As the UK moves into times of potential mass unrest, how does our movement find a way of connecting with the people around us? What is the best use of our political time, energy and experience in this new, and maybe very exciting phase? We all know that deep social change is going to take a mass movement, not just a bunch of activists – but how can we best be part of and agitate for such a movement?
In the pre-event publicity for the Network X gathering, it’s easy to recognise the political culture of which it’s a product. We recognise it because we have been, or are, a part of that culture too. This culture crystalised in the 1990s in the UK through the ecological direct action movement, in particular the anti-roads movement, and developed through anti-summit protests and the inspiration of the Zapatista uprising. Its political ancestors are the radical peace movement since the 1960s, the engagement of that movement with feminism at Greenham Common, and the counter-culture which runs through travellers, squatting, ‘dole autonomy’, and various unorthodox revolutionary theorists. Its children include the radical wing of Climate Camp, and Palestine solidarity activism. There are other relations too numerous to describe, but you know what we mean: we’re part of a very particular political tendency, vaguely defined, but with its own history and identity. Even if many of us have experienced none of these things ourselves, we’re nonetheless participating in their wake.
How is this visible here? Well, for one, the adoption of the traditional People’s Global Action hall-marks as the basis for political agreement (good to know we’re all opposed to feudalism – at least if the government proposes to reintroduce serfdom, we’ll know where we stand). Another is the assumptions about political activity which come across in the call out, when examples are given of who we want to include, and what sorts of activity might result: “From peoples kitchens to action medics, action support to workshops . . . we will hopefully be inviting delegates from occupations and actions across the country to this end.”
The purpose of this leaflet is not to criticise the political background of people at this event (which is ours too), still less those who have taken the initiative, time and effort to organise it. Rather, it is to suggest that we critically evaluate the received assumptions of our own tradition (which requires recognising that it is a particular tradition, not just ‘the way things are’). Perhaps if we understand where we’ve come from, we will be better able to say what in it is useful, and where it is lacking, in the face of the present challenges. This will make us better able to meet them. So we want to pick up some of the assumptions which we believe may be common amongst participants here – perhaps we’re wrong – and explain their origins and their limits. We will then make some tentative suggestions.
Action, an action, action camps, actions. . . and direct action
Our culture is almost unique in expressing itself through the form of the “action”. What is an “action”, in our culture? Its basic form is that a group of people, generally a fairly small group of people, take it upon themselves to do something disruptive somewhere – could be anywhere. For example, blockading a shop, a political or corporate office, or a road… or maybe smashing a window and gluing a lock. There’s also camps, of course – since Greenham, it seems like there’s no problem you can’t camp against. Something similar goes for social centres.
But why actions like this? One argument is that it allows us to take the fight directly to the corporations or politicians. But let’s be honest: they aren’t really, in any way threatened by them. It’s inconceivable that we could cost Arcadia more, through these means, than they save in tax dodging – even if we were to accept that unpaid tax is the real issue. No number of “actions” of this type will break the system down. Years of this stuff often burns people out. So do nothing? No. Start by acknowledging it, and get thinking creatively.
Often these actions are represented as being what “direct action” is. But direct action is more than just such “actions”. The idea of direct action, as it was understood by revolutionary syndicalists such as the IWW, was a broader one; involving not so much set-piece civil disobedience, or even covert property damage, but mass strikes involving thousands of people – something not mentioned in the list quoted above. We all know this really; and we know that such mass action, not small-scale disruption, is the stuff that historic change is made of. But what about returning to this idea of direct action? How? We’ll come to that later.
“Activists” as the agents of change
If we think social change comes from ‘actions’ then it follows that we, the ‘activists’, are those who will make that social change happen. At first glance, it’s obvious that there are different assumptions at work from those who’d foreground the agency of the “working class”, or the “proletariat”. Now, we don’t mean to suggest that anyone is against the working class, or is against that class realising its own agency. But because there is no specific emphasis on this, there is no clear sense of who we ought to be trying to mobilise, beyond a “movement” of “people” – who will then presumably “do actions”.
In fact, in many ways, the 1990s anti-roads movement was a proletarian movement – in the best sense, it was also a movement against being proletarian, composed of many people trying to escape dole boredom, dead end jobs, and so on. But the movement never acquired a class identity, and never thought of itself in that way – fair enough. But it does mean that we’ve got used to thinking about the social force we have to work with as being… whoever rocks up to the meeting, or who’s up for the action. And what’s wrong with that? We lack a defined idea of who to spread the movement to, why, and how. But, as we saw from the student movement in November and December, the strength of any movement is in how it spreads. The idea of the proletariat as a social class, with certain sorts of experiences (of work, debt, school, the home, etc.) and interests, is one which can ground how and why we encourage a spreading movement.
(By the way, by “working class” or “proletariat”, we mean the vast majority of us who rely on work, dole or loans to get by – and that includes many people who’d describe themselves as “middle class” in a cultural sense. Just because yer mum’s a teacher and you went to university doesn’t mean you aren’t proletarian – whether you like it or not. But that, in turn, doesn’t mean we should be asking questions about why our movement is restricted to certain sections of the working class; rather, the opposite is true.)
We think of ourselves as wanting to give “practical” solidarity, not ideological pestering. This pragmatism has two features. One, the politicisation of relatively minor logistical or tactical minutiae (how to build a lock-on, protest safety, black bloc tactics, internet security), sometimes somewhat inward looking; two, a certain discomfort with explicit political ideas or propaganda beyond the level of slogans. Of course, there’s SchNEWS (sometimes excellent, sometimes not so); but it’s not often distributed in public, or designed as an agitational tool. In protest camp culture, and as an antidote to useless Trotskyist interventions at summit protests, this made sense: lunch outs are useless. But the danger is that we don’t recognise that once people are in struggle, they are a) often quite capable of sorting out merely practical stuff themselves and b) often lose, or don’t begin, their struggles because they are insufficiently prepared politically. For example, the Visteon occupiers, who weren’t prepared for the union’s browbeating, and left their occupation when they didn’t have to. They had loads of food and blankets, but lacked political information and confidence. We don’t think it’s automatically setting ourselves up as a leadership to try to spread the things which we believe. There are ways to do this and not be patronising or hectoring.
Crisis and cuts
No room here for a full analysis of what we’re going through. But some features are worth bearing in mind when we think about what we need to do:
* Unemployment is probably going to be close to 3 million by mid 2012, and the long term unemployed or underemployed will be growing as well. Yet claimants groups are decimated.
* Gender, race, youth. 65% of public sector workers are women, and 75% of the burden of tax and benefit changes will fall on women. About half of young black men are unemployed already. In general, young people will be hit hard by unemployment and changes to the structure of education.
* Casualisation and the trade unions. During 2010, virtually none of the new private sector jobs created were full time (CIPD). With little or no record of successfully organising casual workers (and not a fantastic record of fighting to win for the rest), unions look ill-prepared for the challenges. Union density in local government and health is well below 50% and, partly because of this, union officials would rather negotiate than fight. That doesn’t mean we ignore unions (on the contrary), it means we can’t “leave the workers to the unions”, or assume that union officials will be prepared to lead the fight workers need – we need to be prepared to act as, and relate to, workers directly.
* Medium-term capitalist sluggishness. Capitalism is able to resolve this crisis, and will do so (indeed, in the short term it could probably do so better by satisfying some of our demands). However, most predictions suggest that the UK economy, like its Atlantic and European partners, will be relatively sluggish for a number of years – perhaps a decade or more. This is ample time for people to get seriously pissed off, and get a serious political education; but doesn’t guarantee they’ll do anything about it.
Beyond actions and activists
The sort of thing we have come to think of as an “action”, who we think of as social agents, condition each other, and they set our political horizons in a certain way. But if we’re honest, these horizons are inadequate: no number of “actions” in the sense in which they’re currently conceived, will bring down, or even seriously threaten, the government. They won’t help, except insofar as they prove generally radicalising for those who participate for the first time. Our existing social base is unrepresentative and insufficient, and we lack a clear sense of who we should be reaching out to, why, and how. We lack a sense of how the sort of mass, autonomous direct action which is necessary can happen, and what the role of revolutionaries is in that. We’re scared of making propaganda; and lack skills and experience in doing so.
The outlines of what we’re saying aren’t new. It was expressed much more fluently by the author of the essay Give up Activism (and the post-script), which appeared after J18 (a riot in the City of London organised by Reclaim the Streets) in 1999. We don’t have an ideal solution to what is a complex problem, limited not only by what we ourselves choose to do, but also by the relative lack of political confidence amongst the mass proletariat at the present moment. But we can suggest how we need to go beyond our previous limits:
We ought to see the proletariat as the (largely) dormant social agency we want to awaken, and to see political agitation with that end as our central objective.
* We need to be able to involve people who don’t want to “do an action” right now, but want to spread a critique of contemporary capitalist reality to people they know, or just understand what’s going on better themselves.
* We need to understand that involving genuinely new social layers – which everyone says they want to do – takes serious, long-term organising and commitment to the agency of those groups. None of us are involved in the London Coalition Against Poverty: but they have shown that it is possible to encourage self-organisation of tenants and claimants in working class communities, if there is a starting commitment that it is that agency – working class agency, not the agency of whoever currently responds to “call outs” – that matters.
We can also offer some tentative ideas for what that could mean in practice:
* We should not produce a bulletin by rote, but we should – as a national network – produce and distribute material at potential flash-points, making the case for autonomous, mass working class direct-action and anti-capitalism. For example, in recent months, doing so at 6th Form colleges would have been a way to spread our ideas and methods, as well as build actions and make contacts. In coming months, flash-points will include council workers (as budgets are announced in early April), then education and health workers in a more uneven way in the year or so after. It should be as jargon free as possible, but clearly link immediate struggles to the fight against capitalism. We could also consider local, or network bulletins. Such publications can be helpful for organisation based on continually evaluating experiences, and reaching out to others.
* We should encourage those who have an interest and the time to do so, to build tenants’ and claimants’ groups.
* We should give special attention to supporting those close to the network who are themselves, as workers or service users, in the front line of the cuts, to organise in their immediate situation.
We imagine there will be many other proposals: for trainings, for days of action, for targets, campaigns, slogans, things we can do to make protests more unruly, and so on. We (probably) don’t oppose any of these in themselves, and – despite what we’ve said above – acknowledge the role that “actions” and “activists” can have in giving a movement a confrontational character or – as in the case of the invasion of Millbank on 10 November –impetus to move to a higher level. However, we are clear that these things are not, by themselves, enough to build the movement that we need.
In solidarity -
Some members and friends of The Commune