Disruptive Capacity

Michael Chessum

Something is moving at the base of British society. The promise of an unprecedented drop in living standards has arrived after a period of wage depression, widespread foodbank use and public services already stripped back by austerity. It has been met by an incredulous public and a wave of strike ballots. National strikes in transport, the postal service, telecommunications and higher education will spread into the NHS this month as nurses take industrial action. By January, they will have been joined by civil servants, teachers, doctors and firefighters. If the TUC succeeds in co-ordinating days of industrial action in the new year, the numbers participating will rival the public sector strikes of November 2011, when more than a million took action over pensions.

The pensions dispute of 2011-12 was the high-water mark of the anti-austerity movement that began with the student revolt a year earlier. Mass class politics returned to public life, laying the ground for Corbynism. Similar revolts elsewhere in Europe and in the US produced their own political expressions in parties such as Podemos and La France Insoumise, and in Bernie Sanders’s presidential bids. The social and economic conditions that produced these movements are if anything more intense now, especially in the UK. The Labour leadership’s lack of support for unions, and its broad acceptance of the need for belt-tightening, mean that opposition to austerity will once again coalesce around an extra-parliamentary campaign.

The current wave of industrial action commands unusually widespread sympathy. But only a small minority of the population are union members, and even fewer are likely to take national strike action. Ten years ago, striking workers were joined in the anti-austerity movement by demonstrations, direct action, students, the tent cities of Occupy and local anti-cuts groups. This time round, a similar wide coalition has yet to form.

In the early 2010s, new social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were tools for emerging protest movements; now, they increasingly act as a substitute for them. The legacy of the pandemic has been decisive in this but there is a secular process at work, too. Viral content and online tools are a good way to influence and express opinion, but they are more about building an army of spectators than any disruptive capacity.

On the organised left, the shift towards prioritising digital assets has coincided with a shift away from protest as a form of leverage. Networks that might once have organised demonstrations and occupations have instead organised energy bill boycotts; their intention was to recreate the anti-Poll Tax campaign but their presence is, for now, primarily symbolic and online. While the left has grown numerically over the past decade, direct action has increasingly become the preserve of those organising in parallel to it, particularly in response to the climate emergency.

The Enough is Enough campaign was launched with great fanfare in August by key figures at the CWU and Tribune magazine. Its events feel a lot like the rallies of the 2015 and 2016 Labour leadership campaigns, and this isn’t a coincidence. The campaign is a conscious attempt to apply the organisational method of Corbynism to a moment of social and industrial struggle. It has amassed more than half a million email addresses, holds big rallies and produces flashy digital content, but has yet to make any dynamic intervention in the real world in the form of national demonstrations, local community organising or other activity beyond visiting picket lines. Crowds listening to speeches can feel hope and excitement, but the agency remains on stage.

There is a logic to this narrow focus of energies. While Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party, making him prime minister was probably the most effective route to radical change. Now that the fate of the left’s post-pandemic resurgence rests in the short term on the success of various strikes, it makes sense to mobilise solidarity for picket lines and to rally behind trade union leaders.

What these approaches lack, though, is an attempt to create a bottom-up, self-sustaining movement. Despite the turmoil of recent years, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have been radicalised by electoral projects and social movements, the prevailing experience of politics still consists of consuming and spectating. The left has been unable to break down the division between the professionals in charge and the passive masses.

The elements of a new transformative political moment exist: in industrial militancy, youth radicalisation, a growing climate movement and the legacy of Corbynism. But they will remain siloed unless there is a coherent collective strategy that looks beyond the immediate needs of the moment. There needs to be a reckoning with the fact that mass movements have so often ended up in the service of leaders rather than the other way around, and that collective struggle has been subordinated to the task of building personal and organisational brands. If the public mood is to translate into political change, there will have to be a rediscovery of agency and leverage across society, unmediated by icons, and cutting across and beyond industrial disputes. That is best done by the kind of movement that operates under the punk slogan ‘do it yourself’, not ‘click like and subscribe’.


  • 8 December 2022 at 2:17pm
    Graucho says:
    The article's assessment of the public mood is spot on. The conservative mantra of public bad, private good has resulted in a deterioration in public services and price gouging by the privatised utilities. The hike in energy prices is the bale of hay breaking the camel's back. Alas, however, no amount of protest, industrial action or political realignment is going to address the immediate problem that faces us ...
    We are at war. No one will say it openly, but Litvinenko's murder was a wake up call and we have been sleep walking through Putin's covert war on the west right up to the Ukrainian invasion. He has the energy weapon and if he gets his way in the Ukraine he will have the food weapon too. A war calls for rationing and price controls. When demand exceeds supply, dishing out money won't hack it. Drip feeding military assistance to the Ukraine is simply prolonging everyone's suffering. In war there is no substitute for victory. Give them everything they need to inflicting a total crushing humiliating defeat on the Russian dictator and his gang.

    • 19 December 2022 at 3:24pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Graucho
      You have put your finger on a key point. I wonder if the 1930's felt like this. In retrospect we think 'how can they have been so blind as not to see the Nazi threat?' Individuals like Putin and movements like the Russki Mir ideology surface when society is under stress and people are looking for a simple solution. The intellectuals' function is to provide the thinking that will suggest a solution, but today's intellectuals are failing in that duty. Meanwhile, we have to do what we can to keep stating the fundamental fact: Ukraine is fighting for the futures of all of us in the free world.

  • 10 December 2022 at 1:46pm
    R v Buckland says:
    This may be a ridiculous idea but I float it to LRB readers.
    I am an old lefty who went on CND marches in my school days led by Bertrand Russell and other serious heavyweight intellectuals. Is there no way the LRB could perform a vanguard role? What about calling a public meeting with some of the best LRB’s writers and recruit other presenters from organisations who have successfully made an impact. For example extinction rebellion, Greenpeace, Sum of Us, the NUS, (the LRB and other readers will be much better than me at knowing who to invite)
    It would be interesting to invite Kier Starmer, Angela Rayner, and Gordon Brown . And most significantly some of the union leaders who are doing the best job they can in the face of a universally hostile media and the BBC whose news organisation and presenters seem recently to have joined the Sunakian neoliberal right.
    The current Tory government is insolently, provocatively, and openly contemptuous of 90% of the British public.
    One can only marvel at their response to the current crisis for working and middle class people, in which they openly back corruption and irresponsibility in the banking sector, even removing the cap on the bonuses which to any any reasonable person look like theft of the assets of their banks, continue to operate tax havens for their own people like poor misunderstood Lady Mone, (whose name clearly requires an A or a Y) to whom they corruptly seem to have offered tens of millions of pounds without noticing it.
    The purpose of the conference of course would not be to discuss the crisis in any more detail because enough is known but to answer the question “What is to be done”.
    Richard Buckland, Ashburton, Devon.