A collection of articles offering analysis and responses to the crisis fails to add up to the intended manifesto, despite many pieces of interest, reports Alistair Stephens
What We Are Fighting For: A Radical Collective Manifesto, eds. Federico Campagna and Emanuele Campiglio (Pluto 2012), xiv, 205pp.
Like the proverbial curate’s egg, What We Are Fighting For is good in parts. It is a collection of short pieces (many are less essays than columns) that came out of a conference held at the ICA in November 2011, a week after the pension strikes. It sets out to have a plurality of voices and draws on both contributors to the original conference and others who were recruited into a temporary working group. The collection is divided in to five sections: New Economics, New Governance, New Public, New Social Imagination and Tactics of Struggle.
Let’s start with the good parts. In the first section there are useful and interesting articles by Michael Albert of ZNet on his concept of ‘Parecon’ (participatory economics). It does something which many on the revolutionary left are often afraid of doing, discussing how a democratic economy might actually be organised. He can do this because he sees it as something to be struggled for in the here and now, rather than something that might only occur following the socialist millennium. That is not to say I agree with all that he says, and his description of the ruling class as a ‘co-ordinator class’ made up of some 20% of the population seems somewhat at variance with the reality of the 1% that much of the movement now describes as the enemy, let alone Marxist definitions of the capitalist class.
Another of the better articles is one by Anne Pettifor. Though again I do not necessarily agree with all she says, it discusses the Credit Crunch and the resultant recession in clear and understandable terms, something that too often has been rather lacking on the left as comrades have all too often fallen back on pat explanations, which often seem to bear little relation to most people’s understanding of the actual crisis.
Also of interest and readable are Richard Seymour’s article on the New Model Commune, Owen Jones’s on a New Class Politics or Peter Hallward’s People and Power: Four Notes on Democracy and Dictatorship. Funnily enough it is the front and the back of the book where the best bits seem to concentrate, as in the last section with chapters by Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and the South London Solidarity Federation (an anarcho-syndicalist group).
Needless to say most of the best bits of the book are written by people who might be best described as ‘activists’. They are however in the minority in this volume in which out of 21 authors, 11 are academics. This tends to give the volume a rather abstract tone at points and makes some pieces seem deliberately obtuse. I could pick out any number of quotes to illustrate this, but shan’t. I think most us know what academic leftism sounds like. The chapters by Zillah Eisenstien (Renewing Intersectionality) and Franco Berardi (The Transversal Function of Disentanglement) this reviewer found particularly trying.
The collection contains in fact a fair amount of hyperbole, and some statements which are frankly a bit daft. More problematic is lack of basic shared assumptions amongst the writers on the nature of the world and how to change it. It means that not only does it not gel together very well as a collection, and often feels less ‘plural’ than discordant. For instance, there are references to ‘capitalism’, ‘contemporary capitalism’, ‘neo-liberal capitalism’. What these words mean is not really explained. The nature of capitalism is not really described, and there is a lack of clarity about the nature of the system.
This means that the different solutions to the problems of mankind do not seem fit together. Whilst some writers clearly and explicitly look to the overthrow of capitalism in toto, and others want radical reform, yet others just seem to wish carry out reforms (that seem to this author) so minor that they fall into the category of tinkering. It also means that no real clear message of the means of social change emerges from the book.
On the positive side, Owen Jones, writing about the centrality of class, and Peter Hallward, on the nature of revolutionary and post-revolutionary regimes, seem to come from different places, but have a common thread between them. Less constructively, one of the book’s editors, Federico Campagna writes: ‘In order to free ourselves from the fraudulent imperatives of revolution and from the paralysis of the endless waiting for the parousia – only occasionally interrupted by pathetically impotent marches, or by equally pathetic, merely self-validating assemblies we opportunists should reject the tiresome discourse of “changing the world”. Changing ourselves would be enough of a change!’ (p.160).
Next to such a retreat from systemic change brought about by collective action, airy talk of ‘intersectionality’ and ‘horizontality’ start to seem less unreasonable. Though there are some good pieces in the book, there is also quite a lot of bad. Like the curate’s egg, ingestion of the whole could leave you feeling queasy.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.