Fusing our power

IssueApril 2011
Feature by Milan Rai

We should be honest with ourselves. The anti-cuts movement is a broad movement, overwhelmingly liberal with a revolutionary fringe. Peace News, as the “for nonviolent revolution” tagline suggests, sits at the radical end of things. So when someone asks, as George Monbiot did in the Guardian on 7 March, for a statement of aims for the anti-cuts movement that is “short enough to be put on a flier but specific enough to be useful”, there could be two different kinds of answer, two different kinds of programme.

Most folk in the anti-cuts movement are in a sense conservative, people who quite understandably want to defend what exists today, or perhaps move back to a situation that we had not long ago. Alongside them, there are others who are also defending public services, but who want to dramatically transform power relations within our welfare-health-education system, to make them liberatory and to overthrow what makes them oppressive. On another dimension, there are people who want to defend jobs, and there are people who want to not only defend jobs but to at least begin undermining managerial and investor authority.

The floor of the cage

In the 1970s, Noam Chomsky outlined a two-strand approach. He called for “a movement for social change with a positive programme that has a broad-based appeal, that encourages free and open discussion and offers a wide range of possibilities for work and action”.

Such a mass movement would be devoted to “badly needed reforms, anti-imperialist and anti-militarist, concerned with guaranteeing minimal standards of health, income, education industrial safety and conditions of work, and overcoming urban decay and rural misery.” Chomsky said that within this movement “or related to it”, there might develop “a variety of more radical movements that explore the possibility of dismantling the system of private and state power and democratising basic social and economic institutions through co-operatives and community and workers’ control, and that organise and experiment to these ends.”

Chomsky was pointing to the strategic reality that it is only when millions of people have been mobilised and educated through a successful struggle for significant reform that radicals will have the chance to persuade large numbers of people of the desirability, need and feasibility of more thorough-going changes, of what PN calls “nonviolent revolution”.

Chomsky is famous for popularising another saying that captures this two-stage, non-reformist reform strategy. “Expanding the floor of the cage” is a slogan from the Brazilian rural workers’ unions. The cage is the state, and inside it is the general population, which is oppressed by the state, but which cannot afford to join in the right-wing attack on the state, because outside the cage are even more destructive predators.

These privately-owned corporations (often transnational) are completely unaccountable and, if freed from state constraints, have the capacity to eliminate human society and the non-human environment, among other possible undesirable outcomes.

Chomsky observed: “You have to protect the cage when it’s under attack from even worse predators from outside, like private power. And you have to expand the floor of the cage, recognizing that it’s a cage. These are all preliminaries to dismantling it. Unless people are willing to tolerate that level of complexity, they’re going to be of no use to people who are suffering and who need help, or, for that matter, to themselves.”


Expanding the floor of the cage is going to require more than activism. The anti-cuts movement, which the peace and environmental movements must be part of, presents challenges and opportunities. One critical opportunity which must not be missed is the chance that these activist movements now have to develop a common agenda centred on economic conversion.

When we argue against the arms trade, or replacing Trident nuclear weapon system, or coal-fired power stations, or airports, we are generally taking on not only the state and the bosses (investors and managers) but also, if we are not careful, workforces. If activists want to bring these evils to an end as soon as possible, we must reduce the number of opponents. In many cases, as CND has demonstrated in relation to the nuclear submarine-building programme, there is a powerful case for converting existing socially-destructive work into socially-useful or socially-necessary work.

There is often an opportunity to build common cause with workers of all types (as demonstrated in the case of Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s, see PN 2530) to demand the conversion of industry. Thus the demand and the petition for one million new climate jobs, put forward by the trade union group of the Campaign Against Climate Change. Climate jobs aren’t green jobs, but jobs that directly contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by improving public transport, building renewable power capacity, insulating housing stock, research and development and so on. The group point out: “We estimate that we can employ a million [climate] workers for ten years for less than the government gave the banks in one year.”

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has called for a Just Transition to a low-carbon economy since 2009: “Just Transition measures are needed to ensure that job loss as a result of environmental transition is minimised and that change within sectors does not occur at the expense of decent work and decent terms and conditions. A Just Transition strategy is also required to ensure that environmental initiatives not necessarily related to employment – for example, green taxes – do not impact on lower income groups.” The TUC also called for the participation of workers in decision-making about the transition to a low-carbon economy.


Many groups (such as the One Million Climate Jobs initiative) invoke the spirit of the Second World War, and the need to mobilise the economy against climate change in the wholehearted way that the British economy was mobilised against Nazism. It might also be useful at this moment to remember the values of the French resistance, which codified its aims in the charter of the National Council of the Resistance (CNR) in March 1944. The CNR charter called for “the establishment of a true economic and social democracy”; displacing the feudal rule of corporations; nationalising big banks, energy resources and insurance companies; and establishing the right of workers to participate in the management of industries. The statement demanded an end to restrictions on trade unions, and the granting to them of “broad powers in organising economic and social life”.

Interestingly, a veteran of the French resistance has recently won a global audience by invoking the spirit of the resistance. Stéphane Hessel, now 93, has sold almost one-and-a-half-million copies of his 4,000-word pamphlet Indignez-Vous!, published in October. The book urges young people to revive the ideals of the French resistance by nonviolently defending the “values of modern democracy” and resisting the “international dictatorship of the financial markets”.

Basic Income

The CNR manifesto also called for wage levels that guaranteed each worker and their family “safety, dignity and the possibility of a fully human life”, and a comprehensive social security system guaranteeing all citizens the means of existence. That is very close to the modern idea of the Basic Income: “an unconditional, government-insured guarantee that all citizens will have enough income to meet their basic needs”. As the Green Party points out, in their “Citizen’s Income” policy, the system must be set up so that “anyone who takes paid work will be better off financially for doing so”.

As we struggle to resist cuts in what we have now, we should also be demanding major reforms that could be implemented within our current political and economic system, like the Basic Income, or the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. Radicals should not merely be defending what exists, or trying to retrieve what has recently been lost. We should be trying to expand the floor of the cage.

For example, radicals should not simply be demanding the repeal of anti-trade union laws brought in by Thatcher and maintained by New Labour. We should be trying to reach the political level of those Welsh miners who demanded 99 years ago the right of workers to elect their managers. They wrote in The Miners’ Next Step in 1912:
“Today the shareholders own and rule the coalfields. They own and rule them mainly through paid officials. The men who work in the mine are surely as competent to elect these, as shareholders who may never have seen a colliery. To have a vote in determining who shall be your fireman, manager, inspector, etc., is to have a vote in determining the conditions which shall rule your working life. On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work.”

Having workers elect managers does not abolish capitalism, but it goes a considerable way towards changing the balance of power in society between investors and the general public. It goes a long way towards making a genuine democracy.

Activism & organising

One of the challenges of the anti-cuts movement is that the peace movement and the environmental movement are very largely activist movements, and activism is quite different from organising – either community organising or workplace organising.

Dan Clawson wrote about this for Peace News in the first issue of the present editors’ tenure (PN 2485). He pointed out: “social movements have few viable chapters where people meet face-to-face, and instead rely on a young, underpaid, highly effective and deeply committed staff, who may spend a significant part of their time trying to raise financial support, which often comes primarily from a relative handful of wealthy donors.”

In contrast, trade unions enrol all or nearly all of the workers in a given workplace, “people who often are sharply divided in religion, culture, and views on a wide range of issues”, but who “share common material conditions, and meet each other face-to-face every day”, and who form thousands of local chapters each of which have elected officers and regular meetings, creating a national organisation which is financially self-sustaining, “with all members paying substantial dues, and all members in a given category paying the same dues; no wealthy donor or outside foundation contributes”. Something similar can be said of community organising.

Activism can do many things with its often high-intensity media-centred activities. Climate Camp, for example, was, most years, an extremely powerful tool for re-setting the UK political agenda. However, it had its limitations as well.

Creating a low-carbon economy, fighting the cuts and, beyond that, creating lasting radical social change, are tasks that require community and workplace organising as well as the more rootless, transient and middle-class forms of activism that the peace and environmental movements are used to. The brilliant US organisers’ handbook, Organizing for Social Change, has a chapter setting out step-by-step how to hold an accountability session, “a large community meeting at which an elected official, or sometimes a high-level public administrator (the ‘decision-maker’ or ‘target’) is held accountable to the community.”

How to make mobilising phone calls to members of the community, how to judge the right kind of demand to make on the official, how to structure the agenda of an accountability meeting: a wealth of experience goes into the tips and suggestions. This is community organising, not activism. The Midwest Academy manual warns that community organising doesn’t just mean running campaigns, it means building up strong, lasting and staffed community organisations: “Building an organization is not a natural product of good programs…. There is a difference between mobilizing people during a campaign and actually organizing them into an ongoing structure for which they take responsibility. Concrete plans must be made and steps take to assure that the organization grows.”

There was a big debate over these kinds of issues among US activists during the Vietnam war era, with some inside Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) arguing for a focus on anti-war activity, and others demanding a switch to community organising in the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP).

In retrospect, it seems obvious that both efforts were valid and necessary. Much can still be learned from the ERAP experience, particularly by university-educated activists seeking ways into community organising.

What is needed in the anti-cuts movement is a network of radical activist campaigns (such as UK Uncut) that recognises their strengths and limitations, and the development of new radical community organisations perhaps growing out of some anti-cuts groups.

These campaigns and organisations will both connect with and feed into more mainstream community organisations and (local and national) trade unions.