“THE SHORT AND SUBVERSIVE HISTORY OF POPULAR POWER”
SOUTH LONDON RADICAL HISTORY GROUP MEETING 29/04/04

A talk by Alan Woodward, followed by a lively discussion…


More of the start of a discussion… than a conclusive and authoritative lecture…
By ‘Popular Power’ Alan meant people’s personal power over their own daily lives. His thesis was that working class people are generally better off now than people ever have been before.
In pre-history, people were “very well off”, ie they lived under primitive communism.
In the period 200,000 – 10,000 BC (roughly), people were hunter-gatherers. There was no surplus; people got food and built dwellings. Everyone lived in small groups, the most sustainable way of surviving. Of course we know little or nothing about this time really… Maybe there were Elders, maybe tribal wars… Theoretically anyway they had political freedom (groups too small to have political structures?), ecomonic freedom (ie no economics bar survival), and social freedom (no external religion). This was a self-controlled society.
About 10,000 years ago this way of life gradually disappeared in some parts of the world. Slowly societies turned to farming, herding animals, refining metals, agriculture… From this arose surplus in production, to value, to objects of value and maybe worship, and to concepts of wealth… This led to the development of elites attempting to control this surplus… people with power over others, rulers. Authority figures. Also religion arose (before or after?), with the rise of priests, religious laws, backing up ruling classes.
Instead of wandering nomadic hunter-gatherers, agriculture led people to become fixed in one place. Settled populations are also easier to control.
So the Dark Ages set in, with the rise of class society, national borders, wars, slavery, feudalism, serfdom etc. Little or no political, social or economic freedoms for vast majority of people.
In Europe: development of free cities, rise of merchant classes and bourgeoisie struggling against aristocrats and rulers for economic freedoms…
Followed by the Industrial Revolution. Things got rapidly worse! Millions of people uprooted, forced off land, funnelled into cities and factories. Most had no access to anything, food, land, except what they could get by selling their labour.
Overall: life was “nasty brutish and short”.
In response: sporadic rebellions, theories of liberation and of permanently overturning class society… In the 19th Century especially. Low level of resistance in the 19th Century. In the 20th Century things looked up, with revolutions, workers councils, and so on. This didn’t last long anywhere.
This is the beginnings of Popular Power.
In the last 20 or 30 years things have been substantially better. In the current period, we’re pulling out of the lows of human existence, for a number of reasons.
• Economics: Many countries went through a fascist period of capitalism, but it’s bad for business, leads to war, resistance etc. Post World War 2: we have had economic stability, end of mass unemployment. Capitalism needs stability for self-preservation. So people’s lives changed, jobs were more stable, better paid, they had access to more goods etc.
• Politics: Benevolent ‘State Socialism’, social-democratic capitalism, have been discredited. Libertarian forces rising again. Resurgence of popular ideologies.
• Technology: Many would say technology is used to control us. But many people have been set free by technological developments. Eg birth control: highly significant for women, allowing them much more control over own life. Medicinal changes have given people longer lives and better quality of life. TV and radio helped to spread ideas, news, opened the world… Recent developments: Computers give us access to information we never have had before, and exchange ideas freely… mobiles etc, allow us to organise, run rings round cops on demos…
These developments in fact give us increasing power over own lives. Things are getting better… ‘Popular Power’ lives!


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These assertions raised some eyebrows, sparking a fast and furious exchange of ideas… Here are some of the points brought up. Names have been changed to protect the guilty. (Apart from Alan, there were 5 people present)
• Professor W: The claim that things are better now is very euro-centric. Workers in Western Europe did get better off, especially post-WW2. But the boom has been winding down since the 1970s, for workers in advanced industrial countries. Eg USA. Also, in Africa the boom never happened. Things got worse if anything.
• Comrade Y: There has been a high price paid for personal improvements in people’s lives. Also stability will not last forever. The concept of being better off now exists, whereas it didn’t under previous class relations, eg under serfdom, there was little concept of things changing. The idea that change is possible is a major development. Leads to a rise in conscious ambitions, aspirations, positive development.
• Madam Z: The above approach very optimistic… many people’s lives got worse. We face a toxic future, environmental destruction; the whole boom is based on ecological catastrophe and is unsustainable.
• Alan: But a more rational use of resources could certainly offset pollution… Electric cars could be made, from renewable resources etc…
Madam Z: But stress, consumption etc of modern lives make our lives worse by a long way.
Alan: Yes, but… Artificial house prices/credit booms sustains the economic boom. There is a healthy increase in suspicion of hierarchical ideologies, refusal to vote etc.
• Dr Dread: But apathy leads to a decrease in people’s ability to act and change things.
• Madam Z: Information: Just cos you can access information doesn’t mean you can use it… Not everyone has knowledge and links…
• Alan: It’s true differences of access is important… But collective resistance is still happening… Eg Poll tax movement.
• Professor W: In fact the Poll Tax occurred before mass access to the Internet etc.
• Mr Brown: There is a huge increase in atomisation though, especially in recent decades. Community and collective resistance is much less prevalent in western working classes, even if (or possibly because?) they have more access to goods, things and stakes in society. When everyone had bugger all people stood together more… Eg council house sales have broken power of rent strikes, housing struggles etc.
• Comrade Y: Is atomisation a bad thing though? Community is often constraining, repressing… Thatcherism cleverly exploited the idea of community… Basically we are arguing here about optimism or pessimism. The capitalist system is still unstable; previous class societies in contrast were very stable eg feudalism.
• Professor W: Not really, peasant revolts were common, and they signalled feudalism’s breakdown.
• Comrade Y: People in the Developing World are now more conscious of political imperialism –you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
• Alan: Argentina was unexpected…
• Professor W: But capital is already back in charge there…
• Alan: Capitalism is more bearable than before.
• Mr Brown: Not for much of the world! They are experiencing it brutally, as badly if not worse than England under the Industrial Revolution.
• Alan: Immigration helps to spread ideas, taking them back to other places.
• Dr Dread: How does revolt start then? Is it a necessary process of education…
• Professor W: I dispute the speaker’s assertion of a low level of resistance in the 19th Century. There was a lot of it about!
• Comrade Y: You can make too much thing of individualism and atomisation… We should look on the bright side. Eg credit allows us lots of possibilities… (By which he meant scams)
• Dr Dread: But it is very consumerist-oriented.
• Mr Brown: That kind of consumer scam-culture can be too individualist.
There followed a short discussion about the Decadent Action dudes, whose consume all you can for as little as possible ideas were big (sort of) in ’04. Debated whether they had a positive message or not. Debt has positive and negative sides… Just another form of money… Stress that it brings is very apparent. Inconclusive on this one.
• Madam Z: There have been a lot of changes in social space, eg availability of social spaces, squats, centres, meeting places etc.
• Alan: But for instance in Eastern Europe, after years of atomisation under Stalinism, collectivism has returned, eg in 1989 revolts.
• Mr Brown: Is cyberspace a negative development in many ways, detracting from real physical developments.
• Comrade Y: Do people go out more or stay in more?
The general response was that people stay in more! Though Comrade Y stubbornly disagreed! He expressed the view that we were all being totally negative in response to Alan’s thesis.
• Alan: Rebel currents have never really massively influenced events… Between revolutionary times we can only carry the flame. We should have no great inflated views of ourselves! The bulk of what goes on is under social and political pressures… Have we never really had influence?
• Comrade Y: We can have more impact than we think.


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Interesting reading


Working Class First: The Working Class and Anti-Capitalism, by Jacob Pugh, has some interesting ideas on the subject of class, consumerism and affluence. Published by Anti-Capitalist Debate Press, 2000.


Anyone else have any interesting ideas/reading on this issue? Feel free to send it in to us… email: mudlark1@postmaster.co.uk