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.

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Hegemony and co-operative strategy

 The economic consensus of the last forty years is coming into question. Supporters of an alternative economy over which people have control need a strategy to get it established. Here’s a broad approach, based on what worked for the neoliberal economists over the last half a century and the concepts developed by the theorists Laclau and Mouffe. 

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on a small state and the extension of free market principles into all areas of life, is being brought into question like never before. The people who have been on the firing line of the reforms introduced by successive government are now raising objections in the few ways open to them – by voting for populist politicians and parties, like Trump and Le Pen, that supposedly promise the protection of the state. 

Many people – from Kim Phillips-Fein to George Monbiot – have noted that the success of neoliberalism in establishing itself so thoroughly stemmed in large part from neo-classical economics being developed as an intellectual model and an effective political device in a host of influential university departments and think tanks, meaning that it was easy for politicians like Thatcher and Reagan to pick up and implement the ideas. The thinking of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School was in this way transformed from a minority radical vision to a political and social consensus. 

It strikes me time and again that the co-operative sector, and more widely the idea of a commons-based or solidarity economy, is such a long, long away from here. Aside from occasional references by the likes of ResPublica or IPPR, and a few academics working in a few universities, there is a limited intellectual base behind the co-operative sector. Where there is research it is scattered and doesn’t form a body of evidence.

What the co-op sector needs to achieve is what the neo-liberal school managed: hegemony. This is an ambitious aim, and one that will take time, but it’s something we should be aiming for. 

One way to think about how to achieve this is with the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who developed a set of ideas or terms to understand what a political strategy to achieve hegemony might look like in there book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. In light of recent events Mouffe has reiterated some of this in an article arguing for a left populism to counter the right wing populism gaining ground. There are three core elements. 

First of all we need to acknowledge that our aim is to some extent to achieve ‘hegemony’. This is term coined by Antonio Gramsci and developed by Laclau and Mouffe to refer to the way in which certain ideas and certain patterns of behaviour are conformed to and consented to, regardless of whether or not it is in the interest of those consenting to do so. It’s a form of power, but one that works precisely without coercive force or explicit domination. To put it in other words, it’s an ideology, a way of seeing the world, that people use. 

Second, they point out that there are ‘empty signifiers’ in our political discourse that need filling. What the neo-classical school of economists managed to achieve is hegemony around certain concepts and ideas that are core to modern societies but are contestable: individualism, government, democracy, freedom, equality, fairness, and so on. What this resulted in was a widespread agreement that people and businesses ought to be free get on with their lives left to their own devices, that government intervention hampered this, that fairness and equality were about having the opportunity to flourish, among other things. 

We need to attach a different meaning to these signifiers: that democracy is more than just a vote, but means having a say over the businesses that affect our lives, for example; that freedom to pursue our own ends in meaningless without equality that makes that possible; that fairness means that everyone is treated with dignity, not left to their own devices… The specifics we can decide; the general point is that we need a different meaning for empty signifiers. 

Third, a political strategy requires us to build a ‘chain of equivalences’. Neo-classical economists achieved hegemony not on their own but by forming alliances with a series of like-minded groups: traditional conservatives, libertarians, business bodies, politicians looking for a different message to resonate.  

It’s vital that we do the same. There are a host of groups and movements arguing for an economy and society in which people have voice and power, and in which there is greater equality of outcome and meaningful freedom. Tax justice campaigners, environmentalists, open source advocates, social enterprise proponents, many traditional political party members and of course co-ops. We need to build a coalition that recognises we are all arguing for a particular way of organising society. 

So, how do we do all this? What are the first steps? That is the hard question, but here are a few thoughts: 

  • Build our intellectual base. Let’s list out and bring together the range of academics working on heterodox economics and social policy that support a more co-operative society, identify key themes and begin to ensure we can present a systematic and evidenced case. 
  • Build our political base. Let’s identify where our current political support is and what the potential is for developing it. We should aim to put this vision of a different economy and society at the heart of a political vision, whether that’s among political parties or the host of thinktanks and policy wonks that inform so much of policy.
  • Build our coalition base. Let’s identify a possible coalition of supporters who we can ally with in order to develop a wider movement of people for a different kind of economy. We can’t be purist about this; we need to find a broad sweep of like-minded partners to campaign with.
  • Build our message. And let’s identify the kinds of messages that not only the political base but also the people more widely want to hear. Many of those people voting for Brexit and the like are the most disenfranchised by the neo-liberal, global economy, yet they are also the least likely to support the kind of economy we are advocating. We need to find the message that works for them. 

This is not the only thing we need to be doing. We need grassroots organising on the ground of the kind we’re seeing on things like co-ops for creative workers, community control of local assets and so on. But achieving this cultural hegemony is also crucial to being about change of a wider scale. It isn’t easy, it will take time, but we need to start acting on this now if we want to see a different kind of country. 

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.