A look at the uses of solidarity network-style organizing as a means to resist the effects of austerity measures and an overview of the usefulness of different tactical approaches.
“It isn't just a bunch of starving people that are going to make a revolution. It's gonna be a people that have been asserting themselves…” –Fred Thompson
We are living in interesting times. Taking a look back at the last few decades, with a particular focus on the English-speaking world, the strike waves and crises of the 70s gave way to the 80s market confidence of the yuppies, and the assault on unions by Thatcher and Reagan. In the 90s, the slow decline of the left continued and prospects for some kind of fundamental change in society seemed to recede into the past. There was no alternative. With the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the end of history was proclaimed. Instead of a battle between rival ways of dominating the world, we see the expansion of capitalism into new markets and the removal of any obstacles to this growth: neoliberalism. The late 90s and early 2000s saw some spectacular resistance to what is now known as globalization, but it was ephemeral, never seeming to produce any lasting opposition. Finally, in 2011, things seemed to start boiling over in different corners of the world: Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, and even Wall Street. The mood has changed.
The long term reasons for the economic crisis that started in 2007 are up for debate—has capitalism been undergoing agonizingly slow death-throes for the past half century or more? Is this the inevitable result of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall? Whatever the case, its immediate cause is agreed by most analysts to be the collapse of the US housing market bubble (see chapters in this book by Glasberg, et al. and Burley), setting off a chain reaction through the absurdly complex and fragile international financial system.
The capitalist press has repeatedly proclaimed that we are well on the way to recovery over the past few years, only for markets to slump again. The US does seem to be entering a period of at least temporary recovery (as of the writing of this chapter, in May of 2013), but the same can’t be said of much of the rest of the world. It remains to be seen whether the crisis is over or whether the recovery being observed in some countries is only a temporary relief. In any case the crisis is continuing to severely affect people’s lives in many ways—foreclosures and layoffs continue; city, state, and federal budgets are still being cut; in fact major austerity measures are only beginning to be implemented in parts of the US. In Washington state for example, despite already having made $6 billion of cuts in 2011, the state government is planning more. The federal government intends to continue with several more years of budget-balancing cuts. The effects of the crisis in our daily lives are unemployment for some, more work for less pay for others, foreclosure, homelessness, restricted access to healthcare, bigger class sizes, higher tuition costs, lack of public transport, and so on.
Even in the unlikely case that an extended period of recovery and prosperity is around the corner, capitalism will run up against severe limits within two or three decades—the coming climate and energy crises will result in much worse attacks by the state and the employing class.
So for those of us who are interested not only in our basic survival but in ending a social system of extreme inequality, drudgery, wasted lives and planetary destruction, for we who seek to destroy this social order and replace it with a world of freedom, the question is what can we do to build movements to not only defend ourselves from the worst effects of the crisis, but which we can build on to increase our collective power and bring about a final break with capitalism?
In an attempt to partially answer that question, this chapter will examine a few of the movements that have sprung up in response to the crisis in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll talk about the kind of organizing I’m most familiar with: small-scale but effective direct action to win back things like unpaid wages and stolen deposits as practiced by the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol). I’ll look at various examples of organizing against austerity that have SeaSol-like features. Then I’ll attempt to analyze what qualities in this kind of organizing are advantageous for anti-austerity resistance, how to move from small scale fights to bigger ones, and beyond that, what features are needed (and which should be avoided or minimized) for successful revolutionary movements to end the boom-bust cycle and generalized misery that capitalism creates once and for all.
One of the first large popular explosions in the US in reaction to the economic crisis was in Madison, Wisconsin in February 2011. This was in reaction to the “budget repair bill” being introduced by the Republican Governor Walker, whose main purpose was to greatly restrict or remove 280,000 public employees’ bargaining rights. In response, crowds of tens then hundreds of thousands demonstrated and occupied the capitol building for three weeks, before peacefully leaving when ordered to do so by a judge. Predictably, the unions wasted all their energy in their failed electoral strategy to get the governor recalled, and that was that. The movement to resist the bill had been defeated by its own impotent tactics.
Only direct action disrupting the state’s economy and functioning could have stood the chance of preventing the passing of the bill. One of the few actions that had any potential in this respect was when large numbers of teachers called in sick—40% of teachers in Madison alone—causing classes to be cancelled across the whole school district, with many students joining the demonstrations. Threatened with losing their jobs, they were supported by doctors who wrote them sick notes. Any independent initiative by workers in other sectors to move beyond harmless symbolic protest was strongly discouraged by union officialdom’s insistence that it had the situation under control, and that the only valid way to oppose the bill was through legal and electoral channels, as expressed by Jesse Jackson’s delusional cry, “When we vote we win!”
Although the local Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) branch agitated energetically for a general strike, which was widely taken up by protesters and endorsed by the South Central Labor Federation, this could only manifest with the consent of the SCLF’s affiliated unions. It is illegal for public sector workers to strike in Wisconsin, so despite the vast numbers and widespread anger, this was certainly not going to happen without a much more militant and confident union membership, able to either force their will through the bureaucracy or take independent unauthorized action.
In the opinion of one IWW member present during the events, a general strike was not on the cards for the following reasons: inexperience and fear of illegal tactics; seeing a general strike as something that would just happen; lack of clarity on the relationship to formal union structures; faith in an electoral solution; and inability to involve broader strata of the population who were also affected by Walker’s agenda, beyond the public sector workers. Despite the defeat there were positive signs: “both the protests and the endorsement of the idea of a general strike are significant developments.” The occupations and wildcat strikes were the widest ranging in the US in years, and the occupation of the Capitol building was soon to inspire many more takeovers of public space.
The situation in Wisconsin illustrates universal problems that movements against austerity are likely to face. In most parts of the US, there is much less in the way of working class organization or militancy. The only organizations big enough to challenge austerity in Wisconsin were the unions, but they are committed only to retaining the ability to represent their members and will typically not stray from the electoral path. They are adept at deploying vast numbers of staff to make sure things go the way the leadership wants, with little regard to the wishes of the workers the union supposedly belongs to.
We find ourselves in a situation where few workers in the US have any experience of, or will for, workplace struggle. The few remaining who possess the skills to organize effectively are often isolated and unable to share their knowledge. We operate in an environment of demobilization, defeat and demoralization. In previous eras large numbers of workers enthusiastically took up the fight to build a new world, but as the old Wobbly, Fred Thompson said in the 70s, “today there is a sense of powerlessness, of fatalism, that has been growing from the 30s. Then, we just felt we didn't have the power, the organization. We never felt we were inherently incapable of achieving it.” This fatalism, this apathy, could be described as “ideological fatigue”—a justified cynicism given the oversaturation of spectacular and exaggerated claims, the decades of failures and betrayals of every working class movement, the irrelevance of disembodied ideologies to our daily lives. And yet, we seem to have passed through the darkest years of apathy and submission—strikes, occupations, sabotage, uprisings and resistance of every form worldwide are on the up.
The Seattle Solidarity Network
SeaSol was started in 2007 by five members of the Seattle IWW. The situation on the activist left that year was one of low activity. Many anarchists had left the city and a large portion of those remaining retreated into inward-focused cooperative housing projects. Eight years had passed since the famous WTO riots—protests which had generated an initial flurry of organizing in the city—for example, campaigns against CitiBank, supporting locked out steelworkers at Kaiser, the development of Indymedia, and more. The early 2000s generated short-lived attempts to form anarchist collectives or federations, initially energetic but increasingly anemic anti-war organizing, and projects associated with food justice or ethical consumption in one way or another.
In the Seattle IWW itself, there had been a burst of organizing efforts in the early 2000s within ACORN, a gas station, and a cooperative market (which was the only permanent organizational victory). Unfortunately the IWW suffered from similar problems to the broader scene—most of the key organizers of those previous efforts had moved on to other places, or became involved in ILWU officialdom and were either unable or unwilling to pass on their skills and knowledge to current IWW members. The currently active members had varying degrees of experience in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements, attempts at union organizing by salting Starbucks, through employment as union organizers, and participation in formal anarchist federations (producing newspapers and propaganda).
SeaSol was created in reaction to many of the perceived deficiencies of the anarchist movement and activist left that we had participated in during the “anti-globalization era” of the late 90s to mid-2000s, deficiencies I shall return to later: excessive preoccupation with symbolic protest against war or capitalism and lacking in clearly defined targets, ritualized a-to-b marches, and a preoccupation with personal behavior (diet, ethical consumption, cooperative living) resulting in an inward-looking scene that did not have any motivation to interact with the population at large, or ability to communicate to people effectively.
As an attempt to avoid these problems, we discussed more promising movements: the “direct action casework” of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Canadian inter-union solidarity “flying squads” seemed to be appealing forms to imitate. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great amount of detail on how those groups operated, so we looked at our own experiences. A friend in Chicago had worked at a restaurant for one day, only to be told it was a “training day” and she wouldn’t be paid. She resolved this problem by walking into the restaurant with a large group of friends and refusing to leave until the issue was settled. We were looking to create something with the opposite characteristics to the flaws we perceived in the movements we had emerged from—a focus on the immediate issues caused by capitalism in daily life as experienced by the general population of Seattle and ourselves, not as activists—specialists in social change—but workers in precarious employment or living conditions; a focus on effective strategy rather than moral force; realistic opposition to targets we could actually overcome; and an approach that placed us in direct conflict with the powerful interests in society rather than one that sought to create an alternative but coexisting culture. SeaSol is itself partially a product of the crisis—without the low pay, unstable jobs, landlords trying to cut corners, and high unemployment, perhaps the group would not have generated the interest and momentum to keep going.
“Propaganda of the Deed without Explosives”
By taking on a project of manageable size, and starting with a few small victories we hoped to boost our morale and confidence, increase our experience and strength in numbers, and act as a sort of “propaganda of the deed”, demonstrating the usefulness of direct action, that workers and tenants in today’s society are not totally powerless. It would also serve to illuminate the true nature of society as one divided between workers and exploiters, tenants and landlords. This would act as a stepping stone to bigger projects and reinvigorate the flagging Seattle IWW branch.
To launch SeaSol we created a website, a contact list of a few dozen people, a phone number, and posters that said things along the lines of “Problems with your boss? Problems with your landlord? Contact us!” After putting up several hundred of these posters, calls started coming in. In contrast to the IWW, which had a well-established system of rules and procedures, we took a more ad-hoc approach. Our first few contacts were dead ends, the most promising one resulting in a short-lived postering and leafleting campaign at a shipyard in support of one worker’s attempts to galvanize his co-workers to react to management abuses and their union’s indifference. A few politically inclined friends joined the group which started operating independently of the IWW branch meetings.
The first fruitful campaign came a few months into 2008 when we met with dissatisfied tenants of the Greenlake Motel, which despite its name was used for long-term housing for people who could not obtain standard rental accommodation due to bad rent history, bad credit, criminal records, or similar problems. The residents paid well above average rent to live in small rooms with leaking roofs, malfunctioning washing machines, unreliable electricity, and rat infestations. After some discussion and research, a crowd of thirty or so people descended on one of the landlords’ more upmarket hotels one sunny February morning to present to the management a list of repairs to be made to the motel. Unfortunately, all but one of the tenants were too afraid of potential eviction to participate in this demand delivery, but nonetheless it scared the owners enough to get them to make repairs within a few days, despite muttering to tenants “don’t listen to those communists”…
In the following five and a half years SeaSol engaged in 36 fights against recalcitrant business and property owners, and won 28 of them outright. In some of the rest, at least partial victories were attained, in one case resulting in the permanent closure of the business. Typical fights have included getting unpaid wages, tips, or overtime for a fired worker at a restaurant; forcing a landlord to return a deposit, make repairs or cancel an eviction. More unusual fights have involved forcing Chase Bank to return money they shortchanged a SeaSol member, getting a company to pay for an employee’s car smashed by a crane at work, and preventing a 50% rent increase for a group of a dozen tenants in low income housing.
SeaSol has also occasionally engaged in solidarity and strike support actions, and joint actions with other solidarity networks or groups such as Casa Latina, an NGO for Latino immigrants that sometimes uses direct action in wage theft cases. The group has several levels of commitment: there are 300 people on the phone tree of which 120 are “members” who have said they are interested in participating frequently in actions, another 800 or so are subscribed to the action announcement email list, and there are currently 22 people on the “organizing team”, who have committed to attend meetings, answer phone calls, and mobilize people using the phone tree.
The Life Cycle of a Typical Fight
After receiving a call or email from someone who has seen one of our posters or heard about SeaSol from a friend, a few SeaSol members will meet with them, find out if they have a grievance that falls within SeaSol’s broad scope, and explain how the group works—through the direct action of the people affected by the problem themselves. If the new person is amenable to playing a leading role in their own fight and supporting other people’s actions, research is conducted into the situation, to assess the landlord or boss’s background, properties, customers, funds, social and political connections—anything that could be used to pressure them if the fight is taken on.
A fight proposal is then brought to the weekly meeting, where it is discussed by the group and assessed in terms of “winnability”: can we effectively hurt the target by causing economic or reputational damage, or disrupt the functioning of their business in other ways such that giving in to our demands is the rational thing to do? We also consider whether the person with the grievance is likely to remain involved and help others . If we decide we have the means and capacity to take on the fight, the next step is the “demand delivery”: a crowd of 20-50 SeaSolers will support the person with the grievance and turn up as a large group to deliver a letter demanding that the issue be resolved within a short time period (usually two weeks). The purpose of the demand delivery is twofold: to show the boss or landlord that the person they have wronged has a large and active group of supporters, and to energize participants in a collective exercise of power against the class enemy, gaining their interest and commitment to the coming campaign. Demand deliveries are often fast-paced and fun trespasses onto the territory of the powerful.
There is a chance that the landlord or boss will give in before the deadline expires, but more often they choose to ignore the demand letter. In that case a campaign of escalating direct action begins. Escalation is one of the key principles of SeaSol. The idea is to start with small, low cost tactics such as postering and leafleting and over a period of weeks increase the intensity and variety of tactics used against the target, perhaps with an increasing frequency of louder and more annoying pickets at more locations, eventually expanding to the company’s other shop fronts, and/or the owner’s house. Creativity in tactics is highly encouraged. We have found that it is often not the current tactics that the bosses or landlords are facing that cause them to give in, but the fear of what will come next. The appeal of trying to wait out the campaign disappears as they realize that we are a persistent and increasing threat. Escalation allows us to conserve our forces and use just the right amount of pressure to make them give in.
Other Solidarity Networks
Within a year of SeaSol’s creation, our procedure for waging campaigns was more or less fully established, and we started giving trainings (inspired by the IWW’s widespread and effective Organizer Trainings) to members on organizing, research, and tactics. We also publicized our activities online, announcing our victories on various anarchist sites. Some members, myself included, felt that our methods would be a boon to anarchist groups worldwide, many of which were stuck in a rut of activism and propaganda activity, lacking the experience and power to launch effective workplace or community organizing. As well as improving our capacity locally it was necessary to take a global view and broadcast what we believed was an effective strategy as widely as possible. The training was adapted into a shorter presentation format that outlined the key ideas, and over the next two years presentations were given in over 30 cities in the US, Canada, England, Scotland, and Spain. More extensive trainings were also given to local groups that requested it, sometimes via Skype to remote locations such as New Zealand and Lithuania, and a “Build your own Solidarity Network” guide was produced and distributed online and eventually in print in English, Spanish, and Slovakian. Detailed descriptions of an organization’s activities and processes can be quite hard to find, and it would be great if other groups started circulating more extensive accounts of their activities with more of a technical focus on the specifics of mobilization and tactics and so forth, to enable their worldwide reproduction.
Thanks to local initiatives by anarchist-communists, anarchosyndicalists, IWW branches, and insurrectionary anarchists, at least 40 groups have sprung up across the world—Steel City Solidarity in Hamilton, Ontario may be the most successful of these, having just won its seventh fight, for unpaid tips at Seven Windows restaurant. Unfortunately a significant fraction of these groups disband within a year of their creation, and some have only been able to maintain a low level of activity. In some cases this is because the organizers are too busy with multiple projects and are unable to devote the amount of time needed to keep a solidarity network functioning, in other cases organizers leave town, or there is a lack of response to postering campaigns, or the issues encountered are too difficult to frame in terms of a simple demand. It is possible that we understated the amount of effort required to launch a solidarity network, made it seem too easy and too much of a quick fix. Nonetheless, solidarity networks have become a popular and successful way to get local organizing off the ground.
Occupy All the Things
Occupy Wall Street emerged from a call by AdBusters to shut down the financial center in September 2011 in protest of the bailout of the banks, corporate influence on democracy, increasing wealth inequality, or any comparable permutation of buzzwords. There are dozens of similar international calls to action put out by activist groups every year, but why did this one become so popular compared to others? Clearly it resonated with masses of people whose living conditions had worsened thanks to the economic crisis—whether they had lost their homes through foreclosure, their jobs through layoffs, or were facing furloughs or restricted access to social services thanks to recent cuts. The influence of previous events in 2011 was clear—the idea of occupying public spaces was now familiar to many thanks to Madison and the “movements of the squares” (the Indignados in Spain, Syntagma Square in Athens, and the much more extensive revolts in the Arab world focused around Tahrir Square in Cairo and similar locations). Indeed, according to David Graeber, “one thing that helped a lot was a smattering of people from Spain and Greece and Tunisia who had been doing this sort of thing more recently. They explained that the model that seemed to work was to take something that seemed to be public space, reclaim it, and build up an organization headquarters around that from which you can begin doing other things.” Several rounds of mobilization from the unions and NGOs and the brutal police reaction combined with reluctantly increasing media coverage added to the momentum. Soon hundreds of localized versions of Occupy Wall Street sprang up around the US and the world.
Occupy Seattle followed the same trajectory of many other Occupies around the country, though it was more active and radical than most. Its first few days in late September saw a few libertarians and conspiracy theorists handing out leaflets about chemtrails outside the Federal Reserve Building. Something struck a chord, perhaps the increasing coverage of Occupy Wall Street combined with the effects of cuts and crisis, and soon there were nightly gatherings in Westlake Plaza, downtown’s commercial center. The power struggle in the daily general assemblies between the liberal-pacifist wing and the radicals (a temporary anarchist-socialist alliance) resulted in a consistent series of victories for the radicals—the Mayor’s attempt to neutralize the movement by hosting it in City Hall was defeated, and a “night of 500 tents” to start the permanent occupation of Westlake was launched. The police soon forced the campers out of the downtown square though, displacing them to the Seattle Central Community College campus. It was notable how many liberals became radicalized after experiencing a police beating. Enthusiastic general assemblies continued, as did the interminable debate about violence and non-violence. As the weather worsened, the uneasy coexistence of downwardly mobile urban professionals , homeless youth, the long term unemployed, and students degenerated. Hard drug dealing led to small-scale nightly internal violence. By mid-December the encampment at Seattle Central was no more, and without this central focus Occupy Seattle scattered into separate projects. A little over a year after the dissolution of the camp, only a few of these projects survive—the problem of ephemerality familiar from the anti-globalization years.
But before it disappeared Occupy Seattle gave birth to the greatest confrontations in the city since the WTO: the day of action of November 4th in solidarity with the Oakland general strike, where after a pepper spray-filled day of demonstrations against banks, angry crowds surrounded the hotel where Chase Bank CEO Jamie Dimon was speaking; the West Coast Port Shutdown action of December 5th, intended to show solidarity with Longshoremen and port truckers (again marred by union legalism and control of turf); and a series of occupations of vacant buildings, one of which lasted for three months.
One of the few material gains of Occupy was accidental—banks backed down on a wide range of fees they wanted to introduce , but that isn’t where the importance of Occupy lies. It created space outside the normal political system for a surprisingly wide range of people to interact in. For all its faults and limitations it was a significant break from the norm of US politics, displaying an unusual degree of mass involvement and a challenge to the legitimacy of power the of the “1%” and of capitalism in general.
SeaSol and Occupy
Despite being one of the most active social struggle groups in the area, SeaSol’s efforts to intervene and engage with Occupy Seattle were fairly lacking. SeaSol is very focused on its organizing activity and some SeaSolers were skeptical since Occupy seemed to display all the loathed activist features. Beyond the participation of individual members and a drive to mobilize for the December port action, we hosted a “Direct Action Workshop/Discussion” whose purpose was to clarify the meaning, and encourage the use, of direct action—returning the phrase to its original anarchist definition of unmediated action by the people affected by a problem themselves, in contrast to the confused modern interpretation that it means some kind of militant, aggressive stuntism. Discussion followed on potential ways Occupy Seattle could use direct action. We intended this to be the first of a series of workshops, and began work on a proposal for Occupy to start a direct action campaign around foreclosures. Unfortunately we did not follow through with this plan due to demoralization and worsening conditions at the encampment.
Several months after Occupy some other SeaSol members started an anti-foreclosure group in Seattle. Stand Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE) is closely based on the City Life/Vida Urbana NGO in Boston. It follows a different model to the decentralized, direct action based groups that are the subject of this article, being more amenable to paid staff and negotiations with banks, but SeaSol is supporting its actions and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
East Bay Solidarity and a Foreclosure Free Oakland
The East Bay Solidarity Network started in mid-2011 and engaged in several SeaSol-like fights before changing gears. Many of the East Bay Sol organizers were heavily involved in Occupy Oakland and noticed that the home occupations they participated in during Occupy were supported by lots of people and generated media interest. The time seemed ripe for a direct action campaign against foreclosures.
We thought that the time would be now to start defending peoples’ houses because we could get people to come out and support, the media was eating it up, and the narrative that big banks were screwing people out of their homes was widely accepted. As Occupy Oakland faded away, we saw that we could channel some of that energy into this campaign.
East Bay Sol started brainstorming on how to build an effective campaign. Their research revealed that Oakland was one of hardest hit cities in California: over 1000 foreclosures in a city of 400,000 people. “In a city that was majority people of color and low income folks, this didn’t come as much of a surprise.” The potential profit to be made from ongoing gentrification meant that banks were facing pressure from real estate developers to go through with foreclosures. Just Cause and ACCE, the two non-profits fighting foreclosures before Occupy, could each only take on 1-5 foreclosures a year.
The plan was to form a coalition of four groups: Just Cause, ACCE, East Bay Sol, and Occupy Oakland Foreclosure Defense, focus on the areas most heavily hit by foreclosures, and build neighborhood assemblies intended to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor mutual support for anti-eviction defense, shifting the emphasis away from the four groups arranging pickets on behalf of foreclosed families to a more self-organized model, one that had the potential to build longer term sustained activity.
A campaign of extensive door-knocking in the Maxwell Park neighborhood was carried out by the coalition over the summer of 2012, but “after a few months of really trying, we realized that we all had very different ways of actually doing this work and how we developed and helped new people become organizers.” There was a tension among the groups in the coalition between the typical NGO staff-driven, service oriented model and East Bay Sol’s non-hierarchical model that emphasized developing local organizers.
The coalition dispersed and East Bay Sol members decided to focus on their own neighborhood in West Oakland instead, and fight against all evictions, renters as well as homeowners. This new project, called FEFO (Foreclosure and Eviction Free Oakland), is currently in its initial phase, with flyering, door-knocking and one big community meeting as of the penning of this chapter. It is still taking on normal SeaSol-style “micro-fights”, as well.
Anti-Workfare in the UK
The British government introduced workfare—forcing people to work without pay in order to receive meager unemployment or disability benefits—in 2011, its stated purpose being something along the lines of “helping the long term unemployed back to work”. The imposition of workfare is another effect of crisis and austerity. Politicians benefit by being seen to be doing something about high levels of unemployment; welfare can be cut; businesses benefit from unpaid labor; and if the workfare scheme is successful in the long run, they also benefit from the downward pressure on wages and working conditions.
The Solidarity Federation (SolFed) sees workfare “as part of a long term re-structuring of the labour market towards more temporary, lower paid jobs and with poorer conditions and fewer benefits.”
SolFed is the UK section of the anarcho-syndicalist international, the IWA (International Workers Association). It shares SeaSol’s commitment to direct action and opposition to bureaucracy, while having more explicit political aims and industrial strategy and not being limited to just one city. SolFed locals have used direct action tactics partially inspired by SeaSol —first, to get unpaid wages for a member who was employed by the temp agency Office Angels, using their international links to target Office Angels’ parent company in several countries , moving on to tackle other cases of wage theft and also targeting landlords. They then applied a similar strategy in their campaign against workfare.
While the idea for the campaign came from SolFed members on workfare schemes, reaching out to other claimants via leafleting efforts outside Job Centres has proven difficult. “Claimants are generally kept isolated from each other and approach the benefits systems as individuals which makes bringing them together quite difficult.”
The principal form of action has been noisy pickets outside the companies using workfare, turning away their customers and damaging their reputation. As with SeaSol, the idea is to hit companies in the pocket, making their continued participation in workfare unprofitable. By focusing primarily on one company at a time until they pull out, the intent is to trigger a “domino effect” resulting in the eventual collapse of the workfare system . One idea proposed in SolFed was to run wage-theft campaigns to get current or former workfare employees the money they should have been paid, building on those initial victories to gain momentum and power in a similar vein to SeaSol’s strategy.
Aside from standing outside shops, communications blockades and social media campaigns have proved quite effective, tactics that SeaSol should consider imitating. On May Day 2012 they organized a “quite large roving picket of companies using workfare which had around 150-200 people participating and was supported by Occupy London.”
The withdrawal of the health food chain Holland and Barrett can be directly attributed to SolFed’s pickets. SolFed and Boycott Workfare, a more activism-oriented network, together with various anarchist and activist groups have targeted Poundland, Argos, HMV, Haringey County Council, Superdrug, Tesco, Oxfam, Homebase, and multiple other companies and charities. Their actions, combined with negative public opinion, unfavorable media, legal and logistical issues have resulted in the withdrawal of an increasing number of companies. The campaign against workfare continues to operate successfully. Hopefully, workfare will only last a few more months before being scrapped by the government as unviable.
Useful Characteristics of Movements; Deficiencies and Problems
In this section I’d like to summarize what I believe to be the most advantageous features of the various projects I’ve described, contrasting them with their opposites. This may come across as an over-simplification—in reality I realize that all movements contain contradictory aspects; the movements I’ve looked at have many weaknesses; and these characteristics overlap and can’t really be separated so neatly. For example, sometimes symbolic action is useful—in inspiring people, raising awareness, and acting as a focal image for a movement—but it’s of secondary importance and should not be prioritized as it has been until now.
Direct Action vs. Symbolic Protest
There was no better illustration of the weakness of symbolic protest in my personal experience than the 2003 march in London against the Iraq war. Millions marched saying “Not In Our Name” and the government did not change a thing about its foreign policy. At times one of the greatest weaknesses of Occupy was its dependence on and orientation towards the mass media. The default assumption is that we can persuade the powerful to see the error of their ways through protest or argument. Power does not care when people speak truth to it. This is rooted in a moral, “magical thinking” conception of the world, where being in the right will automatically lead to righteous outcomes. In the place of “speaking truth to power,” we propose directly interfering with the ability of businesses and governments to function or make profits.
Collective Action vs. Personal Behavior
A capitalist society individualizes social problems and prevents collective solutions. It’s automatic to assume the solutions to problems in your life are individual. Everyone is out for themselves, it seems. Hence the interest in personal solutions: changes in diet and lifestyle. The individual way out of problems caused by crisis and austerity is to spend less and work more. SeaSol and related movements illuminate another way out: collective conflict against the common enemy.
Alienated Activism vs. Struggle Based in Daily Life
Many of the problems of modern day movements are characterized in the article “Give Up Activism” , written shortly after the “Carnival Against Capitalism” also known as J18 in 1999. Since then, the term “activism” has sometimes been used to critique these tendencies, which can become confusing since it has broader uses. When I’ve referred to “activists” in this chapter I do not necessarily mean they display all the negative features of activism. “Activism” as obstacle to authentic mass participation has been conveniently summarized as:
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" ,
SeaSol, East Bay Sol, and SolFed’s activities in contrast are “for ourselves”—they are based on our own experiences as workers, tenants, and benefit claimants. If I don’t get paid at work I know I can rely on SeaSol to back me up. Beyond this, revolutionary ideas suddenly become much less abstract in the context of collective, practical struggle: “instead of making the case for self-organisation, direct action, solidarity in the abstract, you can just ask people to come along to a picket” . It’s difficult to make a complete break with activism though, and solidarity networks still retain some features of it.
Mass participation vs. professionalized social management
Far more serious than the problem of activism is the related tendency for movements to bureaucratize and for a layer of experts to become the permanent leadership of a movement, disempowering their followers and inevitably warping the movement away from its original purposes for their own benefit, intentionally or not. This is one of the key reasons anarchism broke from socialism—it recognized the universal tendency for power to corrupt, for any movement to fall back into the hierarchical and commodified modes of behavior of the society it springs from. In a world based on wage labor everything decays towards “service” or work. This is alienation again, the tendency towards separation of all activities into distinct realms, moving from self-interested direct action towards doing things on behalf of abstracted, distant causes. Representation dominates over self-management.
For the sake of “efficiency” paid organizers are brought in and the organization starts to resemble a business, accruing non-profits, integrating into the system, becoming dependent on grants and relationships with politicians and sponsors, diverting energy into useless dead ends like elections and harmless protests. This tendency is very established, omnipresent even. NGOs and union bureaucracies were one of the principal barriers in Madison and a major obstacle for self-organized movements against austerity to overcome.
This is why solidarity networks emulate anarcho-syndicalist groups in minimizing bureaucracy and spreading decision making, participation, initiative, skills, and knowledge as widely as possible across the group. This entails direct democracy in meetings, rotating positions, and frequent training and education. While anarcho-syndicalist unions show an important workplace organizing practice, SolNets could very well be considered a form of community anarcho-syndicalist organizing—or a form of community syndicalism.
Adaptation to Contemporary Conditions
“Permanent work has been abolished. Part time and flexible work, long periods of unemployment following short periods of work are now the rule.” This quote refers to the situation in Greece post-austerity, but precarious and flexible employment has been a reality in the US and UK for some time, particularly for youth. If crisis and austerity continue the situation will only worsen.
Solidarity Networks emerged due to the difficulties of organizing inside a workplace. While the intent is certainly not to remain an external force, organizing only with those who have already left their employment or living situation, it is an easier point to start from. One former SeaSol organizer put it in terms of “organizing the worker, not the job”—it might also be termed “diffuse organizing”—anyone who has been through a SeaSol fight will be much more likely to initiate collective direct action in future situations in their life, opening up multiple opportunities for inside organizing in a city where Solidarity Network type activity is widespread.
Winnability and Escalation
Due to a lack of a shared pool of experience to draw on and what some might term a “Leftist culture of failure,” many activists are content to rush into campaigns without attempting to assess whether it will be possible to achieve their goals or what those goals even are, resulting in a repeating cycle of defeat and demoralization.
One of SeaSol’s key features is its focus on realistic goals. Over the past few years we have developed a reliable system to win limited campaigns against bosses and landlords by framing things in terms of “winnability” and escalating tactics. From a strategic point of view, this means engaging in “small winnable fights, snowballing into a wider movement”, as one SolFed member put it.
This of course has its disadvantages—with too much of a focus on winning in the short term, and procedures that become so established they are unquestioned, you can end up with an overly quantitative way of looking at things and an unwillingness to take risks, missing opportunities to expand and try out new ways of doing things.
The danger of turning a temporary tactic into an eternal principle is a risk for SeaSol. We could get bogged down in doing the same thing over and over again. Despite several attempts, and despite IWW and other union organizing experience, we have not developed a workable strategy for moving towards organizing entire workplaces or apartment buildings. To remedy this we hosted a series of “strategy sessions” to think about future directions, and various members have launched C-TWO, the Committee for Tenant and Worker Outreach, to move further in the direction of larger scale, more collectivized fights. The initial stage for C-TWO is extensive door-knocking to gather data about major problems people face at home or at work, and which jobs and apartments are ripe for organizing.
Reproducibility and Longevity
A well-established training program counters the problem of key organizers disappearing that has plagued many movements in the past. Together with a constant source of landlords and bosses to take on, SeaSol has survived for five and a half years and is showing no signs of disappearance. Intermittent participation in SeaSol has been one of the ways in which activists scattered by Occupy’s disintegration have maintained contact. Longer lasting groups act as anchors during periods of low activity, so establishing them is important in the long term.
Some organizations seem to put the cart before the horse in terms of heavy organizational structure without any substantial activity to justify it. With this much structure, merely maintaining the organization uses up all the energy of a small group. Solidarity networks are organizationally lightweight, having only the structures that are needed to keep their activity going, adding or discarding elements as needed. A phone number, a meeting space, money for posters and a contact list are the bare minimum to get a solidarity network going.
Danger of Providing Social Services Instead of the State
As cuts increase, social movements may relieve the pressure on the state by doing its job for it. This is something SeaSol avoids thanks to its requirements of participation and reciprocity. It’s more of a problem in service-providing groups where the aid is more one-directional, such as (free food distribution group) Food Not Bombs.
Towards a Critical Mass of Crisis Resistance
To have any hope of building viable mass movements for resisting austerity and the effects of crisis we need to start by taking on problems of manageable size given our current weakness. Starting from almost nothing, the small victories approach of solidarity networks creates the social power needed to move on to the somewhat more ambitious projects of workfare and foreclosure resistance illustrated by SolFed and East Bay Sol’s projects. Progress in larger scale organizing will be slow and fraught with obstacles, but over the years as we build our numbers and expertise, the pace will quicken.
We should be taking an experimental, iterative approach, analyzing the weaknesses and opportunities in the social structure, finding out what works through experiment and participation, modifying our strategy based on our observations, then repeating the process. Action, reflection, adjustment, expansion. Trying new approaches reveals new possibilities and limitations in a way that an impartial, detached observer of social processes cannot. New theory emerges from practice, new possibilities spring from the increased awareness of our collective power.
With a victory, or series of victories, achieved by members of a certain community—a particular social network of immigrants, or restaurant workers for example, confidence spreads and the possibilities open up for more extensive struggle in that area.
By increasing the concentration of people experienced in taking direct action within a given locale, the rate and extent of acts of resistance, building links of solidarity between different sectors and communities and thus breaking out of the isolation and atomization of modern day life, we move towards a critical mass—a point at which acts of resistance reinforce each other, a qualitative change in the class struggle leading to a chain reaction of ever-increasing size, moderated only by repression, cooptation, or drastic changes in the economy.
Supplemented with a “culture of resistance” of shared experiences and a vision of that future which is a logical extension of collective power and mutual aid—a future without bosses, landlords or politicians—that emerges from this increased activity, future eruptions like those of Madison and Occupy will be vastly more powerful, less hampered by inexperience, able to defend themselves from cooptation. Not only will they have the power to defeat austerity measures, but they will be on their way to making a total break with this corrupt, unequal, utterly limiting society.
note: formatting for footnotes seems broken. see pdf version for correct details.
“Return of the crisis: Part 1,”Aufheben #18 (2010), http://libcom.org/library/return-crisis-part-1 (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Wisconsin – Next Stop, the General Strike!”(2011), http://seattlefreepress.org/2011/02/28/new-article-on-situation-in-wisconsin/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
Walter Winslow, “The Seattle Solidarity Network: a new kind of working class social movement” (2011), https://files.libcom.org/files/the-seattle-solidarity-network.pdf (accessed July 8, 2013).
Juan Conatz, “Wisconsin: Why a general strike hasn't happened yet” (2011), http://libcom.org/blog/some-limitations-movement-wisconsin-04042011 (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Recall in Wisconsin – the Alternative Was Worse” (2012), http://seattlefreepress.org/2012/06/11/recall-in-wisconsin-the-alternative-was-worse/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
“Wobbly Fred Thompson on the 30s depression”, http://libcom.org/history/wobbly-fred-thompson-30s-depression-studs-terkel (accessed July 8, 2013).
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a famous and very top-down NGO. Rather than accept unionized employees, the Seattle branch of ACORN shut down.
OCAP, “Direct Action Casework Manual”, http://ocap.ca/node/322 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Jeff Shantz, “Developing Workers Autonomy: An Anarchist Look At Flying Squads” (2006), http://www.iww.org/en/node/2246 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Winslow, “The Seattle Solidarity Network.”
Steel City Sol facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Steel-City-Solidarity/505161452856830 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Interview with David Graeber, Washington Post, October 3 2011.
Black Orchid Collective, “Occupy, to end Capitalism!” (2011), http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/occupy-to-end-capitalism/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Occupy Wall Street’s Next Steps – Part 1” (2011), http://anarchism.pageabode.com/john-jacobsen/occupy-wall-street-s-next-steps-part-1 (accessed July 8, 2013).
SAFE website: http://safeinseattle.org/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
East Bay Sol member “R”, quoted from personal correspondence.
Abolish Workfare, Solidarity Federation pamphlet.
SolFed, “Denied deposits? Refused repairs? Harassed by your landlord?” http://www.solfed.org.uk/south-london/denied-deposits-refused-repairs-harassed-by-your-landlord (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed, “SF-IWA calls for national week of action against Office Angels” (2012) http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed/sf-iwa-calls-for-national-week-of-action-against-office-angels-9-15-may (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed member “JP”, quoted from personal correspondence.
SolFed, “A domino falls” (2012), http://www.solfed.org.uk/brighton/a-domino-falls-holland-barrett-quit-workfare-after-direct-action (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed member “JP”, quoted from personal correspondence.
Shiv Malik, “Graduate's Poundland victory leaves government work schemes in tatters”, The Guardian, 12 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/12/graduate-poundland-government-work-schemes (accessed July 8, 2013).
Andrew X, “Give Up Activism” (1999), http://libcom.org/library/give-up-activism (accessed July 8, 2013).
Comments on article “Give Up Classtivism” at http://libcom.org/library/give-classtivism-why-class-struggle-long-boring-hard-work (accessed July 8, 2013).
“Do something! A critique of activism”, http://libcom.org/blog/do-something-critique-activism-28052012 (accessed July 8, 2013).
“no1” in forum discussion at http://libcom.org/forums/theory/what-do-anarchistlibertarian-communist-movements-need-order-grow-03072010 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Some of the tensions in opposition to activism are summed up pretty well by Kellstadt, http://libcom.org/library/anti-activism (accessed July 8, 2013).
Costas Douzinas, “Europe's south rises up against those who act as sadistic colonial masters”, The Guardian, 28 March 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/28/europe-south-rising-up (accessed July 8, 2013).
This article is a chapter from the book The End of the World As we Know It? Crisis, Resistance, and the Age of Austerity (AK Press, 2014). Written in April 2013.