Breaking the Illusion of Liberal Democracy and Building ‘Dual Power’ in the Urban Setting

by Comrade Victor Hampton, Revolutionary Initiative

Revolutionary Initiative, as a revolutionary communist pre-Party organization has a responsibility to employ revolutionary methods in building the mass movement and the people’s resistance to capitalism and imperialism. The party also has the responsibility to contribute to the ideological and strategic debates among the mass movements as well as among the advanced elements on the Left.

Emerging from the cracks in the old to build the new.

Below is a brief reflection on the organizing in metropolitan, urban centres and the struggles manifesting in these spaces as the crisis in capitalism intensifies. Moreover, the struggle of people in their neighbourhoods against the policies of local governments and its agents raises the question of building ‘dual power’ structures as strategy for shattering the pretenses of bourgeois democracy and creating a further fracture between the people and the bourgeois state.

The Canadian state and capitalist hegemony

Perhaps more than any other branch of the state, the City (municipal government) has historically played a key role in creating and reinforcing capitalist hegemony. As they are constituted and responsible to the Provinces, the relationship of the people to the state is often experienced through the City, its government and its agents. The majority of direct services, excluding health care and education, are provided or administered through the City government. As with many urban centres in imperialist countries, state intervention in Canada at the City level have been used to facilitate the efficient and continued accumulation of capital as well as a means to mitigate the contradictions of capitalist society. Through planning and resource allocation, undertaking essential functions to facilitate economic activity (eg. transportation systems and regulating land ownership), enforcing bourgeois law (police), and administering redistributive programs as well as ‘consultative’ spaces in governance, the capitalist City serves numerous simultaneous functions within the bourgeois state. These includes operating some of the aforementioned services to ensure labour reproduction, as well as organizing and facilitating capital accumulation through public works, and even cultural development. While these are functions that a socialist state would also undertake, it cannot be overlooked that the capitalist City undertakes these primarily in the service of capital.

The breadth of its operations and their purported neutrality reinforce the idea of the state – and in the case of Canada, the bourgeois state – as an indispensable component of modern society. As such, the idea of the bourgeoisie NOT being in power seems abnormal and unthinkable. Any honest appraisal has to recognize some degree of effectiveness in achieving bourgeois hegemony at the City level, but at the same time we should recognize the gaps and the opportunities. There are some who project the notion of the municipal branch of the state (in its current form with still a considerable plethora of state run programs and redistributive mechanisms) as evidence of the redeemability of the state within capitalism, an example of the transformative potential of reform within the boundaries of bourgeois legality. From arts programs, to government run community centres, to public zoos, and other programs run by the bourgeois state present a facade of benevolence (or at least its potential) on the part of the ruling class and their state. The implications are that co-habitation between urban working classes and the capitalists within the City is possible and even desirable, all the while attempting to bind the most immediate interests of the working people to it by reinforcing its perceived necessity (and desirability). As evidenced by the caption on a large picture in Toronto’s Metro Hall, land use planning and government intervention in social housing ensured that ‘poverty was spread out’ over the City as opposed to allowing ‘the market’ to concentrate poverty as is the case in many other North American cities. Urban centres in Canada were projected as models for engineering prosperity, social cohesion and high standards of living – archetypes of the promise of capitalist urbanism. In the absence of an active and visible organized struggle as well as non-co-opted mass movements, this notion remains strong among the people as trade unions, social democratic parties and most social organizations are wedded to Keynesian economics within this imperialist state.

There is a wealth of literature summarizing the decline of the welfare state and the corresponding rise of neoliberalism (or better, neoliberalization which identifies this as an incoherent policy regime aimed at the regulatory and distributive elements of the capitalist state) which make it unnecessary to repeat this information extensively. However, in terms of summarizing this experience within Canada over the last 30 or so years there has been two correlating phenomenon; 1) a marked shift in the economy away from manufacturing and towards a ‘service’ based economy and 2) the slow but accelerating reduction in regulations on capital and protections for workers and society as well as the distributive social and economic policies that had been set in place throughout the post-WWII period. With the global re-alignment of the international division of labour that has accompanied this period, urban centres have seen a significant decline in the manufacturing, heavy industry and transport sectors that had provided the basis for the industrial detente engineered by the labour bureaucracy and the national bourgeoisie in order to pacify the militancy that characterized the workers movement until the 1940’s.

In the analysis and debate around the economic changes and the delegation of certain regulatory functions to international institutions, the situation and basis of the state has been often misinterpreted. In the post WWII period, the capitalist state in Canada grew dramatically in terms of its functions and bureaucracy. By the mid 1970’s, the amount of public sector employees had grown by 10 times, far outpacing the increase in the workforce as a whole. Contrary to the political line of liberal bourgeois/ social democratic parties and organizations, the ruling class has no intentions of doing away with the state. Even since the economic decline of the 1970’s, the Canadian state bureaucracy (including provincial and municipal divisions and other subsidiaries) have consistently increase in number of employees. Since 2007, the number of employees involved in ‘Public Administration’ has increased by 106 000 employees to 937 000, not including those involved in health and education sectors. The federal government remains the largest employer in the country, and within each jurisdiction the corresponding government body remains among the top employers (including Toronto which employs over 48 000) people.

These facts should be clear in our mind – capitalists are not attacking ‘the state’, but rather are re-organizing its functions and re-allocating resources. This fact is as true at the federal level as it is in the municipal level. The state has been and continues to be the tool of the ruling class to facilitate continued accumulation of wealth as well as to control, manipulate and when needed, subjugate the working classes – this is the essence of the capitalist state and all its appendages. Likewise, although it is of course necessary for mass movements to compel concessions and reforms from the bourgeoisie that may come through the state (although the viability of this becomes more questionable by the day), the capitalist state cannot and should not be seen as a potential instrument of liberation. There is no ‘capitalism with a human face'; there is no benevolent form of the bourgeois state. Our fight should not be to preserve the capitalist state in any of its previous functions. On the contrary, we must work to weaken the state and its grasp over the minds and lives of the people.

For communists the question remains – what do we propose in concrete terms? How do we purport to channel this surging mass energy towards a revolutionary end? Certainly we must continue to build the institutions among the masses that can continue their preparation for revolutionary class struggle. But more concretely, what do we envision as a coordinated project among the people to seize this moment?

Of course, there are legitimate concerns that ruling class attacks on aspects of the social contract will in the immediate term detrimentally impact the working class as a whole. Certainly, revolutionaries should not support the austerity measures that chip away at the welfare state, its programs and regulations. At the same time, we should be wary of ushering the masses, whose anger is growing daily and manifesting itself through the spontaneous movements and demonstrations outlined previously, towards initiatives and calls which look to restore and reinforce the bourgeois state in its welfarist form. Instead, we should present an alternative vision and start preparing people to build it.

The Crisis of Capitalism, municipal austerity and the City

Those bound to the social/liberal democratic project, which currently includes the vast majority of the leadership of organized labour, call for a re-establishment of the Keynesian order, for reinvestment in state run projects, and even for public subsidies to capital in the form of ‘stimulus’. In recent years, bourgeois urbanists have elaborated a newly-packaged form of ‘trickle down’ theory, suggesting that large cities must invest to attract a ‘creative class’ of businesses and people (read: tech-capitalists, academics and bourgeois artists) in order to generate wealth that ostensibly could be taxed to create revenues to maintain these programs. They focus their arguments (and in doing so mislead the masses) on the desirability of ‘the good old days’, without pausing to contemplate its feasibility at this period within capitalism, let alone the counter-revolutionary premise of ‘labour peace’. They strive hard to avoid discussion about the roots of these problems, particularly if these point to capitalist structures. Their answer to these problems, so they tell the masses, is simple – elect a better party. In Canada, this has always translated into a ‘vote strategic’ or ‘vote NDP’ mantra while in Quebec the same could be said about the BQ/PQ. At the municipal level, this is reduced further to the ‘flavor of the month’ coalition or urban reformer. Because of their commitment to a purely electoral solution, they have either deliberately or unwittingly suffocated the public imagination and obstructed consideration of real alternatives. The inability for these ‘labour leaders’ – the labour aristocracy – to recognize the historical limitations of Left-Keynesianism is a matter of their class perspective. The handsomely-salaried bureaucrats of labour are invested in this strategy of ‘labour peace’ and class compromise. This in turn insulates the imperialist system from elements wishing to ‘rock the boat’.

With the roll-back of the social investments and redistributive mechanisms of the bourgeois state however, the illusion of reform as a permanent possibility within capitalism (the sort of North American/ European exceptionalism that became a pillar of the social democratic project and that was the underlying tone of revisionists and Euro-communists) has been fading. It is imperative that we foster this growing distrust and create cleavages between the capital and bourgeois state on the one hand and the people on the other. We must recognize that in order to weaken the strength of capital, we must weaken the strength of the state that protects its interests and assists in coordinating its continued accumulation.

Despite the social/liberal democrats efforts to maintain confidence in the state, the gravity of the problems and the clarity of the contradictions are causing the people to search for solutions beyond those under official consideration. Their unwillingness to recognize class antagonisms and propose solutions based on this fact is increasingly alienating the social democratic and liberal forces from the broader masses. This has also meant that considerable numbers are being won over to forces of the organized far right, particularly in the US where radical libertarianism is surging and in Europe and Canada where anti-immigrant conservatism has gathered a strong foothold.

Without a clear alternative program and path, many segments of the radical left have been calling or organizing for the re-institution of the policies and programs of the hay-day of Keynesianism in Canada. These forces are looking to employ a strategy of organizing the masses towards achieving reforms. However, whether these campaigns are divorced from a broader analysis or strategy, they nonetheless lead back to a dependence on the bourgeois state as the organizer and maintainer, demanding the state to fund and provide.

Of course in a socialist society, there would also be a need for certain types of social programs and services that are organized and funded with the support of a socialist state. In such a society, involvement and agitation for the state to work with the people to create and fund initiatives to meet needs would be an essential part of an ongoing revolutionary process. However, the essence of a socialist state is not the same as that of a bourgeois state. Likewise, peoples democracy is not the same as bourgeois democracy.

As the bourgeoisie reveals its callous indifference to the lives of the people and the planet we inhabit, they offer us an opportunity to point out this reality to our class. While there is importance to any area or sector where masses are struggling, communists should centre around campaigns and issues that allow revolutionaries to carry this message and fan the ire of the people against the bourgeoisie and their agents. At the same time, we need to make the people realize – in practical terms – their collective potential and power. The decline in the welfare state will create gaps that the people can fill themselves, providing services to their own all the while increasing the organization of the people independent of the capitalist state. As this process develops, we must also look to have people reject the other illusions of the bourgeois state, including its democratic pretensions.

Building ‘Dual Power’ in the City

We must recognize that we cannot build a revolutionary movement that confines itself to the parameters of the bourgeois state. Nor is a peaceful, free and just society possible within a capitalist system. Moreover, it should be evident that the capitalists also have little desire and even less capabilities to stabilize this economic crisis let alone return what they once conceded. Revolutionaries should instead be concerned with weakening the hold of the capitalist state over the working class in Canada while accumulating forces to lay a foundation for the revolutionary struggle that is developing before us. Certainly, we must look at previous experiences to draw upon those lessons. We must begin to discuss how we build dual power.

Recall the experience of the Russian Revolution (and in that sense, the Paris Commune as well) to illustrate the actual revolutionary transformation this implies:

Petrograd Soviet, 1918

What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. This circumstance often over looked, often not given enough thought, yet it is the crux of the matter. This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are: (1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure”, to use a current expression; (2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves; (3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker (Lenin, What is Dual Power, 1917).

Why a dual power strategy? Because it is necessary to break the hold of bourgeois hegemony, the connection, contact and control it has over the masses. Reforms that give more resources to and reinforce the power of the bourgeois state will do little more than feed the temporary support of the social democrats and consume the energies of the masses, but the contradictions and crimes of capitalism will remain. Building dual power by way of building peoples institutions challenges the necessity and thereby legitimacy of the state, at the same time and preparing the people – both ideologically and practically – to replace it. At an advanced stage, people’s power structures also command resources formerly under control of the bourgeois state. Of course, we must always reassert that only revolution can decisively destroy and replace the capitalist order. History has shown that there can be no slow reforming of the capitalist order towards a socialist one. Rather this is a strategy to deepen the contradictions and mass struggle, to push the legal limits of weakening the bourgeoisie while accumulating forces and developing the preparedness of the masses for revolutionary struggle and the mass-administration of a socialist society. Eventually, the bourgeoisie will resort to more drastic and violent methods to reassert their dominance. We must also prepare for this, and will have the advantage of a more experienced mass movement.

What does building dual power look like in the setting of imperialist centers? In Canada, there are 31 Cities with more than 100 000 people. No less than 80% of the population (25 million) lives in these urban centres. While various forms of building dual power are possible, an assessment of the conditions (including the location, size and power of the state as it is) indicate that this necessitates primarily urban forms. Moreover, within the possibilities of creating ‘dual power’ structures, we must recognize that the structure itself must have some basis or commonality in the same way as organizations do and that these must create a parallel, peoples structure to that of the bourgeoisie. Thus, given the current declining relevance and credibility of the municipal branches of the Canadian state in large urban centres, the creation of ‘dual power’ at the municipal level stands out.

Lenin asserts that dual power structures must have three basic characteristics: they must be undertaken by the people, they must replace the armed apparatus of the state, and they must replace and subject ‘officialdom’ to popular will. In short, this is the usurping of the power and functions of the bourgeois state (at least at some scale) and placing it instead under direct control of the people. Certainly this requires a high level of organization among the masses and a considerable rooting of proletarian hegemony among the masses which requires communists to creatively apply MLM towards achieving the conditions necessary to form these structures.

In so far as challenging ‘officialdom’, the credibility of bourgeois democracy is increasingly dubious, with widely recognized corruption and decreasing voter turnout. Reform movements such as those centered on changing the voting system (proportional representation for example) and ‘municipal reform’ movements naturally feed the same bankrupt electoral system, and thus genuine ambitions to see things change have amounted to little.

Among the emerging mass movement, there is an increased orientations towards ‘Neighbourhood’ organizing but as of yet these have had little clarity as to how building a movement at this level may look or what they should be focused towards. Providing some directions and orientation, the building of neighbourhood groups can be pushed to establish themselves at very local (block) scale with an organizational articulation and coordination with others in order to also operate at a larger scale. While many will not start at this level of operation, correct application of a step by step building of mass organization and accumulation of forces towards creation of more localized units should yield positive results in engaging with a large swath of people, picking up contacts and obtaining information about local conditions. With the correct intervention of communists and revolutionaries in them pushing a political-ideological orientation that challenges the legitimacy and authority from the bourgeois state and politicians, these organizations can demand that resources and decision making be transferred directly to the people.

While there are a number of ways that this could occur practically, the primary purpose of building local neighbourhood councils should be to build alternate, organic institutions where revolutionaries can organize. This will be integral part of a process of building consciousness – of what Gramsci called the process of building proletarian hegemony in a war of position against the bourgeoisie. These will be sites of struggle where their existence challenges the necessity of the bourgeois-democratic institutions whether they be local (probably most immediately) or on other levels. The exact form that this takes, the manner in which this demand is articulated and the coordination of these units will be a matter of debate and discussion among the masses where we must be present building anti-imperialist, revolutionary consciousness while pressing maximum cleavages between communities and the bourgeois state.

This application of the gradual building of dual power provides us with sites for building contacts as well as local levels of resistance and organization. Successful interventions by our mass organizations and proletarian revolutionaries, who will challenge bourgeois democracy and build the analytical and ideological capacities of the people, will be able to use these spaces to engage and win over people to a revolutionary alternative.

In this work there will be undoubtedly a pull towards electoralism by the opportunists as well economism. But there is no ‘safe’ terrain, no type of work among the masses where there isn’t this same risk and possibility. But if we hope to involve a large swath of the broad masses, some will enter into immediate struggle with the expectation of winning immediate concessions, defending against new rounds of attack, or effecting reform. We mustn’t repel the masses who operate under such preliminary assumptions; nor must we nurture the social democratic, reformist expectations that liberals and social democrats continuously foster through their own opportunistic interventions. Rather, while struggling amongst the masses, we strive to rupture the current social relations of capitalist imperialist society by demanding concessions and beating back attacks that, rather than renew the legitimacy of the state, advances our accumulation of forces, build peoples organization and replaces bourgeois hegemony with proletarian hegemony.

The strategy of building dual power should become a matter of consideration and debate amongst revolutionaries in Canada, including those that tend towards anarchism. There are many sincere and committed comrades out there, and the social conditions for organizing becoming more advantageous to our forces every day. However, while unity around resisting is coming along, we also need to create maximum unity around a strategy for building. Failure to do so will create space for our enemies of all stripes. Building unity amongst advanced forces should be a priority for all of us.

One thought on “Breaking the Illusion of Liberal Democracy and Building ‘Dual Power’ in the Urban Setting

  1. Pingback: The Institutions and Elements of Working Class Power « Revolutionary Initiative / Initiative Révolutionnaire (Canada)

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