We live in a world that is increasingly dominated by the few, at the expense of the many. The Occupy movement has shown just how large resistance to this quasi-feudalist system is growing, but we need to go beyond what it advocates. There is a need to engage in subaltern politics, to work outside pre-existing hegemonic structures that derive their legitimacy purely from mass following, as doing so undermines their claims. By working in the space outside dominant global structures, cross-spatial solidarity can be forged and strengthened, which itself provides a basis for the rejection and eventual destruction of oppressive structures and institutions. The problem lies to some extent in the identification of these structures and institutions; how are the different issues of different people reconciled? How do we create ‘maps of grievance’ (Featherstone, 2003) and link and eradiate the problems of the global 99%?
Take capitalism as an example; the ultimate global institution. By refusing to participate in such an exploitative structure, we can undermine it by denying it the input and participation it requires to survive. By growing our own food, by running energy self-sufficiently off-grid, by ignoring the rhetoric spewed by politicians and engaging in cooperative associations that facilitate community food, housing, trade and energy, we can create an alternative. It is the blind faith in its institutional mechanisms that buttresses capitalism; faith in virtual exchanges of hypothetical money that run into the trillions. The institution exists within a global bubble that can be burst if the confidence that sustains it is removed, if a mass movement is created that demonstrates our opposition. If we create our ideal alternative separate from structures we can see today, we can undermine the foundations of capitalism and thus create an anti-capitalism.
It is questionable whether any single existing social movement has the capacity to present such an alternative; the only rational option is to forge alliances and create a united front. This is a bone of contention, of course. Minor differences in strategy, attitude and ideas are often the reason for the disintegration of groups working together under a collective banner. Solidarity is important, but so is the way our definitions and interpretations of the concept differ. If solidarity is the “productive practices that form equivalences between different struggles” rather than an aggregation of similar views and a collective interest (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985 152-59, cited in Featherstone, 2003, ibid.), then it is difficult to reconcile this with the need for a mass movement and alliance of a variety of groups that do not necessarily agree on every level. The need for cooperation is too pressing to be overly concerned with subtle nuances and differences between groups – solidarity, i.e. the alliance of independent individuals working together to achieve a palpable goal, is a necessity if we are to offer something other than the structures that currently dominate.
It seems that there is a tendency, particularly among the left, to become too involved in debating seemingly irrelevant and puerile dissimilarities rather than engaging in worthwhile discussions about moving towards something positive that satisfies the objectives of all the individuals and groups concerned. This is an observation I have made, and it applies mostly to the groups and movements that I have experience in (namely London-based environmental, anarchist and socialist groups) though I believe from research that it is a generalisation that could be at least loosely applied to many movements throughout history, and all over the world.
Having these petty disputes does little for progress; slight disagreements can become grievances when groups with a collective interest(s) come together to achieve a certain aim. Within a collaborative association, this is a problem; grievances need to be externalised rather than internalised. A coalition that is rent with disputes is its own worst enemy; grievances must be focussed on a collective enemy that is to be resisted. Such ‘divide and rule’ practice engenders the conditions for factionalism and infighting; the long-standing ‘natural’ mutual disdain between, for instance, anarchists and the SWP, is a perfect exemplification of this.
The juxtaposition of individuals and groups with different ultimate aims and ideas is always difficult, but it is often invaluable to the achievement of collective objectives. Recent movements have united a great many people under the same banner regardless of differences: take the 2001 anti-war demo that drew over a million people onto the streets of London or the ongoing anti-cuts movement. When people are forced by a greater need for change to forget the differences they have with other people, it is easier to recognise the similarities. This is important if there is to be a further recognition that grievances of different groups are equal, and that all are as relevant and poignant as others’.
The intersection of knowledge bases and experience can be incredibly positive as well as negative. There is enormous potential for skills sharing and the broadening of collective knowledge and understanding. The Inter-Continental Caravan (ICC) of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA) in the late 1990s saw the meeting of different groups, such as the Karnataka State Farmers’ Union (KRSS) and PGA over the GM debate. The meeting of these groups at a specific ‘site of grievance’ (Featherstone, 2003) led to negotiations of conflicts; although combative, this was a productive process. Within any collaboration there is an opportunity for mutual exchange, for example through skills shares, trade-ins, free schools etc. The Zapatistas, a group that worked with the PGA and KRSS, and that was heavily involved in the anti-neoliberalisation movement during the mid 1990s, saw the partnership of “pockets of resistance” as a positive instrument in the achievement of its aims (EZLN, 1997, cited in Olesen, 2005).
Returning to the examples of the anti-war or anti-cuts movements, it is necessary to evaluate the merits of engaging with the state. The inherent problem of bargaining with the state is that it holds no real de facto power. Power lies in the hands of the rich because money talks. The big corporations and lobbies hold the reins because the politicians are in the pockets of the capitalists. Corporations have control over such areas as the mining industry in India or Canada, over the Tar Sands lobby in Alberta, or over the oil industry in Alaska or Amazon, therefore it is only by undermining the institutions that bolster them that we can change the unequal power balance that exists. Entering into debate with the government provides a façade; the appearance of doing something when in reality the state is a puppet of the backstage players – the money. This has been voiced repeatedly; in the example of the ICC, when discussing the benefits of occupying Parliament Square as a ‘site of grievance’ (Featherstone, 2003, ICC/Discussions 24/3/1999).
Contradictions do not just lie in the tactics that we can use, but also within collective groups. Particularly in international cooperatives, inequality is rife. True representation of the people that a group claims to stand for is incredibly difficult to achieve, especially in transnational instances. The individuals who are the most vocal are often those who exert dominance within a group. Even in groups that use consensus-based decision-making for instance (like what used to be called Climate Camp), the people who are more likely to voice opinions and hence influence the decisions are often those with most experience, confidence and power, marginalising those who are not, and making their ideas less likely to be taken into consideration. In an international context such as climate summits (like the COP17, taking place in Durban as I write this in December 2011), this inequality can be exacerbated further; because conferences and international meetings often involve travel, international delegates (from developing countries specifically) are often those individuals who can afford the travel costs and afford to spend time not working. This can mean that these people present the perspectives of elites within that group, and that the grievances of the poor and marginalised are neglected. Particularly in a North-South exchange situation, there is a tendency for ‘Westerners’ to receive the grievances of those from less developed countries without question, as it can be difficult to distinguish between the grievances of elites and the majority without intimate understanding of the dynamics at work.
There are often complaints that the UK ‘activist’ scene is too white, male and middle class, both from within and without. It is by the same principle that this happens; it tends to be the affluent middle classes who have more time and money to devote to activism that participate in social movements. Those that can afford to take time off work, or who do not need to work to support themselves and families, are predominantly male, middle class and white in the UK; there is still a significant discrepancy between the wages of men and women in the UK, with fewer women in higher-level roles (Blackaby et al, 2005), and there is significant evidence to suggest that Caucasians are more likely to be privileged than those of another racial background. This does not justify such disparity but explains it to some extent.
The irony of this contradiction lies in the fact that it must happen this way. The great centres of commerce and capitalism are in affluent countries in the North, so in order to challenge global institutions of power and money, resistance be demonstrated in these places, and by a cross section of society. There is always merit to resisting the power of these institutions across the globe, but by attacking these oppressive systems where it hurts – in Wall Street and the City of London, the homes of the Dow Jones and FTSE 100 – more of an impact can be made.
Does acknowledging this need to resist hegemonic structures where they are concentrated represent a contradiction, however? By travelling to these places and engaging in international exchange, are we condoning the institutions themselves? These activities require money and the movement of people across borders; although it does not necessarily demand acceptance, it requires involvement in institutions like money and national borders. Whether or not this constitutes a contradiction depends on perspective.
We must see the eventual creation of small, locally based and autonomous communities, each of which has the impetus and mandate to make their own decisions, outside the structures we seek to destroy. Therein lies the problem however; unless every individual Involved is forced to participate to an equal degree, then natural divisions are destined to develop. Thus emerges a paradox; without authoritarian structural hierarchy, natural hierarchy develops. Unless this is challenged, and a system for valuation of involvement and input is created that acknowledges different talents, interests and constraints, a microcosm of the type of democracy we attempt to avoid by engaging in subaltern politics will develop. There is no definitive way to say that this dynamic will emerge, or that a specific set possibilities will manifest, but it seems that there is a fine line to tread here; all that remains to say is that experimentation is needed external to institutions like capitalism.
Blackaby, D., Booth, A. L. & Frank, J. (2005) Outside Offers And The Gender Pay Gap: Empirical Evidence From the UK Academic Labour Market The Economic Journal 2005: 115 (501) F81-F107
EZLN, 1997 : ‘7 piezas sueltas del rompecabezas mundial’
Featherstone, D. (2003) Spatialities of transnational resistance to globalisation: the maps of grievance of the Inter-Continental Caravan Transactions of British Geographers 2003: 28 (4) 404-421
Laclau, E. & Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and socialist strategy Verso, London
Olesen, T. (2005) Mixing scales : Neoliberalism and the transnational Zapatista Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 2005: 29 (1) 84-126
 The terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ refer to the global North and South as characterised by the Brandt line; Northern countries including the USA, Canada, Australia and most of Western Europe are considerably more developed on average than those South of the line, such as much of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America