If not us, who? – This certainly is one of the most relevant questions to be asked in today’s political and social context. At a time when the COVID-19 crisis causes a lot of thinking and writing about ‘building back better’, the slogan of international organisations to refer to the post-Covid recovery policies, and all the opportunities for change the pandemic offers, as was feared right from the start by those who are active in resistance movements of all kinds, nothing really is turning out for the better. What we now see, after almost one and a half years of crisis, is a more authoritarian and less democratic world, with more and more unsustainable inequalities and a real threat of planetary destruction. On the horizon, a new fascism is looming.
What can we do to promote ‘another world’, a better society for all living beings, humans and nature? Revolutionary utopias have been abandoned; the many global initiatives, from the World Social Forum to the technological dreams with cryptocurrencies, are far from being sufficient.
At the same time, too many movements and people have tried to bury in the deepest available place the belief in collective agency, in the opposition between left and right, emancipatory and conservative forces, the central role of the proletariat for all future change. As I read this morning in a facebook message: ‘personal freedom now is the priority value’.
Well, of course it is not. While many people, mostly in wealthy countries, were indeed protesting against all lockdown measures during the crisis and claiming the restoration of their ‘personal freedom’, what Covid-19 has very clearly demonstrated is our interdependence. My personal freedom is worthless if my neighbour carries a transmittable virus; national borders are worthless if viruses travel freely from continent to continent; if all are not jabbed, no one is free.
We knew this already, but some are reluctant to believe it. No one can escape the climate disaster if there are no global strategies. No one can remain safe if half of humanity is starving. How to stop the ‘invasion’ of migrants if workers have no economic and social rights, let alone jobs, in their countries of origin? As has been said and repeated this last year: we are not in the same boat, we are in the same storm.
Organisation and resistance
That is why this book by Dario Azzellini is so very welcome. The world has changed a lot these past decades, but there will not be any change for the better if people do not get organised, if they do not resist and propose alternatives, collectively.
The role of workers and their movements may have changed as well, but they remain the major force for change in this world. They started with the gigantic task of guaranteeing economic and social rights for workers, many now have become progressive forces speaking out on all the most important societal problems – starting with democracy.
From chapter to chapter, an interesting series of authors show how trade unions have defended decolonisation and democracy, have given workers an awareness of the relevance of their agency, have changed so very often the world for the better. And often have failed as well but have never been defeated.
What the different chapters about more than twenty different countries show is how social struggles are changing, going beyond matters of economic and social rights, embracing gender equality and environmental causes and, most of all, democracy. Therefore, workers have allied with other social movements, women, students, precarious workers, etc. Very often, trade unions were not even the ones who started the protests, but rapidly came in once their role proved to be crucial and decisive.
Too many movements today think they do not need the ‘old-fashioned’ trade unions anymore, though nothing could be further from the truth. Precisely because they were able, in the past, to organise and to develop solidarity mechanisms, trade unions remain the example to follow. If not us – who? is indeed the most relevant question.
The struggle today is no longer only about basic human rights of survival but is slowly but surely going back to it. In his Contradictions of the welfare state Claus Offe stated that capitalism does not want social protection systems but, at the same time, it knows it cannot survive without them. That is why international financial organisations have been working these past decades to dismantle the developed welfare states and to install a minimal protection as the part that capitalism needs. But in this exercise, it has been demonstrated how difficult this capitalist chimera is to reconcile with democracy. Safety nets for workers are not enough, women claim equal treatment and recognition, young people claim respect for nature, vulnerable people claim freedom from want and from fear. All these elements cannot be guaranteed without radical democracy and that is the frontier capitalism does not want to transgress. As Azzellini rightly points out in his introduction,
capitalism traditionally undermines the original sources of wealth, the soil and workers. This is its essence. And therefore, people and nature cannot survive within this system. Capitalism and the workers’ movement have irreconcilable and opposing interests: they both fight for their survival, with workers therefore fighting for equality and fairness, for the survival of nature, for their regenerative capacity. Capitalism’s only tool for surviving is authoritarianism.
Yes, trade unions are now much weaker than they were in the past but, every day, their relevance is made clear again. Contrary to what some social movements believe, class remains of the utmost importance in this eminent social and political struggle. Therefore, knowing the broad significance of what is at stake, new alliances are needed, concrete alternatives must be developed, and real strategies must be put into place. That is what is at stake today, for workers, for women, for young and vulnerable people, for nature. We must go beyond the spectacular and sympathetic campaigning of movements but must develop effective and deliberate strategies.
If Not Us, Who?