If we want to envision an anti-austerity movement that can genuinely empower people, we will have to create one that moves beyond austerity altogether.
The contraction of capital, the latest stage in the perpetual crisis of the free market, is happening again. This time it is feeding on the oxygenated blood of the working poor. In an effort to solve the false problem of the national debt, and in response to the first-world depression that was inflicted on the people by the banking class, austerity measures are being implemented in the U.S. from the blueprint established in the European Union.
Austerity, cleanly put, is how a welfare state attempts to respond to the internal debt it has accumulated. To do this it begins to sever social spending, which affects both public sector jobs and the services it provides to those who have fallen through the growing cracks in capitalism. This inevitably increases rates of unemployment by eliminating entire sectors of jobs as well as shoving those in need into dire situations where basic material needs are no longer guaranteed by society.
The rich, in contrast, have been spared the effects of this austerity since the items on the chopping block are not useful to them anyway. Very few in the upper classes rely on a government salary or Medicare to get cancer treatments, so the cost of this “belt-tightening” rests solely on those who are barely holding onto the bottom of the social ladder.
From social struggle to systemic change
The logic of austerity comes from the idea that we are essentially living in a free market, though the social safety net is a sort of “extra” that we have added when we can afford to do so. This is a fallacy from the start since the welfare state has always been part and parcel of a market economy. The entirety of the social umbrella has been the result of a working class fight; organizers come together in an effort to combat the ebbs and flows of a market economy.
There has always been this element as a way to stabilize a social system, without which the market would cease to function since an underclass would develop that could no longer participate in consumption. The market relies on the welfare state as a key part of the economy, and shrinking it would create further destabilization.
If we really intend to fight back against this growing austerity, a “new normal” of precarious work and gripping debt, then we have to think of the social safety net not as a grouping of different services, but rather as individual areas of social life. We must develop a strategy that is able to see each of these areas facing cuts as specific parts of society, yet when spoken of together make a whole.
If we are to take on a format where each element of the welfare state is an individual struggle, we can develop on-the-ground movements in each individual department that have the ability to target their own aspect of austerity. Within each movement a fight can be had to wrest control away from the state, which has been shown to serve the interests of capital rather than the bulk of people it “represents.” The state will then respond to these movements, if successful, by reversing austerity and returning the social safety net that was in place.
At this point many people in an anti-austerity movement would quit, feeling as though they have done their part and they can return to their lives as they were before it was interrupted by cuts. However, this reformism does not have to be the end of the battle. Instead, if struggles are localized they can become a fighting force that can move beyond the original demands and begin looking towards systematic change.
Permanent structures of resistance
A great example of this is in the housing justice movement. After the foreclosure crisis of 2010 there was a massive upheaval as entire working class neighborhoods began to see mass foreclosure coming through like a summer tornado. The sheer scale of this displacement forced the banks to rely on fraud simply in order to execute the foreclosures that were piling up, and generally they were forcing out families at will.
As we shift into sequestration, this will likely only get worse as social services are getting severed and areas like public housing will see a dramatic funding shortage. Instead of just broadly working against austerity, the focus on neighborhood organizing will have longevity.
Here, permanent networks of solidarity can be created to target foreclosures when they happen. Blockades and protests can be used, empty houses liberated for homeless families, and neighborhood councils can begin to create lasting democratic structures to defy the options given by both capitalism and the state.
The government may then respond by growing the social safety net that can deal with housing, which is a sign of success on the part of the organizers. This, however, would not be the end. Instead, permanent structures of resistance will have been built. Now they can begin to move beyond the simple issues of budget cuts and can grow to confront the most fundamental issues of housing inequality and control.
The goal can then be to create movements that end up controlling the sectors we work in so the next time the state wants to remove them through austerity they will be unable to, as their monolithic control has waned. These different areas can then begin to nurture each other, using solidarity to locate a common end and method.
Imagine if the housing justice activists engaged in civil disobedience during a labor struggle, or union organizers picketed in support of single payer health care. These can act as steroids for movements that are weak, share resources between them, and together make up the complete body of an anti-austerity movement. Each piece of the puzzle has its individual role to play, but when positioned together they can make up an entirely new and powerful movement to challenge a new culture of budget cuts.
Assemblies against austerity
Just as in a spokescouncil, each movement can represent an individual spoke united by a central tenet: a resistance to the inequalities in capitalism. Together they create a strengthened wheel that has the ability to spin, all because of the strength of its individual parts. With the new anti-austerity movement we do not need to start from scratch since we already have all of the spokes. We just need to connect them to form the wheel.
The state’s move towards austerity is a universal cut machine, so our response is a net of decentralized social movements federated by a common struggle, solidarity between movements, and a sense of mutual aid in achieving our goals.
This can be the model for resistance that can prefigure future institutions without the authoritarian features of the state, which now holds the power to bestow or remove elements of survival. This direct democracy can see problems and solutions where all people are invited to participate rather than expecting the poor to act as sacrificial lambs when complications arise.
In the case of housing, we could see neighborhood assemblies begin to take shape and fight to create democratic community control for how land is used. This structure comes from the very ways that we fight back to win small gains, and once it has developed the kind of strength it needs to forcefully remove the eviction machine it can then begin to challenge the idea of housing as a commercial commodity.
The act of resistance creates a new way of managing land and relating to community members, and it is that new system that can then be used to challenge the basest assumptions about private property. This act of resistance becomes the seed of the new community power that is needed if the old system of bourgeois control is to be overthrown.
Breaking social order by direct action
Here we begin to see the essence of dual power, where a new institution clashes against an old institution for hegemony. All revolutions arise from a moment in which the old order is confronted by the a system that attempts to replace it altogether. This process is often thought of in terms of a ruling elite, where one political class rises to power in a challenge to the old, but it can also be seen within the context of specific areas of everyday life. In housing, for instance, we may begin to challenge the idea of land as a form of wealth by creating collective housing.
While this may begin to form some new social bonds, it does not attempt to challenge the basic way a neighborhood functions. Rents are still owed, mortgages in place, and evictions common. If the same group began organizing entire blocks to resist foreclosures, stand in solidarity between all neighbors, and then make development decisions by general assembly, the old order of the banks and the police would be forced to respond in some way.
The two forces would clash, and if the popular uprising did not have enough force to truly challenge the will of the financial institutions it would be crushed. If it did have the ability to create an eviction free zone, then a new form of housing relationship can be formed, and this transformation can begin to infect other areas of the exchange economy.
We can begin to break with the existing social order and alienation through direct action, and find direct ways to protect people’s lives rather than simply targeting the budgeting mechanisms that affect people’s reality further down the pipeline.
As we start to meet our own needs we do not only break with the state’s material control, but even with the ideological narratives that lend the state legitimacy in people’s minds. When the forces of resistance become the tools of building a new society, we move away from simply responding to disaster and start planting the seeds of the world we only imagined during passive daydreams.
Working towards dual power
The history of American social movements has seen a strange dialectic form as the moment when a given sector sees actual transformative power begin to form, they then begin to absorb themselves into the system they have been confronting. This has been most clearly seen in organized labor as the struggles during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s led to an incredible dominance of union-represented workplaces.
The success came from the massive waves of strikes — often location-based general strikes, which directly confronted the bosses in a show of force. Companies, especially in skilled manufacturing sectors, were forced to concede union representation given the fact that the next step from a strike is for the workers to re-enter the factories and begin the production process again, this time without the bosses.
An effort was then made to reconcile this new combative power by creating the National Labor Relations Board and inviting unions to participate in the centers of government power. Unions began to move over into a liberal establishment position, lobbying for worker protections and supporting supposedly “pro-working class” democrats. At the same time we began to see union workplaces decline through the middle of the century, and see them come under attack in the 1980s.
At this point the source of the unions’ strength, the self-conscious organization of a class in their workplace, had subsided. Instead, the union had become simply a form of representation and retirement investment, giving some benefits without actually building power inside of the commercial sector. The strike had become less and less substantive because it was rarely used as a real show of strength, and therefore union power began to wane. As unions negated direct action they began to slip from showing a genuine possibility of dual power and this is also reflected in the fact that the union leadership began to absorb much of the logic of the liberal establishment.
They were no longer a genuine wing of a workers’ movement, but instead simply another side of the entrenched system. This does not mean, however, that unions must continue to operate like this, or that they cannot still be a force of direct class confrontation. But we see that when they attempted to change their focus, trying to influence American politics, they lost the very strategy that had given their struggle teeth.
Instead of following suit with our various struggles, we need to keep the main struggle in mind. As we grow, we need to expand our efforts to confront each struggle within its particular domain and keep the strategies of direct action and direct democracy alive. This is the only way that the different struggles will have the ability to develop into the type of dual power that can challenge the very legitimacy of the system that is currently in place.
Moving beyond austerity
If we look at the struggles of housing justice, which is still shifting and looking for a tactical form that can stabilize it, it will mean staying in the neighborhood rather than making simple policy demands the primary focus. There are no legislative or procedural answers that will fix the underlying contradictions that leave some families homeless while thousands of houses stay empty.
This inequality is built fundamentally into the system of housing as a commodity, and therefore the confrontation has to happen in the communities where the struggle is actually seen. This means creating praxis that focuses on foreclosure defense, tenants unions, housing liberation, and ways that the organizing efforts can directly meet people’s needs by directly confronting the contradictions that are being laid bare.
This does not mean that there is no place for reforms along the way, but transformation comes when a neighborhood is no longer open for exploitation because the inhabitants will not allow it.
There may be existing institutions that can act as starting points for developing this strategy, especially where there is already a struggle happening in a particular area of social life. Organized labor, neighborhood housing organizations, militant environmental groups, and healthcare reform movements may all have a place in taking up an individual spoke of this larger anti-austerity wheel, but it is important that the goal here is to move past the narrow dialogue about sequestration and to envision each sector beyond the benevolence of the state.
We can also look to where these strategies have moved beyond simple reforms and into a transformative model. We do not want to just see movements that are successful, but that can actually create a revolutionary force that can undercut the systemic flaws in the system in order to replace them with something more in line with our values.
This can only happen when the force of organizing has the ability to both successfully counter a given force, whether it is banks issuing foreclosures or bosses unrolling layoffs, and through this create counter-institutions that can replace them. Our struggles should use direct action as a way of forcing out the forces of capital and reaction and, in doing so, present direct democracy as an alternative.
Through this there is also a need to remain realistic and to avoid false hope where we have not yet been successful. As sequestration cuts began to take effect there were thousands of people who were turned away from their regular cancer treatments. Working class employees were laid off from public sector jobs in unprecedented numbers. As the cuts began to build up steam we saw that the country was not being affected evenly and major sectors of the economy were falling fast.
The government’s response? To end TSA furloughs so that air traffic could return to a more bustling pace. Many liberals immediately cited this type of buckle as a reversal of some austerity features, but in reality it was governed by the fact that this is one of the few austerity measures that can affect the ruling class. The only way it can be seen as a success is when it comes from the organized pressure of the people, not the random inconveniences of congress.
If we want to envision an anti-austerity movement that can genuinely empower people, we will have to create one that moves beyond austerity altogether. The most progressive welfare economies in the world all have a similar feature: they can take away their services at will. If each different sector has a movement in place that can begin to truly challenge the systemic inequalities that they rest on, then the entire frame of the debate has changed.
Shane Burley is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer in Portland, Oregon. He worked extensively with the Take Back the Land movement and Metro Justice on housing movements, and currently works with the Portland Solidarity Network and the VOZ Workers Center on wage-theft and tenant cases.