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WSF-PDX IMCista Part 5: Debating the end of Capitalism, masses or multitudes?

I present a summary of the debate "Masses or Multitudes: Debating the end of capitalism" at the world social forum.
Masses or Multitudes? Debating the movement to end capitalism
Today I witnessed and participated in a debate about ending capitalism. The debate took place at the request of the Socialist Worker's Party (read: a political organization with a long history of authoritarianism, alienating other movements, and extreme centralism) at the World Social Forum here in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The debate sought to illuminate whether or not the classical or orthodox model of the working class as the sole vehicle of the death of capitalism is sufficient, or we need some other model/method. Let me put these questions into context to aid in understanding the necessity and practicality of these seemingly abstract ideas. We have come to the World Social Forum in a time of great turmoil and great hope. We have witnessed the rise of the radical right and fascism on a global scale consistently for decades but especially post-9/11. Latin America is giving birth to popular movements of unknown character and proportion. There is revolution in Mexico, left gains in elections, the Asembleas & Piqueteros in Argentina, etc. Indigenous people from Africa to Pacifica are uniting to fight for their rights and to protect their land from multinational corporations. Moreover there is a worldwide anti-war movement growing daily, that is alongside the globalizing forces of capital and imperialism. The problem that has arisen is as to how we can develop a method of organizing the many struggles into a successful campaign against the source of many of our troubles. This is a practical question dealing with the structure, nature, and requirements for such a cooperative venture. It has also occupied at privledged position at the WSF for obvious reasons. With such a massive movement the possibilities for realizing our goals would be within our grasp. It is on this question that this debate occurred. The question is, In order to stop capitalism should we utilize the working class as the only candidate, or should we seek a movement of a plurality of interests? I fear that in posing the question as I have I make the choice too obvious. Nonetheless the side I will argue against is hard argue for, so please excuse my incompetence in this area.
The debate took place between Chris Harman from the Socialist Worker's Party and Michael Hart, the editor of Empire. Harman's argument was basically polemical, he began by presenting an objection and replying to it with his own account. The objection is that the working class has lost its position as the only body to overthrow capitalism, that the working class has disappeared or changed in some fashion incompatible with earlier Marxist theories of the working class as the revolution's only hope. His reply is that the working class has only grown given the following definition of working class.
1. Those whose labor is seized, stolen, or alienated from their jobs.
2. The concentration of industry via the mechanization of production.
3. Those who are forced to fight are, through 1 &2, forced to fight alone rather than collectively (that comes later with the revolution)
4. Those who are equipped with the basic understanding of how to liberate themselves through some basic cultural and social understanding.

According to this analysis, a great deal of people are in the working class, perhaps the majority (he gave lots of uninteresting empirical data). His argument hinges on the idea that in the creation of capitalism, the seeds of its own destruction are sewn (this is Marx/Hegel's theory of history in terms of "dialectics" of opposing forces which give birth to something new). As capitalism grows, it becomes wholly dependent on its means of production to sustain itself. Thereby the workers have the ultimate ability to collapse it via strikes, seizing power, etc. Given the premise that the working class is still huge, and that the only thing that can destroy capitalism is stopping the capital (i.e. the workers), Harman seems to attain the conclusion that in fact the working class is the instrument of overthrowing capitalism.
Michael Hart however argued that what we require now is not a unitary movement of the working class per say, but a pluralistic movement of multitudes. Hart argued that the working class lost its hegemony as the instrument of overthrowing capitalism with the growth of immaterial labor (informational, service industry, etc). This change, along with the rise of pluralistic social movements such as feminism, ethnic and indigenous struggles, etc, has brought about a position in which the conception of the working class has altered, and that a pluralistic movement is possible and desirable. With the changing nature of work and capital has come a diversification of the goals, experience, and hopes of the working class. Moreover the sphere of anti-capitalist activism is expanding to include other classes, and issues such as gender, race, and power. Hart offers a decentralized horizontal model of organizing a unified front against capitalism. He believes that we ought to preserve and facilitate a movement in which the differences in interest and character of the groups may be maintained and flourish. As opposed to model in which the working class play a hegemonic role, Hart sees the movement as consisting of multitudes. A multitude he defines as an active social plurality of groups that can act in common for some purpose. They interact in a network, like an interest network or community, rather than a bureaucracy or hierarchy of the governmental or corporate model. I cannot further elaborate this concept without attributing to Michael views I am uncertain whether he shares with me or not. What he stressed was decentralization and horizontality. Decentralization consists in the power resting firmly with the individuals and groups that make up the network. They come together not as an institution but as individuals and groups. They act not mediately through the powers of a centralized body, but instead through their own will, interest, and autonomy. It is a unity developed through cooperation of common and differing interests. I realize I have probably expanded upon Michael's brief statements, however they seem necessary for clarity's sake.
At this point they opened up the floor for discussion and debate. I only was able to stay for a half hour of the discussion, but will give some limited and general remarks on the debate. People spoke from Argentina, Japan, Chiapas, the USA, Australia, etc. There seemed to be a fairly diverse crowd and this was mirrored in the debaters. The comments fell in a few general directions. Firstly, people questioned whether the class of immaterial labor was the correct successor of the industrial working class. Secondly, people expressed support of decentralization and offered practical examples of its success, as well as skepticism of the centralized bureaucratic model (this seemed to represent the majority of comments, despite being hosted by the SWP). I also spoke and offered a few points for consideration. The following is a reconstruction of my points:
1. There is no longer a commonality amongst the working class as Marx saw it. The tasks (compare steel work to NGO work), income (compare the ILWU to Greenpeace interns), and desires of the working class is pluralistic and hard to unify. Moreover the working class in America has largely developed bourgeois ideas, whereas anti-capitalistic ideals seem to arise across class boundaries.
2. There is however a commanilty capable of uniting the pluralities to stop capitalism and realize a better future. People are united in desiring control over their lives, the ability to make autonomous decisions, develop cooperative self-management, and to develop their abilities. This desire is one that bridges the commonalities and falls outside of the Marxist class based critique, and falls squarely in a critique of centralized institutions and hierarchy. Moreover centralized institutions alienate and homogenize the individuality and autonomy of its constituents. Through mediating and controlling the flow of power and decision making, centralization disempowers the movement (as witnessed in the failed communist revolutions, capitalist states, and capitalist businesses). We do not need a political party or any centralized authority telling us how and when to act, rather we need a decentralized network that allows individuals to creatively engage themselves in the process of self and social transformation.
3. I pointed out the historical inaccuracies of Harman's critique of the Zapatistas and the Argentinian Asembleas. He claimed that those movements are failing due to lack of working class hegemony. I interpret this as meaning, they lack a centralized state institution, a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is however false, the working class play massive roles in both uprisings. From seizing factories, to active militant struggle, workers are critical part of the movements. Yet the losses have occurred not because the movement is pluralistic, but because of the massive military and economic warfare being waged internationally upon them. The task for such struggles is not centralization, but rather spreading the struggle. It is certainly a bizarre and mistaken, if I may not say imperialistic, analysis to think that one can explain away the war against suffering peoples because it lacks a communist party. I am being harsh but in essence I believe what I have said is true.
Thanks for the Great Reports 25.Jan.2003 23:08


Thanks for the great reports from the forum. Sounds like there are some exciting and important topics being discused. I look forward to when you get back so you can perhaps give a lecture on all your experiences and hopefully we can get some good dialouge going about the practical aplications of these ideas. Once again, thanks for posting, have a great time, and make sure you bring back a lot of great ideas for portland!!
In Struggle and Solidarity,

Great Report!! 29.Jan.2003 07:09

R portlandrick@yahoo.com

I saw this report soon after it appeared but have just now got around to responding. IMC's need more of this kind of thoughtful reporting if it is not to become a wasteland. Thanks for the effort.

I was drawn to your article for two reasons. One is that I am working with others in Portland to put together a conference on Resistance to Neoliberalism in Latin America. We would love to have a report back from the WSF as part of that. The second reason your article caught my eye is that I am quite familiar with the SWP you refer to. I attended their Marxism event in London back in '97. I agree with some of your criticisms of the SWP - but have issues with some of your assertions. Anyway, please feel free to e-mail me.  portlandrick@yahoo.com