Coalitions and Movements and Democracy

Written By: - Date published: 11:21 am, August 15th, 2010 - 21 comments
Categories: economy, political alternatives - Tags:

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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘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 ‘freedoms to’ as well as fight for ‘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.

Bill

Alternative Economy Cultures part 1 from pixelACHE festival on Vimeo.

21 comments on “Coalitions and Movements and Democracy”

  1. IrishBill 1

    I agree that the left needs to engage in movement politics but I don’t see that as proscribing unions or political parties as they stand (at least not in the current political economy).

    There’s no reason coalitions such as unions shouldn’t be a natural part of a movement as long as they don’t stifle other parts of it. Indeed New Zealand unions have survived as living, changing organisations focused on bettering the lives of workers for over a hundred years.

    I may be an old reformist but I believe that we need to use organisations such as unions and political parties as tools to forward left ideals within a broader movement. If we are unhappy with how democratic they are we change them. From without and from within.

    • Bill 1.1

      I don’t disagree.

      Unions or whatever can be a part of a movement. They just can’t be a part of any decision making process.

      Look at this way. Is Helen Kelly going to attend a meeting made up of ordinary people? Possibly. But if she did and stood up and, claiming to represent the x thousands of unionists up and down the country, proposed that x, y or z happen….except that she wouldn’t do that would she?….she’d propose that those present throw their hat in with a pre-determined x, y or z that the CTU and it’s affiliated unions had already decided to organise and resource. Bye-bye movement, hello coalition.

      Now, what if she was simply not allowed to speak on behalf of anybody at all? What if she was forced to be an equal among equals? What if she could speak only for herself and not make any calls on the behalf of others? Okay, so straight away the CTU and its affiliates are absent from the meeting.

      And the idea runs something like this.

      The organisations are deliberately repressed and gagged and made subject to the wishes of their various members who, coming back to them from their participation in a highly democratic setting where they were able to speak only on their own behalf, are able to ask, demand, cajole or whatever, that their organisation throw it’s hat in the ring with the wider movement by contributing in this, that or the other way.

      In other words, the organisations become part of an accumulated resource that the movement accesses by way of the make-up of its participants who are also members of some particular organisation. The only ‘in’ for any organisation is through releasing resources or whatever for use as determined by it’s members, managers or employees who are participating as equals in our theoretical movement.

      And it might refuse.

      The managers sitting some way up the hierarchy within whatever organisation might feel that it is they and only they who have the right to decide how resources are utilised. Or members of a particular organisation might seek to attach caveats to any release of or request for resources or expertise. And that’s an internal matter for that organisation to sort out and an asset that the movement would not be able to utilise.

      At the end of the day,it’s pretty basic. Movements are all about opening doors. And that entails shutting out and shutting down all identifiable anti-democratic tendencies and weeding out any and all coalition type dynamics.

  2. Ya Basta came and went. The Peronists are still in power in Argentina. The movement of movements the Zapatistas are holed down in Chiapas. The indigenous nations in Bolivia are included in the MAS (movement for socialism) government. The only real movement I can see from here is a succession of strikes in Greece and resistance elsewhere based on radicalising the unions. That’s good because it shows that working class can organise itself into a socialist movement that takes on capitalism and includes the many oppressed constitutencies who have a key role to play in gettting rid of capitalism.
    Social movements need to be united into a socialist movement.

    • Bill 2.1

      I really miss Uncle Joe, cousin Leon and the extended family. They were such dags!

      • dave brown 2.1.1

        Bill why don’t you say where social movements have actually moved anything.
        You offered Ya Basta as an example of a social movement. What has it done? You didnt repond to my point that the Peronist party is still in power in Argentina. The big change that still survives in Argentina are the factory occupations and they survive largely because of union and political party support.
        What have the Zapatistas done? They sent a letter of support to the Oaxaca commune in 2006 and Sub Com Marcos toured Mexico on his moped giving Oaxaca a wide berth. The Oaxaca commune wasnt a social movement as it was based on the unions in particular the rural teachers union that had fought for years to oust the corrupt leadership (by voting dare I say) to defend public education in teh rural and indigenous population.
        The fact is that capitalism is a massive structure that requires strong working class organisations with definite programs to defend and extend workers interests. This requires democratic majority decision making and unity around action.

        • Carol 2.1.1.1

          According to Manuel Castells, networked movements are the most suited to bring change in our networked society. He sites the examples of the feminist/women’s and environment as the kinds of movements that are, and will be, most successful in this kind of society – especially because they operate across national and organisational boundaries.

          Both have brought a lot of issues to mainstream attention and have so far been influential, without being completely successful. feminism for instance resulted in changes to laws on rape etc, and in the development of women’s refuges, in equal pay acts, UN declarations & conventions that incorporate women’s rights, anti-discrimination etc.

          Neoliberal capitalism is also a loose network of organisations and governments/politicians/parties, think tanks etc. that operate across national boundaries etc. So it would make sense to me, that opposition requires the multi-facted approach of a movement, or even inter-linked movements.

          • just saying 2.1.1.1.1

            I was thinking of the women’s, and conservationist, movements too, and also the smaller more localised movements I’ve been involved in. Often good examples of the participatory economy model when they have worked best, and been most inspiring. But also blighted at times by the competive, hieracrchical, factional, power and its abuse ‘bugs’ that seem poised to spread whenever people get together

            The problem is, quite literally, changing people’s hearts and minds, because the problems of capitalism live inside, as well as outside all of us.

            I can’t see how participatory-economics, in and of itself can wrest power away from the vested interests of the 20 percent, and I’m assuming it is hoped that the multiple world crises will topple capitalism and enforce positive changes in the ways we live?

            Anyway, I’m probably moving into a ‘transitional’ suburb this summer, because I want to be part of a movement towards cooperative, sustainable, inter-dependant community. It wont be perfect, and unfortuantely won’t change the direction of the wider community much-if-at-all, but it could be a positive step in the direction you advocate Bill. I’m wondering why you have been so scathing about these kind of movements when they’ve been discussed in the past. Surely fumbling attempts are better than just sitting around talking about ideal alternative systems that don’t exist yet?

        • Bill 2.1.1.2

          I offered the terminology ‘Ya Basta’ as embodying an expansive and inclusive message, which readily lends itself to any number of issues in contrast to the restrictive and exclusive messages portrayed by coalition arrangements eg ‘Fairness at Work’ which lends itself to no other issue beyond the one stated.

          • dave brown 2.1.1.2.1

            Bill: you still say nothing about results. Your speculations are abstract.
            Ironically, I would reverse your argument. Movements tend to be single issue because they are reactive against specific oppressions.
            Coalitions spark debate and openness because they give organisational form to different interests that can only unite and progress by organised practice.

            Carol: The weakness of the women’s movement is precisely in its specific gender focus, instead of using gender to drive the interests of working class women including unpaid domestic workers, by challenging the male dominance off the labour movement.
            I would argue that social movements of which the women’s movement is archetypal are limited by their inability to transcend the limits of what is acceptable to capitalism.

            In general, social movements which usually begin as populist single issue movements struggle to generalise those issues because they do not have the organisation basis for forming coalitions to breakdown the divisions that have been created inside the working class and other exploited groups. The Greens original environmental issue has been generalised towards a social democratic coalition politics but we still do not see a strong working class orientation.

            Looking at the Oaxaco Commume of 2006 would be very instructive. Here we had a massive community movement firmly based on a long history of struggle of rural teachers to defend public education in indigenous rural communities, struggling to remove the corrupt union leadership, challenging the male-dominated political mafia in Oaxaca, utilising both indigenous methods of meeting and decision making and the methods of coalition building and majoritiy voting to elect leaders and form policy.

            This commune was repressed by the state forces but in the process showed that there are lessons to be learned about both strengths and weaknesses. The main positive lesson was that unions and social movements of the indigenous can work together in a common cause. The main negative message is that there was no real attempt to join forces with the powerful national unions that have a very militant history in mining, steel etc.

            • Carol 2.1.1.2.1.1

              dave, you’re judging the success of the feminist movement as a movement, on the basis of its success as a movement focused on class issues. ie, you’re judging it in terms of something it isn’t. Feminism has had successes in what it aims to do, improve things for women across classes, nationalities and ethnicities.

              As a movement, feminism has a multi-pronged strategy. And this means it has focused on a range of inequalities, – far from the single issue basis of its formation that you attribute to all movements. The strength of such a loosely structured movement is that it can generate support for a diverse range of “single issues” when needed. And many feminists have long struggled within class politics with some noticable success. Political organisations focused on class, employment, and unemployment issues are far less male dominated than they used to be. And there is much more awareness on the left of how some of these issues tend to impact differently and selectively on males and females.

  3. ZB 3

    Over the last a hundred years we’ve got better at producing more, and we had it easy
    with cheap energy supplies. Over the last thirty the economy has had to be stimulated
    by monetry policy as the energy gult was hard to keep up with. Now we entering a
    new era of progressively high costs for energy. What do we know, well we know
    people can do work, we know if they are fed, housed and have health care, an
    the incentive of luxuries in return for their labor then the economy can re-engage
    many millions pushed aside by ‘profits’. The era of ‘just’ profit is over. Any
    future has to include employment policies. But wait, its not so bad, there are
    huge environmental impacts from the ‘just’ for profit era, that will need clearing up,
    our industries will need retooling, our practices will have to change. This will
    no start until we embrace the problems of the past, promise the basics to everyone
    and move forward together.

  4. Rex Widerstrom 4

    Thanks for writing this Bill. Because I don’t want to write a comment longer than the post (and because I’m off to visit a prison and can’t be late) I’ll start with just one question. But I hope you (and anyone else interested) will return here later, and over the next few days as the inevitable happens and this post sinks lower and lower down the hierarchy ( 😀 ) of articles to debate this further…

    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.

    It’d be enough for a discussion, yes. But what say we don’t shift our positions much? How do we agree on what action to take, particularly in terms of a cohesive and inpsiring message to encourage others to join us?

    And what if we’re in some group that’s asked to represent a broad sector (in your example, let’s say workers) in actual negotiations? If you want to go only half way and I want to go all the way, how do we sit down across the table from our opponents and start negotiating? One of us is going to emerge very unhappy.

    Not to say that’s not exactly what happens now. I agree with you, it is. I’m just advancing the proposition that a movement would need to agree and compromise before taking action, surely?

    • Bill 4.1

      “But what say we don’t shift our positions much? How do we agree on what action to take, particularly in terms of a cohesive and inpsiring message to encourage others to join us?”

      Not a problem. If enough people agree with both positions or proposed actions, then both get expressed. By ‘enough people’ is meant enough people to carry off the proposed action successfully as opposed to an action requiring any particular percentage of some total number of people.

      You’re not picking up on the problem of representation. Neither you nor I nor any other person or sub-group or committee has any right to claim to represent any real or imagined constituency within a movement. As soon as there is a spokesperson or a recognised authority the movement has essentially degenerated to become a coalition again with all its attendant problems (party lines developed and adhered to and fought over etc…all the shit outlined in the post)

      I’ve been in the position of representing others in negotiations and never felt altogether comfortable with the situation. What I always wanted to organise was a scenario where the boss, or bosses fronted up to all and sundry for the sake of negotiations. Haven’t managed to pull that one off, yet.

      • Rex Widerstrom 4.1.1

        If enough people agree with both positions or proposed actions, then both get expressed.

        [Playing devil’s advocate]…

        Employer: “So, do you want the fourth week tradeable or don’t you?

        ‘Movement’ representatives: “Well… they do… I don’t though… and those other people think it’s okay only under certain conditions…”

        Employer: “I can’t negotiate with this rabble, come back to me when you have a counter proposal”.

        “Old sayings” become such because there’s a deeply ingrained element of truth in them. “United we stand, divided we fall” is attributed to Aesop, circa 500 years BC. “A house divided against itself cannot stand”; “unity is strength” and a host of others come to mind.

        And when it comes to creating effective action around an issue, then as Chekov said “love, friendship and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something” 😀 In short, what’s wrong with uniting for long enough to bring about the change on which the majority of us can agree, then re-forming our alliances to attempt to further perfect that change or bring about another? Certainly it doesn’t permit total equality of input (though I’d argue that’s as much about human frailty as structural weakness) but it at least gets things done that would otherwise languish while “movements” debated in coffee shops.

        • Bill 4.1.1.1

          It’s the law in this country that only registered unions can negotiate for collective terms and conditions. Unions won’t disappear just because movements develop. If people in a movement are members of a union and also in a particular workplace, then they’d utilise their union when it came to bargaining.

          If everything went south and a wider campaign was required, as was the case with the supermarkets a year or so back, then there is a ready formed mass of people who have been working together on various social issues, who are right there and who have been building up knowledges, and developing working relationships, and expanding networks and honing techniques and strategies.

          And presumably the union has, at the request of its members and employees who are involved in the movement, been supportive of the movement at various junctures. And so that relationship can be brought to bear fruit for those particular workers.

          And think of all the time that is saved by not having to resurrect old networks and re-establish contacts and rummage up resources….time that can be spent enjoying coffees in the sun perhaps?

          Movements don’t languish in interminable meetings. If anything, they get things done faster and with fewer meetings as there is no requirement to preserve some façade of a ‘united front’ on all matters or to always adhere to a particular line or to waste time competing for dominance etc.

  5. It is a dynamic – even a dialectic – top down and bottom up. The post 1970s faith in social movements and bottom-up “plural interests”, is primarily a reaction to “dictatorships of the proletariat” and Leninist models, and, as an historical current, has in some form or other been around for at least as long as Marxism (and I would argue further still – Levellers, Putney, Cevennes etc). The problem is twofold. The confrontation with capital requires organisations and institutional behaviours that will not and cannot function effectively as the post suggests. Equally, if we are to imagine a post-capitalist existence, it will require similar structures. So, it’s not a question of privileging movements as such but recognising and understanding the interplay between institutions and constituencies, which for me is a far more fruitful focus of discussion. That’s a discussion about the nature of democracy,.

    • Bill 5.1

      I’d agree that hierarchical modes of organisation are a fairly recent phenomena on ‘the left’. I can’t see how ‘the commons’ would have survived if their management depended on hierarchical structures. I suspect that the strict hierarchies of the authoritarian left only gained prominence with the Bolsheviks. I could be wrong, I’m no scholar. It’s just a hunch.

      As for bottom – up modes of organisation, they are doomed to fail eg democratic centralism. But what’s wrong with levelled organisational structures?

      Meanwhile, I thought what I’d written was about the interplay between institutions and people (constituencies) and about the inadequacy of the coalition as an institution and better efficacy of the movement from the standpoint of valuing democracy and the right of people to be empowered.

      Anyway, I only meant to ask if you could rephrase the following because in spite of reading it a number of times I can’t quite be sure of your meaning. Are you suggesting that the present environment is not the best one for trying to develop the structures we need? Or are you saying something else entirely. I’m unsure.

      “The confrontation with capital requires organisations and institutional behaviours that will not and cannot function effectively as the post suggests. Equally, if we are to imagine a post-capitalist existence, it will require similar structures.”

  6. The trouble with the Left is that we bend over-backwards to be decent and democratic. Nothing wrong in that but it leave us on the back foot to often.
    As tribal Leftie I have an ingrown intense( to put it mildly) dislike of the Nats/Right.Their whole purpose in life is power , money and ownership,thus their desire to privatize.
    The hegemony of the Right is scary ,just look at the positions of power they have , including an almost monopoly of local government. Its possible the latter may change with the Auckland elections. We must win in Auckland,this could well pave the way for victory in the General Election/
    So what about Phill? An excellent leader who may well prove to a excellent PM. However he must start to listen to grass roots people.
    He needs to be seen mingling with the under-privileged,the unemployed,solo-mums and workers.
    He must be seen at marches and rally’s and genuine strikes where worker are.
    These are the people who should and will vote Labour ,they are sick of the “change”
    Of course they also have a record of not voting ,this is Phill’s chance to convince them to get out and vote ,and vote Labour!!

  7. just saying 7

    Thanks Bill.

    Having read your post and listened to the webcast there is so much to digest that I’m going to have to have a think and come back to this.
    But I wanted to say now, that there are many, fresh, challenging ideas that make it really worth the hour or so, if and when anyone has the time.

  8. Without bothering to watch the video the only comment I have is that coalitions form to serve a purpose. It is neither a good nor a bad thing that they cease to exist after a period. If you help your neighbour build a deck or move house you have formed a temporary coalition that brings good. The coalition that formed to support the election of Obama was equally temporary.

    “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.”
    It sounds like you have intellectually come to the point where a community of individual self interest is the preferred form of governance. That sounds very much like market democracy. Centralised state governance is a failure. Individual consumers making buying decisions in a free and open market is the future.
    Perhaps we could form a coalition to advance individual self determination.

  9. movement dynamics 9

    Was it a movement that stopped national mining in National Parks, and a lack of movement building that has seen a lot of losses in parliament, and a failure in action on climate change…

    Democracy is about more than elections, and politics is about more than just parliament.

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