Lessons from Cuba

The death of Fidel Castro contrasts starkly with the election of Donald Trump. 

Among countless other differences, in one way they were similar: they were populist leaders. 

Both, that is, are leaders who appeal in some way to the popular views of a significant group or groups of people in a country, and do so by drawing a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

A progressive form of populism – one that could be developed to counter Trump in the US, the Brexiteers in the U.K or Le Pen in France – could learn a lot from Castro, and its worth reflecting on some of the lessons to draw. Five lessons from Cuba for a progressive populism are nicely articulated by DL Raby in Democracy and Revolution, where he evaluates Castro’s record fairly, identifying where his strengths were and where he ought to have embraced greater pluralism and openness.

  1. Extend democracy. A progressive populism needs to ensure democracy is extended beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy, into workplaces and communities. 
  2. A progressive movement needs to allow for a range of ideas, not have a single view of what it is trying to achieve. To be successful it needs to embrace a range of people and views.
  3. Debate and diversity is important, but at the same time there needs to be unity around certain elements; otherwise it isn’t a movement. The key here is unity, not uniformity.
  4. Just as Trump managed, the populist values being articulated need to chime with established cultural values and beliefs. Start where the people are, not where you want them to be.
  5. And, despite extending democracy and encouraging pluralism, there needs to be clear leadership and organisation of the kind Castro offered.

It’s the complex mix of grassroots activism and leadership, unity and diversity, that made Castro such a successful and popular leader, despite his many faults.

We certainly don’t want another Castro. But we must learn what we can from such an effective and transformative leader if we want to see anything like the deep rooted alternative he offered take hold.


Do we live in an aristocracy?

… where powerful figures engage in constant public contests with one another as a way of rallying followers and gathering support. We now think of this as an aspect of democratic systems of government, but for most of human history it was seen as more of an aristocratic phenomenon… Aristocracy after all means ‘rule of the best.’

David Graeber – in The Utopia of Rules (pp176-7) – is very matter of fact, and even more accurate, in his interpretation of our politics, something made abundantly clear in an election contest between two candidates, one a multi-billionaire businessman the other an insider from an elite political dynasty.

Pressure cooker politics, Nietzsche and the EU referendum

The majority of the British people who voted in the referendum voted to leave the European Union. They voted to leave for many reasons – to quell immigration, to take back sovereignty, to go back to some golden age of British might, because the leave campaign was convincing, because the remain campaign was weak… and so many more reasons too no doubt.

What has become clear since the referendum, too, is that anti-immigration was in fact a very large part of the support for Brexit, as evidenced by the rise in hate crimes and casual racism, and recriminations against the leave campaign for the tenor of its messages in the wake of the result.

I’d be interested to hear what Chantal Mouffe has to say on this. Or, in fact, Nietzsche (if he hadn’t been dead for 100 or so years that is). Mouffe is a political theorist who for the last 15 years has been calling for a more ‘agonistic’ approach to politics, one in which different ideas are openly and passionately debated. She has referred to immigration on a number of occasions in this respect, arguing that in many liberal democracies it is made impossible to honestly discuss immigration because passions are deemed to run too high and a moralistic tone of the debate limits what can be said. The consequence of this is an implicit suppression of views, so that the concerns of many people are displaced and spill over into other areas. It creates a pressure cooker like society, where the heat rises and rises until it explodes in ways not connected or expected. Like the EU referendum.

Nietzsche praised the ancient Greeks for channeling the excessive desires of its people into ‘agonistic’ contests – often physical contests that ensured their passions and drives had an outlet, rather than overflowing and destabilising society.

What the EU referendum and the associated rise and rise of right wing, populist anti system and protest parties tells us is that the ‘agon’ – democratic channels through which people with opposing ideas can confront one another – is crucial if we want to avoid people’s concerns bubbling over and being displaced into increasingly antagonistic or even violent outbursts.

Economic democracy quote #1

A Preface to Democratic Theory

Here’s a great paragraph on why economic democracy – giving people control and ownership of businesses – is a key way of creating greater equality.

Most interestingly, this is from Robert Dahl, a prominent democratic theorist whose big idea was the need for polyarchy rather than democracy, by which he means elites competing with one another for votes based on different interest groups and positions – a situation not that dissimilar from what we have now. Hardly the radical then.

As Dahl puts it:

” . . . differences in ownership and control of enterprises, while certainly not the origin of all forms in inequality, are deeply implicated in inequalities of many kinds: in esteem, respect, and status, in control over one’s daily life, in income and wealth and all the opportunities associated with them, in life chances for children and adults alike. It seems to me scarcely open to doubt that a society with significantly greater equality in owning and controlling economic enterprises would produce profoundly greater equality than exists in America today.”

Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985, pp5-6

Everyday and transformational co-operation

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find a way to characterise two different kinds of co-operation: one that is a constant of our social life, another that aims to bring about social change.

Having thought about in different ways, I wonder if the simplest way to express it is to talk about everyday co-operation and transformational co-operation.

Everyday co-operation

Everyday co-operation is the idea that life is underpinned by instinctive and generally unacknowledged co-operation between individuals: from tacit agreements about letting one another past on pavements or the unconscious decision not to hoard the spoons at work to the reciprocity that allows people to trust one another, lend books to one another, and so on.

Everyday co-operation is an essential part of everyday life. Many of those people studying the ‘science of co-operation’ – an area of study now encompassing evolutionary biology, game theory, economics, sociology, political science and much else besides – tell us that the reason for everyday co-operation is because people are rational and self-interested, and therefore will pursue the strategy that best realises their interests.

Short-term it might be most beneficial to hoard spoons, not return a book your friend lent you or renege on an informal agreement with a colleague. But long-term these strategies will backfire, so it makes sense to co-operate. It’s what also called reciprocal altruism and I’ve referred to as economic co-operation.*

This idea – that it’s in the long-term best interests of people to co-operate and work together – is not only an important part of the functioning of society, arguably awareness of it is also behind some recent business thinking: the increasing interest in employee ownership as a way of engaging and increasing the productivity of workers, for example, Michael Porter’s concept of businesses delivering ‘shared value’ to suppliers, customers and staff, Unilever’s ‘enlightened capitalism’ or innovations that involve customers or users in ‘co-producing’ a good or service.

Everyday co-operation is everywhere and pretty much non-controversial. It’s a good thing. It makes things run smoothly. And it makes our lives better than a world where short-term self-interest ruled all (which would probably be “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651). Few people would disagree that the world needs everyday co-operation.

Transformational co-operation

The other idea of co-operation is transformational co-operation. This is a rarer form of co-operation. It takes places when people try to transform their workplace, or their community, in a way that enables people to work together in a fairer and more equal way.

It takes many forms: graduates starting a worker co-op to take control of their jobs, workers collectively recuperating their factory, locals starting a community supported farm to take control of their food, students buying a building together in order create a housing co-op. It might also go beyond formal ‘co-operative’ structures and include arts collectives trying to control their work, local people campaigning to keep a park in community ownership or even a political movement aiming to give a group of people democratic control over their area (I’m thinking of the Zapatistas in Mexico, or even the Occupy movement).

Transformational co-operation is based on what Hilary Wainright calls transformational politics, where “self-organized citizens . . . resist and transform” power relations, whether that’s the state, in the economy or in society more widely. Transformational politics, she says “can be used against capital and in ways that can facilitate self- organization and support democratic and decentralized management of public resources, including as ‘commons’.”

For her, transformational politics is different from two other political strategies: revolution and reform: transformation seeks to create alternative institutions and practices within the existing system rather than gradually changing the system or trying to overthrow it.

As I’ve quoted elsewhere, the aim of the original Rochdale Pioneers was not to open a shop but to start to create a better world within the existing one. They were, in other words, co-operating in order to bring about transformational social change.

As GDH Cole puts it in A Century of Co-operation:

“If, in 1844 or some time afterwards, a well-informed Englishman or Sctotsman has been asked to say what he understood by the word ‘Co-operation’ . . . the answer would certainly not have been mainly in terms of the benefits of mutual store-keeping.

“For Howarth and his fellow pioneers store-keeping was but a means – one among a number of means – of forwarding the Co-operative ideal; and that ideal was the foundation of Co-operative Communities, or ‘Villages of Co-operation,’ in which the members could live together on their own land, work together in their own factories and workshops, and escape from the ills of competitive industrialism in a world – a ‘New Moral World’ – of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood.”

Transformational co-operation is at the heart of those parts of the co-operative movement (and, in fact, the wider movements for the commons and economic democracy) that explicitly aim to bring democracy into the economy, that want to give people equal and collective control of resources, that see co-operation as a challenge to capitalism, and that subscribe to what is sometimes called ‘cooperativism’.

The task

In light of the above, there are three things that I think the co-operative movement could be doing.

1. Those within the existing co-op movement that advocate transformational co-operation could begin to distinguish it from everyday co-operation and encourage those within the movement to recognise that co-operation is not just a business strategy, but that co-ops can help play a transformative role.

2. It could identify and seek alliances with other movements and groups practicing transformational co-operation. The commons movements, the online peer-to-peer movement and activists aiming for more participatory economic democracy are very closely aligned.

3. It could campaign more widely for transformational co-operation. Rather, than simply limiting itself to advocating for co-operative business, the movement and its allies could begin to campaign on the basis that co-operation allows people, together, to control the things that affect them. It needs to show people that co-operating is not just a way to ensure our existing economy and society function well, but that it is a way to that people can take control of our lives.


* In fact, I think there’s more to everyday co-operation than this. Social expectations, culture, norms, discourses and so on arguably determine how we act as much as calculated self-interest. Rightly, I think, John Elster points out in his 1989 Social Norms and Economic Theory that we may “be guided by instrumental rationality” but our behaviour is equally “dictated by social norms” – “both norms and self-interest enter into the proximate explanations of action.”

Airports, orders and why co-operation requires democracy

I’m flying to the ICA’s General Assembly today, after a few delays. I’ll be running sessions, reporting, co-ordinating some social media and having a stand. It’s a rare event, so I’m planning to blog each day.

So here’s my thoughts from day one – the not-yet-complete journey:

All over Heathrow airport are signs saying ‘thank you for your co-operation’ and, after a mechanical fault on our plane which ended in everyone disembarking, we were asked to be calm and ‘co-operate’.

It’s interesting to compare the use of the word here with its use in co-operative businesses: it illustrates just why co-operation requires democracy.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word ‘co-operation’ is ‘the action or process of working together to the same end’.

The airport’s assumption is that everyone wants the same end – for the wait to be orderly, for disembarking to be safe.

But the airport doesn’t know what people want: it hasn’t asked them; it’s just assuming that they want things to be safe and orderly.

So what the airport is really saying is that it would like everyone to comply, to do what it wants because it thinks it’s the best thing for everyone.

The airport may be right – it might be best to wait and leave in an orderly way. But not everyone has agreed, nobody has been asked, there has been no discussion or decision. It’s not really co-operation in the sense of people working together towards the same ends.

When we talk about a ‘co-operative’ business what we mean is a business that is run by the people – the members – who are working together towards the same end.

The implication behind this is that the members have talked to one another, deliberated and arrived at an agreed end. Without this, they wouldn’t be working together towards the same end, they’d be complying by following the dictate of a few or pursuing a variety of different ends. Without it, they wouldn’t be co-operating.

So, talking, deliberating and arriving at an agreed position – what effectively amounts to democracy – is necessary before you can start talking about some thing being co-operative.

Without this democratic deliberation and agreement, co-operation, working towards a common end, would not be possible.

The question for a co-operative business, then, is how far is it practicing democracy? Is it guided by its members who have talked to one another, deliberated and agreed a common end? Do all members input, or just a few? Is that an agreed process?And how many members need to debate and agree for that to count as a common end?

This isn’t a small issue. If co-operatives are to avoid being like the airport that asks people to co-operate but means comply, then democracy is essential.

What disgruntled workers might do instead of strike

Yesterday the TUC predicted that workers will get increasingly angry in the coming months, with the economy slowly getting back on track yet workers not seeing the benefit.

The argument is a classic one with much precedent in political thought and practice – if you oppress people they will, in the end, resist. Zizek refers to it as ‘the return of the Real’. Foucault says ‘where there is power there is resistance’ and Hardt and Negri say ‘It is completely obvious that those who are exploited will resist’.

The TUC is predicting organised strikes, with unions leading the way, in a campaign for better conditions and pay for workers.

Political thought and practice for centuries, however, also indicates that this is an optimistic prediction.

Even if you ignore the fact that traditional unions have fewer and fewer members, or that unions in the private sector are very different from the public sector, its notable that resistance is often more complex and difficult to identify than this.

Sometimes resistance to oppression is through union led strikes, aimed at better conditions. Often not.

Here are three ways that this resistance may play out instead.

1. Dissipation. Nietzsche points out that in Ancient Athens the desires and passions of those who might refuse the system were channelled into ‘agonistic’ processes that enabled them to contest and argue without endangering the system. It had the effect of dissipating disorder.

Today, many workplaces provide employee engagement channels , which dissipate resistance through formal processes for gathering workers’ views, offering elements of devision making power and trying to make the organisation feel ‘theirs’.

This kind of absorption of resistance is a likely outcome of much resistance, meaning change will be minimised.

2. Resentiment. For many, resistance to oppression is often individualised, not conscious and therefore hard to identify. It results in unconscious, unarticulated and generally negative actions. It’s a bit like what Nietzsche calls ‘resentiment’ – a kind of seething, unarticulated sense of injustice that occasionally manifests itself.

At work it might mean simply being bad workers – spending time on Facebook, talking, going slow, pushing break times, recalcitrance, etc.

Outside work, people like Zizek have pointed out that racism and far right politics are easy responses to oppression, where an ‘other’, rather than inequalities in workplace, are blamed by indigenous workers for their problems. Similarly, events like the riots in Paris or London could well be complex examples of people resisting the everyday sense of inequality they face.

With less and less union influence and reach, these different forms of largely unhealthy resistance are likely to be more and more common.

3. Events. Occasionally bigger acts occur, when those who feel excluded assert their right, together, to be included.

These are momentous and rare occasions. Sometimes they are in the workplace; often they are something much bigger.

This what Ranciere calls ‘politics’ and Badiou calls an ‘event’.

We have seen these events in the Arab Spring, for example. In the UK this has not been much seen; the seeds of it may have been in Occupy. It requires more than trade union organisation for a tactical end like better conditions; it is a collective action, by the people, in the name of a bigger goal.

Mass action for workplace democracy, more equal pay, or decent jobs for all, for example.

Whether this will be the outcome of the current oppression remains to be seen; certainly, it’s something very different from the vision of our unions.

The point is that workers may be well be fed up, feel oppressed and seek to resist – whether that’s conscious or unconscious.

But the TUC’s prediction that this will take the form of strikes for better conditions is optimistic at best; this might happen, but we are far more likely to see opposition dissipated and resentiment grow, with the tiny, tiny chance of a political event.