Building an Infrastructure of Dissent

The labour movement in Canada is social democratic and lacks militancy, radical organizations tend to be small, and, as author Alan Sears argues in The Next New Left,  the radical pole of the left “is now so weak it has only the most limited impact on activism or public debate.” This last claim is worth disputing in key instances like the Québec student strike and pipeline resistance, but the overall picture of the left is not particularly bright.

How did the left get here, and how can it change course? These questions form the basis of The Next New Left. Sears focuses his latest book on the idea of an “infrastructure of dissent.” An infrastructure of dissent is “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating and mobilizing together.” A new infrastructure of dissent is emerging in light of the Great Recession, and history can provide these emerging movements with some important lessons.

Sears looks at two key periods of mass insurgency (the labour militancy of the 1930-40s, and the “new left” of the 1960-70s) before shifting to the present. He argues in an academic yet accessible manner that a new infrastructure of dissent is needed, but he does not offer a political program for how to get there. Some will criticize a lack of political vision in Sears’s book, but the left is hardly in a position to overthrow capitalism, even with the best five-year plan. What is needed is sensible and achievable goals that can help build the seeds of something bigger, and Sears offers pragmatic ideas rooted in history about how we might achieve this more limited task.

Sears’s perspective is informed by decades of activism and research on grassroots militancy. He is a sociology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and a long-time queer and socialist activist (currently a member of Toronto New Socialists). He offers interesting reflections on the tension between his scholarly work and activism in the early pages of the book, but his real contribution is identifying what sustains periods of mass insurgency.

Labour militancy at its best

Sears walks his readers along the main street of Windsor, Ont.’s Drouillard Road in the 1940s to illustrate what the left was once like. Drouillard Road served as the hub for labour militancy during the Ford strike of 1945, winning rights for workers that “set the pattern for collective bargaining in Canada over the next two decades.”

Militant mobilizations took place including sympathy strikes and blockades. Police attempts to break through picket lines were physically stopped, and vehicle blockades with public buses and trucks shut down key arteries. Drivers who resisted had their vehicles seized. The core of this organizing stemmed from shop stewards.

Community support for the strike was widespread as people organized to feed, clothe and sustain strikers, with some local businesses helping out too. Sears looks with a critical eye not only to the workplace, but also to the manner in which households and communities organized, and the racial and gender dynamics therein. Vibrant politicization of communities in which workers lived was critical to the period’s successes, linking the workplace to the community. Theatres, bookstores, publications, choirs, education, sports and language training were all an integral part of this infrastructure of dissent. A sustained and difficult strike like this required a level of pageantry as well, with parades, community celebrations, cultural and recreation to stay positive in difficult times.

Some general lessons and ideas can be drawn from the radical archaeology that Sears has conducted: worker self-organization is critical, as is community organizing; cultural events and education on the shop floor and in communities also contribute to a culture of militancy. Indeed, there are several ideas that today’s movements can draw from the 1940s.

It is telling how far the left has fallen that much of this is not being practiced at all today– certainly not on the same scale as the 1940s. One yearns for ideas of how to revive this level of organizing.These ideas are nestled in a subtle way throughout Sears’s book, but it would be helpful to have key lessons hammered home more overtly.

Sears details the victories of the 1940s along with the “whiplash-inducing rapidity” of the left’s collapse in the 1950s. He draws on Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to argue that the postwar settlement was a form of hegemony, crushing the radicalism of the 1930s in favour of slow reform.

The welfare state emerged with its emphasis on security, fear of the “other,” strong notions of citizenship, McCarthyism and overt repression, private utopias of suburbia, the automobile and a “Consumer’s Republic” in which production and working-class consumption were carefully connected. These cultural developments were combined with a pacification of the workplace through automation, automatic payment of union dues that stemmed from the Rand Formula and a new emphasis on grievance procedures rather than shop floor militancy.

Identifying what led to the demise of mass insurgency in the 1940s — namely, cooptation and bureaucratic union leaderships selling out of their membership — also helps to alert us to  dangers in current and future organizing efforts. While such dangers are a constant concern for the left, Sears makes very clear that each historical epoch has its unique challenges.

Sears also relentlessly seeks to develop a pluralist left in both his activism and writing. He quotes widely from anarchist, Marxist and feminist sources, rather than leaning toward a preferred ideological strand. He seeks to bridge divides and find common ground. This is a necessary task at a time when the radical left is fragmented and weak. Sectarianism does not benefit anyone at this time, and it is possible to have a plural left in which differences are respected while working together.

The making of a new left

Sears makes the interesting observation that the new left of the 1960s and 70s was not entirely “new,” but drew on a range of currents and organizations established during the previous wave of militancy. Students for a Democratic Society, key feminist and anti-racist strands and other organizations had explicit links with historic infrastructures of dissent.

Anti-imperial sentiment fostered during the Vietnam war, student militancy of 1968, widespread revolt following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Prague Spring and revolt against totalitarian states, feminism and queer liberation, the independence movement in Québec and Indigenous mobilization all contributed to a new wave of mass insurgency. Its militant peak in the Canadian context was the 1972 Québec general strike.

Despite its links with the old left, this new left was distinct in important ways. The end of the Cold War allowed for a more global conception of the left, and movements were led by those “partially or totally excluded from the postwar settlement,” including the queer community, people of colour, Indigenous organizers, women and youth. New priorities were centred around sexual liberation, global justice, anti-colonialism, Black liberation, ecology and anti-oppression.

Sadly, the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1970s led to the demise of this wave of mass insurgency. Changes since the 1970s have virtually wiped out the new left’s infrastructure of dissent, thus the next new left will be rebuilt upon fragments of the old and will be “substantially discontinuous with the last one.” Sears goes so far to suggest that this discontinuity will be “greater than any time during the twentieth century.”

Toward the next new left

The “age of austerity” poses its own unique set of challenges for the left. Youth are struggling with debt, many cannot afford an education and employment conditions continue to erode. Not surprisingly then, youth have played a key role in all grassroots struggles since 2007, from Occupy to Idle No More and the Québec student strike.

Sears notes that recent struggles have placed a strong emphasis on democracy within movements, an audacity of tactics and vision, and the need for an “integrative liberation politics,” centring feminist, anti-racist, queer liberation, Indigenous and anti-colonial movements and thinking.

Sears’s concept of an infrastructure of dissent, with all its rich nuance, is a helpful contribution to the left. The concept can help people take stock of where the left is, where it came from, its limitations and prospects. It is a very useful concept. That said, stressing the importance of developing a new infrastructure of dissent is not a particularly bold idea. No strategy or vision for the future is presented, but that is because Sears’s writing is grounded. He takes historical struggles and the left’s present circumstances seriously, while also recognizing that embracing culture and celebration is important. The historical and organizational nuances presented in this book are useful for anyone interested in left movement-building.

Sears aspires for a better world, and that is palpable in his writing. He concludes by stressing that the anti-capitalist left faces the difficult task of sustaining its own militant aspirations while reaching out to a broader majority. The Québec student strike of 2012 is one recent example of how this fine line can be walked. The historical promise and pitfalls presented in this book provide some thoughtful ideas and guidance in these difficult times.

Matthew Brett (@mattbrett_1984) is a writer and anarchist organizer based in Treaty 1 territories, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is active with Canadian Dimension and the Society for Socialist Studies.