|Judge Slashes $48 Million Verdict Against
MP3Tunes Founder Michael Robertson
A federal judge this week slashed record label EMI’s $48 million jury verdict against defunct music storage service MP3Tunes and its founder by about $33 million, ruling many of EMI’s claims were “just too big to succeed” and were backed by very little actual evidence. U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III tossed out most of the jury’s findings of secondary infringement against MP3Tunes and founder Michael Robertson under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The judge also cut common law punitive damages from $7.5 million to $750,000, and additional elements of the ruling could reduce the total amount to just over $10 million.
Earlier this year a Manhattan jury found MP3tunes and Robertson liable for copyright infringement and awarded $48.1 million in damages. EMI Group Ltd originally contended in its 2007 lawsuit that MP3tunes and another website known as Sideload.com enabled the infringement of copyrights in sound recordings, musical compositions, and cover art. Since that suit was filed EMI was split up, with Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group acquiring its recording music business and a consortium led by Sony Corp purchasing its publishing arm in 2012.
In his ruling, Judge Pauley excoriated attorneys on both sides of the case. Slamming EMI’s lawyers, he wrote, “Despite this Court’s efforts to winnow the issues, the parties insisted on an 82-page verdict sheet on liability and a 331-page verdict sheet on damages that included dense Excel tables, necessitating at least one juror’s use of a magnifying glass. While the jury did its best, their assignment was beyond all reasonable scale.” Judge Pauley then turned his attention to Robertson, noting that he “created a business model designed to operate at the very periphery of copyright law.”
The plaintiffs now can either accept the decision or embark on a new trial on punitive damages, the judge said. He gave both sides until Oct. 17 to submit proposals for a final judgment. [Read more: Global Post Hollywood Reporter]
|Judge Hits Grooveshark In
Federal Copyright Infringement Case
A federal judge in New York this week ruled that Grooveshark, an online music service long vilified by the major record companies, infringed on thousands of their copyrights. Judge Thomas P. Griesa of United States District Court in Manhattan said the digital music platform was liable for copyright infringement because its own employees and officers – including Samuel Tarantino, the chief executive, and Joshua Greenberg, the chief technology officer – uploaded a total of 5,977 of the labels’ songs without permission. Those uploads are not subject to the “safe harbor” provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The case stems from Grooveshark’s claim that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act protects websites that host third-party material (content posted by users and not company employees) if they comply with takedown notices issued copyright holders. Grooveshark and its parent company, Escape Media Group, insisted in court documents and testimony that all of the music files on its servers had been uploaded by its users.
But Judge Griesa didn’t buy that argument, and on Monday said, “Each time Escape streamed one of plaintiffs’ recordings, it directly infringed upon plaintiffs’ exclusive performance rights.” He also found the company destroyed important evidence in the case, including lists of files that Mr. Greenberg and others uploaded to the service.
As reported by The New York Times, the next step of the case will be to set damages, and the possibility of a multimillion-dollar ruling against Grooveshark puts the service’s future in doubt. When asked for a comment about the summary judgment decision, John J. Rosenberg, a lawyer for Grooveshark, said, “The company respectfully disagrees with the court’s decision and is currently assessing its next steps, including the possibility of an appeal.”
|Judge Rules Expert Testimony In Apple’s
Alleged “Monopoly” Case Can Be Included
Unbelievably, the class action suit that claims Apple Inc. is guilty of monopolistic practices because of an iTunes update continues to move through the court system. According to Courthouse News Service, a federal judge has ruled the Cupertino, CA-based tech giant cannot exclude a key expert for the plaintiffs who are accusing it of monopolizing digital music and music players between 2006 and 2009.
The lawsuit, filed in 2005, alleges Apple illegally acquired a digital music player monopoly with an iTunes update that made it impossible for iPods to play songs purchased from another online music store. As part of their case, the plaintiffs asked Stanford economist Roger Noll to testify that the update made it more costly for an iPod user to switch media players because it would be harder to collect music that could be played on all devices. Noll said the update also encouraged iPod owners to only buy music from iTunes.
The resulting monopoly allowed Apple to charge more for iPods, causing $305 million in damages to the class, Noll told the court. Apple had asked the judge to exclude Noll’s testimony in December 2013, but U.S. District Judge Yvonne Rogers last week denied that motion. She also denied a motion by Apple for summary judgment.
|Digital Streaming Revenue Grew In First
Half While Overall Revenues Slipped 4.9%
U.S. music revenues slipped to $3.2 billion in the first half of 2014, a 4.9% drop from the $3.35 billion the industry tallied in the first half of 2013. According to the latest figures released by the Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA), digital music revenue declined about 0.5% to $2.203 billion, from $2.214 billion in the first half of 2013. Meanwhile, subscription revenue jumped 23.2%, to $371.4 million from $301.4 million, and ad-supported streaming jumped 56.5% to $164.7 million from $105.2 million. CD sales fell 19.1% to $715.6 million from $994.1 million, while the sale of vinyl product – an infinitesimal line item – jumped 41% to $6.5 million, from $4.8 million in the same period last year.
The RIAA says paid subscription services averaged 7.8 million U.S. subscribers in the first six months of the year, up from an average of 5.5 million subscribers in the first half of 2013. Download sales of albums and tracks fell 11.8% to nearly $1.3 billion from $1.47 billion. Distribution of performance royalties collected by SoundExchange grew 21.3% during the same period, from $266.5 million in the first half of 2013 2013 to $323.4 million in H1 2014.
As noted by Billboard, the RIAA for the first time also provided an overall market volume for wholesale. Typically, the RIAA numbers add up the value of units for each album by that album’s list price, not the wholesale price that the labels receive when they ship the albums to retailers. But converting their data to wholesale values for downloads and the physical formats, RIAA estimates the U.S. music marketplace at $2.2 billion, down from $2.3 million at mid-year 2013.
|Spanish Broadcasting System, 7digital
Launch Digital Content Partnership
Spanish Broadcasting System has entered into a partnership with 7digital to provide SBS’ LaMusica.com with secure content management technology and a royalty reporting system to support additional music products beyond the site’s current streaming content. LaMusica.com currently streams 14 of the broadcasting company’s Spanish-language radio stations, and also provides a variety of entertainment, news, and cultural offerings leveraged from SBS’ radio network, television, and live entertainment properties.
“We continue to invest in strengthening our LaMusica.com portal and extending the robust content offerings we provide to the nation’s Latino music fans,” SBS Chairman/CEO Raul Alarcón, Jr. said in a statement. “Our agreement with 7digital will provide us with additional tools to maximize the LaMusica.com experience, further building on our momentum as we seek to fully capitalize on our strong media brands and close ties to the vibrant Latino music community.”
“We are pleased to partner with fast-growing entertainment services such as LaMusica.com to enhance the infrastructure that is required to deliver comprehensive and seamless digital entertainment offerings,” Simon Cole, 7digital’s CEO, commented in the same statement. “SBS has an exceptional history in creating top-ranked media brands attracting large and loyal audiences in the nation’s biggest Hispanic media markets, and we look forward to playing a role in expanding LaMusica.com’s operating platform.”
|Yes, eMusic Is Still Around…And
It’s Returning To Its Indie Roots
For years eMusic – one of the first MP3 download services on the web – positioned itself as specializing in independent label content and, in fact, thrived (somewhat) as a music subscription service, whereby users paid a set fee each month to download a set number of tracks.
Over the years, however, the company grdually aligned itself with the major labels in order to survive, but iTunes and Amazon eventually cornered the mainstream download market, leaving eMusic to languish in the nether regions between major and indies. In fact, most industry execs more or less forgot eMusic still existed, except when it popped up as a sponsor at various industry events.
So imagine the surprise of eMusic’s small but loyal user base this week when they received an announcing the service was ending its partnerships with the majors, and returning to its roots as a hub of indie label content. In fact, the email said that beginning today (Oct. 1, the start of the fourth quarter), eMusic “will be exiting the mainstream music business and exclusively offering independent music. The company’s goal is to build the most extensive catalogue of independent music in the world.” While Complete Music Update calls that an admirable goal, it does raise the question of whether it’s too little, too late, for two reasons: 1) Much of eMusic’s small user base has drifted to the subscription streaming services, and 2) The indie labels that 10 years ago would have applauded this move are now focused on trying to get a piece of that same streaming revenue.
A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014
IN the unlikely event that we could ever unite under the banner of a single saint, it might just be St. Expeditus. According to legend, when the Roman centurion decided to convert to Christianity, the Devil appeared in the form of a crow and circled above him crying “cras, cras” — Latin for “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Expeditus stomped on the bird and shouted victoriously, “Today!” For doing so, Expeditus achieved salvation, and is worshiped as the patron saint of procrastinators. Sometimes you see icons of him turned upside down like an hourglass in the hope that he’ll hurry up and help you get your work done so he can be set right-side up again. From job-seekers in Brazil to people who run e-commerce sites in New Orleans, Expeditus is adored not just for his expediency, but also for his power to settle financial affairs. There is even a novena to the saint on Facebook.
Expeditus was martyred in A.D. 303, but was resurrected around the time of the Industrial Revolution, as the tempo of the world accelerated with breathtaking speed. Sound familiar? Today, as the pace of our lives quickens and the demands placed on us multiply, procrastination is the archdemon many of us wrestle with daily. It would seem we need Expeditus more than ever.
“Procrastination, quite frankly, is an epidemic,” declares Jeffery Combs, the author of “The Procrastination Cure,” just one in a vast industry of self-help books selling ways to crush the beast. The American Psychological Association estimates that 20 percent of American men and women are “chronic procrastinators.” Figures place the amount of money lost in the United States to procrastinating employees at trillions of dollars a year.
A recent infographic in The Economist revealed that in the 140 million hours humanity spent watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube two billion times, we could have built at least four more (desperately needed) pyramids at Giza. Endless articles pose the question of why we procrastinate, what’s going wrong in the brain, how to overcome it, and the fascinating irrationality of it all.
But if procrastination is so clearly a society-wide, public condition, why is it always framed as an individual, personal deficiency? Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault — and feel bad about them — rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity?
I was faced with these questions at an unlikely event this past July — an academic conference on procrastination at the University of Oxford. It brought together a bright and incongruous crowd: an economist, a poetry professor, a “biographer of clutter,” a queer theorist, a connoisseur of Iraqi coffee-shop culture. There was the doctoral student who spoke on the British painter Keith Vaughan, known to procrastinate through increasingly complicated experiments in auto-erotica. There was the children’s author who tied herself to her desk with her shoelaces.
The keynote speaker, Tracey Potts, brought a tin of sugar cookies she had baked in the shape of the notorious loiterer Walter Benjamin. The German philosopher famously procrastinated on his “Arcades Project,” a colossal meditation on the cityscape of Paris where the figure of the flâneur — the procrastinator par excellence — would wander. Benjamin himself fatally dallied in escaping the city ahead of the Nazis. He took his own life, leaving the manuscript forever unfinished, more evidence, it would seem, that no avoidable delay goes unpunished.
As we entered the ninth, grueling hour of the conference, a professor laid out a taxonomy of dithering so enormous that I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers — guilt, self-loathing, blame.
Dr. Potts explained how procrastination entered the field as pathological behavior in the mid-20th century. Drawing on the work of the British-born historian Christopher Lane, Dr. Potts directed our attention to a United States War Department bulletin issued in 1945 that chastised soldiers who were avoiding their military duties “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.” In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association assembled the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of mental health used to determine illness to this day — it copied the passage from the cranky military memo verbatim.
And so, procrastination became enshrined as a symptom of mental illness. By the mid-60s, passive-aggressive personality disorder had become a fairly common diagnosis and “procrastination” remained listed as a symptom in several subsequent editions. “Dawdling” was added to the list, after years of delay.
While passive-aggressive personality disorder has been erased from the official portion of the manual, the stigma of slothfulness remains. Many of us, it seems, are still trying to enforce a military-style precision on our intellectual, creative, civilian lives — and often failing. Even at the conference, participants proposed strategies for beating procrastination that were chillingly martial. The economist suggested that we all “take hostages” — place something valuable at stake as a way of negotiating with our own belligerent minds. The children’s author writes large checks out to political parties she loathes, and entrusts them to a relative to mail if she misses a deadline.
All of which leads me to wonder: Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?
Though Expeditus’s pesky crow may be ageless, procrastination as epidemic — and the constant guilt that goes with it — is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.
In an 1853 short story Herman Melville gave us Bartleby, the obstinate scrivener and apex procrastinator, who confounds the requests of his boss with his hallowed mantra, “I would prefer not to.” A perfect employee on the surface — he never leaves the office and sleeps at his desk — Bartleby represents a total rebellion against the expectations placed on him by society. Politely refusing to accept money or to remove himself from his office even after he is fired, the copyist went on to have an unexpected afterlife — as hero for the Occupy movement in 2012. “Bartleby was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street,” Jonathan D. Greenberg noted in The Atlantic. Confronted with Bartleby’s serenity and his utter noncompliance with the status quo, his perplexed boss is left wondering whether he himself is the one who is mad.
A month before the procrastination conference, I set myself the task of reading “Oblomov,” the 19th-century Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov about the ultimate slouch, who, over the course of 500 pages, barely moves from his bed, and then only to shift to the sofa. At least that’s what I heard: I failed to make it through more than two pages at a sitting without putting the novel down and allowing myself to drift off. I would carry the heavy book everywhere with me — it was like an anchor into a deep, blissful sea of sleep.
Oblomov could conduct the few tasks he cared to from under his quilt — writing letters, accepting visitors — but what if he’d had an iPhone and a laptop? Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it. The voice — societal or psychological — urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.
Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers? To start, we might replace Expeditus with a new saint.
At the conference, I was invited to speak about the Egyptian-born novelist Albert Cossery, a true icon of the right to remain lazy. In the mid-1940s, Cossery wrote a novel in French, “Laziness in the Fertile Valley,” about a family in the Nile Delta that sleeps all day. Their somnolence is a form of protest against a world forever ruled by tyrants winding the clock. Born in 1913 in Cairo, Cossery grew up in a place that still retained cultural memories of the introduction of Western notions of time, a once foreign concept. It had arrived along with British military forces in the late 19th century. To turn Egypt into a lucrative colony, it needed to run on a synchronized, efficient schedule. The British replaced the Islamic lunar calendar with the Gregorian, preached the values of punctuality, and spread the gospel that time equaled money.
Firm in his belief that time is not as natural or apolitical as we might think, Cossery, in his writings and in his life, strove to reject the very system in which procrastination could have any meaning at all. Until his death in 2008, the elegant novelist, living in Paris, maintained a strict schedule of idleness. He slept late, rising in the afternoons for a walk to the Café de Flore, and wrote fiction only when he felt like it. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery would say. He was the archetypal flâneur, in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, whose verses Cossery would steal for his own poetry when he was a teenager. Rather than charge through the day, storming the gates of tomorrow, his stylized repose was a perch from which to observe, reflect and question whether the world really needs all those things we feel we ought to get done — like a few more pyramids at Giza. And it was idleness that led Cossery to true creativity, dare I say it, in his masterfully unprolific work.
After my talk, someone came up to ask me what I thought was the ideal length of a nap. Saint Cossery was smiling. Already one small battle had been won.
By Peter Symonds WSWS
1 October 2014
Thousands of protesters remained on the streets of central Hong Kong overnight in anticipation of far larger demonstrations today, China’s National Day—a holiday in both Hong Kong and mainland China. The protests have already drawn in tens of thousands during recent days to demand the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and open elections for his post in 2017.
The immediate trigger for the protests was last month’s announcement by China’s National People’s Congress that the 2017 election, while under a new system of universal suffrage, would be restricted to candidates vetted by a nomination committee stacked with pro-Beijing appointees. The decision was widely regarded as a breach of the promise of a fully-elected chief executive by 2017, made when China took over the former British colony in 1997. Currently the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member committee dominated by Beijing loyalists.
Opposition legislators from the broad grouping known as the pan-Democrats criticised the plan and threatened to veto it in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Occupy Central, an organisation founded last year by a collection of academics, church leaders and professions, announced a civil disobedience campaign that was due to start today to force Beijing to withdraw its decision. These parties and groups represent layers of the Hong Kong elites who, while concerned that Beijing’s control will undermine their interests, are even more fearful of a mass movement of the working class that could destabilise bourgeois rule.
The cautious approach of the pan-Democrats and Occupy Central, holding out for a compromise with Beijing, was pre-empted when the Hong Kong Federation of Students and other student organisations called for a boycott of classes and protests last week. Clashes between students and police outside the government headquarters on Friday provoked larger demonstrations over the weekend. The Hong Kong administration attempted to break up the protests using riot police, but failed.
A tense standoff continues after riot police were withdrawn from the protest sites on Monday. Chief Executive Leung has refused to resign, declaring that Beijing will not back down from its election plan and urging Occupy Central leaders to call off the protests. He pointed out that the “Occupy Central founders had said repeatedly that if the movement is getting out of control, they would call for it to stop.”
Occupy Central, however, only stepped into the protests late Saturday. Its leaders, along with various pan-Democrats, are clearly seeking to bring the rather heterogeneous movement under its control, but their influence, particularly over younger layers of protesters, is far from certain. The diffuse and confused political character of the protests is reflected in their limited demands, along with their vague slogans of “democracy” and chants of “love Hong Kong” and “we want a real vote.”
At this stage, the involvement of the working class appears to be limited. A call by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which is aligned with the pan-Democrats, for a general strike yesterday went largely unheeded. Some teachers and social workers stopped work, according to the South China Morning Post. On Monday, about 200 workers from a Coca-Cola distributer walked out.
Nevertheless, the opposition is being fuelled by broader democratic and social concerns that reflect the deepening social divide in Hong Kong. The New York Times yesterday noted that polls over the past year indicated that “the most disaffected and potentially volatile sector of Hong Kong society is not the students, the middle-aged veterans or even the elderly activists who have sustained the democracy movement for decades. Instead, the most strident calls for greater democracy—and often for greater economic populism, as well—have come from people in the 20s and early 30s who have struggled to find well-paying jobs as the local manufacturing sector has withered away, and as banks and other service industries have hired mainland Chinese instead of local college graduates.”
Hong Kong analyst Michael DeGolyer told the New York Times that these layers paid more attention to student leaders than Occupy Central or the pan-Democrats. “There’s a large number of people who are disaffected and alienated who are not students, who are not affiliated with any political party and who are angry,” he said.
Beijing is deeply concerned that the protests in Hong Kong could spiral out of control and spark unrest in the Chinese mainland amid a deepening economic slowdown and rising social tensions. Beijing has heavily censored news in the Chinese media and on the Internet about the protests and could resort to force to suppress the opposition in Hong Kong.
To date, Chinese authorities have adopted a cautious attitude, leaving the public handling of the situation to the Hong Kong administration and hoping that the protests will fizzle out. An editorial in yesterday’s state-run Global Times dismissed the demonstrations as “merely noise” and predicted that “tide will turn against the oppositionists” once Hong Kong people see that “the Central government will not change its mind.”
A more strident tone was sounded by the official People’s Daily on Monday. It denounced pro-democracy leaders who sought support from “anti-China forces” in Britain and the US, raising the spectre of a US-engineered colour revolution in Hong Kong. However, the protest movement bears none of the hallmarks of the putsch engineered and financed by the US and Germany in February to oust elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The carefully-staged, anti-Yanukovych protests in Kiev, which were dominated by extreme right-wing and fascist organisations, had no democratic content whatsoever.
At present, the response of the US and Britain to the events in Hong Kong is decidedly low key by comparison to mind-numbing deluge of anti-Russian propaganda that accompanied the Kiev coup. In comments on Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declared that the US was “closely watching the situation in Hong Kong” and appealed to local authorities to “exercise restraint.” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called for a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to express his “dismay and alarm” over the situation.
While the Ukrainian coup was aimed at integrating Ukraine into the European Union and imposing drastic austerity measures, the US appears to be more concerned at present with preserving the status quo in Hong Kong. Assuming the bogus mantle of defending democracy in Hong Kong, Earnest said: “We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”
That is not to say that the US and Britain will not be using their close ties with elements in the Hong Kong political and corporate elite to try to exploit the protests for their own advantage. As part of its “pivot to Asia”, the Obama administration has mounted a concerted diplomatic offensive throughout the region to undermine China’s influence.
The danger that the major powers could manipulate the pro-democracy demonstrations arises from the present confusion and lack of political perspective. While the protesters are hostile to the police-state methods of the Chinese regime, they must also oppose any intervention by imperialism. The US and its allies are certainly no defenders of democratic rights—either at home, or in their brazen interventions and wars around the globe. A genuine struggle for democratic rights is completely bound up with the development of an independent movement of the working class in Hong Kong, China.
By Antonis Broumas and Theodoros Karyotis
For us the content of the revolutionary project is for people to become capable of taking social matters in their hands, and the only means for them to attain this capability is to gradually take social matters in their hands more and more.
~ Cornelius Castoriadis (1979)
[W]hat is emerging is another society: the objective is power, not state power, but for people to organize themselves as powers in a different social context.
~ Raul Zibechi (2010)
Nowadays, social antagonism occurs in martial terms. Capitalist domination resolves its contradictions not by granting certain rights and privileges to the oppressed, as it has done in the past, but by imposing a permanent state of exception, where all measures of social engineering are justifiable and all protest is perceived as an initiation of hostilities. Reaching a new equilibrium remains a challenge, which will be addressed only by the social counter-power entering — or not entering — the center stage of political life.
In this socio-historical context, the possibility of a left-wing government emerges in Europe, with the left-wing coalition of SYRIZA in Greece and newcomer Podemos in Spain in its vanguard, as a response to the prospect of neoliberal authoritarianism consolidated on a nationalist basis.
Periods of crisis are moments of social antagonism, in which the positions of contesting social forces are liquefied. In the present crisis, autonomous social movements emerge from the contradictions of modern capitalism as the main collective subjects with a potential for radical transformation and social change. They constitute the main opponent of capitalist domination in the present social confrontation and any conflicts inside the state and government apparatus are essentially a reflection of the ebb and tide of social mobilizations.
Despite being aware that the new world we long for can only come about through the struggles from below, we have to seriously contemplate the possibility of a left-wing government. The effects of such an electoral victory would be equivocal for grassroots movements, since, on the one hand, such a victory may tilt the power balance and, thus, provide breathing space to the movements in their confrontation with capitalist domination, but, on the other hand, it could accelerate the disquieting trend of co-optation and assimilation of social movements by the logic of state management.
Left-Wing Bureaucracy and the State
In theory, the communist left relates with the state in instrumental terms. The conquest of the bourgeois state is presented as a necessary evil on the road to workers’ power. This approach, however, is immersed — even on a purely theoretical level — in a series of contradictions. Even in its most sophisticated versions it fails to address the issue of the dialectic relation between the vanguard party bureaucracy and the autonomy of the world of labor, or the possibility of achieving a transition towards an egalitarian society, when there is such disparity between the means employed and the goals proposed.
But in social praxis, the historical experience of the relationship between left-wing parties and the state is even more complex and contradictory. In the 20th century, nearly half of the planet was governed by left-wing bureaucracies that exercised power separated from the social classes they were supposed to represent. In most victories of the left — electoral or otherwise — popular forms of organization, be they soviets, workers’ councils or assemblies, were summarily superseded by the centralized power of the new managerial class. But even where they did not capture state power, left-wing bureaucracies operated merely as agents of mediation and delegation of political power, rather than as a genuine expression of the collective subject of the labor movement. In an attempt to defeat the bourgeois state with its own weapons, they modelled their organizational structures on the most reactionary and hierarchical elements of the bourgeois state, thus stifling any attempt of the workers at autonomous self-expression.
Nevertheless, today much has changed since the heyday of the workers’ movements. In the European context, a possible conquest of state power by a left-wing party is no longer seen as a necessary evil, but as a strategic objective for mitigating the impact of the neoliberal onslaught on the social fabric. In modern left-wing mythology, the state is implicitly seen as the last frontier of “real” politics in opposition to the burgeoning social power of capital; hence the criticism of the essentially bourgeois nature of state power can easily be overlooked. This conception of the state, held by a majority of contemporary left-wing parties, is lagging even behind earlier approaches of the social democratic left, which at least retained a minimal connection with the strategic goal of social transformation.
Yet, the strategy of social salvation through the conquest of state power remains appealing to a part of the oppressed strata, who still preserve memories of the North European-style welfare state and think of collective mobilization as a means of pressure in order to extract concessions from the main agent of mediation of social antagonism, i.e. the state. Whereas it is tempting for many people to think nowadays of the post-war welfare state as the only meaningful and effective means of guaranteeing social and economic rights for the bulk of the population, it is evident today from a historical perspective that such an equilibrium was nothing but a temporary arrangement, limited in its scope, designed to appease the increasingly restless working classes of the post-colonial powers and avert the soviet menace.
Likewise, the present-day left-wing bureaucracies are not striving to represent the emerging radical social subjects in systemic politics, nor are they trying to foster the bottom-up emergence of novel conditions for our common existence, which are now pervasive in social mobilizations in every continent of the planet. Instead, they attend to the expectations of the vulnerable middle classes of returning to the welfare state of the past, where capitalist domination was still exercised in terms of social consensus and power equilibrium rather than crude imposition.
It is understandable that SYRIZA’s ambitious program of wealth redistribution in favor of the middle and lower classes arouses the imagination of European social movements; after all, in the present context, there is a certain quixotic heroism in SYRIZA’s neo-Keynesianism as set against the backdrop of an omnivorous neoliberalism, which, having plundered the Global South for decades, is now consuming the European periphery and will soon advance towards the center. This explains the near-mythical proportions of SYRIZA’s fame outside of Greece and the great expectations the electoral ascent of this party has created. Contrast this to the pragmatism of its local supporters, who know very well that, even if they manage to capture state power, the party’s capacity for radical reform will be extremely limited.
We adduce that the aspiration of the compressed middle classes to return to a “humane” form of capitalism will not be fulfilled. The contemporary nation-state is undergoing a severe crisis, both because of the inherent contradictions in its institutions of representation and because of the expansion of the social power of capital and its non-state structures. Today, more than ever, the conquest of state power does not mean the conquest of social power. Besides, the contemporary confrontation is played out between the increasingly consolidated social power of capital and the social counter-power of the oppressed.
The radical social transformation of tomorrow will not be a product of the bourgeois state and its institutions of representation, but of the subversion of state institutions and the emergence of social structures of power immanent to society and inseparable from it. Under these conditions, the conquest of the bourgeois state by a left-wing bureaucracy can prove detrimental to the autonomous movements, if it does not help expand the vital spaces of development of their social power against the power of nation states and international capital.
Nevertheless, our rejection of the reformist avenue advocated by contemporary left-wing parties does not entail an uncritical adoption of revolutionary politics as defined in the 20th century. In a late capitalism of immaterial and fragmented labor, of disciplining through debt and scare tactics, of opaque centers of power far removed from the population they rule, there is no Winter Palace to storm and no prospect of defeating the enemy in military terms. The neighborhood, the street and the public square have largely replaced the factory as the epicenter of social and class antagonism. Reconceptualizing community, breaking out of social isolation, creating horizontal and participatory structures based on equality, solidarity and mutual recognition, and building networks among these structures are social acts that today constitute revolutionary praxis.
As has always been the case, truly radical social transformation can only be the product of a confrontation of a widespread and pre-existing mode of social existence with the structures of domination, not of the actions of an enlightened few who will redesign society in the interest of the many. Hence the newest social movements do not seek to reform the existing political and economic structures, but to build alternatives in the thousands of cracks of the current system, i.e., the places where capitalist values cannot prevail. They set the collective administration of common goods, through the self-management of the horizontal communities that emerge around them, against the atomism of the capitalist market and the bureaucracy of the state. Thus, they construct the material conditions of political autonomy, ensuring the social reproduction that the state and the market are no longer willing to provide and creating new imaginary meanings of social cooperation to substitute the dominant values of individual social mobility and material prosperity.
Autonomous Movements and Left-Wing Governments
The strain between autonomous movements and left-wing governments has been made evident in South America in the previous decade, with the re-emergence of the state-oriented left in the subcontinent. The tradition of autonomy has strong roots in Latin America, largely because of the political organizing of indigenous peoples, the most prominent — but not the only — example being the Zapatistas, but also because of the practices of a series of rural and urban movements whose struggles do not follow the beaten path: the landless in Brazil, the recovered factories or the piqueteros in Argentina, the water wars in Bolivia, and so on.
While these movements grew strong under conditions of neoliberal invasion, in the previous decade they had to face a series of progressive governments, themselves products of the social unrest caused by the neoliberal onslaught: from the modest social democracy of Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina, to experiments in radical political transformation such as that of Chávez in Venezuela.
A first obvious result of the predominance of left-wing governments was the mitigation (but not the complete elimination) of repressive tactics. The withdrawal of government support from the thugs of the landowners and the paramilitary organizations, the decrease in instances of torture and imprisonment, made a big difference for these movements, which have paid a heavy toll in blood for their political action.
Another positive aspect was the cessation of many spectacular and destructive neoliberal projects. However, many “progressive” governments, using the discourse of “economic development”, reinstated those grandiose plans disguised as “investments of national interest.” Admittedly Venezuela, where a certain kind of popular autonomy flourished under the rule of Chávez, constitutes a special case within this paradigm. However, the insistence on fossil fuels as the motor of economic growth is most often pursued at the expense of local and indigenous populations. It is evident that all governments, right-wing or left-wing, remain committed to the capitalist imaginary of unlimited growth at any cost.
However, the largest threat presented by left-wing governments to grassroots movements is the loss of their autonomy. Left-wing governments admire the social movements for the solidarity bonds they form within them, for their connection to society, for their imagination and creativity in problem-solving and, most importantly, for how big a change they can bring about with scant or inexistent financial means. In this spirit, many Latin American governments tried to utilize the movements to pursue social policy objectives, turned many of the most prominent activists into bureaucrats, used assistencialist policies to appease the radical sectors, and waged a covert war on the movements that did not want to align themselves with the government line — even going so far as to accuse them of being agents of the right-wing forces.
Through this carrot-and-stick kind of politics, not only is the state not “enhanced” with the dynamism of the social movements, but the latter are subordinated to state priorities, losing their momentum and often dissipating. A similar situation was experienced in Greece when a “radical” social democratic PASOK rose to power in 1981, signalling the end of the political effervescence that characterized the period after the democratic transition of 1974, and assimilating many social movements within the corporatist regime it established. A similar case can be made about Spain and the Socialist government of Felipe González around the same time.
Contemporary Movements as Collective Subjects for Social Change
At the time of writing this article, a long cycle of social mobilization is coming to a close in Greece and around the world, leaving behind an important legacy of structures operating through direct democracy (workers’ cooperatives, local assemblies, social centers, solidarity networks, movements in defense of the commons, endeavors in solidarity economy) but also great fatigue and frustration, since the program of neoliberal reform is being carried out to the letter despite the best efforts — at great personal cost — of innumerable social activists. It is easy for this frustration to plunge collectives into introspection and allow certain parts of the movement — already prone to such practices — to return to the pursuit of “ideological purity” and the “real” revolutionary subject; a quest that in the 20th century has proven to be a one-way ticket to political insignificance and sectarianism.
The political vacuum brought about by this frustration and by the lack of a concrete vision of social transformation from below, is exploited by parliamentary left parties to reinforce the logic of political mediation and to turn themselves fundamentally into proxies of the desire for social change. Reiterating the practices of the 20th century, they use their hegemonic position to appropriate the political surplus value of social mobilization and to create structures of representation within the movements, curtailing or marginalizing the demands that do not fit into their political agenda and thereby diverting the action of social subjects towards the parliamentary road.
Admittedly, there is a long way ahead for the nascent horizontal movements before they manage to transcend their local and particular circumstances, connect with the wider political becoming, and create new political spaces where the terms of our common existence can be shaped — that is, progress from coexistence to cooperation. However, horizontal and prefigurative movements, despite being a minority, constitute today the main antagonistic force to the current system of domination that is quickly reaching its social and ecological limits.
Autonomous movements are inclined not to capture power, but to disperse it: imagining new decentralized institutions for the governance of social and economic life to replace bourgeois democracy, which is immersed in a deep structural crisis of social reproduction, political representation and ecological sustainability. That does not entail laying out a well-defined program of exercise of power, but forging bonds and institutions that will allow the synthesis of the specific and local with the general and universal. The struggles for the commons, for knowledge, land, water and health, leave behind a legacy of accessible and participatory institutions, which can form the backbone of a new kind of power: a power of the people, not of the representatives.
The endeavors in libertarian communitarianism point towards the creation of politically active communities and the use of local institutions as a bulwark against globalized capitalism and as an appropriate field of application of precepts of de-growth and localization. The promise of the self-management of labor, of worker cooperatives and peer production, indicates a path within, against and beyond the state and the market. In any case, the new constituent power will be diverse, reflecting the infinity of militant subjectivities that the domination of capital in all aspects of social life engenders.
Certainly there is nothing inevitable in the emergence of this new world, no teleological certainty that this will come about, in the same way that the deterministic predictions of the advent of a free society made in the 19th century remain unfulfilled. The struggle of the people to prevail over the dominance of capital will take place in the contingent field of social antagonism, and will depend on their determination to turn frustration into social creativity, to break free from restrictive identities and ideological certainties, to ignore the promises of mediation and to reinvent themselves as an instituting social subject.
Antonis Broumas is a lawyer, researcher and activist focusing on the interaction between law, technology and society. He participates in social movements that promote social autonomy and the global commons.
Theodoros Karyotis is a sociologist, translator and activist participating in social movements that promote self-management, solidarity economy and defense of the commons. He writes on autonomias.net.
The Greek version of this article was published in the September issue of the Babylonia political review.