On the train to revolution

Avenues and actions for global economic reform are more likely to originate from the ‘Global South’ than the ‘West’.

Members of the National Union of Mineworkers take part in a strike in Johannesburg
"Today, the most vibrant popular politics, especially of the anti-capitalist variety, are to be found in the Global South, not in the West," writes Barkawi [Reuters]

Groans arose from the packed mass of commuters on the train platform. A late but short train hove into view up the tracks. Even though their service would be leaving the metropolis shortly before 9 pm, it was evident it would be packed and not everyone would get a seat. This despite the fact it cost the equivalent of $66 to get a return ticket to a commuter town just over an hour away. 

I did get a seat in one of the tired, grimy carriages, but near the toilet and its bold bouquet. Soon seven or eight more or less stylishly attired commuters hovered outside the rickety electric door, politely joking with one another about who was next, each quietly sashaying their legs together. 

An elegant, athletic man in his 50s, immediately opposite the toilet door, hemmed in by the ever-replenishing line of those waiting to go, ate his dinner with strained nonchalance and made a phone call as if in more felicitous surroundings. The rest of us sat grumpily bunched together on seats too small and closely spaced to be comfortable. 

Where did this tatty, if not quite dilapidated, scene unfold? Amid the decaying transportation infrastructure of some Third World capital that had not seen a boom since the 1960s? 

What I have described is a fairly good day commuting in and out of London by rail. Admittedly it is hardly unbearable in the scale of human suffering, but no one goes to work with the relative certainty they will arrive on time, or without a mad, sweaty dash through some train or subway station to make a connection. Delays are frequent, as is disruption caused by efforts to maintain the creaking, overloaded, outdated train system. 

The costs to business and to the mental health of everyone involved are immense. The trains in the land that invented the railroad are today a national scandal. 

Ever since Prime Minister John Major privatised British Rail, companies have been making a killing taking profits out of the system while receiving generous public subsidies. They repaint the same old carriages every five years or so with the bright liveries of newly invented holding companies. Fares are extraordinarily expensive, and about the only thing that works reliably are the companies’ efforts to check tickets and catch fare dodgers. 

On those crowded, dirty old trains, where passengers are guaranteed neither a seat nor timely arrival at their destination, poorly paid attendants in cheap uniforms go up and down the aisles gamely asking to see tickets. Carefully surveilled ticket barriers—far more modern than the trains themselves—stand at the exits of stations, where large bunches of already late commuters face a final delay as they filter through—an obvious security risk in a city that has suffered terror attack. 

There are many questions all this raises. One is why any politician with a straight face and expectation of re-election can support further privatisation of public utilities and services. Yet Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories are selling off Royal Mail—a nearly 500 year old public service—as I write. The leader of the Labour Party, meanwhile, has just announced his support for capitalism. 

The chief question it raises is why do the citizens of a wealthy, democratic country, a country with rich tradition of revolutions, uprisings and popular protests, why do they put up with it? Americans would have long ago sued such venal, failing train companies into oblivion, or at least built sufficient roads and parking so that no one had to use the damn trains. Americans would throw temper tantrums and demand better service. 

The British mostly sit there quietly and take it. There is a grace among Britons of the professional classes, even after decades of decline. But every day on the trains saps a little more of the will to live out of them. You can see it in their faces. 

They do not always sit quietly. When it becomes too awful, in my experience, the passengers turn on the lowest paid functionaries of the rapacious train companies or on each other, jostling and fighting over those narrow, uncomfortable seats or enough space to stand straight. 

Yet of any sign that this daily humiliation will produce an effective popular movement to hold the train companies and the government to account, there is none. This is a country which has cut off king’s heads, it has staged general strikes, and it was the fount of modern popular democratic politics. 

Peasants dug up hedges enclosing their lands; revolutionaries discouraged at home spread across the Atlantic to lead and assist some of the greatest revolutions and revolts in history; trades unions extracted concessions from capital we now take for granted, from laws on child labour to the eight hour day and five day workweek; the British Labour Party built the modern welfare state. 

Yet today even Britain’s relatively privileged citizens lie supine, obedient subjects of an irrational and self-destructive neoliberalism that daily degrades their lives. What the situation on the trains helps establish is that the popular democratic traditions of the West are drained of life. The West may go about the world trumpeting democracy but its own citizens no longer know that the word means rule of the people. 

Consider the 2011 riots in cities and towns across England in the wake of a police shooting, fuelled by the more general realisation that the consumer economy was a casualty of the financial crisis. No longer would the latest electronic baubles be affordable for the labouring classes. This was a moment that well-briefed and prepared community organisers and Labour party activists might have turned to excellent political effect—creating mass demonstrations out of riots. It was a moment where more privileged Britons might have joined in and headed off the Age of Austerity at its birth, demanding the rich and the banks pay. Instead, the riots became a law and order issue, fuelling racism and the idea that young people were lazy and violent—as if they were to blame for the lack of jobs and the disastrous state of the economy. 

Today, the most vibrant popular politics, especially of the anti-capitalist variety, are to be found in the Global South, not in the West. 

Imagine what Latin American activists—who have built a regional movement to tame capital—would do on Britain’s train platforms, from protests as festival to the public pillorying of train company executives—perhaps even tarring and feathering them as Englishmen were found of doing to their oppressors in the thirteen colonies. India has vibrant peasant politics, among them the largest Maoist guerrilla movement in the world but also more peaceful forms of local protest and self-help. Across the Middle East, North Africa and the wider Islamic world the people have taken their future into their own hands, or are trying hard to do so. 

To be sure, these movements are messy and often violent, and their outcomes uncertain. But the same could be said about the past centuries of popular protest and revolution in the West. It is a very difficult thing to wrest concessions from the powerful, but ultimately it is the only way to create humane societies. What humanity we have in our politics comes precisely from the legacies of such movements. 

Now, the West and its suffering citizens need to look to, and unite with, the uprisings and protests of the Global South. It is there they will find the resources to breathe new life into their democratic traditions, and there they will find the international allies necessary to bring to heel a capitalist system that operates globally. 

Today, the train to revolution runs through the Global South. 

Tarak Barkawi is Reader in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics