Reclaim the Streets, Islington 1995 and the role of road-building in the restructuring of Capital and the recomposition of the proletariat - Antagonism

Leaflet written for distribution at a 1996 Reclaim the Streets occupation of the M41 motorway, looking at the limitations of such occupations in the broader context of the capitalist restructuring occuring at the time.

Returning to Upper Street a week or two after July '95 "Reclaim the Streets" was unsettling and strange. Heavy traffic now roared through the area where a children's sandpit previously was and where a settee and carpet had been too.

Reclaim the Streets is a hundred times better than the average boring demo, trudging along between rows of cops to a "rally" where we're talked at by no-hope politicians and union bureaucrats. By seizing territory and using it for our own purposes, our own party, it's already a victory (whereas every union/Leftist campaign is already a defeat).

Still, Reclaim the Streets has its limitations, most obviously in time and space. The actions are usually strictly timed; the minority who held on after the official end last time were abandoned to our fate; a police riot. And it was bizarre the way in Islington last year diners carried on their meals outside Upper Street restaurants only a hundred metres from the blocked off street and police lines.

The use of space in the street party was highly imaginitive. The kids sandpit and grown-up's settee in the middle of the road were a good bit of fun, demonstrating the opposition between rising traffic and human relaxation and play. The action was also one in the eye for the 'radical' left-wing Labour council of Islington, who try to make themselves real representatives of the local 'citizens'. Still their attempts to do this don't always go to plan.

At the anti-Poll tax demo at Islington town hall in early 1990 the council showed their direct democratic principles and closeness to their electors by miking up the council chamber and relaying the sound to a PA outside so anti-Poll tax demonstrators could hear the process of democracy. This backfired quite a bit though as what we could hear was the Mayor saying things like "Can the demonstrators in the public gallery stop throwing missiles into the council chamber"! Fuck their democracy and their pseudo-radicalism! We weren't letting them screw the Poll tax on us! We were penned into a small area just outside the town hall, surrounded by cops. The first violence I saw was when a few youngsters (10 to 12 years) started throwing bottles at the cops. When the cops dived in to arrest them we couldn't do much to save them, just throw a journalist in the cops way to try and slow them down. The main trouble started when the demo was breaking up. I didn't see exactly what happened, but a mini-riot started and we were chased all the way from the town hall down to the Angel: to the exact spot where Reclaim the Streets was last year and where the cops started chasing us from, when that finished!

There is more to the conflict between state and protesters over roads than just a growing environmental consciousness. The expansion of the road network has been a key element in capitalist political strategy for over two decades.

The defeat of fascism, and victory for totalitarian democracy in the West, and Stalinism in the East, marked a new phase in capitalism. Both east and west did their best to integrate the proletariat (people without social power or social wealth) through high employment and a high social wage (unemployment benefit, free healthcare and education etc.). This strategy was always a bit creaky in the east with its weak capital, but in the west combined with consumerism it helped bring relative social peace through to the late 60s.

But even in the rich west, not every section of the proletariat could be bought off, even temporarily. The first break with the post-war deal came from sectors normally ignored by, and incomprehensible to, the workerist left. First of all came the struggles by blacks, including many of the poorest and oppressed amongst all proletarians. Then developed a new wave of women's struggles. Certainly both of these had their contradictions; they took time to find their feet and also the racial or gender basis, rather than specifically proletarian, made them especially wide open to co-optation. But even so these were important struggles, the first thrashings of a waking giant. As the sixties progressed, struggles spread amongst students in many countries. After several days of rioting around the Sorbonne in Paris in '68, these "marginal" struggles kicked off a weeks-long general strike and occupation movement with strong revolutionary overtones. This strike sent reverberations around the world, with related struggles echoing in Mexico, Italy, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Spain and many other places over the next few years.

These struggles shook capital to its foundation but never became an authentically internationalist revolutionary movement. Capitalism's knee-jerk response was to move investment from areas of successful proletarian struggle to more placid zones (or more fascistic ones). This original "flight of capital" was quickly developed into a coherent strategy. Industries or industrial areas with strong traditions of struggle were deliberately run down. Mass unemployment was used to slash wages, including the social wage. This was blamed on "the recession" as if this was some natural disaster. Capitalist production was dispersed and internationalised so as to make any revival of proletarian class power more difficult.

This dispersal of production naturally leads to greater need for communication, transport and co-ordination between the different elements of production. This strategic attack has had a major effect on the composition of the proletariat. In the UK for example, since 1981 job cuts in mining and utilities have amounted to 442,000; in mineral and metal products 435,000; in transport 352,000; in construction 307,000. All cuts in traditional areas of class power. The biggest growth areas have been information technology with 916,000 more jobs; as well as social work with 450,000; hotel and restaurants 334,000; and education 247,000. The biggest cuts have been in traditional industry, the biggest growth in IT, connecting together the new dispersed production system. This reorganisation has been carried out with the deliberate aim of atomising our struggles. So instead of using efficient rail transport, the new model has relied instead on road transport with massive state investment in road programs. The use of road transport against class struggle became crystal clear at the News International dispute in Wapping in 1986. The typographers' jobs were replaced by computer technology and the rest of the printers sacked and replaced by scabs. Up till then, the Sun and Times had been distributed using British Rail. But Rupert Murdoch knew he couldn't rely on BR's workers to distribute scab papers. Part of his winning strategy was to use his own fleet of lorries instead of rail transport. Part of our struggle against Murdoch was the blocking of roads around Wapping to try and prevent the papers getting out.

Road building is a conscious strategy of capital against proletarian struggle. Reclaim the Streets sits in a long line of struggles including Wapping, The Poll tax, even May '68.

Capital's strategy has undeniably been fairly effective. Workers struggles in Britain reached an historical low a couple of years back. Most workers' struggles remain trade union style disputes in the ever diminishing state sector. The newer sectors of the workforce have yet to make any major collective struggle. For the workerist left, this is a truly depressing time. But the increasingly politicised struggles outside the workplace; the interlinked struggles of the anti-roads, anti-Job Seeker's Allowance, anti-Criminal Justice Act etc., are much more than so called single issue campaigns. These struggles are consciously linked and determinedly expansive. Their effectiveness is certainly limited, compared to the potential of a wave of wildcat strikes or riots, but who can say that these struggles won't play the same role as the struggles of the blacks', women's and students' movements in the 60s; first skirmishes of a new revolutionary movement.

This is a version of a leaflet that was written in Summer 1996, for the 'Reclaim the Streets' party on/occupation of, the M41 motorway in West London, UK. For various reasons, it the leaflet was not produced at that time. This slightly revised version is made available here as the comments on restructuring and recomposition have a continuing relevence. Taken from the Antagonism website.