RAYMOND Williams, the Welsh socialist, writer and critic crystalised what it means to struggle for social change in one sentence when he said: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”
The great people’s movements which throughout history have revolted against injustice often emerge in the most hopeless of conditions – but through their own actions they shift the dial to make hope possible and change irresistible.
Today it can seem like hope is in short supply. It can feel like the powerful are somehow invincible – no matter the scale of the scandal. And even if someone like Boris Johnson were to be replaced, the establishment have it all sown up anyway.
It is said time and again, but it is a truth, that growing economic inequality and the attendant social alienation it generates is also a breeding ground for division and nihilism about the future. But that is only a partial view of a much broader, more complex, set of conditions. Indeed, 2021 has also been a year of solidarity, of unity in action and yes – of hope.
May 13th, 2021, will be remembered by many and memorialised for decades to come. That was the day where hundreds of local people gathered around immigration detention vans in Kenmure Street in Glasgow. There is so much that is remarkable about this event. Great credit must go to that courageous individual who locked themselves under the van, buying precious time for word to get out and for people to mobilise, aided by the No Evictions Network. But what was so striking was that this was a genuine and organic coming together of a community.
People watched on and voiced their support from their windows. Some made their own home-made signs. Locals brought water and food. Numbers grew throughout the day. People joined after their work. News media started to take an interest, and Twitter was buzzing with reports and updates from the scene. Thousands through their social media feeds were urging the community on. Not just in Scotland but across the UK – and indeed internationally. A determination had set in. This was going to be more than a display.
What started with a small handful of people up against the might of the Home Office ended up with an enormous cheer from a swelling crowd as Lakhvir Singh and Sumit Sehdev were released from the van. On this occasion, the Home Office had lost. Those really are not words you expect to write. Some though, were brave enough to hope. The legacy of Kenmure Street is not just one to document and celebrate – it is rather a living testament to people power and it can inspire similar opposition to the likes of the Nationality and Borders Bill.
This year also saw celebrations from farmers in India, after plans to wipe out small farms and have them replaced with international agri-buisiness were defeated by a mass movement which had been protesting for over a year against the powerful Modi regime. Protesters set up camps involving thousands of people on the outskirts of New Dheli for months. They held tractor rallies, demonstrations, road blockades and public meetings.
Ramandeep Singh Mann, one of the leaders of the demonstrations, said it was “like you’ve conquered Mount Everest.” But he warned: “This is a long struggle, and we are capable of renewing our protest once again if needed.” Victories breed confidence.
A sense of growing confidence too can be detected in the workers’ movement in the West. In the United States, thousands have taken action at the most well-known corporations. To name just a few: McDonald’s, Walmart, Kellogg’s and Frito-Lay workers all engaged in walk-outs or strikes. In the case of Kellogg’s the company was forced to retreat from replacing striking workers after they stood their ground. In this case the workers won, and Kellogg’s folded.
Staff at Apple walked out on Christmas Eve, adding to hopes that a wider union drive may emerge at the company. Amazon workers have kickstarted a new campaign through the Amazon Labour Union and Starbuck workers made history when they unionised the first store in the United States. Not only have the labour shortages given more leverage to workers to demand better wages and conditions, the pandemic has shown who really keeps society going.
We can see similar processes in the UK. Thousands of Asda workers voted to strike just before Christmas after the company’s failure to make an acceptable pay offer. This could be added to a long list of disputes. In Glasgow, the cleansing workers galvanised popular support across the city and beyond. Their picket lines were supported by Living Rent Campaign housing activists, by environmentalists from Pakistan visiting for COP26 and by young climate activists. Indeed, Greta Thunberg also announced her support for the strike.
The cleansing workers joined the massive Fridays For Future demonstration involving thousands of school strikers during COP26 too. And here yet more inspiration can be found. Tens of thousands of young people came together to call for radical action on climate change. These campaigners came from across the world to make themselves heard – and above all, they saw through the corporate circus taking place on the Clyde.
There are many more examples that should provide encouragement – indeed too many to mention. The people of Chile rejected fascism and a supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship at their recent National Election. The actions of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution too were heartening, defending their moral duty to rescue migrating people at risk of dying in the sea, no matter where they come from. For a world that all too often feels dark and without the prospect of positive change, there is a lot that can be drawn from this last year.
As we go into 2022, there can be no doubt of the challenges ahead. But alongside the big social movements, it is also important to be reminded of the everyday acts of kindness and solidarity that have permeated this pandemic.
Faith in humanity can be tested. We live in volatile, uncertain times. But while there is hope, there is cause to believe that the future can be won by those with a vision for a better world.