Volume 41, Number 2: March/April 2007

Ideas for Popular Assemblies

In Canada and elsewhere there is currently a wide range of impressive constituency-based struggles around specific issues. But without some broader coherence to these movements, this fragmented politics leaves us frustratingly marginalized in terms of reversing and reshaping the larger agenda.

Because it has no transformative vision of society, the NDP cannot be the solution. The notion of “mobilizing” that dominates in the NDP reduces to an electoralism that ignores (and is often even threatened by) building the kind of popular understandings, political capacities and organizational forms that can actually win substantive reforms, let alone change the world. The socialist Left, whether “independent” or in formal groups, is also at an impasse; the same for the anti-globalization and social-justice movements. There are no answers waiting on a dusty shelf somewhere. And so, the question is: What kind of experiments can we initiate that hold out some promise?

Building a Larger Project?

It’s in this context that the idea of “popular local assemblies” has been proposed. The essence of the idea is straightforward. Given the scale and scope of what we face, organizing around specific issues and particular constituencies–as impressive and energetic as all this has been–cannot add up to the kind of strength we need to bring about change. Can popular, community-based assemblies, which would bring various movements together into a democratic and permanent structure, become the first step toward building a larger project? Are popular assemblies the way to link these local structures into social forces of regional and national significance?

Of course, the creation of structures that crisscross these fragmented struggles has been tried before. And in this sense it is necessary to concede that the outcome has generally been mixed. For this reason, we need to spell out what might be different this time.

First, coalitions around particular issues or particular constituencies in movements tend to fade as the issue or movement fades. While leaving some important experiences and lessons behind, they have rarely built something permanent. The emphasis on creating permanent structures on the Left is therefore critical.

Second, the insistence on the local as a starting point reflects a rejection of a politics that tends to outsource its initiatives to distant meetings. In this way, we end up replacing taking action with simply meeting each other or in working on publicity campaigns. The assemblies must be based on directly acting and learning as we discuss and plan, so that movement skills and capacities are broadened and deepened.

Third, though such a structure would include pooling resources to support each of our specific struggles, the goal here is much more ambitious.Ultimately, it is to get each of these movements to identify with struggles beyond their particular concerns. On the one hand, this means the assemblies introducing initiatives that any individual group simply couldn’t put on the agenda by themselves. John Clarke, of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), has for example thrown out the idea of a radical extension of affordable public transit as an issue that could bring together environmentalists, anti-poverty groups without access to private transportation, immigrant workers who spend hours commuting to their jobs in the centre of the city and transit unions concerned about jobs.

Challenging the Subordination of Everything

Building assemblies is not just about broader but still specific campaigns. It’s also about facing up to the larger ideological, economic and political barriers that confront us. Whatever the issue–the environment, poverty, health care, or jobs–we come up against the dominant push of the last quarter century to subordinate everything, including democracy, to the needs of profits and competitiveness. If we’re not building a capacity to challenge this form of social rule, which has penetrated all political parties, then our particular struggles will inevitably remain limited.

Moreover, rather than retreating from the notion of class politics, the assemblies would explicitly recognize that what we are primarily, if not exclusively, resisting is an attack on the working class, broadly defined. This is clear enough with regard to the groups and issues local movements are generally focusing on. And it means recognizing that, unless the most organized sections of the working class–unions–are involved, it will be hard to sustain any radical movement.

For their part, unions must begin to redefine how they address the issue of class. The commitment to unionization must be based not on numbers alone but a commitment to building all working people into a social force. What is more, existing union members must be seen as more than wage earners, but members of a class whose lives and potential development are–in a thousand everyday ways, both inside and outside the workplace–devalued, narrowed, distorted and even ultimately shattered. We have to start to change that.

Beginnings: The Political Mapping of Ongoing Struggle

Of course, the very concern with which we started–the fragmentation of movements within our communities–also applies to the assemblies. This is particularly true if they remain isolated from each other. We are convinced that as each of the assemblies develops a presence and set of priorities, they will naturally come face-to-face with what many of them already know: no issue is local, nor can be resolved locally (think of immigration, jobs, living wage, climate change, funding for child care). But the experience of the assemblies will also point to the possibility of bringing the local assemblies together (as they also inspire new ones to form) without losing the strength of their local orientation. As assembly of assemblies will therefore become fundamental to this project–and in turn raise further questions about the politics of change.

One place to begin such a project might be through “political mapping”–that is, to work to identify in each community those groups doing progressive work and noting who and what they are addressing, the form this takes, their relative successes and barriers, etc. Such a mapping process, followed by small-group discussions around the interest in and potential of moving to a new stage of organization and activism, might serve as the catalyst for the local assemblies.