The Welsh independence movement is a statist movement which will, as and when it is successful, create a nation-state with British characteristics, presumably heavily influenced by other European representative democracies. In that way, although there is no doubt that it will represent a huge improvement over the domination of Wales by Westminster, it will replicate many of the problems of nation-states, folding in contradictions that will undermine the best intentions of those who would see to increase equality, deepen ecology, strengthen communities, the continued revival of the Welsh language, and a vibrant diverse democracy.
The difference between creating a new nation-state which carries forward many of the characteristics of colonial domination, and building a new society largely free of those characteristics is the difference between decolonisation and liberation. Anti-colonial movements, like the Welsh independence movement today, have always had to choose between organising for decolonisation or for the struggle for liberation. Wales, like so many other colonies, has been politically, economically and socially shaped by the metropolitan power. It is hardly surprising that so few of us as yet look beyond the models we have been given. Even socialist and republican statist models reflect the norms of colonial thinking.
Movements like Yes Cymru, and the more radical leftist Undod, endeavour, quite understandably, to create a broad coalition across Welsh society; the immediate goal is independence and a new nation-state is the straightest road to that political goal. Behind that locomotive, pro-indy organisations attempt to hitch all kinds of social, economic and environmental aspirations. It’s like election day all over again: vote for this, to get that, so you can vote for the other, and somewhere down the line we’ll vote ourselves right into the Citadel.
We all know the problems with this one-last-heave-to-electoral-victory approach. Those of us from across the left and, to be clear, the post-left, who walked the miles for Corbyn in 2019, knowing the catastrophic alternative, and accepting the limitations of a hoped for Labour administration, came up against not just apathy born of decades of betrayal, but also open hostility coming out of fevered right wing propaganda. A couple of minutes on the doorstep couldn’t undo the absence of the labour movement from people’s lives over decades, or the hegemonic individualism of capitalism triumphant. This is a very real problem for left of centre parties across Europe, and also for any civic nationalist movement couching its appeal in electoral progressivism.
The other road, longer and more difficult without doubt, is the road to liberation.
Liberation starts with the recognition that we are most concerned about radical social transformation and that the attempt to achieve this through the political system we have been handed by the ruling class of the metropolitan power is futile. To be clear, having a new nation-state has been a common experience for people all over the world in the Modern Era, a fact noted in the Yes Cymru slogan: ‘Independence is Normal.’ It is indeed, and so is the disappointment with the first generation of post-independence politicians, the shattered hopes, and the return to the mean of disenfranchisement and inequality.
The roots of the Left don’t lie in ideas or in programmes, but in communities. It has always been in working class communities that resistance to capitalism and state power has arisen, and in working class communities that the real alternatives to disempowerment and inequality have been found. The greatest lie on the left has always been that if you choose the right politicians and they create a government of the right colour all of the things you have always wanted in your neighbourhood or workplace will pour from the sky like manna from heaven. Nationally, the left has always relied on its presence in vibrant working class communities. In the absence of communities as such, the Left withers. In the absence of communities darker ideas and movements of fragmentation and destruction arise.
We might look at the history of radical anti-colonial movements for inspiration here. Basil Davidson documented highly democratic village-led struggles against Portuguese rule in Mozambique; the Kenyan Land and Freedom Armies might also be mentioned. Today such movements can be found in Chiapas in Mexico, and in Rojava in Kurdistan. Whilst these examples may seem a world away from Twenty First Century Wales, in one crucial respect they are salient: primarily they highlight social movements which embody radical transformational practice in their struggle rather than attending new frontiers or new nation-states and the promise of post-colonial legislation.
The work of Murray Bookchin and other communalist thinkers has elaborated social ecology as a toolkit for creating and recreating communities fit to drive social change from the ground up, to bring into being a new kind of politics at a local level, radically democratic and impressively empowering. Both the writings of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, and the example of the revolutionary struggle in Rojava, show that social ecology is more than just a collection of vague ideas, but can and has been applied to great effect.
Here is the question then: do we place our hopes in a new nation-state and a newly invigorated national political class, or do we aim to build a radically democratic society committed to freedom, egalitarianism and an ecological future? Such a society, a new Wales, can only be built up of all of its communities, strengthened or reborn. Politicians will nod at every mention of the word community, but communities have been shattered and continue to perish– with devastating consequences not least for the Welsh language – with every new Government in Westminster, or in Cardiff. Meanwhile, the people of Wales are left ill-prepared to decide one way or the other for independence, or continuation in the UK whatever that might look like in a few years time.
Communalism starts with society, not the state, with communities, neighbourhoods and workplaces, not at the “centre,” wherever that might be. Of course the Kurdish situation differs from that of Wales, and no-one could mistake Chiapas for Carmarthenshire, but the idea that the movement for a very different and independent Wales might start with social transformation is still apposite.
It would be wrong to see any of this as an argument against formal Welsh independence, on the contrary, that independence would no doubt prove to be a great defence against the apparently permanent right wing Government in England. However, Wales, like any country, is either much more than its shiny parliament building and its flag or it’s just another territory of global capitalism. And the substance of that being is society, and a vibrant society is made up of living communities which to a large extent wield control over their resources and their futures.
Social ecology, or communalism, recognises that communities can democratically meet their own needs through participatory processes and recallable mandated delegates. Democratic communities must confederate for mutual support and strength, and that is how a country is built: what Ocalan calls not a nation-state but a democratic nation.
Might we then be able to look at the movement for Welsh independence from the other direction, not as something that might be primarily delivered by votes in Cardiff, but as something that can only be meaningfully built from the community level? And how would we begin?
The agenda of communalism offers a strategy which has the aim of drawing individuals back into functioning democratic communities. In Rojava the central place of women and women’s liberation has been recognised in this process. Neighbourhoods, workplaces and self-identifying communities begin to develop a radically democratic culture of assemblies, and these assemblies then work together, either directly or through mandated delegates.
Economic communalism or municipalism arises out of this as elements of the local economy come under the control of these assemblies. What might sound like a revolutionary call to arms seems altogether more likely to bring people together when we all realise we’re actually talking about communities saving the village shop, the local pub, or setting up a local car maintenance workshop.
Ecological or bioregional communalism might start with community supported agriculture schemes, not just for horticultural production but to bring local farms and farmers into the heart of communities, producing for local consumption. Communities which depend upon and work with the local environment both value and enhance that environment, and in this way ecology is tied to food security as well as employment.
Cultural and linguistic communalism might help crack the present day barriers faced by Welsh learners whilst also helping to bring together English speaking and Welsh speaking communities into a shared identity, or unity in diversity. Communalism is ideally suited to develop a modern democracy in which the widest range of groups and individuals, whether they are women or Welsh speakers, can both direct their own affairs locally and play a full part in shaping wider society.
This is not a municipal retrofit of presently existing local democracy but the idea of a movement promoting a new and radically democratic culture across Wales, in every workplace and neighbourhood until eventually assemblies would become the vigorous manifestation of a reborn civil society, and participatory budgeting, planning and design of communities, settlements and the wider landscape would be the norm.
Of course, we should all know that good ideas, even those compelling to those of us of a radical nature are simply not enough. There are still far too many opinion pieces, online and in print, which present apparently coherent solutions to the critical social and ecological situation we find ourselves in as if just because something is sensible and just it will have an impact in the real world. The truth is that we are a very long way from living in a democratic society in which mutual respect and equality are the norm, and it is important to recognise the scale of the task we face.
A good start is meeting people where they are rather than where we wish they were, and communalism provides the tactical tools to do this. Local organisation and the practice of mutual aid are the starting points for communalist groups, and communalism moves away from absolute rejection of existing local democracy, seeing engagement as one possible route to creating or supporting communalist institutions. The immediate aim of communalist groups in all their practices is to grow a culture of radical democracy. The creation of a democratic culture is the essential building block of a healthy civil society one in which communities and their institutions can thrive despite, and in the face of, the vicissitudes of global capitalism and its captive nation-states.
It is on this territory that differences and divisions in communities can be overcome. Communalism recognises, indeed embraces, unity in diversity. When Ocalan talks about modern democracy, and means a society suffused with democratic behaviour from every locale to wider regions to democratic nations and beyond. It is hard not to accept that this is the modern democracy we need if we are going to overcome the kind of terrible inequality we face in Wales, along the ecological problems we face both specific to this country and confronting the whole world.
What are the chances of building an effective communalist voice in Wales? If we’re honest, then we have to admit they are slim, very slim. Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, strong self-identifying communities were the norm in Wales as elsewhere. Communities were bound together by a commonly recognised interdependence, and the notion that another person’s problems had nothing to do with you, that the state would pick up the pieces, would have been alien to those kinds of villages and neighbourhoods. This was also the ethic of working class mutual aid upon which the trades union movement was built. Most of this world of tight communal mutuality has been swept away by what economists call mobility, by the seemingly unstoppable trajectory towards individualism, consumerism, smaller households and the separation of the generations, as well as away from jobs for life in large workplaces.
In addition to long term trends, over the last year or so COVID-19 has brought issues of mutual aid, family and community into sharp focus for many of us; it has highlighted the value of the local even as it has worsened inequality and shown us the fragility of our contemporary living arrangements. It has also provided a spur to amazing new community activism in many places.
That despite these recent points of light we are starting almost from scratch shouldn’t discourage us. We all know and accept the fundamental role of community in viable and secure human life, it’s just that we’ve lost our way, we’ve forgotten what it might even mean to live in supportive communities, to have a meaningful say, to shape our own futures.
The question for every part of the left in Wales is how we should respond to the Independence movement. Should we dismiss civic nationalism in the same way we dismiss right wing xenophobic nationalism? Should we hold fast to the idea of no borders and no nations for the working class whose interests are everywhere opposed to the interests of capital? Should we engage with organisations like Yes Cymru, and work to make an independent Wales in which at least our voices may be heard at the centre, or should we imagine that we can force an altogether unlikely independence settlement from the start, chasing the dream of a Socialist Republic of Wales?
Communalism suggests that in a formally independent Wales or not, we must engage with the process of building strong self-directing democratic communities, that a great deal might be achieved by grass roots action regardless of the national constitutional position, and that a modern democratic nation will in any event never be built from above.
However that doesn’t answer the question of how communalists should interact with the Independence movement as it exists now.
I’m going to suggest that we should both support and work for independence from the UK on as progressive a basis as possible, not because this outcome is perfect, but because it is both better for us in Wales, for the rest of the countries of the UK, and for the world – to be rid of the UK as it has been. We should work with, and in, pro-independence movements to make arguments around radical democracy and unity in diversity amongst other things. If we accept that radical communalist democracy would create a territory in which social division, inequality and ecological collapse might best be addressed then we should always make that argument forcefully to people who share our interest in profound social, economic and political transformation.
At every stage communalist organisations would ideally be found building and rebuilding communities and ensuring that, upon the expected creation of a new nation-state, society has begun to awaken, and is ready to face the new state with an imminent and real power of its own, not vested in a political class, a parliament building or a new elite, but found in every neighbourhood, village, and workplace across this country, organised democratically by the people to meet the needs of the people.
Ymlaen Cyrmu! Annibyniaeth Nawr!
Image by Hefin Owen.
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