London Working Group Notes: Founding a Union for the 21st Century
We will not be able to neutralise our spiritual, political and economic problems via electoral change or a simple reform of our nation state. To succeed, first we must name our enemy and describe the solution, a real alternative. Then we will need to work out some appropriate aims as a means to that alternative. Finally we will need to found a new kind of union to achieve these aims, recruit members and start campaigning. A union for the 21st Century will need to be a hybrid organisation, quite unlike a traditional trade union in some respects, but like one in others (for example, involving funded, membership based campaign-work, a commitment to improving work and life conditions for ordinary people and developing a social culture of grassroots solidarity).
To succeed in founding a suitable hybrid organisation, we will need to draw upon the sum total of know-how and experience of human history. Let us then found a union based in different respects on the successful aims, approaches and campaigns of the 17th century Levellers and Diggers, 18th Century Chartists, 19th Century Abolitionists, Suffragettes and Trades unionists, 20th Century anti-colonialism movements and 21st Century 15M and Occupy, as well as the visionary leadership and wisdom of the founding religious movements of both the Axial age and indigenous human culture.
The proposal for this working group is to begin the process of founding such a union, based on a commitment to a hybrid of these approaches and, in line with the Chartists, to begin with a short-list of themes to reclaim for humanity: Time, Space, Money, Power, Community, Land, Education and Peace.
While this year promises an election, with the rise of new parties and the historic significance of the anniversary of Magna Carta, we will not be able to neutralise our spiritual, political and economic problems via electoral change or a simple reform of our nation state. To succeed, first we must accurately name the enemy we face. And from that point of understanding we must found a new kind of union, a hybrid organisation, quite different from political party or protest group.
Union in the sense of something people can join and take co-ownership of (in the sense of being paid up members and/or supporters in other ways, including direct action, solidarity work in communities, intellectual and journalistic support, on-line campaigning and so on).
Union in the sense they can see their self-interest in it in the kind of direct fashion people could see their interest in reduced working hours, better work conditions and so on.
Union in the sense of being a recognisable organisational form ordinary people can relate to, join and participate in, creating grassroots solidarity and new cultural expression.
Like a union in these ways, but also – because of the very different context we live in, a context where any meaningful vehicle for change must go much further that just relating to working conditions and so forth; different from a traditional union.
What is needed is a strategically designed hybrid. So yes, let us look to trade unions, with their funded, membership based campaigning and commitment to improving working conditions and basic human rights. But also to the Diggers and Levellers of the 17th Century, with their commitment to a complete overturning of the established order. And to the Chartists, with their short list of radical political aims (demands or new rights). And to the Suffragettes, with their high profile public interventions and mass civil disobedience. Let us look to the independence movements that fought colonialism. And to Occupy with its commitment to bottom up assembly-based decision making, practical solidarity for local people, whole system analysis and potential for a new participatory culture. Finally, we should take a lead from the early Christians, Muslims and other early religious movements, with their ability to name the enemy, and consequently transform the community’s relationship to the powers that be, and to the reality of the world and our practical obligations to one another in it. Likewise let us recover the vision of indigenous culture that tells us we are spiritually connected to and responsible for one another and the world-at-large. For, as the Biblical writer put it ‘without a vision, the people perish.’
If we were able to combine the best of these, a new kind of union – quite unlike a traditional union in many ways but sharing some of its characteristics – could be born. Not a party, pressure group or traditional workers’ union but a membership based hybrid organization able to draw upon the best historic forms of human transformational structures, while also offering freedom, personal sovereignty and just governance by way of an alternative society of local assemblies.
As a first proposal regarding demands or new rights, here are eight public goods designed to fit with a holistic vision of change, while also appealing to self-interest across the political spectrum:
1) Time – to counter being overworked, a new working week and reduced working hours for all. The right to time.
2) Space – to counter privatisation and over-regulation of space to the detriment of real democracy and common community endeavour. The right to space.
3) Money – to counter being underpaid, universal citizen’s income, debt relief, tax and monetary reform. The right to money.
4) Power – to counter disempowerment, a new form of government, driven by people in local communities and workplaces. The right to power.
5) Community – to counter people’s isolation and improve health and well-being, new local institutions to rebuild the community fabric, start taking care of one another in a human way (and also dealing with e.g. cultural misunderstandings, individual loneliness and some of our many modern mental and related physical health issues). The right to community.
6) Land – to counter the housing crisis, affordable rents, co-ops and good quality housing for all. Also, the right to live in new, intentional and low impact / zero carbon housed communities (i.e. we do kibbutzes and/or go full circle with Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries, only we do it much better: 21st C egalitarian democratic etc.). This would link town and city and the reclamation of common land in productive inspiring ways ideally with no environmental cost / actual environmental benefits. The right to land.
7) Education – to counter ignorance, a new approach to education, health and social care (the community in the classroom and classroom in the community, character, skills for life, trade and community endeavour). The right to education.
8) Peace – to counter war and global injustice, a new, non-state driven approach to globalisation (but also, more personally to the self, each other and world). The right to peace.
Let us use these headline themes as the basis from which to articulate a vision for change. Let us take this vision and use it to found a new union for the 21st century. And then let us go out and recruit members in our local communities and start the campaign.
Prepared in consultation with supporters of Occupy and and the Muslim Faculty of Advanced Studies
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