2021, and a number of media owners and MPs declare that 19 July will famously strike a blow “for freedom”. For face masks will not be mandated for anymore, people can “happily” return to work, squashed together in cattle class on “our great public transport system”, and social distancing rules “will end”. All of us will be overcome with joy over doing something “for Britain” and defeating the latest enemy in the guise of Covid-19.
A strange kind of freedom
Meanwhile, millions of young people, vulnerable people, older people, employed and unemployed people fear the worst. Worrying that they have little control over whether they fall ill with Covid-19, over possibly being unable to provide for their needs and those of their families and local communities, concern over people being pitted against one another, and a likely ensuing and brutal lockdown to contain the virus in the autumn. Unless you bury your head firmly in the sand, it feels like a strange kind of “freedom”.
19 July 1936
Wind the clock back in a very different way envisaged by those in power, back 85 years and a thousand miles or so south. It’s 19 July, 1936 and the working class in Spain (i.e. all those forced to sell their labour for a wage) rise en masse to repel the far right nationalist rebellion – later led by the dictator, Francisco Franco. Particularly throughout Catalunya and Aragón, weapons are obtained by hastily formed workers’ militias to fight the nationalists at the front, whilst in the rear a full scale social revolution proclaiming liberty and equality ensues.
This is a revolution very different from the horror of state capitalism, and the Soviet Union. Rather it is one led directly by the working class themselves, one based on self emancipation and self management of industry and agriculture. Free forming collectives emerge, revolving factory committees and large scale general assemblies appear. Education classes take root. Literacy, self confidence, and the questioning of authority is promoted. Hospitals are self managed by the staff, collective childcare is seen, environmental issues are discussed, and thousands of women fight at the front and form their own organisation in the rear (Mujeres Libres / Free Women).
Imperfect but classless and egalitarian
Whilst not a process entirely without negatives, which are focused upon by the press of the day – for example, arbitrary attacks upon the church and those heavily associated with it are initially seen (as the Catholic church had for long been identified as a very reactionary and oppressive force in Spain), the revolution makes dramatic headway.
Many observers describe the situation. For example, George Orwell famously in Homage to Catalonia, notes the ecstatic scenes in Barcelona, where it appears that nearly everyone sees each other as a classless equal and to be respected as such – something, “almost unthinkable in the (present) money-tainted air of England; no one owned anyone else as his master.”
Gaston Leval in Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, meanwhile described in detail that for up to 18 months in the collectives of Aragón, the wages system and money as a representation of “value”, both crucial components of the social relationship of capitalism, exploitation and alienation, were actually successfully abolished. All produce was held in common stores, which the population had free access too. This whilst everyone was seen to have an equal interest and say in the running of their local community and own lives.
More recent film representations of aspects of this have been acclaimed, including Ken Loach’s, Land and Freedom, and Vicente Anranda’s, Libertarias. It was only when some of the workers’ organisations, notably some in the influential CNT-FAI, felt obliged against their own outlook to take part in the government and then were attacked by the Stalinists and later, nationalists, that the experiments of the social revolution were lost.
One step forward, two steps back
This brings up the question of what has happened in the intervening period between these two events that has gone so wrong with our lives and hopes for the future? Why is it that material improvements for some after the Second World War appear to be in reverse and have been temporary in nature? Why is it in the modern world that we seemingly have to continually fight in an exhausting process of, “One step forward, two steps back”? Why do we read the headlines every morning whilst wanting to run to the nearest toilet? Why do we feel so disempowered?
There appears a race to the bottom, falling rates of profit, wage stagnation, climate change, destruction of nature, weapon proliferation, authoritarian attacks upon basic civil liberties, restrictions on industrial action and protests, ill informed decisions and then endless U turns.
As such, is the present profit system actually the best one possible to ensure the survival and well being of both the human race and other species? Or is there a possible society beyond the current one? One not based upon profit, be it the “free market” variant dominating much of the world, nor the State Capitalist one in China? An alternative where people are not fighting for crumbs, but may get real control of their own lives and not have it dictated to by an old school network of bosses, party bureaucrats, and owners of capital?
Freedom and a sense of responsibility
In 1936, in Spain, many people appear to have believed so and took great strides to bring it about. As Buenaventura Durruti at the time stated, “I believe, as I always have, in freedom. Freedom (for all) which rests upon a sense of responsibility”. And, “We carry a new world here, in our hearts”. In 2021, from rebel workers organising in the “gig economy” in Western Europe, to garment workers, in Bangladesh, some in the so-called developed and developing world maybe beginning to wonder about and struggle for one again.
As activist and writer, Arundhati Roy put it, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
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