Some (more) thoughts on activism, class struggle and material needs

A personal account of activism, class struggle and organizing around material needs by Jared Davidson (Beyond Resistance, New Zealand).

Submitted by Jared on July 21, 2012

In my last post on organization I raised a few points about the idea of organizing around material needs. As I noted in that post, one of the main things Beyond Resistance (BR) wanted to do as a collective was to move beyond an activist approach; to base what we did around the material needs and interests of our members. But what does this actually mean? And what did/would that look like in practice? It's one thing to put such a strategy down on paper, and quite another to make such a strategy a reality.

In this post I want to try and expand on these points. To do this I'll talk a little bit about what we did not want to do (by quoting from articles addressing the problems of activism) and explore the idea of (class) struggle based on material needs and interests. Past activities that I thought the collective did well will be mentioned, and I'll also try to frame what my own personal activity would look like based on these ideas. Again, this is far from new ground, and the ground I'll cover is pretty focused on my own personal and regional sphere. So bear with me as I struggle to write from this personal framework (without sounding trite or individualistic)!

Trying to give up activism...
The experiences of various people in BR, and a text written in 1999 called Give Up Activism, had a huge impact on the scope and activity of our collective. Some of us had been through painful experiences with informal spaces and a lack of accountability/responsibility—'playground anarchism' and 'headless chickenism' were two things we definitely did not want to reproduce. We saw these issues as being the product of an 'activist mentality' (forgive me for the excessive quotes, but they sum it up way better than I could):

"By 'an activist mentality' what I mean is that people think of themselves primarily as activists and as belonging to some wider community of activists. The activist identifies with what they do and thinks of it as their role in life, like a job or career. In the same way some people will identify with their job as a doctor or a teacher, instead of it being something they just happen to be doing, it becomes an essential part of their self-image.

The activist is a specialist or an expert in social change. To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of practical struggle to create this change."

"Activism is based on [the] misconception that it is only activists who do social change - whereas of course class struggle is happening all the time"

The logical result of this leads to single issue actions with little on-going networking (at least not any way that contributes to relationships outside of those in the group/s themselves), and an ideological or moral-based practice. What I mean by this is that struggle can become a battle of ideas: a sort of appeal to the wider world to take action by feeling a sense of outrage, or more positively, through being shown idealised or hypothetical alternatives ("in Spain in 1936, over a million people organised life along anarchist principles... so you should to!"). I don't want to dismiss the role of such arguments. But on their own, or void of a specific context, they often miss their mark (there's plenty of reasons why this happens under capitalism and I won't go into them, as it's been said before).

Instead, I think that people become active/radicalised by events or material conditions that directly affect them (and I don't mean this in a crude economic determinist sense). Explanations that make sense of those experiences often come during, or after, such experiences. Sure, that's a big generalization, but if I think back to my own experience it rings true (after a string of supermarket jobs as a youth, it was the nightshift at an electronics manufacturing plant that prompted me to learn about socialism and Marx. I felt alienation firsthand, and soon realised the cultural privilege I had as a student while my co-workers were overwhelmingly non-pakeha mothers on minimum wage. It was certainly a wake up call).

The activist/moral approach can influence how we view what sites of struggles 'are the most pressing' or 'has the most potential' for social revolution. This can be problematic because it can often lead to us taking the position of the 'outsider' (ie not part of the working class), or place sites of struggle outside of our own lives. We get drawn onto a political/ideological level at the expense of solidarity around lived, material needs (which are shaped by capital, patriarchy etc). This happens even within class struggle circles (although about early SolFed, this quote pretty much sums up early BR):

"So we started doing various ‘class struggle’ things. Going along to picket lines. Writing propaganda about class struggles. Leafletting. We actually had a platformist member at one point who suggested doing a local newsletter and delivering it door-to-door in our areas. We did one issue and abandoned it. We weren’t really happy with the activity of the group, but couldn’t put our finger on why. It felt a lot like activism, only with ‘class struggle’ substituted for GM crops or the arms trade....

Fundamentally, although we were theoretically committed to a ‘politics of everyday life’, our politics had nothing to do with our everyday lives! Class struggle was something that happened to other people. Going down to a picket line at 5am to distro a leaflet was barely any different to going to get on the roof of an arms company or trash a field of GM crops. So we started thinking about whether it could be done better, or whether being in a political group was basically just activism for people with better politics."

Class struggle and material needs
In contrast to an activist approach, and in recognition of relatively low periods of struggle at the moment, people organizing around material needs in their own lives are more likely to lead to the kind of ruptures needed to challenge capitalist relations. Time for another quote:

"Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our 'days of action' and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it."

The key for me in this quote is the term 'relation'. It's our relation to capital, our material experience of exploitation (and in turn, what we need to rectify this exploitation) that is important to focus on:

"The struggle then, is to build a revolutionary movement grounded in our everyday lives, which builds working class self-organisation and autonomy, which will require organisation, but which does not become fixated on the building of particular organisations or caught up in its own activity. A movement which realises and constantly reaffirms that we are all involved by nature of our material position in society, and that we who sit through meetings and read about critical theory are not more advanced, nor have more of the answers than those who, probably with good reason, don't take those actions."

Now although we in the working class have a shared experience of exploitation on quite a wide level and in various ways (at work, when buying food to survive, renting etc), this fact isn't that helpful in terms of defining a strategy. What might be relevant class struggle to me as a white male could be completely different to the needs of a single mother. Claims that our interests are universal because of our class is not enough. Instead, a focus on the material needs in our own lives—and then trying to organize with others of the same material interests—allows us to concretely identify our lived experience of exploitation and to act in an informed way. In this way form follows content, rather the other way around.

Such an approach recognizes the fact that people will engage in class struggle in various ways and at different sites. For example, as new parents, my partner and I are having very interesting discussions around unwaged work and the reproduction of labour power. That is a site of struggle relevant to my partner's current experience as a mother, and involves a capitalist division of labor informed by patriarchy. Having an understanding of their relationship (or their intersectionality) in material terms, really helps.

Of course if organizing around one's material needs is taken in the strictest sense, there is a danger of limiting oneself to isolated fights or relationships. I guess it's better to think of this approach as a way of beginning; a stepping stone in building relations and circulating struggle amongst similar class interests. As Selma James writes, "to grasp the class interest when there seems not one but two, three, four, each contradicting the other, is one of the most difficult revolutionary tasks, in theory and practice, that confront us." Locating our own struggles as a first step gives us a better chance to grasp these interests.

In practice
Despite the fact that BR never really shed the anarchist propaganda group activity, there were moments when the 'politics of everyday life' approach informed our practice and was put into action. One of the very first major struggles we were involved in was around cuts to public services, when community post offices in a number of communities were scheduled for closure. In this case the community post office of some of our members was due to be shut. A shared interest with their neighbors, and through visible activity in their community, meant those BR members were not outsiders from an outside group. It was based in the everyday lives of the BR members. As a result, our flyers were welcomed, our positions and comments in public forums were listened to with great interest, and I genuinely think we helped to both push aspects of the struggle in more libertarian forms (through calling assemblies and reigning in the power of self-appointed leaders, and by having clear class analysis on why the cuts were happening). Because of this material interest our propaganda had a very real context to draw from, and helped when we started to form connections with other communities in struggle across the city.

In that struggle, BR as an organization worked how I would like to see it functioning now: as a place for comrades to bring their material experience and struggle to the collective in order to discuss, theorize and plan strategy. Part discussion group, part support group, but focused on external praxis in our own lives (although not necessarily as a collective).

So what does that mean for my own material experience of capital, right now? Although I'm a part time-student and mainly a stay-at-home dad at the moment, the most obvious sites of struggle for me to be active in is my workplace and my neighborhood. However I only work one day a week, the workplace itself is small, and a very paternalistic/we're all family culture exists (despite a number of issues that I take note of and talk to co-workers about). Tactically it's probably not the best site of struggle.

That leaves activity in my neighborhood. Where I live is suffering as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes—not in terms of physical damage but through gentrification and massive rent hikes. Rent has jumped by over 26% in the wider city alone, but our proximity to the city has made it a prime location for the development of small businesses and retail. As a result, working people are being driven out in the need for cheaper rental houses. There are community action groups that have been around since the quakes, yet there's also space for a local SolNet or Renters Union. Both options have advantages and disadvantages, but the former would be the easiest to get directly involved in (despite their shortcomings). My biggest hurdle is time—parenting makes what little time I have quite precious and is often filled up with doing things to feel sane (like writing, reading or putting down a brew). It feels selfish writing this, but if I want to be able to sustain struggle in the long-term then I need to think about what I can and can't do at this point in time.

Ultimately, whatever I do, it's unlikely to be very dramatic. Struggling with others around material needs requires a lot more commitment and collective responsibility than most activist campaigns (taking on a shared landlord is not something you'd want to do half-heartedly), so again, maybe now is just not the right time. Nor would it look dramatic: the slow, steady and under-the-radar efforts we need to make with those of shared material interests can often seem like 'doing nothing.' But it's better than 'headless chickenism', and despite bouts of pessimism, surely better than doing nothing at all. As pointed out in this excellent article:

"to do nothing and to think that we must wait for a general upsurge in class struggle, or for 'ordinary workers' to become more radical is in fact to construct a new division between us [with political analysis etc] as a privileged sector that understands struggle and the average worker who does not, but now in reverse of the traditional Leninist vanguard we must deliberately do nothing, rather than lead, because of this division. We have, instead, to see ourselves as part of the working class and that revolutionary activity will only come because of a drive towards that from the working class."

Originally posted at, 19 July 2012