When I was a student in the Soviet Union, during Gorbachev’s final months, my landlady used to take the dog out for a walk at the same time every night. Since it was winter and I am no dog lover, I decided not to join her. But when the weather cleared up I once accompanied her and found that she met several other local dog owners at exactly the same time. The timing, it turned out, was no coincidence. They called it Dog Hour–the moment when the state-sponsored news program Vremya came on, and they therefore left the house.
Frustrated as they were, none suspected that the superpower state they found so maddening would soon collapse. The party was still in control and the state had a formidable military at its disposal. But what was clear from this nightly routine of passive resistance was that the system had not only failed in its mission to deliver goods and services to the people; it had lost all credibility with them. It had power but lacked influence.
Following the news over the past few months, I have felt like taking a quick walk around the block myself. Watching global capitalism disintegrate in real time is a dizzying experience.
On the one hand, the established power structure remains. Congress deliberates, bankers testify and a popular president offers reassuring words during prime time.
On the other, its influence wanes. Most people believe the bailout will help bankers rather than all Americans. Every time the treasury secretary seeks to comfort the markets the Dow plummets; on Friday, February 13, more banks failed in one day than went down in the whole of 2007. Ill omens indeed.
Such situations provide tremendous opportunities for the left. Not because we delight in people’s misery but because we have a coherent and consistent explanation as to what and who made them miserable and what they might do about it. Moments of economic crisis create an audience eager for alternatives. With capitalism’s inherent contradictions laid bare, our task of building the framework for a fairer world becomes easier.
But the belief that a better world is possible should not prevent us from seeing that a far worse world is possible also. Populism is a volatile force. Devoid of agenda, social base or organizational coherence, it can bring people out on the streets. But there is no saying what they will do once they get there. Global capitalism is a worthy but elusive target. Jews, Gypsies, Muslims or “foreigners” are accessible if inadequate scapegoats. The last time things looked this bad globally, we ended up with Nazism, fascism and war.
The balance of forces is precarious. Ideologically, the left is strong. We have been elaborating a critique of this period of global capitalism for at least the past two decades, and for at least one of them, people have been listening. And unlike in the ’30s, we do not have the moral dead weight and strategic conundrum of Stalinism to deal with.
But organizationally and electorally, we are weak. Generally speaking, we have no huge parties, our social movements have been decimated and our union movements are in disarray.
Social unrest is gaining pace. In December the Kremlin flew riot police to Vladivostok to crush demonstrations against new taxes on imported cars. In February the Élysée flew riot police to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where there has been a general strike for more than a month, with protesters demanding lower prices and higher wages. In February half a million truckers brought Mexico’s national highways to a halt, demanding lower diesel prices. Britain has seen wildcat strikes at oil refineries over the employment of foreign workers at lower wages. Latvia, Greece, Chile and Iceland have all seen huge protests. For now most of the action is not taking place on center stage. But it is only a matter of time before it spreads from the margins to the mainstream.
The most likely immediate response to this will be massive state clampdowns. Recently more than 3,000 public security directors in China went to Beijing to learn how to prevent rallies and strikes before they turn into “mass incidents.”
In Russia Gennady Gudkov, former KGB colonel and current chair of the Duma’s security committee, said, “We are expecting mass unemployment and mass riots. There will be not enough police to stop people’s protests by force.” So Russia is introducing new laws instead. One makes “participating in mass disorders…a crime against the state,” for which defendants will be tried by a special court of three judges.
This will fail. The depression is shaping up to be harsh, deep and prolonged, and its fallout cannot be batonned away. People are demonstrating for their lives. In times like these the desperate have a way of not disappearing. But who will emerge from this crisis stronger is still up for grabs. Take Britain. Police say they are bracing themselves for a “summer of rage”–white-collar riots against the economic crisis. Efforts by the far right to exploit the wildcat strikes with xenophobia seem to have failed. Nonetheless, economic insecurity is certainly laying some of the groundwork for the far-right British National Party to win its first seat in the European Parliament later this year. Meanwhile, the principal beneficiaries of the crisis have been the opposition Conservatives, who seem set to trounce Labour in the forthcoming election, which must be held by June next year.
The fact that the extreme right might hijack this crisis for its own ends is all the more reason for the left to be involved. But we need to be strategic in our demands and cautious in our choice of allies. As any Russian dog owner will tell you: just because people take to the streets together doesn’t necessarily mean they are heading in the same direction.