An extra cynical look at the People's Assembly

An extra cynical look at the People's Assembly

Some thoughts on the People’s Assembly. Dissecting its claims to be the birth of a movement and looking at what is really required to take on austerity and, more broadly, capitalism.

On 22 June, thousands are set to attend the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in London’s Westminster Hall. The event has generated considerable excitement and support amongst “the left,” with sponsors ranging from trade unions to Trot groups such as Counterfire to the Green Party. Scepticism of this being yet another lefty talking shop is taking a back seat to the hope that maybe this time things will be different. A movement is being born – isn’t it?

The short answer is no, it isn’t. At least not as a result of a bunch of high profile leftists signing a letter in the Guardian and organising a meeting, at any rate. The People’s Assembly doesn’t deserve the optimism that it is provoking. Actually, it is potentially a threat to the real advances that have been made so far – and those advances are what offer a glimpse of the real movement we need.

Owen Jones has, up to this point, been the most prominent and prolific cheerleader for the People’s Assembly. On a number of occasions, he has referred to how “a movement is being born.” Up until now, so his narrative goes, the “champions of progressive politics” have been “hopelessly fragmented.” The assembly brings them together in “a potentially formidable coalition” and June 22 “will not only be a show of force, but a launchpad for a missing force in British politics.”

However, you cannot simply manufacture a movement from above. The People’s Assembly has a long list of sponsors, all established organisations with established hierarchies. The nature of leftist politics in the UK at present and the monopoly of resources and influence such organisations hold means that this is a necessity in order to stage such a large meeting and get the crowds in. But it also helps to guarantee that this new project will be just as stale and formulaic as the last one. And the one before that. And the one before that. Back through time to the long forgotten age when Tony Benn first emerged from the primordial soup.

The People’s Assembly is constructed around an impossibly, mind-numbingly long list of the Left’s “big” names. Its meetings so far have been packed to the rafters, but this doesn’t change the fact that they are dominated by top table speeches and offer nothing that the left doesn’t already pretty much roll off a production line. Add to this that it is built around the concept of “left unity” – a hugely problematic notion I have torn to shreds previously – and there is no reason to expect anything new.

Given the situation right now, we do need to be building mass movement, drawing in as broad a section of the working class as possible. But this needs to be a movement from below – i.e. where the struggle is in the hands of those directly affected and avoiding the problems of visible and invisible hierarchies – and based on direct action which forces change and seizes power from the hands of the ruling class. The ideologies behind the People’s Assembly range from the same old authoritarian leftism whose stage-managing of struggle we’ve suffered countless times before to flat out, petition-signing, MP-lobbying, words not deeds liberalism.

What’s their strategy? Owen Jones wants a movement that can pressure Labour from the left as UKIP pressures the Tories from the right. The major problem with this being that it doesn’t work, and that governments – Labour included – grant concessions to our class when they fear our organised power, not cause some people in a hall sound a bit more lefty than them.

John Rees wants it to emulate the Stop the War movement, which he claims was just one more massive march away from frustrating the rush to war. Except that it wasn’t, and all the endless slew of A to B marches did was utterly demobilise people and run the potential from a million people willing to take to the streets into the ground.

The People’s Assembly is the culmination of the left steadfastly refusing to learn the lessons of its own failures. At best, we will get another slow moving stroll through London at the back end of the year. At worst, it has the potential to suck an awful lot of people in, including worthwhile comrades and those entirely new to this kind of politics, harnessing their energy in an almost entirely unproductive direction.

So what should we be doing instead? There’s no single, simple blueprint or formula on this count, but there are hints of the type of activity we can take inspiration from.

In the workplace, rank-and-file initiatives such as the Pop Up Union in Sussex, the Sparks or the Civil Service Rank & File Network point to a way of organising that doesn’t rely on waiting for the union tops to act. The emergence of grassroots groups controlled by mass meetings in opposition to the Bedroom Tax offers community organising unburdened by executive officers and steering committees.

All of these examples, plus many more others could no doubt pull up from their own experience or from talking with comrades, are far from perfect. There are lessons to be learned everywhere – as evidenced by the serious problems of bureaucracy and fascist apologism around the Merseyside Anti Bedroom Tax Federation. But those lessons can be learned and the struggle developed. Just look at the progression from the Liverpool workfare campaign – which had claimant organisation as an aspiration but was primarily an activist campaign – to the grassroots, mass-based Bedroom Tax groups.

The point is that the struggle needs to be shaped by those in the thick of it. Movements grow organically and organisation and tactics can be adapted based on what works and what doesn’t. The People’s Assembly, instead, follows a well worn formula. It is an effort to shoehorn actually existing struggle into a model that suits those who would be our intellectual leadership.

Comments

Peter Pannier
Jun 14 2013 13:00

This matches up with my perceptions. I will say I am (more accurately, was) a tincy bit more optimistic in this case than previously... there are some chinks which suggest that, despite top-down design, bottom-up/horizontal momentum (which, I feel, is growing and largely explains the audiences-desperation to do *something*) could take over. These are:
1) the name. I have previously corrupted Bakunin and said "When the people are being browbeaten by an Assembly they do not much care whether it is called a People's Assembly". Clearly, at present, this is less 'an assembly of the people', but rather an assembly of left luminaries telling you things you already know about how crap everything is, and offering a narrow version of the options for resistance/reconstruction of society. However, the attempt to co-opt the language of what was briefly a nascent movement of assemblies in the UK (I'm thinking university occupations, but there were other occasional, if imperfect, examples too) will probably work, it might also break under the weight of it's own hypocrisy.
2) *some* of the organisational features, such as more of an emphasis than has previously been the case on workshops etc (I have heard, but not from an attendee I would trust unreservedly - that PA meetings have started with an open mic, rather than top-table speeches. Of course, if the meetings end with top-table speeches, this could be worse than the other way round, but if the meetings *remain* open mics only...)
3) increasingly widespread revulsion with Labour as an alternative (particularly since the two Eds speeches) coming from Labour voters/members/crossover people involved/supportive of PA, and hence a potential for arguments for non-parliamentary action to be successfully made in this (admittedly uneven) forum

If those of us who object to/see as ineffective the top-down nature of PA engage and emphasise the bottom-up potential of the name and these organisational elements, then there is still some potential for the huge resources (money, time, effort, hope) going into this organisation to be directed toward useful, rather than ineffective, means, if not ends. In other words, ensuring a more bottom-up discussion/decision-making process might not actually lead to better tactical/strategic decisions, but at least it would contribute to a potentially enduring culture (ideally, separate from PA as an organisation) of more horizontal discussions. Of course, *as it stands*, practically the opposite is happening - enormous potential for horizontal discussions is being misdirected into soft support for soft-left policy proposals.

I don't think it is necessary to add much more to the critique of PA above, nor the alternative(s) proposed. I will merely repost here some critical questions I raised below the line of the PA's draft statement, which - for me - summarise the two key obstacles to it being a useful organisation to engage with on as per my comments above. If these obstacles remain in the near future, I would agree with people urging disengagement with PA. *As it stands*, and-perhaps crucially-speaking as someone who has not attended a PA meeting, it feels like there is still a (short) period in which the design of the organisation can be meaningfully challenged and positive results achieved, despite the fact that the involvement of the usual suspects makes it pretty offputting to do so. I personally cannot attend on 22nd June, but had previously been prepared to do so on this basis. Instead, I and others in the local anti-cuts group are considering how best to do something useful that incorporates a critique of PA but bandwagons on it's publicity at minimum. Would be interested in people's throughts/advice on this and the rest of what I have written.

Comment posted on PA Draft Statement (http://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/draft-statement/) copied below:

"I broadly agree with this statement, though I might phrase considerable chunks of it differently [this is me trying to be nice and hope sympathetic people will read a fairly stinging critique]. There are two parts I think are particularly problematic and believe need to be changed for me to be able to give my full support:

1. “We have a plain and simple goal: to make government abandon its austerity programme. If it will not it must be replaced with one that will.”
I want austerity to be abandoned. I am glad the first sentence here says “make government abandon”, rather than “make the Coalition government abandon”. It is increasingly obvious that even if Labour win the next election, austerity will continue. Hence, the second sentence is rather naive/pointless. There is very little chance of a government that abandons austerity being elected (or otherwise coming to power) in this country.
I believe it is a far greater priority to emphasise effective resistance to austerity programmes that exist now and are likely to in future. I do not think there is much hope in attempting to achieve this through parliamentary means. What might force government (of all stripes) back, is effective resistance. It currently seems the case that replacing one government with another will likely change very little. I feel there is broad public support for this position, and it would be better to harness it rather than direct people towards cul-de-sacs.

2. “We will work together with leading experts and campaigners both here and abroad, and friendly think tanks, to develop rapidly key policies and an alternative programme for a new anti-austerity government. We will continue to welcome support from all who fight the cuts.”

Why the emphasis on policies and a programme for a new government (especially given the likelihood of achieving these, see above)? The emphasis should be on strategies for resistance, and demands. Where demands (note, not ‘policies’) are required to frame an alternative, these should be designed via bottom-up democracy – participants – rather than by external ‘experts’. At present, this point comes across as elitist and vanguardist – our friends will design policy, and we will expect those actually fighting the cuts to support us, but not actually input into the decision-making process.
More problematic with this point is the way in which-already identifiably-it appears to be being used as a way to gain soft support for Labour Party policy.
Rather than pulling the LP towards anti-austerity policies/an alternative programme, what PA currently seems to be doing is proposing policies that the LP can easily adopt as pledges or objectives, only for them to potentially be dropped if the LP comes to power in 2015. This is, I believe, a distraction from building an effective resistance movement to austerity."

Btw, I am writing a long response to Owen Jones' strategy, linked in this piece, from a non-parliamentary/anarchist perspective. I'd appreciate help proofreading/editing. @/DM me on twitter if you'd be interested

Phil
Jun 14 2013 14:11
Peter Pannier wrote:
1) the name. I have previously corrupted Bakunin and said "When the people are being browbeaten by an Assembly they do not much care whether it is called a People's Assembly". Clearly, at present, this is less 'an assembly of the people', but rather an assembly of left luminaries telling you things you already know about how crap everything is, and offering a narrow version of the options for resistance/reconstruction of society. However, the attempt to co-opt the language of what was briefly a nascent movement of assemblies in the UK (I'm thinking university occupations, but there were other occasional, if imperfect, examples too) will probably work, it might also break under the weight of it's own hypocrisy.

I was going to mention the name but couldn't fit it in without it looking clunky. Basically, the co-option of the name for something of a totally different form is an issue, but I also dislike the collective label "the people." Unlike "the working class," say, it's devoid of political content and (at least for me) evokes images of popular fronts and class collaboration - which is another thing we need to avoid at all costs.

As regards the other points about trying to find the chinks in the formula, my issue would be that getting there to do that and getting enough people together to make a real dent would be more effort than it's worth when we could be organising where we are regardless of what the grandees do in the PA.

Peter Pannier
Jun 14 2013 14:59

agree with both points, actually. Still think a limited engagement (trying to ensure someone making these critiques/arguments for alternative routes attends each major PA meeting... perhaps making a simple and attractive 2 sides of A4 leaflet containing some of your text above to hand out-if that doesn't already exist) is worthwhile, but totally agree more important to focus on our own organising. Being from a small town which I doubt the PA will ever be interested in, that's certainly what I intend to do (particularly since the "am a tincy bit more optimistic" became "was" wink ).

Spikymike
Jun 14 2013 14:44

PP is too hopeful in their efforts at a 'friendly-faced' criticism of the so-called Peoples Assembly which is a straightforward attempt to co-opt, or more precisely stimy at the first hurdle, the tender shoots of opposition to both current austerity measures and any vague recognition that it's capitalism itself and not just it's current 'neo-liberal' phase that is at the root of our problems.

Mostly with Phil here but would emphasise that far from it being the case of ''...the left refusing to learn the lessons of it's own failures.'' the organised left has been very succesful in it's function as the left-wing of capitalist politics both in power and in opposition.

Peter Pannier
Jun 14 2013 15:06

thanks mike. should perhaps make clear I'm not remotely hopeful (anymore) about PA. I do remain very concerned (like you) about how it will co-opt at least and stimy at worst the tender shoots of opposition to austerity/neo-liberalism/capitalism-authoritarianism. My concern is how we avoid that, not how we improve the PA - if that makes sense. Anyway, I'll keep working on a longer outline on my thoughts and do my best to incorporate the points you made there, which I agree with.

Spikymike
Jun 15 2013 14:17

Just thought I should mention for clarity that I deliberately used the phrase '...function of the left' above to distinguish this from much of what organised left groups often regard themselves as their objectives, still less so many of their new recruits, so not suggesting that we should always ignore such activities as the so-called 'Peoples Assemby' but any approach needs to recognise and illustrate that function and not just take the politics of left groups and what they say about themselves at face value - though easier said than done I suppose.

Steven.
Jun 16 2013 19:54

Good blog. Pretty much sums up my views on the subject.

Although TBH I doubt it is going to be able to co-opt much of the grass roots movement because unfortunately I don't see much signs of a grassroots movement to co-opt.

I mean hopefully the bedroom tax campaign could be such a movement but at the moment I'm not optimistic.

All of which would leave this assembly as being little more than a lefty talking shop.

Phil
Jun 18 2013 21:15
Spikymike wrote:
Mostly with Phil here but would emphasise that far from it being the case of ''...the left refusing to learn the lessons of it's own failures.'' the organised left has been very succesful in it's function as the left-wing of capitalist politics both in power and in opposition.

Pretty much concur here. Though, as you mention in a later comment it is important to distinguish this as a function rather than a conscious plot to sabotage the movement.

Harrison
Jun 18 2013 23:14
Phil wrote:
The nature of leftist politics in the UK at present and the monopoly of resources and influence such organisations hold means that this is a necessity in order to stage such a large meeting and get the crowds in. But it also helps to guarantee that this new project will be just as stale and formulaic as the last one.

This is what needs to be repeated over and over, I honestly think this is exactly the problem with the left, the tendency to hold conversations with itself and then put forth the results as something genuine.

I'm reminded of a friends Unison branch meeting in which the left elements had the organisational capacity and influence to pass a motion for a minute of silence for the death of Chavez, but not to make baby steps to resolving the ongoing shambolic union response to the continued decimation of their industry.