‘We are being sucked into a foul, bureaucratic swamp’ Lenin, quoted in S.A. Smith’s ‘Russia in Revolution’.
‘Within this fetid ecosystem the air was too stale for new ideas to grow’ Gary Younge, quoted in Nesrine Malik’s ‘We Need New Stories’.
There is much fetidness and foulness in the world today. Nigeria, Trump, Tory MPs (who are as clueless as they are hypocritical). What we’re seeing at the moment in England is the continuation of entrenched class hatred wielded by Tories in the name of maintaining and consolidating power.
Two massively alarming topics this week: the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the rejection of a continuation of the Free School Meals scheme over holidays. Does this feel like an opportunity to change? Or is it a moment that a stressed nation will quickly forget? It’s too early to say. One thing feels clear: local leaders making a noise, whether they be elected officials like Burnham or members of the community with a large platform like Rashford, are crucial and needed.
Local engagement – actually any kind of engagement – in politics is desultory. Grass roots activism and local campaigns mobilising around local issues can be and have been successful and are an important part of the political ecosystem. But representative democracy is devoid of the input of local people (by which I mean communities of people in a particular place, who are outside of the political and capitalist classes) beyond casting the occasional vote at the ballot box:
‘Under the parliamentary system each citizen casts his vote into the ballot box once in four or five years, and the field is then clear for the members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and Presidents, to manage everything without any reference to the toiling masses. Gulled and exploited by its officials, the toilers have no part whatever in the administration of the capitalist state.’ (Soviet or Parliament, Nikolai Bukharin. Source: Marxists Internet Archive)
Looking purely at the structure (and this is in no way an interrogation of what is a complex history), Soviets were workers’ councils: ‘It is not an organisation of officials independent of the masses and dependent on the capitalists.’ (Soviet or Parliament, Nikolai Bukharin. Source: Marxists Internet Archive). Soviets are ‘the immediate organisations of the masses themselves i.e. they are the most democratic and therefore the most authoritative organisations ..which facilitate to the utmost their participation in the work of building up the new state’ (The Foundations of Leninism, J.V. Stalin). So, a way of local people to influence, steer and shape policy and decision making.
In 1950s Colombia, Juntas Accion de Communal (JAC)s (community action boards) were adopted as ‘strategic state induced mechanisms created to pacify class-conscious peasants’ (Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia, James Brittain.) Nevertheless as a methodology for involving local voices, there is value here and tradition here. A way for communities to take action and be involved in local planning. JACs evolved over time, changing their relationship with the State, and in some cases were mechanisms for resistance.
Rebel groups like FARC-EP governed areas, creating new systems of social order. Ana Arjona’s Rebelocracy analyses how armed groups and communities develop a new way of working together and what contradictions are thrown up: ‘when (local) institutions are legitimate but not effective, or effective but not legitimate, the (rebel) group can expect to find a divided community where at least a sector is willing to bring about change – be it regarding class structure, ethnic prerogatives, social mobilisation, or any other grievance…By making alliances with key actors, infiltrating their organisations, or colluding with them, the armed actor penetrates the community, gains power, and eventually establishes a new social order of rebelocracy’. Arjona goes on to describe the role of rebel groups (and paramilitaries) in administering justice locally and I feel that this idea of taking the ‘law’ out of the hands of ‘experts’ and re-creating it as a system of listening and sharing, within a framework of rules that citizens abide by, has merit. Again, I’m wary of being reductive and am aware that these are complex histories.
In early Soviet Russia, as S.A. Smith observes, ‘the majority of peasants, though disgruntled, appear not to have been deeply hostile to the government and a sizeable majority positively approved the Communist ideal in principle, seeing in it an extension of the values of the collectivism, equality, and mutual aid that were inherent in the commune’ (Russia in Revolution, Smith). In Latin America ‘building communal power meant dissolving political power into the community itself; it meant “broadening of democracy in which the communities will assume the fundamental powers of the state”’ (Building the Commune, George Ciccariello-Maher).
In 21st century Britain, there is little interest from power players in this way of building decision making: of course there isn’t, it would remove them from their happy place. The chip chip away at the ferocity of late stage capitalism can bring us some relief: improved working and living conditions, better roads, schools and hospitals. A Corbyn led Labour government would certainly have been a step in the right direction. But our connection to communal living, localised ways of truly making decisions, seem to have largely disappeared with enclosure.
There is rage, of course. Focus E15 have campaigned on council housing for over a decade, Grenfell United continues to stand up for the rights of tenants, BLM UK has become a constituted body and renamed as Black Liberation Movement UK. These are important and necessary campaigns. But they are mobilisations around issues and the work does not necessarily address structural change or provide visions for a new way of governing.
Closer to a politically wide-ranging solution to an issue and in a generationally different Britain: in 1970s/80s Liverpool, the TGWU 6/612 branch (of which 90% of the membership was unemployed) was involved in setting up centres for unemployed people. Brian Marren quotes Kevin Coyne: ‘The Unemployed Centre in Liverpool was founded on the basis that unemployment was a creation of political action and therefore only a political solution could solve it…(we) felt that we had to pursue a policy of campaigning by way of mobilising politically’(We Shall Not be Moved, Marren). Having physical centres where people could sit, talk, celebrate, commiserate and learn is vital to the development of politically informed and confident communities. That the centres were able to exist for as long as they did is due to the characteristics, socially and politically, of Liverpool at the time. It would be very difficult to do this in gentrified London, for example.
The signs of urban Mayors now speaking up and providing politically based opposition to central government are heartening – could this be the start of a revitalisation of local authorities? Local authorities are closer – should be closer – to their communities and have embedded local relationships: ‘Mayors work hand in glove with local NHS leaders and regional public health experts. We have a deep understanding of the complexity and diversity of our communities. We have strong links with local business leaders and understand the strengths of our local economies. Crucially, we have shown ourselves capable of reacting to events more quickly and devising more innovative solutions than national government.’ (The Guardian)
In spite of the specific public health topic of this article, it is time that local authorities were funded and empowered to deliver real services that respond to local needs. Any change must incorporate local representation – in a meaningful way. Soviet style committees, that have power and cannot be ignored, local groups based on mutual aid and care. These are models to adapt and learn from.
Whatever the current government may say about levelling up, what they don’t mean is listening to and devolving power to local people. And to be a truly representative system of governance, this is exactly what is needed.