The new issue of The Nation features an interesting exchange on its letters page regarding an article Jonathan Hari published last month on the UK Uncut movement. Hari offered UK Uncut, which staged sit-ins at Vodafone stores to protest the company's tax-evasion, as a model for a "progressive" or "left-wing" counterpart to the American Tea Party movement. Responding to Hari, Sally Kohn comments that UK Uncut doesn't provide "a credible organizing model" for the hoped-for counter-Tea movement. Kohn sees no evidence from Hari's article that UK Uncut has the "comprehensive political vision" of the Tea Parties. While UK Uncut is against tax-dodging (and gained support even on the British right for that principle), Kohn questions whether it stands for anything besides taxes. "Unlike conservatives, US progressives have long been hobbled by their lack of a vision on this and other issues," she writes.
Kohn also draws a distinction between "mobilizing" and "organizing." The Vodafone sit-ins may have been effective mobilizations, but they don't prove to Kohn that UK Uncut is engaged in "a more sustained process that builds individual and group power to identify goals and engage in sustained action to achieve them," i.e. organizing. A "positive long-term vision" is essential to organizing, but Kohn doesn't see it in UK Uncut.
Hari replies harshly, claiming that his original article has all the answers the apparently obtuse Kohn is looking for. UK Uncut, he explains, is for "preserving and extending the welfare state that has been built up by centuries of activism and preserving all the things we value about our country...by making the people who crashed and trashed our economy finally pay their share.
"Isn't that a positive vision?" Hari asks, and the objective answer has to be: yes and no. It's certainly an agreeable vision, but I think I see Kohn's point that there's something reactionary rather than progressive about the agenda as Hari expresses it. While he talks about "extending" the welfare state, his main concern seems to be with holding on to what "centuries of activism" have achieved. I can also see her paradoxical point about the Tea Parties. While their agenda can also be described as reactionary in any sense of the word, the radicalism with which some express or advance that agenda gives the impression at least of movement if not progress. Kohn makes clear that she regards the TP agenda as "odious," but she also envies their audacious radicalism, and it's clear that she misses a similar yet more progressive radicalism in UK Uncut.
On the other hand, Kohn may be more of a romantic than a radical. Demanding that everyone pay taxes probably isn't the most romantic or radical of battle cries, and there's something essentially establishmentarian about such a call. While the Tea Partiers seem to be the ones saying, "another world is possible," Kohn doesn't hear that typically progressive demand in UK Uncut. For her, a focus on taxes may be a distraction from radical reform of the entire political order -- the sort of "transformational" thing she thinks the TPs are after but UK Uncut is not. But there's no automatic trade-off between one demand and the other. From Hari's account, UK Uncut took a pragmatic and popular approach in targeting Vodafone, because resentment of tax evaders crosses ordinary party and ideological lines. Kohn questions whether there'll be a long-term ideological benefit, but ideology isn't necessarily the sine qua non of an effective or even transformational political movement. Ideology might actually get in the way of such a movement if the movement's object is to get people out of their conceptual boxes and recognize common interests that ideology often obscures. Polemics won't determine the utility of UK Uncut or its proposed US Uncut counterpart. If it works, then it's right, but it has to be given a chance. If it fails, then let the critiques begin.