard-working activists I know became sapped of energy the second the results were announced. I did too. Now more than ever, the future seems to be in the hands of despair. The most important political project for the left today is to build a new vision for the future — not just to resist encroachments on our freedom with fury but rather to embody a politics of excitement and imagination, and begin to build a better world in the here and now. We need to break through Capitalist Realism, and bring individuals and their communities into this process — to change minds and win hearts not just through words but also actions and care. That is when, as individuals and communities, we can begin to step back through the ‘fourth wall’ and reshape the world again, defeating our culture of passivity.
A lot of us staked a good amount of our hope in the Corbyn project, including many of us who hail from Marxist or Anarchist political traditions who are naturally and rightly sceptical of parliament and party politics. To its credit, though it is not quite dead yet, the Corbyn moment was able to shift public discourse decidedly leftwards, and introduced new, creative and genuinely quite exciting policy proposals like public broadband and a Green New Deal that would have been unheard of 10 or 20 years ago. Was it ever going to end capitalism and bring about a genuine transformation of society? No. But it did promise to curb some of capitalism’s most dangerous tendencies and to some of us, this was worth fighting for and defending. It was the easy route. The easy route is now gone. Climate change looms over us, social inequality is getting worse and with it, our sense of solidarity and community has been broken. The radical left put its hopes in a project it knew in the back of its collective mind was never going to live up to expectations, and it did so in desperation. Many of our old, traditional vestiges have been under attack, trade unions are now for the most part toothless and have been ravaged by decades of assault from the state. Old communist parties are now, for the most part, dead (in my view, thankfully). Even the Squatters’ movement seems to be having a tough time.
On the other hand, the radical left is certainly growing in size and has been for years, organising in online spaces and developing digital cultures since the 2008 financial crisis. Even self-proclaimed communists like Ash Sarkar are being given regular airtime on mainstream television — we definitely have potential. New and exciting community projects are popping up everywhere. On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I visited a zero-waste co-op specialising in sharing food with those in need, recycling unwanted books and clothes and providing a social space for the community. It seems these types of projects are flourishing everywhere, and people are putting in incredible work to ensure their success. Mutual aid groups are multiplying in big cities, distributing food to the homeless to act as a counterweight to official food banks which are often apolitical or of a primarily religious nature. Do we need to be marching and occupying and fighting as hard as we can in the coming years? Yes. But these kinds of community-based projects offer us a subtler mode of resistance, and in my view embody a type of prefigurative politics.
Prefigurative politics, for those uninitiated into the world of the left-of-left, is essentially the idea that we should be building the kinds of social transformation that we want to see in the world, in our everyday practices. It is not about being the change you want to see in the world, but doing it, building it. It is through these types of practices, in my view, that we might start to arrive at the imaginative vision for the future that we need. If socialism, anarchism and communism are just notions we bring up in protests or tweet about, then it creates a perception that we only oppose things, destroy things, when we also need to be building (and be excited about it). There is a reason why many of us are socialists (or any other label that we wish to give ourselves) and not just ‘anti-capitalists’. We have a positive vision for a new world that we believe to be possible and just, and we need to go about building it from the ground up, as much as possible and practicable within existing systems.
A politics of excitement and imagination is not so much something that we ponder about after reading books and pamphlets as it is something that we arrive at through our experiences of trying to act out our beliefs in the real world. This doesn’t mean discarding our traditions. We should defend the trade union movement until our last breath, we should be fighting fascists and far right thugs on the streets — but we should also be building social spaces, community cafes and food shares. These projects bring people in communities into our spaces and politically educates them as they exist and act within them. They open people’s minds up to different ways of doing things and can also inspire people to build their own co-op or mutual aid group, a tenants’ union or a radical bookstore. It also allows us to perform social functions within communities that have been left apolitical for a long time, to become anchors in communities that people trust and can engage with rather than abstracted political parties that only engage in the politics of meetings. It’s not like these projects haven’t been a part of leftism before, this isn’t exactly ‘new’ to many of us, but to recenter them within a broad political strategy is something that to me the left has failed to do in recent years. We often engage in macro-politics, but engaging in the micro-politics of food, shelter, even the provision of sanitary products opens up so many new and exciting ways in which we can start to undo hierarchies in our everyday relations, alleviate some of the worst aspects of inequality and begin to liberate people’s thinking from the shackles of media hegemony.
Engaging with these issues seems daunting, and building community co-ops and solidarity groups will never happen overnight. But people are doing it, and for those of us that believe in a better world, we should take every opportunity to do so. It will be time consuming, it will be a learning process, but I think ultimately it will be worth it. Orthodox ways of engaging in politics are clearly failing. Our political system is two-tiered, we have a theoretical political equality that is completely undone by capitalist power structures, and we simply cannot vote our way to liberation. Many of us feel a sense of hopelessness after the election, and we should try to redirect this in order to build and not despair. Sure, prefigurative politics is probably inherently small scale, and it can never completely undo the hurt that our current social systems cause, but it provides a solid basis that can genuinely transform people’s lives and open them up to new ways of thinking. It helps people reclaim agency over themselves and their environment, which is fundamental to defeating the idea that “things will never change”. If we can do that, even on a small scale, we can win. An ever poignant Antonio Gramsci quote has been oft tweeted and shared in the past few weeks: “the old world is dying and the new one is struggling to be born, now is the time of monsters.” Many place emphasis on the ‘the time of monsters’, but that would be doing Gramsci a disservice. Our emphasis should be on the new world struggling to be born, to ensure that struggle is not in vain.
George Buskell is a final year International Politics student at the University of Surrey. He writes here in a personal capacity and not at Features Editor of Incite.