A change is in the air….
Dual power is when the traditional sovereign power in a place is temporarily challenged by a new, alternative centre of power. This alternative source of power might start off as a kind of ‘checks and balances’ but in the course of events can begin to vye for supremacy.
Historic examples include the Paris Commune in 1871 and the soviets in Russia between February and October 1917.
It isn’t just at the level of government. You can also have dual power on a workplace level between workers and management, for instance when trade unions operate a closed shop and have some control over hiring and firing. Socialists have historically attempted to create dual power in their trade unions through building rank and file movements to challenge the power of the entrenched union bureaucracies.
Socialists are very interested in concepts of ‘dual power’ from a revolutionary standpoint. Dual power emerges when social and political contradictions have reached a crescendo, when the old system and ways of organising society are being challenged and new institutions emerge to give expression to this dynamic. The most extreme kind of dual power is of course a civil war, where there are two contending armed forces struggle for control.
I am writing this not for historic interest but because we can begin to see in the midst of our social and political crisis, calls for new institutions that – if they emerged – could create a dual power situation.
Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a Citizens Assembly to discuss and act on climate change could be seen as an explicit challenge to the supremacy of parliament. It could of course just be a talking shop with no practical outcome. But dual power emerges out of a struggle, it might be defensive or an attempt to organise the movement better, but then the logic of its operation and demands means that it begins to work as a radical counter weight to established power.
I am also beginning to see it in the Brexit crisis. Parliament is totally deadlocked, and lets be honest even a general election might not resolve the crisis. So there have been calls from some MPs for a Citizen’s Assembly on Brexit (which if pitched badly could end up being a carnival of reaction) to override the MPs and traditional parliamentary sovereignty of the UK.
And recently some Tories have called for parliament to be porogued to prevent it blocking no deal Brexit. This would be the first time that parliament had been shut down since the English Civil War when we had just had a … civil war. So it is quite a big deal. The responses from both Rory Stewart MP and shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have been interesting though. Stewart called for an ‘alternative parliament‘ to prevent democracy being shut down. McDonnell for his part called on MPs to occupy parliament and continue the session if a potential future Prime Minister Boris Johnson tries to shut down the legislative.
Now it is not quite a revolutionary workers soviet, but seeing how the sovereign power of the UK appears to be both crumbling politically as much as it is physically, we live in very interesting – dangerous – times.
Now if only we had a radical working class movement that could begin to organise from below to overthrow capitalism…