By Daphne Lawless (Fightback, Auckland).
In the words of British journalist Paul Mason, it seems that “it’s all kicking off everywhere”. Across the world, sustained mass protests and occupations of public space are shaking and even toppling governments. Most famously, months of protests and occupations of the public square in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign and flee the country. Surely “the people” rising up against the government is a good thing… right? Like the Occupy protests of a couple of years ago?
Actually, from a socialist point of view, there’s a universe of difference between the protests and uprisings which we’ve all heard about on the news – Ukraine, Egypt, Venezuela, Bosnia, Thailand and others. It’s never as simple as “the people” versus “the government”.
Class versus class
Populism is a term used to describe political action taken in the name of “the people” – vaguely defined as anyone who’s not in power at the moment. The thing is, “the people” don’t have many things in common with each other, except for not liking whoever’s in power right now. It includes the upper-middle class as well as the very poor, people with racist and sexist beliefs as well as women and ethnic minorities, homophobes as well as queers.
This becomes a problem since the issue with protests and uprisings is not so much getting rid of the current government, but what you’re going to replace it with. And that question is based on which social force – or class – is most powerful when the old government collapses.
Marxists uses “class” to mean a set of people who have a certain function in the economy, and thus have the same interests in how the economy is run, who gets how much to do what, and who owns things. While there are many different classes in a modern economy, the two most vital are the capitalist class – those who own big corporations and farms and employ people – and the working class – who can only live by getting a job from the capitalist class. Generally, the other classes line up with the capitalist class, except in times of crisis.
Crucially, while individual capitalists have big power on their own – for example, a supermarket owner might be able to lock out dozens of staff and put them at threat of poverty – workers only have power when they band together, in trade unions, their own political parties, and other forms of co-operation.
So the question that you have to look at with a popular uprising is – which class does it represent? This means: what kind of people are actually on the street, protesting? What class do the spokespeople and the policy-makers of the movement come from? And what power – apart from the power of physical bodies in space – does that class have to get its own way?
Venezuela: the privileged protesters
For example, people who have a shallow view of politics look at mass anti-government protests in the Ukraine and in Venezuela, and think they’re the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem in Venezuela is that the United Socialist Party (PSUV) government has brought in more and more democracy and “people power” – and the capitalist and upper-middle classes in Venezuela don’t like this.
Since 1998, socialist Presidents in Venezuela have been diverting more and more of the country’s oil wealth away from the traditional ruling classes to the millions of impoverished who live in the barrios (slums) of the big cities. There’s already been one successful coup by the right wing in Venezuela – which was reversed when the people from the barrios moved into action to demand their elected President back.
The current set of protests in Venezuela broke out in opposition to a rape on a university campus in the city of Tachida. Unfortunately, students at the private universities in Venezuela are extremely right-wing and anti-government. So what could have been a supportable protest was quickly taken over by an agenda to overthrow the democratically elected President, Nicolas Maduro.
The funny thing is that the people in the barrios are barely aware that any of these “mass protests” are going on. The ruling classes in Venezuela are not only traditionally lighter-skinned, but tend to speak good English, have media skills and know how to operate Facebook and Twitter. So they’re very good at making white people in the rich countries think they’re seeing a real mass uprising.
But the crowds we see in the streets are overwhelmingly made up of rich, privileged people, and leaders of far-right parties, who shout about inflation and violent crime (admittedly serious problem) but are really outraged that they don’t “own” the country any more. There is massive disruption and damage in rich places like the eastern suburbs of Caracas. If you go to the barrios of west Caracas, on the other hand, they hardly even know that anything’s going on.
Democrats against democracy
Socialists don’t necessarily define democracy as “one person, one vote”. Democracy for socialists means political power in the hands of the broad masses, not in the hands of the people who own businesses, land and media outlets. So, no matter whether free speech or free elections exist in a country, if inequality means that the wishes of a billionaire or the prejudices of a TV network outweigh the wishes of a million working people, that’s not democracy.
The classic example of this in English speaking countries is the American “Tea Party”. This “astroturf” (fake grassroots) movement was originally funded by right-wing millionaires to provide an appearance of a “mass uprising” against the very weak healthcare reforms of Barack Obama, and swing public opinion away from them. Tapping into the deep racism in the South and other parts of the USA, the Tea Party has brought thousands of older, white Americans onto the streets to scream about the “fascist”, “socialist” or even “Satanic” agenda of the centre-right Obama administration. It’s so successful that it’s become a real mass movement among the traditional middle classes of the white USA, and is threatening to take control of the Republican party itself.
Things get even wilder when you look at the “yellow shirt” movement in Thailand, which has recently forced their government to call a snap election. The Yellow Shirts’ official name is the People’s Alliance for Democracy. But they don’t even want right-wing capitalist democracy. What they want is an unelected council of business people and academics to take over, because they don’t think the Thai masses can be trusted with power – since they keep electing the populist party of exiled millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, whose current leader and Prime Minister is his sister Yingluck.
In Egypt, a real mass uprising of the urban and rural middle and lower classes drove out the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. But the liberal middle classes were disgusted when Mohammed Morsi – the candidate aligned to the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), supported by the rural poor – won the following election. Screaming about “dictatorship”, they appealed to Western Islamophobia by smearing the moderately Islamist Ikhwan as terrorists.
The middle classes in Cairo – again, the people who spoke English or French and had good media skills – took to the streets as the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement. This movement managed to paralyse the country until the military staged a coup in June 2013, arrested President Morsi and took power themselves. Sadly, many socialists and democrats – even in Egypt – supported the coup because they didn’t approve of Morsi’s conservative programme. Now they seem increasingly likely to be stuck with military strongman General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi as the leader of a dictatorship which stays friendly with Israel and the West. Meet the new Mubarak, same as the old one.
When it comes to right-wing movements based on the capitalist class and the upper-middle classes, when they say “democracy” they mean the opposite. They want their own class to have all the power, and for rights and economic privileges to be taken away from the mass of people. These kinds of movement often end up supporting pro-market dictatorships like that of Pinochet in Chile – or worse, fascist or Nazi regimes.
It is so important for us to tell the difference between a revolution – a mass uprising seeking more democracy – and a counter-revolution – which can also be a mass uprising, but is in support of putting an old régime back in power, or taking power away from the people.
There are two dangers. One is that socialists might get duped by a right-wing populist movement into thinking it’s a real mass uprising, and try to become part of it. Some of the more foolish segments of the American Left tried making common cause with the Tea Party in its early days, as the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists originally welcomed the coup against Morsi.
Back home, in Auckland the populist anti-corruption protester Penny Bright has ended up in alliance with the extreme-right “Affordable Auckland” coalition in an attempt to make the current centre-left Mayor Len Brown resign. But the people behind “Affordable” are the powerful themselves – Pakeha employers and property-owners – while Bright’s supporters are a rag-tag group of people who’re angry about the current system. No prizes for guessing who would take the power, if they managed to make Mayor Brown give it up.
But the other danger is that right-wing populists might invade a real mass uprising and – through being better organised, or by brute force – might shift it to their agenda. A good foreign example of this is the fascist Svoboda and Right Sector parties, who entered the “Euromaidan” protests in Ukraine and put themselves at the head of it by violently and physically ejecting socialists and anarchists who were against the Yanukovych administration.
The Occupy movements were another great example of a populist project, with their rhetoric of the 99% against the 1%. Despite its clear anti-capitalist message to begin with, though, it wasn’t clear enough to put forward a political project. Without a clear political orientation, many occupations saw a growth in conspiracy theories – which deride the working majority as ‘sheeple,’ constructing pseudo-scientific explanations for the enlightened few, in contrast to politics of collective liberation.
In such a situation, socialists have to stay with the masses. If the movement continues to have real mass support, they have to stay in and fight the intellectual and political battle for the leadership with right-wing forces. But if the masses leave, there’s no point fighting over a corpse.
Whether revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, though, there is one good thing about all these mass protests. They thoroughly prove wrong the common saying that “protests can’t change anything”. The Australian state of Victoria – which has recently made it a crime to stay on a protest if a cop tells you to leave – knows this very well, as did the New York cops at Zucotti Park or the Chinese army at Tienanmen Square when they violently closed down protest occupations. Protests backed with the real power of an economic class which won’t be dictated to any more can change the world. In fact, they’re the only thing that ever has.