At a recent meeting of students who had come together from a range of occupations against the rise in tuition fees, a proposal about creating People’s Assemblies (PAs) was described as a “deeply philosophical” question. The remark, which was not made in a derogatory way, was spot on.
Advancing a concept like PAs is both practical and theoretical at the same time, which appears as a philosophical conundrum. That’s a good sign because all revolutionary ideas – and PAs are just that – are rooted in both the present as well as the future. They are, therefore, a real contradiction.
But isn’t that bad? Aren’t contradictions harmful? Wouldn’t the world be better off without them? Can’t we come up with a simpler proposal that everyone can grasp immediately without further reflection and put into practice?
In the struggle against the Coalition’s draconian public spending cuts – made in a bid to rescue capitalism from itself – “simpler” proposals and plans have emerged spontaneously. Anti-cuts campaigns have spread throughout the country. Protests and lobbies take place on a nightly basis. Students and education workers reacted to the cuts with strikes, marches and occupations.
Now that movement is at a turning point. The cuts are going through town halls – many of them Labour controlled. Tuition fees rises have passed through Parliament along with the abolition of educational maintenance allowances. Planned cuts in higher education spending will devastate the universities.
The weakness of the direction of the movement so far is that it is largely restricted to the “present” situation. It is aimed at stopping, halting or reversing the cuts made by a government that has staked its existence on carrying through a massive reduction in the budget deficit. The deficit itself is a product of the global crisis of capitalism and the devastating way it has impacted on the British economy.
The government has made it clear that it is not for turning. Indeed, were it to collapse under the weight of events, a likely outcome would be a national government rather than some mythical formation that would immediately start on a programme of public spending. As we know, Labour is also committed to reducing the deficit and is doing so with gusto at local government level.
So where do we go from here? Putting all our hopes on the results of the March 26 demonstration called by the Trades Union Congress would be a mistake. One demonstration, however large, is not going to change the world. Ask those who took part in the two-million strong march against plans for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That’s where PAs come in. They are connected to the present by presenting an opportunity to all those with grievances that the Parliamentary system tied to corporate and financial power is incapable of addressing. These include trade unionists, service users, students, the unemployed, minorities and climate change activists.
They also build on the struggle for democracy and representation that dates at least from the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution – and in other ways is traced back to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Magna Carta of 1215. But PAs go further in proposing new forms of democracy beyond the existing capitalist state framework, which can then begin to transform how the economy is owned and run.
They are a philosophical question in the sense that PAs require a leap in thinking out of the present ideological framework which is dominated by impressions and acceptance of the capitalist status quo. But they are also deeply practical because they offer a way forward to an alternative, progressive future.