This is very much a one pass broad brush stroke and I’ve embedded a long video at the end of this post because the talk on the video, even although a certain amount of extrapolation is necessary, expresses basic matters better than I can in the space of a blog post. Watch the video. It’s well worth the time and broadband.
Meanwhile. Maybe coalitions are an encapsulation of market place dynamics that permeate our culture; or maybe a â€˜natural’ extension of the internal dynamics and structures of the organisations that seek to form them; or maybe a bit of both.
Whatever their genesis, we know what happens to them. Always. They fall apart.
The hairline cracks that precede any destructive factionalism are already appearing in the nascent coalition that has been cobbled together to oppose the Fire at Will legislation. It might hold long enough to see off the Fire at Will bill.
But then what? The short answer is â€˜Nothing’.
Coalitions aren’t built for the long haul.
Meantime, what of those few hairline cracks? What happens if one widens and threatens to become a schism sometime through the week? How does a coalition deal with that?
Short answer again. It doesn’t.
It experiences a crisis. A power struggle ensues. People from different organisations nail their colours to one or another mast and eventually one camp/ one position triumphs, or a compromise is arrived at, or a split occurs.
No matter the outcome, democracy gets a kicking and the power that would flow from acting in solidarity is never realised.
And all to achieve a false and somewhat disingenuous goal of a united front and so-called solidarity.
But this â€˜one voice’ that results from coalition horse-trading and strong arming is no expression of solidarity at all. Solidarity arises from the recognition of multiple commonalities across differences and distances being freely realised, not from the imposition of a unitary commonality.
Even putting that aside, and regardless of any serious split occurring, while the various organisations and their controlling bodies or members compete with each other over who should control the coalition, and what the lines or tactics should be, and what the slogans should be, and who should be seen to take credit for this, that, or the other, and who should be censured and so on; the vast bulk of people, those who don’t belong to the eminent organisations within the coalition, or any organisation for that matter, get to learn that they are to be mere foot soldiers of, and spectators to, the inter-organisational politics of parties seeking domination of a coalition structure, and that the operation of the coalition is something that has nothing to with them.
And they slowly disengage completely and drift away.
And as long as the organisations of the left persist in using, and forcing on us, the disempowering and anti-democratic hierarchical model of coalitions, the left will go nowhere. We won’t gain any momentum. We won’t broaden and deepen our constituency. We’ll just bob up from time to time around this issue or that issue, maybe win a few battles, and always disappear again. Back to being dragged by the indefatigable corporatist undertow of contemporary politics.
An alternative would be to insist that our organisations be exposed to the democratising effects of a movement. Movements are built around people and as such, the roles of organisations and people are reversed. Whereas the individual has no meaningful role to play in the coalition and is merely there to â€˜make up the numbers’ for a show of force, so the organisations that formally made up the coalitions have no determining role to play in movements. Members of any given organisation participate fully and equally in the movement as individuals; not as representatives of any organisation. ( so for example, Helen Kelly would have no more power or say-so than you would have, because she would be there as Helen Kelly the individual, not Helen Kelly the head of the CTU. And the CTU, in line with all other organisations, would have no say whatsoever in proceedings. )
Which allows for a truly democratic space to develop where many voices can be heard and many ideas get to develop simultaneously – and even sometimes in contradiction one to another – free from the competitive environment of coalitions and the overarching demands and constraints that that entails.
To illustrate what I mean consider the proposed trading of the fourth week of annual leave. Put aside your thoughts on the rights or wrongs of either position for the time being Many workers think it’s a good idea. Many don’t. And neither the coalition nor its constituent organisations can deal with that. The Labour Party contradicted itself with Goff indicating one thing and Little another. The CTU has been unequivocal which is all very good but not very reflective of what sizable numbers of people are thinking. At the end of the day, the line that the fourth week is not to be traded will probably be imposed and that will be that. But where does that leave the many people who are against the rest of the bill but think that tradability is a good thing? Will they be among the first to feel disenfranchised and walk away? Probably.
But in a movement there would be no pressure on anyone to pay lip service to a line they didn’t agree with. The discussion and debate that coalitions can’t engage in -because they’re all about imposing lines and presenting and preserving faux solidarity – can take place in the environment offered by a movement. It doesn’t matter a toss if you and I agree on 100% of the matters at hand. Or even if we only agree on half the stuff. Just so long as there is enough common ground to engender a sense of solidarity. Hell, there might be people whose only concern is one aspect of the bill. In a movement, that enough. That one aspect is one open door; an entry point. And that is a world away from coalitions where it seems that either all of the doors are open or all of the doors are shut.
Which brings me on to the final point. Coalitions are self limiting. Due to their structural dynamics they cannot persist and expand beyond single issues. There is a dominant organisation that stamps its authority and decides the agenda. End. But we need more than that. We need to spread out beyond single issues and that simple fact necessitates the abandonment of delineated party lines and slogans in favour of expansive and inclusive descriptions that are always offering open doors to new people organising around new issues.
For example, in Argentina the movement formed under the broad sentiment of Ya Basta! (Enough!). You can see how a sentiment like that (at least when it’s said in Spanish.) lends itself to access by people concerned with matters as diverse as labour rights, mining of S4, super cities, water allocation rights, diminishment of surgical capacities, educational reform, surveillance legislation, farming practices and on and on. But how can a coalition progress or expand from â€˜Fairness at Work’ to any other issue? It can’t. Only movements can.
And they can also become much more than mere locations of resistance. They can become locations where we inform and educate and realise the power to grasp the various â€˜freedoms to’ as well as fight for â€˜freedom from.’
But for anything worthwhile and sustainable to happen, all hierarchical organisations with their innate anti-democratic tendencies must be kept at arms length and matters conducted democratically, which means revolving around and centred on people.
And that’s it. We can carry on allowing our top-down organisations to form coalitions and so consign ourselves to going nowhere very fast. Or we can expose and subject the organisations we belong to to simple democratic dynamics and so, just perhaps, give ourselves a chance of building an ever broadening, ever deepening movement that will actually persist from one issue to the next and even, maybe, have the power to overcome the corporate drift of that undertow I mentioned earlier.