For Ethical Politics by Andy Blunden, 2003
The radical politics of today operates on the terrain of alliance politics; this is the terrain which determines what actions are possible and what are not.
The anti-WTO protests are archetypical examples of alliance politics: a number of diverse organisations and individuals on their peripheries cooperate for several months to come together for a day or two to protest against a symbol of global capitalism, and then afterwards go their own way.
The participants do not call upon the WTO to do this or that (other than perhaps to disband), since the alliance does not have any consensus as to what the WTO ought to do. And in any case the alliance does not aspire to supplant the WTO or to engage with it. The symbolic target simply functions to represent what everyone is against, but by no means establishes anything that everyone is for.
Where different participating groups collaborate in organising the event, very strict protocols apply regulating the collaboration. Discussions are for the purpose of achieving the basic practical goals of the protest, who will be where when, or for providing relevant information. Selection of demands and slogans is carried out collectively where possible, though this is often not possible. On the radical wing of the alliance logic pushes demands to the left to such an extent that mutually irreconcilable demands are put, functioning more as an expression of ethical principles than elements of an agreed program.
The events are generally triumphs of organisation (at least until a change of plan is required). The whole is so much greater than the sum of the parts, let alone any of the parts taken separately, that any idea of it being a front for one or another of the participating currents is nonsense and anyone silly enough to pose as leader is bound to make an idiot of themselves. Consensus decision-making prevails throughout and all forms of hidden agenda, egotism or manipulation are verboten, (which is not to deny that decision-making is frequently quite dysfunctional, but more on this below.)
The more typical manifestation of alliance politics though is where a campaign is initiated to effect some change in the law or stop some local government initiative or whatever. The range of possibilities offered by the terrain of alliance politics is vast and far from exhausted. If the “gatekeepers” of local communities, for example, organisers of voluntary organisations and so on, were to devote only a small proportion of their energies to maintaining their network, then the potential to draw on the network for the purpose of alliance politics when needed would be enormous.
The “peace movement” which sprung up across the world in response to the U.S. attack on Iraq, was a fine example of alliance politics. I put inverted commas around “peace movement” because this was not of course a movement in the same sense as the Peace Movement of the 1950s; it was a manifestation of alliance politics. The anti-Iraq War campaign differed from, for example, the anti-WTO demonstrations or some “Not In My Back Yard” campaign, because the unifying issue had an element of what I would describe as “universal” (Peace), but fundamentally it was not a movement for Peace, but rather a coordinated protest against a particular action - the US invasion of Iraq. Thus when the war was over the “movement” came to an end. The participants in the protests included all manner of people who would not necessarily be noted for their commitment to Peace. Church groups, Muslim communities, Arab nationalists and revolutionary socialists and anarchists were against the US invasion for quite different reasons. It was the “common enemy” which provided the opportunity for a transient unity. Nevertheless, this transient unity is not just transient; there is a unity somewhere within that diversity, but it is very elusive.
It would be a mistake, therefore, to cast any such alliances as “movements” or worse still to try to organise them into a “front” or a “party.” People are busy enough defending the local nature reserve or advocating for some disability or whatever, without dealing with someone trying to convert them to the new religion.
But of course people will try. All the participants in an alliance have their political beliefs and their own critique of contemporary society, whether or not they belong to a party or some social movement, so to exclude people from an alliance on the basis of their political affiliation undermines the whole basis for alliance politics. Unfortunately, the left-wing socialist parties more often than not so misunderstand the terrain of alliance politics and their participation can be so destructive that they are increasingly likely to be excluded from alliances.
The mechanics of bringing autonomist “caravans” together with membership parties poses real challenges. Since autonomists do not generally recognise relations of delegation or representation, their organising meetings are always open, and naturally form the common organising forums with others, who belonging to parties or movements, are able to caucus outside of open meetings. The autonomists can react by defending themselves by setting rules of debate before anyone else joins in and thereafter ruling out of order all attempts to discuss the decision-making rules.
On the other hand, it is hard for some to accept that it does not follow that just because you are all discussing in the same room together and in the same project, it is necessary that what is under discussion is a collective action. Within a given action, participants in an alliance will independently do different things. What is done together, must be decided together, but not everything is done together. If everything was to be done together, then there would be no alliance politics.
The socialists have largely misrecognised the rise of alliance politics as a resurrection of social movements after a few decades of quiet or “retreat”; that is, they see the period of identity politics which came out of the social movements as a “down-turn,” and the negation of identity politics into alliance politics as an “up-turn.” Since the social movements of the 1960s were largely misrecognised as fronts which parties had to subvert or lead, their apparent reappearance in the 1990s and 2000s means that many left socialist parties see the succession of alliances as movements that they have a duty to split and co-opt.
Alex Callinicos exemplifies this view:
“This is, as they said in 1968, only a beginning. Anti-capitalism is most widely diffused internationally as a mood. Its development into a movement is quite variable - most advanced in the US and France, much more patchy elsewhere. Ultimate success will depend upon what happened briefly in Seattle - the coming together of organized workers and anti-globalization activists - becoming a sustained movement. And that in turn will require anti-capitalism, still as a diffuse ideology defined primarily by what it is against - neo-liberal policies and multinational corporations, developing into a much more coherent socialist consciousness. All this is ABC for revolutionary Marxists. The fact remains that this is the greatest opening for the left since the 1960s.” [Alex Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left, 2001]
and Ahmed Shawki:
“The new radicalization may be in the early stages of its development, but it represents a growing rejection of what capital has done in the last period. It is emerging, however, against an international background of retreat and decline by organized labor and the left, reformist and revolutionary. The balance of class forces shifted decisively in favor of the employers from the 1970s through the 1990s. Rebuilding the forces of organized labor, the left, and, in particular, the revolutionary left, is key to generalizing and building today’s radicalization. But an understanding of the period of downturn, or retreat, allows us to understand better what we need to overcome and helps to explain some of the dynamics of today’s movement.” [Perspectives for Socialists. Between Things Ended and Things Begun, Ahmed Shawki, June/July 2001]
The way these alliance campaigns happen today differs from the “fronts” of some decades or more ago. Those fronts would usually be initiated by a political party which sought both to further its own objectives and to extend its influence, setting up relationships with those joining the front, hopefully recruiting them. Work in the Front was party work, and while internal party work still had a distinct existence aside from work in the fronts, the two domains of activity were closely interconnected and mutually supporting.
The relationship also differs from that of the political parties and the social movements of the 1960s, where the participants were united by a very specific ideal. Big campaigns like the opposition to the Springbok tour in New Zealand, for example, manifested the kind of diversity of today’s alliances, but whatever the diversity of the participants, all could formulate the rationale for their participation on much the same basis, in support of the unifying ideal, the objectification of which was sought.
The relationship between left political parties and the social movements was always complex of course. The social movements provided a genuine and essential opportunity for political currents to contribute to the debate over tactics and strategy and compete for leadership while their members collaborated in pursuit of the ideal. The left parties also faced the problem of social movements competing for the loyalty and energies of their members, which would otherwise be engaged in “party work.” Alliance politics poses similar but different challenges. Insofar as it is distinct from participating in alliances at all, “party work” has become quite separate, even antagonistic and irrelevant to any form of politics.
The point is: the ‘80s and ‘90s were not a “downturn” but a change in the terrain, albeit terrain in which the gulf between the politics of equality and redistributive justice and the politics of recognition and representation opened to its widest.
Political organisations participating in an alliance ought to know that attempts to “take over” alliances or manipulate them cannot succeed, and they shouldn’t try. This does not prevent alliance campaigns from functioning as a recruiting ground. Indeed, they are near to being the only recruiting ground available for political parties.
Every member of an alliance is motivated by some universal principle; the point about an alliance is that the participants are not motivated by the same, shared ideal, and any attempt to impose some shared ideal has the danger of destroying the alliance.
So even though the collective activity is intentional (i.e., is not based on what or where you are, but is voluntary, for a given shared purpose), the object of the intention is rarely universal (as in “Network for Peace”), usually particular (“Anti-X-freeway Campaign”) and typically individual (S11 - the Blockade of the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne on September 11 2000). In the absence of universal principles flowing from the intention of the alliance, ethical principles governing activity, and relations between participants have to be negotiated on the basis of no universal agreement. This situation is similar to the position of the citizens of a multicultural society, where there exists no universally accepted moral code from which appropriate behaviour can be deduced.
In fact, the principles governing relations within an alliance constitute an ethical precept which is able to be generalised, since they do not draw on any external principle other than the need to collaborate. It is not possible for the rules and regulations of a political party, social movement or front to be generalised to everyone because not everyone accepts the objectives and principles expressed by the party or social movement. But it is possible to generalise the organising principles of an alliance.
Thus alliance politics performs an historic function within modernity, that of giving real social form to ethical principles which pass the Kantian test of being universalisable ["Act according to a maxim which can be adopted at the same time as a universal law.” - Introduction to the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant 1785]. This is despite the extremely serious defect that no alliance has any agreement whatsoever about the kind of society which ought to be.
The social movements which transformed the modern world in the 1960s and ‘70s were formed around universal principles and were therefore social movements properly so called, the particular expressions of universal principles. The social movements were for transformation of society rather than its overthrow. In Hegelian terms, once having achieved existence as a thing-for-itself, their concept was subsumed within the dominant concept of society by effecting the objective development of that dominant concept. They changed the world by winning support for the principle they advocated and concretising it by pursuing the implications of the principle within each and every aspect of social life until they ceased to exist as movements, becoming instead simply aspects of universal social life itself, institutionalised in the form of a myriad of laws, institutions and moral norms. But they achieved this objectification by modifying the dominant culture, not overthrowing it.
But this is not the only way in which a notion (social movement) becomes objectified; a notion which confronts the dominant notion of society as its opposite, which aims at the destruction of the very essence and foundations of the dominant ideal of modernity (I have in mind here the overthrow of capital), must itself become the universal subject before it can embark on the process of objectification by concretising itself, “absorbing” other notions.
Hegel described the process of objectification this way:
“The onward movement of the notion is no longer either a transition into, or a reflection on something else, but Development. For in the notion, the elements distinguished are without more ado at the same time declared to be identical with one another and with the whole, and the specific character of each is a free being of the whole notion.” [The Shorter Logic, §161]
A social movement, therefore, which aims to really change the modern world, to really go to the heart of the problem, must be able to merge with an ethic capable of universalisation, to be able to redefine the global field.
“The Notion is the principle of freedom, the power of substance self-realised. It is a systematic whole, in which each of its constituent functions is the very total which the notion is, and is put as indissolubly one with it. Thus in its self-identity it has original and complete determinateness. [The Shorter Logic, §160]
At the same time, the diversity of cultures and spheres of activity which characterises modernity emphatically needs to be retained and developed, rather than brought under the domination of any new, overarching ethos. The only rival to economics as a means of integrating and regulating a world in which this diversity can genuinely flourish, is the ethos being worked out in the minutiae of alliance politics, that kind of moral common sense which develops out of collaborating with strangers and with people whose beliefs are different from one’s own. So when we talk about “universalisation” here, we do not mean it in the sense of “totalisation,” but exactly in the sense in which it develops in alliance politics, articulating between divers ideological, functional and cultural domains of activity.
The point with alliance politics is that its “ideal,” or rather its objective, since it has no “ideal” at all, is wholly external to the ethic governing the collaborative activity. In its purest form, alliance politics may equally be engaged in stopping a WTO meeting, producing a pamphlet against the War on Iraq, maintaining a picket line, publishing an advertising brochure or selling Kentucky fried chicken. The farmer who joins a protest against the WTO aspires to quite a different vision than the young anarchist who is in favour of globalisation, albeit from below. The only thing which needs to be agreed is the practical action to be executed.
And that is its great strength.
For alliance politics to reach its full potential, all the participants have to keep to themselves the ideals which separate them from the others. People have to be open to the idea that the ideal which they hold dear to themselves may not offer a solution to every problem nor answer to everyone’s prayers.
On the other hand, if it weren’t for those ideals, why would anyone do anything at all? So it is generally only that aspect of an ideal which interferes with collaboration with others, which “offends” other people, that people should be asked to keep out of alliance politics. It is particularly the claim of any idea to universalisation which must be handled with care.
A person’s entire personality, their political ideals included, are mobilised, but alliance work does not require theoretical agreement, only practical agreement. So, if you need to convince someone of the merits of some practical proposal rather than another, it is no good mobilising theoretical arguments which rest on concepts which are not shared. You have to appeal to “common sense” so to speak.
Organisations entering into an alliance, formally do so on the basis that they remain external to the alliance, and they make no commitment to modify themselves by entering into a relationship with the other participants. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that in such a situation, the participants cannot remain unchanged by alliance politics.
In particular, as remarked above, the tendency for “party work” in contradistinction to “alliance work,” to become more and more remote from politics, must take a toll on the parties. While I think it is unlikely that there will be a significant dying out among the participating parties, there most certainly will be both decomposition and recomposition affecting all the participating groups. Thus inevitably, the number of independent bodies participating in alliances will grow. Polarisation will be manifested on more and more poles, but as a result, may lessen in intensity, and the form of alliance politics will change.
The forms and methods of alliance politics have to change though. Political activity cannot be sustained on the basis of serial protest. The more abstract the goal, the broader the alliance and the easier the consensus - but the less the commitment. How long can people go on banging against the fences of indifferent institutions? The more so if one imagines what would happen if, contrary to common sense, the fences collapsed and the alliances took over running these institutions.
Is alliance politics up to running the show? Bourgeois society organises itself on the basis of money. The organisational achievements of the money system, as horrendous as they are, are truly magnificent. Money represents the ideal, abstract value of society, albeit the unintentional ideal.
What alliance politics promises is an intentional ideal; but alliance politics is unable to formulate any intentional ideal beyond the most limited, short-term practical project.
What more universal ideals do participants in alliance politics share? Generally speaking, the alliances want do away with the inhuman and destructive effects of the market, at least in the form they takes under the current system of regulation and power. Most want to maintain the openness of modern global society. But the level of agreement is extremely abstract. Some “dot points” could be agreed to.
A genuine and concrete agreement on fundamental principles, and on the form of a society to replace global capitalism presupposes the negation of alliance politics. Having some points in common is not enough. A ‘movement’ which is united only by what it shares in common is no movement at all. In Hegel’s words:
“For the sake both of cognition and of our practical conduct, it is of the utmost importance that the real universal should not be confused with what is merely held in common. ...
“The distinction referred to above between what is merely in common, and what is truly universal, is strikingly expressed by Rousseau in his famous Contrat social, when he says that the laws of a state must spring from the universal will, but need not on that account be the will of all. ... The general will is the notion of the will: and the laws are the special clauses of this will and based upon the notion of it.” [Shorter Logic §163]
The socialists of the workers’ movement of the late 19th/early 20th century had a notion and were able to deduce from that notion the laws of a socialist state, but apart from brief episodes, they were not able to conquer power, they were not able to overcome and transcend bourgeois society, or where they did, they missed the notion of their own movement.
If alliance politics is to become a genuine movement, a genuine universal, which is to embrace the whole of society, how is this to happen? To propose that alliance politics should first negate itself, and make itself into a Front, or a social movement or a party, is an absurdity. Doubtless, alliance politics is the terrain upon which new movements, new ideals, new parties, may arise, but alliances cannot be transformed today into parties, without turning back the clock of history, without regressing.
The way these alliances work is an innovation, and defines the character of the current political terrain. This does not take away from the fact that there are real problems in the methods of decision-making and organisation at the moment. The large assemblies of the anti-WTO and anti-detention centre campaigns are sometimes totally incapable of making a decision when posed with a dilemma, and the result is invariably that decisions are made “informally.” That is, in a way which contradicts the decision-making procedures which are formally agreed, usually by a small sub-group of experienced activists.
To claim, as I do, that the negotiation of ethical norms in the collaboration taking place in alliances is the likely birthplace of a new political creature, essentially recognises that these norms are problematic and even dysfunctional as things stand at the moment. At the moment, the dominant organisational principles are not the creation of current or recent campaigns, but are generally the received wisdom from earlier periods of activism.
As Naomi Klein observed in her recent collection of essays [Fences and Windows], while alliances regularly manage the perfect coordination of the beginning of a protest, just getting a consensus on when a protest is to end is often simply impossible, far less how to react to unexpected turns of events, or what is to happen next.
In the chapter called What’s Next?, Klein gives an accurate exposition of the error of trying to transform the anti-WTO alliances into a party or movement:
“So how do you extract coherence from a movement filled with anarchists, ...? Maybe, as with the internet, the best approach is to learn to surf the structures that are emerging organically. Perhaps what is needed is not a single political party but better links among the affinity groups; perhaps rather than moving towards more centralisation, what is needed is further radical decentralisation.
“When critics say that the protesters lack vision, they are really objecting to a lack of an overarching revolutionary philosophy ... that they all agree on. That is absolutely true, and for this we should be extraordinarily thankful. At the moment, the anti-corporate movement, the anti-corporate street activists are ringed by would-be leaders, eager for the opportunity to enlist activists as foot soldiers for their particular vision. ...
“It is to this young movement’s credit that it has as yet fended off all these agendas and has rejected everyone’s generously donated manifesto, holding out for an acceptably democratic, representative process to take its resistance to the next stage. Perhaps its true challenge is not finding a vision but rather resisting the urge to settle on one too quickly. If it succeeds in warding off the teams of visionaries-in-waiting, there will be some short-term public relations problems. Serial protesting will turn some people off ... before it signs on to anyone’s ten-point plan, it deserves the chance to see if, out of its chaotic network of hubs and spokes, something new, something entirely its own, can emerge.” [Fences and Windows]
Later Klein suggests that “democracy” may constitute the one unifying value shared by all components of the “movement of movements,” despite the observation that they manifest a chronic inability to evolve any practicable form of democracy for themselves. This is an important observation, but it needs further thought, because the suggestion is still pointing towards a shared political ideal while the evidence is that the basis for this does not exist.
Democracy is a problematic ideal: it means recognition, for everyone is to be consulted and given due recognition in decisions; autonomy, whether in the form of individual autonomy or of the self-determination of communities and peoples; community since democracy is the form of political subjectivity which constitutes the community; equality because everyone has an equal say and their interests are spoken for.
Freedom, the other grand unifying ideal, is also problematic: it means both the negative freedom of autonomy including the self-determination of communities, and the positive freedom which underwrites equality; the freedom to be which constitutes recognition, and the freedom to do which constitutes liberty.
While it is “politically incorrect” to introduce into the business of alliance politics a dispute over ideals, since such discussion always bring about disunity and disorganisation, there is room for discussion and disputation about ethics, about ethical rules and norms, and to some extent even values, since these are the legitimate ground upon which collaboration is based.
This legitimacy extends beyond the domain of alliance politics as such.
And in fact, the real target of the mass alliance political protests is not the giant capitalist corporations - which in fact alliances are powerless to stop - but rather the ethical foundations upon which these corporations rest, and the struggles of resistance against these corporations may be the site from which a new ethic may emerge.
New legal, constitutional and ethical forms do not spring from the soil or descend from the sky but invariably come about through the protracted political struggle of social groups having an interest in the new form. There is every reason to believe that the answer to the social crisis of modernity will emerge out of the activity of these alliances, the multiplicity of transient formations which contest the abominations of the modern world.
What is new, I believe, is this. Generally, in the past, the radical subjects which place change on the historical agenda began with an abstract notion of their aim and won people to their side. This is not the case today. Discovery of a new ideal is a collective project.
Broad abstractions like “Freedom” and “Democracy” are not adequate to the task. Calls for ideals such as freedom and democracy constitute what are proverbially called “motherhood statements.” But they certainly do mark out an arena of struggle.
In her General Ethics, Agnes Heller holds that the formation of independent functional “spheres” in modern society, replacing the traditional division of labour, is a healthy process in itself, provided that “practical reason” can form the basis of a “loose ethic” binding civil society:
“... I have stressed the desirability of both the moral division of Sittlichkeit among the spheres (with the primacy of practical reason as a ‘loose ethos’) and the plurality of the moral norms of life.” [p. 158, General Ethics]
By “practical reason,” or “conscience,” Heller means the capacity of individuals to distinguish between good and bad and choose good before bad. Heller distinguishes between the “totalitarianism” of a dominant morality or ideal, such as in traditional society, Stalinism or fundamentalism, and the healthy effect of the kind of “loose ethos” which may develop:
“... the modern imperatives of practical reason must be universal enough and general enough not to interfere with the relative independence of inner-spheric norms and rules. If they interfere with this independence, fundamentalism will be the result, and this in turn will represent a violation of the value of freedom, the value which, in the end, modern practical reason finally stands for. ...” [General Ethics, p 163]
The kind of ‘loose ethos’ that Heller talks of, which emerges through the testing and challenging of the norms prevailing within the different “spheres,” is close to what is proposed here as emerging through the collaboration of people pursuing different ideals or vocations, who continue to challenge the norms of their own sphere of activity from the standpoint of a general or universal ethos.
“Let me emphasise once again that it is not a regressive development that the all-encompassing ‘dense’ ethos of society has disappeared. But an all-encompassing loose ethos rooted in the universal values of freedom and life must still develop and grow beyond its present emaciated form. A loose ethos such as this would not revoke the division of Sittlichkeit ["ethical life"] among the spheres, and it would not hamper the coexistence and mutual recognition of diverse forms of life with their unique concrete systems of Sittlichkeit. A loose ethos such as this could be supported, reinforced and kept alive by the attitude of morality, by the individual’s practical relationship to the fundamental norms. The term ‘individual’ stands here for both for the ‘individual person’ and the ‘individual form of life’ of the community. If this were the situation, then the process of the division of Sittlichkeit along the lines of spheric differentiation could unqualifiedly be called a process of emancipation and progression. [General Ethics, p. 165]
The position supported in this article is that such a ‘loose ethos’ can be constructed by pursuing the diversity of progressive and emancipatory struggles in all the various spheres of social practice, by means of ethical politics. It is my contention that it is the commodification of all aspects of life, characteristic of modernity, which both generates the independent “spheres,” and the basis for this shared “loose ethos”; what Heller refers to as its “emaciated form” reflects the fact that the relation of commodity exchange has yet created only the potentiality but not yet the actuality of genuinely human collaboration.
Thus, in a sense, what I am proposing is close to what Heller proposes. Heller wants to see the diversity and complexity of the spheres of functional activity of modernity maintained and developed (and I agree), but hopes to moderate the ills of modernity by the promotion of a better understanding of the ethical problems of modernity. In particular, Heller uncritically accepts the notion of fair exchange as the foundation of ethical life.
For my part, I remain just as I was as a teenager, dedicated to a radical overthrow of modernity. Nevertheless, having gained an overview of the way radical subjectivity has unfolded down the generations, and where it now lies, the old view of how the “overthrow of all existing social conditions” could be achieved cannot be maintained. Ethical politics is the way forward.
Heller’s notion of how a ‘loose ethos’ binds together the separate functional domains, each of which have their own ‘dense ethos’ and how ‘ordinary life’ constitutes the medium of development of this ‘loose ethos’, serves to emphasise how lethal is the tendency for political activity to evolve into a specialist domain of activity in itself. If this is allowed to develop, then radical politics is doomed to the ghetto of fruitless protest. This observation gives further definition to the outlines of ethical politics and how it must address itself to everyday life as well as the great issues acted out on the public stage.
Further reflection on the succession of forms of collectivity down the decades raises the question of agency. It is sometimes asked: “Who/what is the agent of social change? the party? the working class? progressive people?
If one can imagine a mythical moment in the past when production was carried out in the manner described by Adam Smith while all the remnants of aristocratic privilege had already been eliminated, then we would have had a situation where the practical reproduction of material life lay with the exploited and the theoretical, political, social and moral leadership lay in the hands of the exploiters - an absolute polarity of subject and object. Here the contradiction of agency would have been posed as sharply as possible, and this contradiction made the class struggle the central axis of progressive politics. One has only to look at how the productive process itself has changed, to see how the struggle for an agency of radical political change has developed, and become ever more complex.
Agency means not only effective action, but also social consciousness; social consciousness means organisation, and consciousness of organisation.
It is no longer possible to propose that any limited social strata can capture the intellectual and moral leadership of society, if one leaves aside the category of “not-capital,” which embraces the overwhelming majority of the population, notwithstanding pension schemes, share ownership and whatever, and cannot constitute in itself a form of organisation or consciousness.
I believe that there is no compelling reason to insist that social transformation and a reconstruction of society must be carried out on any narrower basis than that upon which the relations of production are themselves reproduced in modern bourgeois society, excluding capital itself. From this standpoint, the question of the agency of radical social change merges with the question of the agency of social life as a whole.
Ethical politics posits the unity of political struggle and social life.
We briefly discussed above the internal dynamics of alliance politics, the inevitability of the modification and proliferation of subjects participating in alliances, and the necessary transformation of its forms in connection with its changing content. No new ideal can enter the world and become a genuine subject without its actualisation. This means it becoming a cause on the political or social field and finding its own reflection in each and every branch of social life, and entering that stage of its development called reciprocity, wherein it is, as they say, a cause of itself. Like all the forms of radical subjectivity that have gone before it, alliance politics is formulating for itself challenges that it does not yet have the resources to overcome.
As things stand at the moment, even the broadest arena of action of alliance politics tends to be the territory of professional activists, more or less isolated from the mass, from the “multitude” in fact.
Ethical politics offers a way out of this ghetto.
Before moving to an outline of ethical politics as I see it unfolding in the period ahead, it is worthwhile reflecting on one of the ways in which the two antagonistic signs of political radicalism meet on the terrain of alliance politics, the two antagonistic conceptions of decision-making.
Formal meeting procedure (FMP), or “Standing Orders,” dates back to the dawn of the bourgeois epoch, from the early companies and guilds, and have been practiced by trade unions and working class political organisations for centuries. The underlying assumption is: (1) that the participants in a decision process may potentially have irreconcilable ideological differences or conflicts of economic interest, and (2) that the organisation has assets, whether of a material or human kind, over and above the delegates present in the meeting. Consequently, FMP does not really attempt to resolve differences, but rather makes decisions by majority and is designed to ensure, on one hand, that a minority is not able to disrupt or obstruct the majority and conduct of meetings is always in the hands of the majority, and on the other hand, that the meeting is always able to hear dissenting views and receive relevant information, so that a well-informed proposal may be formulated and receive majority support. The fact that the organisation has assets (for example it may be the peak body of a large organisation), ensures that the minority will continue to participate even though it is out-voted. The shared assets constitute an objectification of the “we” which mediate the conflict and hold the organisation together.
Consensus Decision Making (CDM), on the other hand, has its origins, I believe, in the neighbourhood organising of the inter-war years in the United States, and took root in the Peace Movement after the Second World War and became the normal means of decision-making throughout all the social movements of the subsequent decades. CDM takes as its starting point (1) that “everyone is on the same side,” and (2) that the only assets the meeting has is the active commitment of those present. Consequently, rather than trying to enforce the will of the majority, emphasis is on patiently achieving a consensus. Once consensus has been achieved by patient discussion, and every point have view has been given recognition, the organisation can count on the commitment of everyone present.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that the various procedures of decision-making actually number four, for there is also the informal decision-making process normal among a group of friends or people who are thoroughly bonded to one another and act as one without the assistance of any procedure whatsoever, and on the other hand, the military and other traditional forms of decision-making in which the superior officer simply issues commands and the subordinates obey. There is, of course a time and a place for all these different decision-making processes. But what concerns us most of all here is the two great traditions of radical democratic politics: Formal (majority voting) decision-making and Consensus Decision Making.
It is the Consensus Decision Making process which predominates in alliance politics. Of course, within an alliance all sorts of decision-making processes are operative, but it is CDM which is generally articulating between the component parts of an alliance. This practice has been learnt and inherited from the past. While the shortcoming of FMP is obvious, the shortcoming of CDM on the terrain of alliance politics is less obvious, at least until it is witnessed.
At a recent blockade of a refugee detention centre, much to the surprise of the demonstrators, a number of detainees took the opportunity to make their escape and took cover amongst the ranks of the startled protestors. This generated a huge crisis for the protest, since no-one had anticipated this eventuality, far less had the alliance made a decision about how to respond. The protestors met right through the night and when dawn came they were no closer to arriving at a consensus about whether to encourage the detainees to return to the authorities or to facilitate their escape. Fortunately, in the meantime a small group of experienced activists resolved the problem and facilitating the escapees to slip out and lose themselves in a nearby metropolis.
Another anecdote. The protest took place in the desert, where there was no water to be had for miles. The working group responsible for logistics had identified this as a problem; one view was that for a few hundred dollars a water tanker could be hired and everyone would have as much water as they wanted very cheaply; on the other hand, others thought that by supplying drinking water from a tanker implied that there was a protest, as opposed to a convergence of about 20 different protests, and that individuals and groups should supply their own bottles of drinking water. In the end, one of the supporters of the tanker idea simply announced that, it being impossible to get consensus on the question, they were going to fork out for the tanker from their own pocket. This proposal was acceded to and the person did hire a tanker and were indeed fully reimbursed for the cost after the protest was over.
Stories like these, and the incidents cited by Naomi Klein in Fences and Windows, are normal. CDM actually does not work in alliances. And nor does FMP. The reasons that FMP does not work are obvious enough: there is no ideological agreement and people absolutely refuse the imposition of a majority decision. People who have been “brought up” on majority-decision making usually don’t need to be given reasons why CDM doesn’t work, since they have always believed that CDM was dysfunctional, at least when it comes to action. However, if one accepts that CDM served the social movements very well, it is really not at all obvious why it is becoming dysfunctional in the environment of alliance politics.
I believe that the underlying conditions, the presumptions upon which CDM is based, are not actually fulfilled in alliances.
Firstly, it is not possible now simply to assume that “everyone is on the same side.” There may be huge ideological gaps and conflicts of interest within alliances. The unifying objective for any given action is not strong enough to bind conflicting allies. As is frequently observed, discussions may be literally interminable, especially in the event of an unexpected turn of events needing to be responded to.
Secondly, the only “asset” an alliance has is the rich and creative environment it provides for political activity. Political parties attracted to an alliance for its potential for recruiting are happy to consent to a majority view while still harbouring disagreements, but they will never accept any constraint on what they do outside the alliance.
Binding majority voting remains untenable except in the situation just mentioned. In general the only alternative to consensus is a split.
Shortly after the successful S11 campaign in Melbourne in 2000, which succeeded in uniting Trades Hall with the social movements and radical political groups, the same participants entered a process for M1 (i.e., May Day 2001). This process was less successful, and the splitting of the campaign manifested itself in the resort to majority voting. As soon as they were out-voted, the libertarian wing stopped meeting at Trades Hall and organised separately.
Thus we have in alliance politics a tension between the two phases of development of organisational thinking: FMP and CDM. This tension corresponds to the tension between the struggle for liberty and equality originating in the socialist movement, and the struggle for recognition and difference originating in the social movements. The tension is manifested in dysfunctional thinking. People have to be prepared to let go of the organisational procedures they know and love and work out new principles of decision-making.
Splitting when consensus cannot be reached is not, in fact, the unmitigated disaster it is taken to be by those who are accustomed to building parties and fronts. “What we do shall be decided by you and me” is, I maintain, the maxim of the current period. The converse of this is that “What we do separately is decided separately.”
Naomi Klein cited the example of a failure to agree on whether to wind up a blockade at a certain time [Fences and Windows, p. 22-23]. The decision was for the two sides of the debate to do as they wished, and this of course had the effect of ending the blockade. The same issue arose in the S11 process in Melbourne, and the same decision was made, but with the proviso that the group which wanted to leave would delegate a group of stewards (older construction workers) to watch over the youngsters who were going to stay, to make sure that they didn’t get bashed by the police.
I think that this indicates how alliance decision-making is developing. There has to be an “ease” about dividing an alliance when a consensus is not reached, which respects people’s right of self-determination and recognises the relative validity of anyone’s point of view until the question is finally resolved by history.
So, in the detention centre example, perhaps what should have happened is that once it was obvious that the alliance could not agree on whether to aid the escapees or advise them to return, the meeting should have been split in two, and the two different groups decide on how to deal both with the escapees and the other half of the alliance, and do so in a comradely manner. In any case, the escapees themselves had determined their own action without asking for the opinion of the protesters. Whether such a split would become a permanent parting of the ways, or perhaps very soon reconcile itself with the benefit of hindsight, experience and mutual respect, could not be predicted.