The Importance of the Local
The Importance of the Local
Speech at the seminar "The Right to Housing, Municipal Rights in Europe: struggles, analyses and mobilisations"
European Social Forum II
13 November 2003
I want to make strategic argument, I want to argue for the importance of struggles and strategies in the locality. I also think that a greater stress on the local, at the same time as we strengthen our international networks, is vital for the future development and spread of the European Social Forum.
To emphasize the argument I want to make a comparison with the partial victory that was won at Cancun in halting the WTO's next round of deregulation; I also want to make a comparison with the anti-war movement.
The successes at Cancun show that at the global level the movement for social justice is becoming increasingly effective at blocking the erosion of democracy by corporate globalisation. At a global level we are increasingly effective in saying `no' and asserting the beginnings of the new , stronger kind of democracy. But meanwhile at the local level democracy is being stealthily pulled from underneath our feet through privatization, the weakening of local government and the destruction of social rights. The ultimate cause of this process goes back to corporate globalisation but action at a global level is not enough. If we do not intensify and widen our local organizing and sharpen our local strategies our base for being effective globally will be destroyed. My arguments draw mainly from the British experience but what has happened in Britain should cause alarm bells to ring in towns and cities throughout Europe. After all, without boasting, the working class movement in Britain was one of the strongest and yet look at how dramatically its abilities to defend and extend public services has been weakened.
It is at a local level that the achievements of the traditional social democratic labour movement: social benefits and public services such free education, health and housing, have meant most for the lives of working class people. However limited peoples actual control over these benefits and services, they provided essential sources of security and protection against the arbitrary nature of the market. The erosion of the stability and democracy (however formal) of these services leaves people powerless and insecure and vulnerable to the appeal of the far right or reactionary fundamentalism.
If we do not develop more effective strategies locally at the same time as we organize globally, if we do not find ways of reaching out to people who are disaffected but not automatically moving to the left, we could find that we lose the popular base on which the sustainability of our global actions depend.
The experience of the movement against the war shows that we can reach out and grow, we can achieve popular support, we are not just talking to ourselves. I want to argue that the next phase of our development must be putting down lasting popular roots by building stronger connections with the every day needs and struggles of people where they live and work.
Of course there have been important cases of local resistance. As we talk, the people of Dublin are fighting hard against the imposition of a bin tax, a payment for emptying the garbage; then there is the famous victory against the privatization of water in Cochabumba. From Britain we can report some small but important victories, like in the northern city of Newcastle where the unions and local citizens successfully resisted the privatization of the local council's strategic IT services and have now also stopped the privatization of leisure services, but these are exceptions, and that's why we remember them.
I want to look at three reasons why governments and corporations are getting away with this privatization process and even turning municipal governments into their (usually) reluctant accomplices. Then I will suggest three strategic lessons from effective campaigns to defend and improve public services.
The move of services away from democratic control, however formal and weak this control has been, takes place under many disguises: partnerships in which the private partner has the majority share (private companies will only rarely be involved if they are n't in such a position); private financial arrangements that lead to the private company gaining operational control; sub-contracting which reduces democratic control to a contract. The vice that in Britain all but forces local authorities into these arrangements is a severe constraint on local authority borrowing. Historically this was Mrs Thatcher's way of keeping central control over the money supply; now it is Gordon Brown's means of keeping within the Maastricht criteria. Whether consciously or not the New Labour government has used it to encourage a purely pragmatic approach to private money, in which issues of democratic control are not a central factor.
The anti-democratic character of these moves are camouflaged with the rhetoric of `community' and the offer of various forms of community representation on partnerships and boards. It is a form of representation severely constrained - frequently becoming a complete fraud - by the commercial obligations of being a board member.
These disguises have often worked, for three reasons. The first reasons concern the historic weakness of democratic control over public services. The social democratic parties which established public services did so simply by extending the existing state administration into new areas of life, not by transforming the organization of the state to serve new purposes. Representative democracy provided an ultimate accountability. Citiznes could complain to their councillors and elect new ones if they were strongly dissatisfied with the quality of services. But on a day to day level most public services, were run on extremely hierarchical basis. Many of the methods of administration were in inherited from the army. I once worked for the government of London, and I was called an `officer', like a military officer, but in fact a local government officer. Positioned `above' the people, these `officers' were often - not always - highly contemptuous of the people they were meant to serve, presuming they were the experts and the people knew nothing about what should be done, but could just complain. This meant that people's daily experience of public services was often very alienating. Take public housing for example, people hated the housing officer and the rent collector and they were hugely frustrated at the length of time it took to get repairs done. The notion of democratic control of public services was not a strong reality in people's daily life. So people have no vivid sense of ownership of these services from which to feel that private control is taking something away from the essence of what is gained by public services being publicly provided rather than provided through the market. And initially the offer of community representatives on the board can feel like a tangible improvement on the old system where community activists had no or very little direct say.
A second factor is a serious dilution of the culture of public value, of the idea of democratic, rather than market control over public services, and with the whole idea of public services being run according to entirely different principles of organization, and of efficiency than those of the private market. After the first post-war generation for whom they were a visible improvement in the quality of life, public service have been taken for granted. Social democratic parties have rarely educated people from generation to generation about the whole achievement of public provision of services. In a way they treated public services in an ethically neutral, managerial, way. The exception that proves the rule is the NHS where there is a strong public service ethic. Not surprisingly this service has proved, and is still proving the most difficult to privatize. Compare this with the way that succeeding generations of US school kids are educated in and daily reminded of the values of the US Constitution, not that I am praising the constitution itself. Just imagine having in the schools of European countries a constant reminder of the ethics of the welfare state and the principles of social rights.
This lack of self-consciousness about the principles of solidarity and social justice made it relatively easy for Mrs Thatcher steadily to commercialise the public sector, so the public sector became more and more run like a private business. The values of commercial viability began gradually to replace the values of meeting social needs, and cross subsidizing and redistributing resources to do so. Thus when the idea of private businesses coming to run, or manage or fund the public sector comes along, it is no longer a shock. Just to give a little example, the private takeover of swimming pools, which is something that's happening not only in my city, Manchester, but virtually every city in England. The way it begins is a sort of creating an atmosphere "it's too expensive these days to run so many swimming pools, they are such big operations, so costly â€¦' People begin to get demoralized and think "oh, yes you are right, it is so difficult to fund a swimming pool". And all the arguments, about the health of old people, the people suffering from arthritis, the education and physical development of young people, all the different social arguments which point to the saving of money for the health service, improvements in our education, the creation of some social benefit throughout society, all those arguments get lost and forgotten about. So the swimming pool almost closes, and than the local council says, "hey, a private company is prepared to run the swimming pool or enter into a partnership with us". So people think, "oh, good, that's something", and than you end up with the swimming pool where old people have to pay, children have to raise money to use the swimming pool, and so on. That erosion of public values and the whole idea of public service is the second crucial problem to overcome.
The third factor is a real sense of powerlessness and lack of confidence, which I suppose that has come from further destruction of those centers of collective strength, the traditional working class movement, industrial and political. This has undermined the strength of municipal governments in Britain so that increasingly they have become supplicants, sort of beggars to national governments. So when national government says "you can't borrow on the market, or you can't borrow on the market, you have to find private money", the municipality, the local council says, "well if you say so.' There is little confidence to say no, we have a right for public funding, though there are some signs that this is changing.
Now, just three thoughts how we can overcome this.
Firstly, what kind of strategies and ways of organizing will make the issue of democratic control of services a lived experience, what will rebuild a commitment to public values and what will restore the confidence in new , changed circumstances to reassert confidently the right to public funding for social need.
The important lesson from recently successful attempts to defend public services whether in Cochabamba or Newcastle, is the importance of developing alternatives and doing so with all the energy and popular participation of resistance. When governments and corporations are so intent on privatization, resistance will not be sufficiently sustainable unless it produces a position alternative vision, a vision of how `another service is possible.' Such an approach involves the notion of trade union, community organizations and tenant's organizations asserting the right to take the responsibility for the running of that service, to make it genuine, a public, people's service.
There is a good lesson here from the movements of the landless, where they didn't just resist the private ownership of the land in Brazil for example, but they occupy it, take over the land, and they run it according to their own principles of cooperative forms of agriculture. The lesson for public services is for trade unions and the users of services, to `occupy' the public space, the public resources that publicly provided services effectively are and showing how they can run those public resources democratically and in response to people's needs. In this way they are creating in daily life and in the struggle to defend and improve these services, examples of a participatory form of democracy strengthening representative democracy. This enables people to see through the kind of fraud that is often imposed on them with talk about "community involvement", and either to refuse it or claim the rhetoric push the commitment beyond its intended limits to become a genuine impetus for democracy.
A further lesson for local success stories is the importance of breaking from that old managerial notion of the sort of exclusive knowledge of the expert and recognizing the validity different kinds of knowledge in the development of alternatives, especially the practical knowledge of the frontline workers, public service workers and the users. This requires a new relationship between academic researchers and campaigning organisations, in which the researcher is a genuine civil, civil servant - a resource for the struggles civil society.
A recognition of the importance of practical knowledge leads logically to a recognition that such knowledge which is never passive will lead to all kinds of practical initiatives to solve daily problems collective. This will mean all kinds of initiatives that are beneath the political radar, the radar of the left as well as the radar of mainstream politics with which social justice activists must connect to if our movement is to develop lasting popular roots. There is much here to be learnt from the womens movement. At its most successful it went out of its ways to search out out and connect with the `pre-political' kinds of rebellion of women.
And finally there is the importance of alliance. I don't mean alliance of the old kind: instrumental and short-lived, usually between political parties. I mean alliances mainly between different movements which need to retain their autonomy but have profound common interests, for example between workers providing services and the people who use them, between trade unions and different social movements. This will mean movements moving beyond their traditionally narrow preoccupations. In the old days trade unions could leave issues of public provision to their sister political parties. Now that such parties are part of the problems new kinds of political agency have to be developed based on those who have a common interest in democratically controlled public services. And this means alliances with organisations or even informal networks with very different traditions of organisation and culture. Genuine alliances are messy processes involving both sides changing their taken for granted ways of thinking.
Alliances between movements internationally are vital too. International alliances that are between people struggling locally can be an immeasurable boost because through them people gain a sense that they are not alone and that the problems they face are shared. Also, because of the unevenness both of capitalism and of our struggles we can gain a very practical sense of what alternatives are possible. Hearing directly from Parisians or Berliners about how in Paris or Berlin local authorities can freely borrow money hugely boosts the argument in Britain against the `there is no alternative' arguments of Gordon Brown. Or hearing of the struggles for genuine participation over budget decisions in Latin America, learning of the pitfalls as well as the success is a great source of inspiration in developing alternatives in Europe. And of course exchanging information about the water, waste, `health' and `education' multinationals that stalk Europe in search of lucrative contracts is now an essential part of any effective local strategy.
So I just want to end up by emphasising how vital it is that the next European Social Forum social forum makes a special emphasis on local struggles and strategies, in the context of the global. That means all of us really organizing for the next forum in our communities, not just amongst the activists, but amongst the kind of people who are feeling a sense of despair, feeling there is no alternative. We need to draw them into the social forum. So at the next social forum we are not simply experiencing and sharing the successes, hopefully, of the latest struggle against the WTO, but also sharing the experiences of resisting privatisation and developing alternatives in our own cities, our own localities.