Socialist Strategy in the Age of Austerity

by Andrew Sernatinger

March 20, 2012

Socialist Strategy in the Age of Austerity

  1. I. On the Nature of the Period: An Age of Austerity
  2. II. What do we mean by “strategy”?
  3. III. Review of socialist strategy
  4. IV. Socialist strategy for the age of austerity: Objectives and tactics

I. On the Nature of the Period: An Age of Austerity

For some time now, most of the Marxist left has considered the particular problems of the neoliberal era, roughly 1974-2007. The neoliberal period saw the worsening of the living conditions of much of the global working class, and for anticapitalist militants posed a specific problem of how to relate to a situation of low-activity and low-consciousness. The rough consensus at that time was to just maintain “resistance”, to hold onto what we had.

In the current period, marked by an ongoing crisis in capitalism and aggressive austerity measures, new issues surface for anticapitalist militants to consider. Rather than being in a prolonged situation of low-struggle and low-consciousness, there is a broad feeling of resentment and anger among working people. Layers of previously inactive people have been set into motion, particularly in the course of sharp, short skirmishes over social goods or the effects of the crisis, and there is the development of a kind of populist “struggle consciousness” among a militant minority. Where previously anticapitalist militants might have had to consider how to “stir up some struggle” or educate about the system, we now find a general sense that something is wrong and willingness or even spontaneous activity to address it.

Moreover, where a kind of malaise plagued the anticapitalist left in the neoliberal period, we find direction in responding to the crisis as a particular program in history. Among militants, there is a common understanding that this crisis, no fault of the working class, is being passed along to working people and that we will continue to see aggressive attacks on the working class for the foreseeable future, which must be fought against and ultimately defeated in favor of some broadly redistributive alternative.

II. What do we mean by “strategy”?

To be clear, no one is proposing a singular worked out “grand strategy” to defeat austerity or for socialist revolution. We are talking about discussing some questions that help us think about what we are trying to do and how. This means trying to come up with some ideas or a plan to guide us in our activity in the short, medium and long term. Any ideas that come from a strategy must be informed by a fairly concrete understanding of what our situation is: looking at the particulars of the movements, the mood of the working class, the position of the left and weighing that against the ruling class coalition (a “balance of forces”), thinking about we’re expecting to have happen in the future, analyzing what is necessary to succeed, assessing what we do not have and ultimately what we have to do.

III. Socialist Strategy

As socialists, we are more than “good activists”. Clearly, we do aspire to be strong activists: we see the movement as a good in itself, and in participating we attempt to overcome the limits or obstacles we know exist. As socialist-activists, we advocate for strategic action and for tactical militancy, where ordinarily such positions are discouraged or undeveloped by bureaucratic leaders and institutional pressure. We know that movements are not autonomous forces and generally do not succeed on their own, so our participation is as a sort of “conscious element” involved to take the movement in a particular direction, while other forces attempt to do the same. We take a page from Rosa Luxemburg in noting that the experience of mass struggle is critical for the spread of radical ideas. But to do this alone would be to be radical “movementists”, rather than revolutionary socialists.

As revolutionary socialists, we also have some specific tasks that are not directly “movement” related. These include getting out our socialist ideas and understanding of the world, developing new socialist militants, and building alternatives to bourgeois politics. In our tradition, we advocate for “transitional demands” or “transitional programs”, which make proposals for reform that seem reasonable to ordinary people but end up educating about the larger system when they’re unable to be fulfilled by the ruling class; in theory, this is part of bringing people to accept revolutionary socialist perspectives.

These may seem somewhat abstract as conceptual items, but these tasks have to be interpreted in a given period based off the concrete conditions, which we will begin to do below. In doing this, we should not forget that ideas are a material force in history, and do influence movements in their form, conception and direction.

IV. Socialist strategy for the Age of Austerity

1) Build the movement. This is a basic task, but considering how working class institutions have been hammered by neoliberalism and seeing that the labor bureaucracy is unwilling and unable to put together any kind of fight, it will fall increasingly to anticapitalist militants to build the movement against austerity. (Outlined in Joel’s document) In combating austerity, this will have to include building new organizations, pushing existing institutions to fight rather than accept cuts, link up struggles into coalitions or new organizations and attempt to move past a rhythm of defensive struggles. It is important to note that we’re not building just any movement, but one that must be militant and democratic.

2) Politicize the crisis. Socialists have generally been unable to explain our understanding of this crisis, amongst ourselves and especially to the public. Other political traditions, anarchism and left populism in particular, have instead seized this political space and as a result the movement tends to think in their terms. Socialists must be able to create an explanation of the crisis that is accessible but that does not slide into populism, which is a first step in winning people to socialist ideas.

This should include an understanding of the deep structural roots of the crisis (as opposed to merely financial or regulatory aspects), the reality that this crisis will be long and deep and will only get worse and more volatile; the ruling class’s prescription is austerity across the planet. Our political thrust must be that this is a crisis for capital, that working people have no business managing a crisis on behalf of capitalists, and that there is no solution that is equally beneficial to the working class and capital. With normal reform measures blocked, winning gains for the working class will increasingly have to be taken by militant action.

3) Pose alternatives. As it stands, there is not an articulated sense of what the alternative to this crisis is. Occupy and Wisconsin have left an implicit sense of wanting a “fair economy” and “real democracy”, which is a critical first step, but we are presently unable to pose an alternative vision or plan for how to come through this crisis. The popular sense of the moment is between attempting to negotiate austerity and “going back” to a better time. Socialists need to be able to frame the political situation in terms of two realities: a radically redistributive state (a revolutionary alternative) or the descent into capitalist austerity and ecological catastrophe—a kind of “socialism or barbarism”.

There are demands that have agreement (taxing the rich, regulating finance, debt relief, public works programs for employment and public renovation, moratorium on foreclosures, nationalize banks, etc), but this has not been posed collectively. Socialists should compile such a platform, informed by demands currently put forward by movements, and also be able to interpret it in local terms. These demands should have a vision of another, socialist society and carry the character of radical democracy behind them lest they become merely “reformist reforms”.

4) Create a public face for a left-anticapitalist response to the crisis. Socialist strategy rests on the premise that we have the ability to advocate as open socialists. Solidarity’s founding project was largely an attempt to regroup the scattered socialist left from the 1960’s and 1970’s into a common organization that could present socialist ideas in public and intervene in politics. Although this particular project did not work out, it is still necessary to forge a body that can openly denounce capitalism and pose transitional demands as a clear alternative.

5) Get tactical. Although this is a “strategic” document, socialists in surviving the neoliberal period acclimated in various ways to the conservative “low struggle, low consciousness” atmosphere and are not seen as bold in responding to this crisis. On its own terms, the movement is having a number of tactical debates regarding public space, violence/black bloc, interaction with police and elections, which are carried out in a certain way. Socialists are typically not part of these conversations and as such lose out in not understanding this part of the movement, and as not being able to pose creative and interesting tactics. This is rather unfortunate, as the socialist tradition has historically posed creative, militant tactics, which we currently lack.