Give up classtivism: Why class struggle is long, boring and hard work

The recent decision by Starbucks to attack its workers’ conditions (cutting paid lunch breaks, sick pay and other work benefits) in response to public pressure to pay its tax bill – public pressure partly generated by direct action organisations like UK Uncut – has highlighted ongoing concerns over the effectiveness of “Tax justice” campaigns and their relationship to class struggle organisation.

The recent decision by Starbucks to attack its workers’ conditions (cutting paid lunch breaks, sick pay and other work benefits) in response to public pressure to pay its tax bill – public pressure partly generated by direct action organisations like UK Uncut – has highlighted ongoing concerns over the effectiveness of “Tax justice” campaigns and their relationship to class struggle organisation. Undoubtedly UK Uncut will continue to incorporate workers’ rights issues into its public actions against the Starbucks chain. What the move highlights, however, is the complete incapacity of these tactics to manifest as useful tools of social struggle (even of basic self-defence) for the workers affected, or indeed the absence of any foresight that differentiates between the actions of the “brand” and the largely powerless and unorganised workers who are employed by it. There is a good analysis concerning this by a member of the Solidarity Federation – “Tax justice, austerity and class struggle” – what is, however, slightly less satisfactory is the way this analysis reflects on another, well respected campaign currently being organised and supported within the UK anarchist movement – the Boycott Workfare Network.

The objectives of the Boycott Workfare Network are simple. The website gives them as the following:

Quote:
“Boycott Workfare is a UK-wide campaign to end forced unpaid work for people who receive welfare ... We are a grassroots campaign, formed in 2010 by people with experience of workfare and those concerned about its impact. We expose and take action against companies and organisations profiting from workfare; encourage organisations to pledge to boycott it; and actively inform people of their rights.”

This is a network that has been most strongly supported by the IWA affiliated Solidarity Federation, but also has had local anarchist groups and Anarchist Federation groups participate. As well as organising ongoing public boycotts of workfare employers (usually in the form of a public protest or “picket” discouraging costumers to frequent the store), the campaign provides information for those on workfare schemes via the website and usually provides information to the workforce during its actions. These two sides of the campaign are not entirely harmonious and throw up certain contradictions that Phil (Libcom blogger “Phil”), at least partly, acknowledges in his article:

Quote:
“pickets against workfare have often explicitly approached staff and promoted the need to organise. The aim is still to disrupt business and threaten profits, but with the rights of workers an explicit part of the agenda it becomes a lot harder to take this out on them.”

Likewise the Boycott Workfare Network secured its own Pyrrhic victory earlier this year when one of the early targets, the health food chain Holland and Barrett, announced it would be pulling out of the workfare scheme only to replace these posts with a salaried apprenticeship scheme. Undoubtedly a victory for the workfare campaign against unpaid work but one which did not secure a standard minimum wage for all employees (National Minimum Wage for apprentices is £2.65 per hour) nor was it a move that the existing campaign was in any real position to fight further on.

It is not our intention here to try and downplay the clear positive affects that the UK Uncut actions and Boycott Workfare campaign have had in terms of both changing employer policy and showing the power of public pressure via direct action over institutional channels (lobbying MPs, collecting petitions etc). Instead, our intention with this article is to clearly point out why, in both cases, these tactics have reached the limits that they have, why it is necessary to consider an alternative framework for judging the success of organisational work and why an organising culture premised principally on the initiation of “actions” and “campaigns” (what we would identify as “activism”) is ill-suited for the patient, complex and hard work of class organising.

What is classtivism?

The economic crisis has, in the last decade, created an entirely new context for social justice struggles. The attacks on the living standards of the working class, the environment and the continued military intervention of imperialist states across the globe are set at a brutal pace. This is while the official trade union movement has sought only greater accommodation and acquiescence within the new austerity regime. The Left has shown itself to be similarly lacking in imagination, adopting the tired and ever failing tactics of electoralism and work within the same shrinking trade unions as the scope of their limited ambition. This is within the larger context of a much deeper collapse of working class culture and identity, which leaves no obvious space for the growth for an alternative, anti-austerity project. In the service sector in particular (the UK’s largest sector of employment), in shops such as Starbucks, Holland and Barrett, Poundland, Tesco, Pizza Hut etc., the idea of an employee culture – let alone an organised working class culture – is laughable.

Within this context the tactics and strategies of activism and activists present a viable alternative to the automatic position of defence and isolation that many of us would be forced to adopt within our workplaces, neighbourhoods and our communities. The notion of going “on the attack” against extremely exploitative schemes like workfare seem an appropriate level of response to the severity of the attacks we are currently coming under. We would likewise hazard that this is the social and political context of other similar “movements” such as Occupy.

What, then, do we mean by “activism”? In simple terms, the idea of bringing together individuals on the basis of their shared ideological goals and beliefs who adopt specific disruptive strategies to pile public pressure (or otherwise “consciousness raise” – we will analyse this particular aspect in greater detail below) around a certain issue. The intention is that this activism will bring about some form of social or political change. Undoubtedly certain aspects of “activism” will be part of and naturally arise within the alternative perspective we later identify – that of movement-building – and it is not our purpose to write off these as tactics completely. Rather we identify activism as problematic, in itself, because it is principally the basis in which social change is seen to be effected. It is the activist and their practice of activism – whether it is a public protest outside a store, chaining oneself to the gates or a sit-down in the manager’s office – that are seen as having the transformative role. There is a theoretical line of cause and effect, in short, between the action (a public picket) and the intended result (the employer’s withdrawal from workfare) irrespective of the internal composition of the action itself.

In the current context – one in which economic issues are very much on the popular agenda –, and especially given the clear ineffectiveness of the labour movement, we have seen a closer merging of the existing strategies, tactics and organisational cultures of activists and disputes around the workplace and social welfare. “Class”, in other words, has been represented as an “issue” in a similar way that fair trade, development, environmental justice or gender and sexuality have been represented within the social justice movements in previous years. Our contention is, of course, that class is not an issue that can be “won”, no less than the environment or gender or sexuality can be – it is the structural basis of capitalist society. It is not the responsibility of ethical and socially responsible individuals to “take up class” should it concern them. A class position is thrust upon us as a result of our role within a capitalist society. The question then is not, initially at least, of the applicability of certain tactics or strategies, but of the role of class, class consciousness and how this informs the forms of action we pursue.

Class consciousness and Organisation

It is not necessary to re-visit here classic communist arguments concerning the socially transformative role of the working class within capitalism or the ultimate need for the re-appropriation of the means of production. It is suffice to say that it is the confidence and capacity of workers to act on their own interests – in our workplaces, our neighbourhoods and communities – against those of the capitalists – our bosses, landlords and the state – that concern us in terms of our need to promote social solidarity and class organisation. Consciousness raising – making workers aware of those interests and their ability to act on them – is, as a result, a central part of this process.

The public pickets, protest and actions conducted as part of the Boycott Workfare and UK Uncut actions, as well as playing a more direct disruptive role, are likewise aimed at a broader project of “raising consciousness”. In the case of UK Uncut this has largely been in the form of the “Tax Justice” narrative, something which has unfortunately often been reduced to useless chants of “pay your taxes!” but at a more sophisticated level aims to highlight bourgeois double-standards between a government that seeks to ostracise claimants and benefit cheats for their drain on the public purse, while simultaneously allowing multi-nationals to dodge millions in corporation tax. There is likewise a much more radical under-current that runs through the actions which seeks to challenge the barriers between public and private space, with banks being turned into “direct action libraries” or shop floors into social spaces for music and games. Similarly in the case of Boycott Workfare it was found that many on the placement schemes were completely unaware of their rights or their colleagues failed to understand the implications of the unpaid work. Leaflets, such as this one produced by the Solidarity Federation, intend to inform employees about the nature of the action as a well as encouraging them to get organised.

In all the above cases these are indeed consciousness-raising practices. However for us the issue of consciousness-raising is not just about providing information to workers or even making them aware of their ability to act (e.g. their freedom to join a union or use their legal rights). It is about creating a context of confidence in class action. This is a complex process layered with social, cultural and psychological barriers. There is a qualitative difference between the type of power that the bourgeois class utilises and the forms of attitudes and perspectives that emerge in the course of movement-building. Workers’ power is direct, social and inter-personal. It is based on establishing relationships of trust, solidarity and friendship. Most importantly proletarian consciousness needs to be perpetually re-affirming. As our Fellow Workers at the Recomposition blog have pointed out, people have a tendency to “hot up” and “cool down” when it comes to organising, even long-term and dedicated organisers. Within this context networks of support and solidarity are absolutely essential in ensuring that those who have been worn down or burnt out during the ebbs are able to take back up the mantle during the flows. On a practical level all of the above is incredibly difficult in the context of one-off or sensational actions conducted against employers. Even employees, or workfare claimants, who are sympathetic to the cause, are likely to be scared off of engaging by the fear of repercussions from management or their job centres. From the outside, agitators simply don’t know what conversations will be had between workers for the rest of the day, or during a cigarette break in the afternoon or even the special briefing the manager gives at the end of the day. From the inside, why should workers trust the advice of someone that they had a five minute conversation with and gave them a piece of paper?

The ultimate objective of our organising efforts should be to cultivate organisations that promote workers’ self-organisation. This is a standard by which we ourselves should not be exempt. It is also a responsibility that we should not expect to place on others without carrying through the same risks ourselves. And there are indeed risks.

Tactics – “Organising is about creating a series of friendships”

The actions taken against workfare have 3 key failings: Firstly, they depict the left and activists as outsiders with only power as consumers. Secondly, it enforces a reliance on outside forces for workers. Lastly, it risks driving company and staff closer together.

Activists are part of the working class just as much as factory workers and miners. We all form active parts of capitalism, as consumers and workers, but as workers we create surplus value. Just because we don’t wear overalls doesn’t mean we are excluded from this process. However, protest actions play into the idea that activists are an exterior force. If activists want to get involved in class struggle, they need to develop their own class consciousness as well. It is easy to talk about this as if it is a theoretical concept that the working class needs to develop on a general basis. What developing class consciousness actually means is each of us realising our own position in capitalism – your own, real position as an actor within the process of production, not of the mythical, abstract concept of “the workers.” Until individual activists start to grasp this fundamental role they’re not in much of a position to ask others to.

The working class for far too long has been reliant on exterior forces, political parties, do-gooders, union bureaucrats: We need to do things for ourselves. It is our historic mission to overthrow capitalism and this cannot be achieved by relying on the intervention of charitable types. We have been serviced by unions for decades, succededing only in seeing hard fought reforms vanish and safety nets disappear. At the heart of these errors is the failure to build and sustain a culture of class confidence that has a willingness to defend workers’ interests (and fight for more). Taking steps towards this means abandoning our reliance on outside forces (in whatever form this may come) and looking to the immediate relationships around us as our source of solidarity and support.

Finally, there is the danger that activism will strengthen the reverse relationships – the capitalistic ones between workers and managers and workers and the company. The sentiment that “we are all mates with our manager, why shouldn’t we just talk to them he takes us out for a drink all the time”, for example, forms a continuous barrier to workplace organising. Starbucks Workers’ Union organiser Liberté Locke has described it well as being akin to an abusive relationship – “My body, my rules: a case for rape and domestic violence survivors becoming workplace organisers”. At Pizza Hut, mangers receive bonuses based on the amount of money the store spends. If the manager doesn’t repair broken mopeds, they receive a higher bonus, if they don’t replace safety equipment, such as oven gloves, they receive a higher bonus. These things help the manager as an individual, but make the rest of our working lives more difficult. At the same time, this is hidden by the manager who then acts as a social leader, as everyone’s mate, offering people lifts home, organising the Xmas do etc. As Liberté Locke argues, these abuses are hidden by a friendly exterior and layers of manipulative behaviour. Breaking through that is one of the most difficult things to achieve as an organiser. “Shop pickets” may well do real favours to managers, giving workers in store a false sense of the limitations of their own capacities, reinforcing existing worker-brand identity and the idea of the company as “one big family”.

Friendship must be at the core of solidarity. For our Fellow Workers to take the organising we push seriously they have to trust that we are saying it as a friend and not as a political campaigner. As organisers we must be there when the important conversations happen, and those aren’t the conversations that happen with the activist outside, they are the ones that happen on smoking breaks, while taking a pizza out to the moped, as you mop the floor at the end of the shift or in the pub after work. That is where people express their true feelings, whether that is about the protest outside, or the dick-head manager. Working under capitalism is stressful, isolating and hard, and we need the support of our Fellow Workers as much as everyone else. Class organising is about creating our own spaces of resistance. It is a process of creating a series of friendships.

In short, what we need is a far richer (perhaps a micro-level) understanding of class consciousness to accompany our organising perspectives. We take inspiration from the idea of the “Wobbly Shop” or to “Wobbly the Job”. To “Wobbly the Job” is not just to get people signed up to the union or provoke actions, it’s to foster specific attitudes in that workplace. This can range from anything to the jokes that are made behind the bosses back at break time, to the walk-out you hold during peak operating hours. The point is that this is something that emerges within the culture that organisers create as a result of the real bonds of solidarity and support they have built with their Fellow Workers.

The Alternative: building class confidence through a movement of organisers

There are natural limits to our political demands in the form of our capacity as consumers, citizens, activists. We only have a finite amount of political capital, special interest, money in our pocket, disruptive capacity, can only be arrested so many times etc. As workers, as proletarians, our demands are limitless. They are only conditioned by the balance of class forces - the power applied on the one hand, by the depth of our class organisation as workers, and on the other, by the power and organisation of the capitalists. It may be possible to transfer cultures of class confidence via activist activity – for example, the international support given to Pizza Hut workers by IWW members and others, or the victory at Office Angels co-ordinated by the Solidarity Federation – but our source of power is still ultimately proletarian subjectivity applied at the point of production and reproduction of capitalism. Support and solidarity actions may be useful, they may even be successful (in terms of winning gains) but they cannot function in isolation and still contain the same limits.

Class struggle is long, boring and hard work. Organising your own community, workplace or neighbourhood is difficult, emotionally taxing work and potentially fraught with all manner of economic and social repercussions. It also means pushing out of your comfort zone, conversing and socialising with people you perhaps wouldn’t normally do on the basis of shared interests, countering all manner of challenging and conservative ideas and behaviour. As we have said above, it also often puts you in a position of isolation and defence – but this is also the reality of the current social and political context. They wouldn’t call it class struggle if it didn’t involve struggling.

Understanding these risks and formulating strategies to overcome them enriches our collective praxis. It forms the basis of a contemporary approach to movement-building. It also means taking your time and building on small victories that are not necessarily glamorous ones. This could be as (seemingly) minor as creating a culture where you are able to discuss problems at work openly. This can easily evolve into supporting one another to take breaks, challenging the decisions of the boss. An organising committee building union density develops through all of these experiences. The important thing is that all these steps map onto a coherent and long-term strategy employed by workplace organisers. It’s not about every penny of pay you win but about the confidence workers feel to fight and keep fighting until we win it all.

Returning specifically to the Boycott Workfare campaign, we do acknowledge certain characteristics that make this issue appear distinct from other forms of class struggle. The government workfare schemes are principally an issue that affects claimants. Although the extent to which it weakens the position of workers in those companies, and also the standards of the labour force generally, does make it an issue of collective interest. In this respect the degree to which targeted and sustained organisation in workfare employers, of all workers, is an alternative route of opposition to the schemes needs to be explored more – whether in the form of salting or finding means of establishing sustainable contact between workers and organisers.

It is true that the unemployed are at a structural disadvantage to the employed workforce - this is the nature of the “industrial reserve army”, keeping a section of the workforce powerless and at a disadvantage so they are ready for the needs of capital as well as acting as a disciplining mechanism on the employed. The unemployed acting as a threat in the case of troublesome workers as well as depressing wages and conditions in the case of high levels of unemployment. Workers are increasingly out of work in the context of the current crisis (particularly young workers and across Europe) so this is a serious issue for class organisations. But we should look to examples such as the South African Shack Dwellers’ Movement, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina, and historic (and ongoing) claimants unions and centres. We feel these have been successful at building dual power organisations from the most powerless sections of the class, because they’ve not taken an approach of disempowerment but also because they have employed the basic methods of movement-building discussed above. They represent genuine communities of class confidence developed through weeks, months and even years of patient agitation and organising.

Public pickets are argued to be a way of bringing people on the workfare scheme together (who are otherwise stratified) and politicising the schemes. This is while acknowledging that the conversations in this context were limited and relied heavily on generating a certain degree of public and press interest. But conversations alone are not enough. They raise awareness not consciousness. For this we need to be training and developing a movement of organisers, militants and movement-builders. You still need to walk before you can run, and activism is simply not a means for initiating movements (and can actually be a means of cutting yourself off from those around you). The basics of movement-building – whether these are your work mates, fellow claimants, care-givers, service-users etc. – provide the basis for meaningful opposition to austerity, in immediate terms, and a movement against capitalism for the future.

DP is Northern regional organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (ERA) and a member of the General Executive Board. He works at Pizza Hut.

CW is a militant in Collective Action and a member of Sheffield (UK) Industrial Workers of the World General Membership Branch. He works in social care.

Comments

wojtek
Dec 19 2012 00:03

There's a really good discussion on this in the comment section of a blog post by JK, have either of you seen it?

klas batalo
Dec 19 2012 02:44

this is interesting because it seems really informed by the distinctions made in north america, between activism, advocacy, and organizing (movement/base building.)

it seems to apply to a lot of what often is a critique i've occasionally seen of IWA groups, left communists, and stuff like solidarity networks, that sorta goes along the lines of this...

"standing outside of shops: for global communism"

i.e. critical thoughts around the difference between outside organizers/militants and internal organizers/militants.

honestly i sort of believe we need both, and obviously we all would prefer internal organizers, but certainly they will not win without outside support.

i mean it is sorta typical right, the far left students leafleting the workers at the factory gates stereotype, etc. i don't know if this analysis get's much further than that though.

wojtek
Dec 19 2012 05:31

Yes, except that picketers are getting shafted too (directly and indirectly) and therefore (hopefully) without the condescension.

I don't think we can afford to see the issue as an either/or situation given the real dearth in activity among workfare workers and their colleagues, has there been any strikes or what have you to date?

Fall Back
Dec 19 2012 08:39

I commented a few days ago that reading anything by Collective Action was like someone who read libcom 5 years ago, but just didn't get it. While part of me is gratified to see this demonstrated again so quickly, I think sadly articles of this 'quality' are going to be really unhelpful.

There of course needs to be ongoing discussion within SF about the workfare campaign, but I worry that having such empty criticism thrown at us is just going to stifle it. Not so much that it'll produce a defensive reaction (lets be honest, it's neither good nor informed enough for that) but more it's like being denounced by Chris Grayling, or told you are wrong by Sunny Hundal - it's not just that you ignore it but that you think 'if this is the criticism, then we must be right!'

While I'm sure we'll have fun laughing at the Laurie Penny of anarchism trying to sound so very clever and oh so critical, lets not let this kind of dross effect our own ability to continue to critically examine our activity.

Joseph Kay
Dec 19 2012 10:01

Edit: crossed with Fall Back. Accidental good cop/bad cop.

I never got round to writing the 'workfare activism/worker-activism' blog, but one of the things I wanted to do was look at how workfare activity compares to the give up activism critique, which I think can be distilled into 5 points:

1. Activist identity (identifying primarily as belonging to an 'activist community', " to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others").
2. The subsequent substitution of an activist group for wider struggle, "a division of labour implies that one person takes on a role on behalf of many others who relinquish this responsibility"
3. An opposition to abstract nouns, "the bizarre spectacle of 'doing an action' against capitalism - an utterly inadequate practice".
4. Ritualistic activity which serves only to reinforce the activist martyr identity, "dull and sterile routine - a constant repetition of a few actions with no potential for change".
5 A focus on saving others, struggling on behalf of some oppressed group (animals, Palestinians, or indeed, 'the workers'...) as opposed to for ourselves: "revolutionary martyrdom goes together with the identification of some cause separate from one's own life."

I think in terms of (1), it definitely exists in some quarters, e.g. i've seen one person berate shoppers for having 'blood on their hands' (!?), and another have a go at people for being 'cheap' for shopping in Primark. On the other hand, I don't think it's widespread, or inherent to anti-workfare activity. The main poles of 'identity' have seem to be 'unemployed nationalism' vs 'workfare is an attack on us all', both of which are, in principle at least, expansive categories including lots of people, rather than self-identifying as superior/in advance etc.

(2) Again, there's been elements of this, but I don't think it's widespread. For example, unlike the trajectory of some UK Uncut groups, afaik there's been no glue-ons, lock-ons, or martyrdom arrests (and that trajectory has been cut off by those stressing economic damage, imho). It's been pretty standard practice (as the piece notes) to leaflet staff in advance, and try and agitate more widely (e.g. people leafleting job centres).

(3) Doesn't really apply imho. Workfare's a concrete policy etc.

(4) I don't think this applies much (though it could). The gambit is that workfare is vulnerable while the recession/depression lasts, since it's paid by results and there's no 'real' jobs, and retailers/charities are vulnerable to direct pressure. The fact several high profile firms have pulled out tends to support this assessment (MWA may even collapse without charities, who provide most of the placements).

(5) Again, I'm not sure this applies. I mean, some people (and this article) argue workfare's "principally an issue that affects claimants." But I think this is far too narrow an understanding (as the article acknowledges too), that it's about restructuring the labour market, that if the economy picks up workfare will become a permanent sector. In addition, claimants aren't a stable category (at least, not all of them). As well as long term claimants, lots of people cycle between temp/casual work/notional self-employment and the dole. Particularly in retail, those jobs are disappearing due to workfare.

So I don't think the 'critique of activism' works as an off-the-shelf arguement here, especially as it's not clear how 'movement building' as advocated (in very general terms) would escape this charge. That's not to place anti-workfare activity beyond critique, but I think analogy to summit-hopping is misplaced.

So I guess my question is, what, precisely distinguishes the movement building that's advocated from the 'activism' which is criticised? I say this, cos when I discussed this with one of the authors, I made the point that SF saw workfare as a long boring campaign, winning a few small victories as a proof of concept, but doing boring agitation over several years among fellow claimants and workers and hoping thereby to catalyse a wider movement, with ongoing pickets/demos acting as a public focal point analagous to anti-war demos in the early anti-Iraq war era (which of course, assumes a swelling anti-workfare sentiment analagous to anti-war sentiment in 2002-3, which may be a faulty assumption). So it reads a bit like a strategy i've previously expounded being repeated back as a 'critique' tongue

So I find myself kinda agreeing and kinda patronised at the same time, though I guess it's aimed more at UK Uncut/Boycott Workfare and the more activisty, media-friendly end of things. The funny thing with the Boycott Workfare Network is that if anarchists could be bothered, they could easily form a majority in the network and take a lead in strategy. It's so small at the moment it would be the easiest bit of 'social insertion' to rock up at the Skype meetings with some proposals (fwiw, SF hasn't done this either, we're mainly doing our own thing and supporting the local BWN stuff which is organised mainly by Brighton Benefits Campaign). Critique is important, but it can also a comfort zone of not taking the lead (my personal bugbear is anarchists sitting at the back of a mass meeting grumbling about the Trots running everything,but I digress).

I mean, I think you'd struggle to demonstrate the workfare campaign cuts people off from their workmates and fellow claimants (though in principle it could, screaming 'blood on your hands!' or gluing on to Primark or whatever). Which more or less leaves platitudes - we should organise, train people, do boring longer term stuff (all stuff which is already happening) - without dealing with any of the immediate, practical barriers to this. For example, unlike at work, there is no shared sphere where claimants/casual workers come together and develop a shared identity/can have one-on-ones. So how do you go about agitating, except by talking to people in the street, outside job centres, at colleges etc (which then attracts the charge of activism)?

Unemployed people also lack structural power (they can't withdraw their labour), which can only be compensated for by associational power (whether temporary like a mass demo or picket, or more stable/formal like a claimant's union or claimant-worker action committee or whatever). I think unemployed activity will always look a bit like 'activism' for this reason (I think a more important thing is whether it draws in an expanding pool of people, which is imho what characterisises a movement, again thinking of the anti-war stuff where many were taking action for the first time). For example, if there were 200 people going on local anti-workfare events rather than 20, then tactics could evolve from pickets to roadblocks (though the cops' well-rehearsed public order tactics would make this more like an activist run-around than los piqueteros imho) or occupations/mass pickets shutting things down.

Organising inside the workplaces using workfare by workers would also be welcome, but I don't know if much can be done beyond outreach and support. You could maybe support a living wage campaign by retail workers (a la PAMSU?), which in turn opposes workfare from the shop floor. You could 'salt' to do that, if you were so inclined. But I also think this is comfort-zone stuff. We have pretty good ideas of how to organise as waged workers, and not very good ideas about how to organise as unemployed. I think it's important not to accept unemployed people's lack of agency, but find ways it can take a collective expression. I think a wider converstion about what a movement would look like, and how to build one is very important (it's been happening inside SF, not so much more widely). I don't know if this piece says much beyond 'we should have that conversation', if that makes sense?

Joseph Kay
Dec 19 2012 10:21

One more thing...

RedAndBlack wrote:
It also means taking your time and building on small victories that are not necessarily glamorous ones. This could be as (seemingly) minor as creating a culture where you are able to discuss problems at work openly.

Now, I agree with this. It's something SF has been banging on about for a while, and a major theme of the new book. But it seems inconsistent with the argument that conversations in the street are 'activism' and that forcing one of the most high-profile political supporters of workfare (H&B) to withdraw is a "phyrric victory".

That is to say, there seems to be a double standard where talking to your workmates is a victory, but talking to other claimaints isn't, where forcing a concession from the boss is a win, but forcing a firm out of workfare isn't. Now you can argue the workplace is different (and I'd agree, to an extent), but that seems to fall back on a crude workerism, that only waged workers at the point of production can engage in meaningful struggle.

ocelot
Dec 19 2012 10:28
Joseph Kay wrote:
Critique is important, but it can also a comfort zone of not taking the lead (my personal bugbear is anarchists sitting at the back of a mass meeting grumbling about the Trots running everything,but I digress).

^^This. A lot.

Steven.
Dec 19 2012 10:32

Yeah, Joseph makes a lot of good points here.

I mean, I read the article and agree with much of it but then mostly just thought "and what?"

This point in particular is important:

Quote:
Unemployed people also lack structural power (they can't withdraw their labour), which can only be compensated for by associational power (whether temporary like a mass demo or picket, or more stable/formal like a claimant's union or claimant-worker action committee or whatever). I think unemployed activity will always look a bit like 'activism' for this reason

I mean I haven't attended any boycott workfare stuff or done anything related to it, because I expend my activity on the shopfloor. However, for people who are students, pensioners, unemployed etc I don't think it's helpful to tell them not to do something like this. As you don't present any evidence of what you suggest in terms of pickets pushing management and workers together. My workplace has been picketed by members of the public various times, and I can't say it has had that effect. TBH it hasn't really affected management-worker relations at all - which are often built up over years or decades in some cases, and cannot be significantly changed in an hour or two.

I think it would be a fair enough point to make if some people made no efforts to do anything at their own work, but then just went on boycott workfare, but if they are doing the former then I don't think the latter does any harm. There is an element of hobbyism in political activism, or even a socialising aspect, as for quite a few activists their friendship circle consists mostly of other activists, and therefore these sort of actions can be the social events of the friendship groups (similar to friends who watch football say). I don't think this dynamic is particularly helpful, but also I don't think it's avoidable. And I don't think that people spending their hobby/leisure time doing stuff like that is counter-productive as such.

RedAndBlack
Dec 19 2012 11:37

JK, I think it makes more sense if you use the definition of activism actually outlined in the article. Given that we don't use the analysis from the "give up activism" article it makes little sense to build your response from it. The most salient point in our understanding of activism is that:

Quote:
There is a theoretical line of cause and effect, in short, between the action (a public picket) and the intended result (the employer’s withdrawal from workfare) irrespective of the internal composition of the action itself.

This is about content and composition, not particular tactics, e.g. "talking to people on the street" or even the particular cultural dynamics of activist culture/ideology/communities critiqued in that article (as relevant as they also may be).

Joseph Kay wrote:
I say this, cos when I discussed this with one of the authors, I made the point that SF saw workfare as a long boring campaign, winning a few small victories as a proof of concept, but doing boring agitation over several years among fellow claimants and workers and hoping thereby to catalyse a wider movement, with ongoing pickets/demos acting as a public focal point analagous to anti-war demos in the early anti-Iraq war era (which of course, assumes a swelling anti-workfare sentiment analagous to anti-war sentiment in 2002-3, which may be a faulty assumption). So it reads a bit like a strategy i've previously expounded being repeated back as a 'critique'

SF may see it this way but that doesn't change the fundamental tactical critiques in the article. That a perception of a long-term strategy has to be complimented by long-term tactics that produce enduring effects. It could be the case that SF is building amazing claimants unions under the surface of this campaign (perhaps you could enlighten me?). Even if this is the case the representation of this campaign is problematic building on a false sense of agency and catalysing claimants (as limited as this in the context of one-off demonstrations) on the basis of a model which assures empty victories. Our case is that surely it is better to jettison the activist commitments altogether and actually take a hard-headed approach to what is really needed to mould a workers' movement against capitalism.

Joseph Kay wrote:
Now, I agree with this. It's something SF has been banging on about for a while, and a major theme of the new book. But it seems inconsistent with the argument that conversations in the street are 'activism' and that forcing one of the most high-profile political supporters of workfare (H&B) to withdraw is a "phyrric victory".

That's because you are using a definition of activism that is inconsistent with the one outlined in the article.

Joseph Kay wrote:
I think unemployed activity will always look a bit like 'activism' for this reason (I think a more important thing is whether it draws in an expanding pool of people, which is imho what characterisises a movement, again thinking of the anti-war stuff where many were taking action for the first time).

Again, not the definition of activism we use. But I think this is a fair point in terms of the limited scope of tactics for claimants. To me this just demonstrates that a great deal more effort needs to go into building a community of claimants before actions are possible. This is most likely why things like claimants centres - which provide basic, day-to-day necessities - have proved more useful to these movements. You can see the more slower processes of movement-building - forming shared spaces, common identities etc. - in operation here over the more immediate confrontational issues associated with the condition of being a claimant.

Joseph Kay wrote:
Critique is important, but it can also a comfort zone of not taking the lead (my personal bugbear is anarchists sitting at the back of a mass meeting grumbling about the Trots running everything,but I digress).

I don't think that's fair at all. We put forward our own alternatives and we are both clearly active organisers (if our ideas really require to be qualified in this way).

Steven. wrote:
My workplace has been picketed by members of the public various times, and I can't say it has had that effect. TBH it hasn't really affected management-worker relations at all - which are often built up over years or decades in some cases, and cannot be significantly changed in an hour or two.

Isn't this exactly the point!!

Tommy Ascaso wrote:
I don't agree that worker's power is based on establishing friendships, that's wanky hippy bollocks.

I know this is a throwaway comment but this isn't actually what we say. The basis of that section is to establish a micro-level understanding of class consciousness that appreciates the immediate contexts of taking workplace action. "Workers' power", in a more general sense, is obviously a much broader concept.

Fall Back wrote:
I commented a few days ago that reading anything by Collective Action was like someone who read libcom 5 years ago, but just didn't get it.

Wow! I really have no idea what this means. Just to clarify that this is not a Collective Action piece but an article written by two individuals both of which are Wobs, one of which is a member of Collective Action (draw whatever conclusions you like from that).

I have to say that for someone whose fundamental objection is that we are a bunch of wannabe smart-asses and know-it-alls you make a lot of cliquish and inaccessible references in your criticisms of us.

no1
Dec 19 2012 12:22
RedAndBlack wrote:
There is a theoretical line of cause and effect, in short, between the action (a public picket) and the intended result (the employer’s withdrawal from workfare) irrespective of the internal composition of the action itself.

I don't understand what "internal composition of the action" means, if anything.

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 12:31

Hey remember a few years back when the "debate" on politics was being driven by ego-monsters slagging off groups they weren't part of from the lofty heights of their own super-successful tendencies? Good times.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 12:34
Fall Back wrote:
I commented a few days ago that reading anything by Collective Action was like someone who read libcom 5 years ago, but just didn't get it.

Yet here we are 5 years later with the anarchist movement doing the same old shit.

Fall Back? More like Throw Back.

Quote:
lets not let this kind of dross effect our own ability to continue to critically examine our activity.

"Your own ability" meaning what exactly? It certainly doesn't appear to include any external criticisms.

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 12:37
Quote:
"Your own ability" meaning what exactly?

Meaning that we have internal debates, which funnily enough prioritise actual members' views.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 12:38
Rob Ray wrote:
Hey remember a few years back when the "debate" on politics was being driven by ego-monsters slagging off groups they weren't part of from the lofty heights of their own super-successful tendencies? Good times.

This comment epitomises what is wrong with the anarchist movement in this country. Any attempt to critically engage with things that are happening are dismissed as egoism and attempts at slagging off.

How precisely is it possible to foster debate on tactics and theory if you get shot down and attacked as an egoist and a belligerent for even daring to open your mouth?

Grow up.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 12:40
Rob Ray wrote:
Quote:
"Your own ability" meaning what exactly?

Meaning that we have internal debates, which funnily enough prioritise actual members' views.

Okay, so does that mean no one else is allowed to make any criticisms? Or are they allowed to make criticisms only when they have a pre-approved amount of members and a paper, or what?

Would you rather people just not criticise you?

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 13:18
Quote:
This comment epitomises what is wrong with the anarchist movement in this country.

For someone who obsesses over "tactics," and "building friendships" you clearly haven't got the foggiest idea of how to approach people in such a way as to promote engagement with your ideas. No-one's stopping you from having an opinion, but your criticisms have been hamstrung because

a) you don't know what the state of the debate is within SF, because you aren't a member but make all sorts of assumptions
b) your position throughout is pretty clearly antagonistic rather than comradely, presumably because you think of yourself as coming from a competing/superior tendency rather than a parallel one, hence the tone of response you're getting.

Now I want to be clear here. The reason I've posted a sarcastic comment about you above is NOT because I've got no interest in outside debate. It's because you've rocked up with a "here we come to save the day" attitude and a sneeringly superior schtick that's not nearly as informed or novel as you think it is, something many long-term libcommers have been rightly criticised for in the past and probably will be again.

RedAndBlack
Dec 19 2012 13:08
no1 wrote:
RedAndBlack wrote:
There is a theoretical line of cause and effect, in short, between the action (a public picket) and the intended result (the employer’s withdrawal from workfare) irrespective of the internal composition of the action itself.

I don't understand what "internal composition of the action" means, if anything.

Ok, it's fair to ask for clarification so I'll provide an example. In the case of a workfare picket at HandB. What is the picket composed of? i.e. who are doing it? Is it activists? Is it local activists? Is it people connected to the store, i.e. they shop there? Is it people who work at the store? Is it claimants on workfare? Is it claimants on workfare in that HandB? All of these questions have big implications for the meaning and significance of the action. Having a picket outside of workers and claimants placed/employed at that store is of much greater significance than the other categories above. Why? Because it actually points to something else other than the picket - the existence of a militant workplace culture. This is why we don't dismiss using particular tactics or "activism" wholesale, because the question is actually a lot more substantive than this. The issue is are we helping to build the right, representative communities to then fight and use the tactics that we advocate. In most cases, for the anarchist movement in the UK I believe the answer overwhelmingly is "no".

RedAndBlack
Dec 19 2012 13:16
Rob Ray wrote:
Quote:
This comment epitomises what is wrong with the anarchist movement in this country.

For someone who obsesses over "tactics," and "building friendships" you clearly haven't got the foggiest idea of how to approach people in such a way as to promote engagement with your ideas. No-one's stopping you from having an opinion, but your criticisms have been hamstrung because

a) you don't know what the state of the debate is within SF, because you aren't a member
b) your position throughout is pretty clearly antagonistic rather than comradely, presumably because you think of yourself as coming from a competing/superior tendency rather than a parallel one, hence the tone of response you're getting.

Now I want to be clear here. The reason I've posted a sarcastic comment about you above is NOT because I've got no interest in outside debate. It's because you've rocked up with a "here we come to save the day" attitude and a sneeringly superior schtick that's not nearly as informed or novel as you think it is, something many long-term libcommers have been rightly criticised for in the past and probably will be again.

So essentially you are saying that there is no point having a debate or engaging with critical tendencies. Your criticisms lead nowhere except back to your own organisation where you can have your own exclusive discussions. The above is a long-winded way of saying "I have no interest in talking to you". Fair enough, then don't participate at all.

FWIW I think we are making a much broader argument here than simply criticising Solfed. It's a shame that you choose not to see that.

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 13:27

See, this is why I wrote:

Quote:
Now I want to be clear here. The reason I've posted a sarcastic comment about you above is NOT because I've got no interest in outside debate.

Indeed I've participated in debates on libcom about all kinds of things, including Workfare, for the best part of a decade now. But you didn't come on with some thoughts and debate points, you came on with a full-on aggressive "critique" which appears to have involved fuck-all prior consultation, debate or other engagement with the groups you're talking about.

I mean you're only now even asking what the composition is of the groups/individuals which actually form the Workfare campaign - that's how shallow your engagement with it is, yet you feel qualified to be judge and jury.

And then you wonder (again) why people get irritable.

wojtek
Dec 19 2012 13:53

In my area there's a more than an A4 page of 'apprenticeship' vacancies every couple of months or so (I've no idea about other workfare schemes). It is much more feasable for me to organise a picket against a store that employs workfare* than try and start a claimants union - something I've neither the backing, the resources or time to do.

I don't believe we can learn anything from Piqueteros in Argentina and the South African Unemployed Peoples Movement (SAUPM) at this stage besides setting tyres aflame and robbing stores on mass, which would be obs. stupid and hilariously cocked up.

*And since I believe them to be mostly small businesses, the economic impact would be far greater, the effort to success ratio far higher.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 13:51
Rob Ray wrote:
Quote:
This comment epitomises what is wrong with the anarchist movement in this country.

For someone who obsesses over "tactics," and "building friendships" you clearly haven't got the foggiest idea of how to approach people in such a way as to promote engagement with your ideas. No-one's stopping you from having an opinion, but your criticisms have been hamstrung because

a) you don't know what the state of the debate is within SF, because you aren't a member but make all sorts of assumptions
b) your position throughout is pretty clearly antagonistic rather than comradely, presumably because you think of yourself as coming from a competing/superior tendency rather than a parallel one, hence the tone of response you're getting.

There really is no response to this. All I can really say is a) this article doesn't criticise internal discussions within SF, it criticises tactics you use, so I don't really see what relevance your internal discussions have within this context, making your defensive attitude a bit strange and b) if your interpretation of this article is that it is antagonistic and uncomradely, then that says more about your ability to interact with other militants. This "oh you think you're superior" is just a really childish way to engage with people. Trying to frame this discussion as a competition is just pathetic.

Quote:
Now I want to be clear here. The reason I've posted a sarcastic comment about you above is NOT because I've got no interest in outside debate. It's because you've rocked up with a "here we come to save the day" attitude and a sneeringly superior schtick that's

Your interpretation of what is happening here is utterly bizarre. You've constructed this strange situation where you believe strangers on the internet are calling you stupid and making fun of you. No one is sneering at you or SolFed. No one thinks they're superior to you or SolFed. You need to calm down.

Quote:
not nearly as informed or novel as you think it is, something many long-term libcommers have been rightly criticised for in the past and probably will be again.

You're right, the criticism isn't novel. It is, however, necessary.

RedAndBlack
Dec 19 2012 13:57
wojtek wrote:
It is much more feasable for me to organise a picket against a store that employs workfare* than try and start a claimants union - something I've neither the backing, the resources or time to do.

Don't you think it would try to make sense as to why this is the case? Especially since the claimants union is going to provide the best means of actually addressing the issues you describe. Why aren't the existing class organisations in the UK making it easier for you to pursue this (via resources, training, support etc.)?

wojtek wrote:
I don't believe we can learn anything from Piqueteros in Argentina and the South African Unemployed Peoples Movement (SAUPM) at this stage besides setting tyres aflame and robbing stores on mass.

But this is focusing on the more spectacular side of the movements without acknowledging the kind of patient organising work that builds into these actions. In Sheffield we recently hosted a meeting from an organiser from Abahlali baseMjondolo (the video is on the Sheffield IWW Facebook page if anybody is interested looking into it) and it was clear that huge amounts of outreach by volunteers internal to the shack dwellers community formed the basis of their movement. Admittedly there are certain historical and social traditions that give better opportunities here (worse ones also in many ways), but the reason we highlight them is to point to specific dynamics within successful, long-term struggles.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 13:56
Rob Ray wrote:
And then you wonder (again) why people get irritable.

You clearly get irritable because you're rude and hostile and can't control your anger over the internet. Even if what you're saying is true, your responses are completely out of proportion. If the article is wrong, why not just explain that...

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 14:04

No, I get irritable because you're more interested in instructing other people than learning from them, as has been amply demonstrated here. I'm just wondering how long it'll take before you cotton on to why it is your various missives fail to get traction - even the ICC eventually improved their presentation and engagement skills after a few rounds on here, so the bar's not high.

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 14:04
Rob Ray wrote:
I mean you're only now even asking what the composition is of the groups/individuals which actually form the Workfare campaign

I'm pretty certain that those questions were rhetorical, being used as an example...

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 14:06
Rob Ray wrote:
No, I get irritable because you're more interested in instructing other people than learning from them, as has been amply demonstrated here.

Learn from what? We don't agree with what you are doing. Therefore there is nothing that we can learn other than to re-affirm our criticisms of the kinds of tactics you are using.

Quote:
I'm just wondering how long it'll take before you cotton on to why it is your various missives fail to get traction.

Right! But what does "getting traction" mean though? Therein lies the fundamental question we are trying to pose.

Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 14:07
Quote:
We don't agree with what you are doing. Therefore there is nothing that we can learn

wall

Dumfries
Dec 19 2012 14:12
Rob Ray wrote:
Quote:
We don't agree with what you are doing. Therefore there is nothing that we can learn

wall

Well what is it you think we should be learning from?

wojtek
Dec 19 2012 14:35

RedAndBlack wrote:

Quote:
wojtek wrote:
Quote:
It is much more feasable for me to organise a picket against a store that employs workfare* than try and start a claimants union - something I've neither the backing, the resources or time to do.

Don't you think it would try to make sense as to why this is the case? Especially since the claimants union is going to provide the best means of actually addressing the issues you describe.

Of course I know why this is the case. I've no backing in my area, because the level of class struggle is zilch (I could approach my city anarchist branch for help, but apparently I can't do because its not the right 'composition' or whatever) and as I'm sure you know the nature of unemployment means that you are incredibly isolated to the extent that you can barely socialise let alone think about organising with other claimants. The resources - I shouldn't have to explain why this is the case (I'm not begging to the TUC) and time - I plan to move and as JK said:

Quote:
claimants aren't a stable category (at least, not all of them). As well as long term claimants, lots of people cycle between temp/casual work/notional self-employment and the dole.

so anything I do in the way of a union will disingegrate once I get a job.

Quote:
I don't think we can afford to see the issue as an either/or situation given the real dearth in activity among workfare workers and their colleagues, has there been any strikes or what have you to date?
Rob Ray
Dec 19 2012 14:15
Quote:
Well what is it you think we should be learning from?

The experiences of the people involved. Christ there's enough people around who're happy to talk about how things are or aren't going - you might be surprised at the answers if you start asking what people think rather than telling them what's wrong.