Analysis by a member of the Anarchist Federation on the "March for the Alternative" (March 26th 2011) and the political trends expressed within it, especially UK Uncut and the Black Bloc, in relation to the growing anti-cuts movement in the UK.
Since around the time when we published Organise! #75, October 2010, it is fair to say that anarchists in Britain have been most visibly active on one issue primarily: the Cuts. The ConDems’ vision for the future featured heavily in that issue and has dominated our activity since (see our website for accounts of local activity and national propaganda). In this issue we deal initially with what was arguably the culmination of the first phase of the struggle, the huge march against Cuts on March 26th in London, the ‘March for the Alternative’ called by the T.U.C. We explore issues it raised within the wider anti-cuts movement about civil disobedience and direct action, and the occupation and destruction of private property. It is written with a view to making anarchist views of the events of the day more understandable to other sorts of people on the march, such as people identifying primarily as workers, trade unionists and service users, who are now scouring anarchist media for explanations. We also evaluate UK Uncut and the Black Bloc from an anarchist-communist perspective. We address the groups of people above as an anarchist organisation with members in all of them.
Marching for the Alternative.
Trades unionists and everyone else in the anti-cuts movement were dismayed last Autumn when the T.U.C. announced that it would wait until March to facilitate what we all knew would be the biggest march in Britain since the demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003. It is the only body big enough to organise something on this scale, and its constituent unions are the only groups able to lay on the hundreds of coaches, and even several trains, that brought people from the four corners of the British Isles to London. But this frustration in itself had helped to build the movement at a local level. All the T.U.C. had done by calling for a march rather than industrial action was to cop out anyway. The feeling of dismay led union activists to muck in with service users, claimants and the rest and get on with the job of fighting the cuts without waiting for anyone to lead us. By the time the march came around, the campaigns were in full swing, and so was the vibe on the day.
It almost didn’t matter that no one, least of all the T.U.C., was able to express properly what the ‘alternative’ actually is. The overwhelming feeling on the march was that this was only the beginning. The extent of the destructive social policies being forced upon us is entirely unprecedented, and they are coming at us so thick and fast that it feels impossible to keep track of them (this is no accident of course) never mind come up with a coherent alternative that everyone fighting the cuts would agree on. Instead, the way the working class is responding is to attempt to fight the cuts and salvage what we can at a local level. But at a national level, not only does no one single strategy dominate, but this is probably a good thing at this stage. No one has managed to stitch up ‘the alternative’ and so dialogue about it is not only possible but still centrally important. The main point of the march, therefore, was to make our anger known, and furiously determined people did this in various ways according to what they understand the point of protest to be.
The appearance in Hyde Park of Ed Milliband and other apologists for the Cuts was incongruous on a grass-roots march of people who were screwed over by New Labour long before the Tories’ new offensive. Friends texting marchers behind them from Hyde Park were bemused; where was the real opposition? Where were those who would heckle the Labour hypocrites? Was this really the culmination of the march?
Their friends were very possibly in the West End, either engaged in or cheering on the various forms of direct action striking at the heart of the problem, both symbolically and actually. As has happened on many demos, but not always with the press exposure it had on the 26th, the West End was, well, if not exactly alight, certainly warming up. The banks fell one by one, surprisingly easily. The Ritz and the elite car showrooms fell too. But these sights paled in comparison with seeing Fortnum and Mason occupied by UK Uncut. This was the mother of all short-lived occupations! The gregarious jollity of the spectacle put on for on-lookers was fantastic. Marchers saw anarchist flags waved from balconies behind which lay champagne and caviar. People pretended to open champagne bottles and glug the contents. Some witnessed a spoof ‘Antiques Roadshow’ as occupiers displayed pricey crockery to on-lookers from one window: “Oh, don’t drop it!”... “Oh, please drop it!” Like Michael Jackson’s baby suspended from a balcony, it was an era-defining moment.
As individuals who have chosen to speak from both UK Uncut and the Black Bloc admit, there is a huge cross-over between them. But whilst the style and the message vary considerably, along with various other groupings with a militant anti-capitalist message present and active on the day, what we had was a multi-faceted, decentralised and horizontally-organised cry of rage, against privilege and against the people causing and implementing the Cuts and the social crisis they have engendered.
But the differences in style and message between UK Uncut and the Black Bloc, the most visible anarchist presence on the day, are there. It is no bad thing. We are in a period in which it is vital that new ideas and modes of struggle arise and test themselves. Direct action and mass civil disobedience are the order of the day. The upsurge in class anger that is reflected in the sheer size of 2011’s Black Bloc – it was over a thousand people strong at times – is the result of the state’s defiant indifference to the legitimacy of recent student protest. Coupled with the identification of thousands upon thousands of ordinary people – many active for the first time in their lives – with UK Uncut and its defend-services message, means that we are entering a phase not merely of highly-focussed class anger, where we have been before several times since the 1980s to no avail, but of generalised class consciousness that is becoming as fearless and creative as it needs to be to bring about real change. We are not on the brink of revolution, but we are in unchartered territory.
This is not to dismiss the vast majority of marchers, the people marching with their trade unions and as part of professions from firemen to legal-aid solicitors, lecturers to sex-workers. Along with students, community organisations, claimants and service-user groups they represented almost everyone. As such, the majority of marchers identified with the ages-old analysis that it is the economic might of ‘the workers’ that is most threatening to capitalism. It is, but only if we are willing to strike and do so convincingly, together, indefinitely, and know that we have the full backing of the working class as a whole and will benefit from its unqualified solidarity. If we are a long way from revolution, we are also far from a workers’ General Strike. We aren’t holding our breath waiting for the T.U.C. to organise one and are advocating all kinds of other action (see our leaflet ‘Everything we’ve won, they want it back’).
The press, the demonstration and the anarchists.
Some people feel that UK Uncut and the Black Bloc stole the limelight when it came to press coverage. This supposes that had these actions not taken place, there would have been extensive coverage of the ‘peaceful’ parts of the march and rally. We would dispute this and make the following observations about press coverage.
First, the press cover ‘violence’ largely because the rest of the spectacle makes boring press. The people who want and deserve the headlines are the people who spent their time and money travelling to London on their day off and joining hundreds of thousands of others in a mass display of militant anger, bussed in from the provinces. That is the essential characteristic of national demonstrations in London. But it is of no more interest on the T.V. than, say, coverage of the Notting Hill Carnival is to people who were not actually there.
Second, the main march also makes slightly dangerous press. If the press devoted a proportional amount of air time to it, they would be seen to be celebrating it. The more they showed of ordinary people dressed up, singing and playing music, with the most creative, witty and hard-hitting array of placards London has ever seen, the more they seemed to condone the dissent. If their job was to reflect the mood of the day and cover events as they actually took place relative to each other, the news would reflect proportionately what happened and the Black Bloc and UK uncut would receive next to no coverage. That would be fine with the bloc, because their intention is not to grab the headlines for themselves but to fight back against capitalism with a mixture of symbolic challenges to corporate greed and direct action intended actually to harm it.
Finally, any press, including anarchist press, doesn’t cover events ‘objectively’. It creates stories and the stories reflect the ideology behind that media. The mainstream press is owned by some of the richest people in the UK. Is it any wonder that, combined with the essential banality of watching a demo as opposed to being part of it, it writes stories about how wrong it is to damage private property? This makes for easy copy. The story is all the more exciting if there is a soft target to identify as responsible. The Black Bloc makes an easy target. More on this below.
But first, let’s return to that crockery: to drop, or not to drop?
On ‘violence’ against property.
From the condemnatory outpourings of media commentators, on the left as well as the right, you’d think this was the first time anyone had actually raised a hand against private property in the pursuit of justice. In fact, given the social supremacy of Capitalism, it is difficult to account for what rights we do have in the modern world otherwise. A few examples follow, chosen from many but somehow relevant:
In the Guardian ‘Comment is free’ the Black Bloc was likened to the scabs ridiculed by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the period of its inception in the early twentieth century US. This has caused quite a stir, because like deputy London mayor Kit Malthouse’s offensive likening of the Black Bloc to ‘fascist agitators’, it attempts to align us with our ideological enemies. As the alive and kicking modern-day UK IWW pointed out in response, their predecessors and other early labour activists would have achieved little without violence and the threat of violence against the bosses and their property, in particular industrial sabotage (see article elsewhere on Émile Pouget). It was the willingness of ordinary people to take such action that won above-starvation level wages and rights to work in safe environments, for no more than an eight-hour day, and so on. Fear of what the working class could do when it chose to fight back collectively was what won it the right legally to flex its muscle stopping short of actual violence – that is to say, the right to establish trades unions and the right of these to strike and picket. Trade unionists would do well to consider that legal unions would not exist except for the working class’s willingness to use violence or sabotage. Did they go too far?
Since then, many struggles have used direct action without respect to property. Powerful women are fond of telling anarcho-feminists that the suffragettes fought for us to have the vote we scorn. It is true that working and non-working people, men and women, suffered at various points to win the vote. But it was the suffragettes who tore up the West End as the Black Bloc did. On 1 March 1912 ‘The West End of London...was the scene of an unexampled outrage on the part of militant suffragists.... Bands of women paraded Regent Street, Piccadilly, the Strand, Oxford Street and Bond Street, smashing windows with stones and hammers.’ (The Daily Graphic). Did they go too far also?
A third example is that of direct action ‘peace activists’ of the 1980s. They won the argument within their movement that violence against property is a valid tactic, even for people calling themselves pacifists, against US Cruise missiles being stationed in Britain. ‘Violence’ cannot be committed against an inanimate object, they reasoned, and property could be sacrificed to stop violence against people. As a result, they tore down the fences of US bases, causing hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of damage. One group of women not only destroyed a entire US plane, but got away with it in court on the basis that they were saving lives.
But the 1980s also saw riots break out in Britain’s inner cities as mainly black youth responded with violence to police brutality. The parallel upsurge in the UK anarchist movement in the 1980s had several causes but one was the disaffection of militant young anarcho-pacifists with the middle-class peace movement’s hypocrisy in supporting violence against property on the one hand, but considering the violence of working class youth to be ‘misdirected’. Many disaffected activists abandoned pacifism and joined other young anarchists in the class war.
It’s all about context
So violence against property is fine in support of workers’ rights to organise in their own interests through trades unions, or in support of an inclusive franchise, or in opposition to war. It seems then, that violence against property is OK as long as it is 1/ in the past, and 2/ in a cause that, in a rather circulatory fashion, succeeded in shaping the present outlook of liberal commentators on the Black Bloc.
None of this is to say that anarchists or anyone else should glorify ‘violence’ against property for its own sake. It has its place as a tactic, but is not the message in itself. We need to address this because most of what the public thinks it ‘knows’ about modern anarchists is that they appear to be building up to a certain stereotype: the bomb throwing nihilist!
In our view, anarchists worth the name utterly reject once supposedly fashionable anarchist tactics such as bombing. In fact, such a movement never really existed, in Britain anyway (and elsewhere it was often the invention of agent provocateurs and the police: see review of Alex Butterworth’s book in this issue). We also point out that the most fervent historical advocates of large-scale violence, anarchists such as Alexander Berkman, imprisoned for the attempted assassination of the capitalist Henry Frick in 1892, later rejected it as a tactic on reflection on how little it achieves at such a high cost, not only to anarchists. ‘Propaganda by deed’, as it was known, did not advance the cause of a mass working class movement but led ordinary people to be afraid of anarchists and to assume that arbitrary violence against people was the next logical step after bombs and targeted assassination.
In fact, the Anarchist Federation and most other anarchists in groups or organisations reject the destruction of property when it is on a large scale, because this could kill people accidentally. It doesn’t only scare people, but it endangers workers even when, for example, buildings are apparently empty, say at night. Fire fighters, caretakers, cleaners, and people passing by on the way to an early morning shift are our fellow human beings and our allies, not ‘collateral damage’.
But it must be said nonetheless that anarchists do have a special disrespect for Capitalist property (as opposed to ordinary people’s property or even local municipal property, which we all pay for). We do not hold it sacred and the Anarchist Federation does not condemn anyone for destroying it. In this we possibly go further than the Solidarity Federation, or their Brighton branch at least, because in their ‘A letter to UK Uncutters from the ‘violent minority’’, they question the use of violence against property full-stop and say that there is a debate to be had about whether it is actually productive. An individual member in the comments on the article specifically distances the Sol Fed members from criminal damage. Closer to our own attitude to property is another comment: ‘Violence and damage are not the same thing. Violence is when the Met throw the disabled out of their wheelchairs or attack and kill an unarmed newspaper vendor. Property damage -- which we can debate as a tactic -- is not the same thing and to use such terminology only serves to legitimise the ruling class narrative being promoted by the media’.
The correspondence above was between Brighton Sol Fed and UK Uncut in the context of the police and press treatment of the latter, wrongly attributing Black Bloc activity to it. From posts on blogs it is clear that at least some UK Uncut people are not happy with violence against property. But the letter makes an excellent case that we are all in this together, and other comments to it refer to the fact that UK Uncut as much as the bloc itself went ‘off piste’ in relation to the T.U.C. agenda for the day.
On UK uncut
UK Uncut has really surprised the anarchist movement and got us all talking. Some of its early direct action was excruciatingly reformist. Anarchists stopped turning up when expected to pander to the lowest common denominator message, that all would be right with the world if a handful of, admittedly very very greedy, businessmen would only pay their taxes. It’s not so much that anarchists oppose tax (actually we are ambivalent towards tax in the present day, but that’s another discussion). It’s the fact that none of these businessmen have broken the law in moving their assets around to avoid sharing their profits with the rest of us. The problem is that the law allows this, if you have enough money to pay an accountant to find the loop holes. The UK Uncut message is implicitly to close the loopholes, but they are there for a reason - so that the mates of the politicians stay as rich as possible. So the basic message of ‘Pay your Tax!’ is not an entirely coherent one.
But that isn’t all that UK Uncut is about. UK Uncut is the largest grass roots movement seen in recent years and if its message is uninspiring to anarchists, it is far from that to the thousands of ordinary people it mobilises. The radicalisation taking place within its ranks and its spontaneous adoption of horizontal and decentralised organisational structures means that it has the potential to develop a more in-depth critique than at present, without being taken over by the sort of people (usually Trotskyists) who like to take these things over.
Although anarchists were involved in UK Uncut in many towns from the outset, this form of organisation is not our doing. In fact it is partly a practical matter. UK Uncut uses social media to organise, and this lends itself to decentralisation. But having said that, UK Uncut clearly likes this way of operating, and has used it to carry out genuine direct action. These actions are creative, loud and challenging and involve occupation of key businesses but stop well short of causing damage to property. They involve normal people (including the anarchists!) getting their message across in a way that does not alienate shoppers, frighten staff or break any significant laws.
Why then, have UK Uncut been dragged about and hit by security guards and police, been tear-gassed by police, had armed police turn up at their actions, and on the 26th March been lied to by police and treated essentially like terrorists, arrested and having mobile phones taken? This follows high level discussions treating them as some kind of domestic extremists.
As the Brighten Sol Fed’s letter to them notes, they offer a way for non-workers to engage in economic sabotage, in an ‘economic blockade’. The cost of a window broken by the Black Bloc is nothing compared to the money lost if a bank or West End shop is closed down for half a day. In fact, whilst the Black Bloc remain anonymous and ‘get away with it’, UK Uncut are taking the heat that can be applied by the very rich and powerful, and the police are, naturally, dancing to the latter tune. It won’t be long until they are infiltrated and place under surveillance, if this has not happened already. That is a disgusting way to treat people making a point that is, by and large, shared by the majority of people being affected by the cuts. This message is still too dangerous for the state to allow it to be expressed through mass civil disobedience, even of a sort that respects private property in a way that anarchists do not.
We have a few more points to make about UK Uncut. The first is that the way they have been mis-represented in the media is shocking, and we know how it feels. But this is only happening because they are so effective. We thank UK Uncut for their refusal to sell us out in the media after March 26th and will return the favour.
A second is that UK Uncut has spread a tactic used for a long time by anarchists - the attempted conversion of commercial space into a public space – to a much wider class-struggle activist community. This is powerful in spite of its present reformist context because of the sheer numbers engaging with it, deeming it to be legitimate activity on private property, and being radicalised by that process. This acceptance of the idea that Capitalist space is potentially a legitimate target for occupation opens up a lot of possibilities.
UK Uncut can’t substitute itself for workers’ direct action any more than the Black Bloc can. In fact both need to find a way of addressing workers more directly, in particular those working on the shop floor in businesses that we target. When we go into banks etc as UK Uncut we should more deliberately engage with workers. Staff have a role in stopping businesses too and have even more reason to hate their employers.
UK Uncut should defend its organisational structure from people who would take it over. It is directly democratic, each one answerable to the others. It chooses targets by consensus decision-making. It should not allow its actions to be a platform for authoritarian groups such as the SWP, who have begun to sell their papers on UK Uncut actions.
Finally, UK Uncut have opened the way for the return of generalised ‘civil disobedience’ in the UK. When was it exactly that the concept of ordinary people obstructing bad practices through direct action, even breaking the law but not usually property, slipped out of focus? Under New Labour, of course. This again is the fault of liberal commentators. ‘Taking a stand’, or even a seat in the road, or not paying that part of our taxes that gets spent on weapons, or refusing to pay Poll Tax, did not involve even damage to property. But once labour got in and the dreadful Thatcherite era was over, it seemed silly to go about things the hard way. This political apathy became so entrenched that even when we marched against Labour, against the war, no one except the anarchists were interested in going off the map. What is more astonishing is that so few people took direct action even when Labour made it clear that they were going to entirely ignore the fact that one-in-forty people in Britain attended anti-war demonstrations on the same day. Civil disobedience was dead, anarchists’ minds turned back to the inspiring direct action of Seattle 1999, and the UK Black Bloc was born.
On the Black Bloc
But if the bloc was born of rage and frustration and contempt for New Labour hypocrisy, Saturday 26th’s ‘Black Bloc’ was far bigger than any seen in the UK previously. Let’s just set our clearly why it is what it is, because it has been badly mis-represented.
Firstly, as has helpfully been noted even in the mainstream media by people who actually understand what is going on, it is not a group or even a movement but a tactic used in pursuance of a strategy. The strategy is to hit wealth and privilege where it hurts using direct action. This is essentially symbolic – how much does replacing a window or cleaning off paint actually harm a bank’s profits? – but there is nonetheless a message behind it that is the message that demos have lost; if we can do this – get to you like this – then think what a mass uprising could do.
The strategy is also to make it clear to other marchers that all the speeches by trade unionists and Labour Party members in the World is not going to fundamentally change society, and will in fact probably make things worse. The point is to get over the point that one of the ‘alternatives’ is to abandon the state and destroy money and privilege. We’ll return to the question of the message below, but people get investigated and groups infiltrated for advocating far less, and so the strategy is also to create group solidarity by taking action together.
The tactic then, is to do all this in such as way as to get away with it. The identification and criminalisation of (unmasked) students and others after Millbank and the Parliament Square kettle shows that this is no easy feat in the age of ubiquitous CCTV, and that this is the case whether or not you have actually ‘done anything’. Just by showing your photograph on T.V., they turn you into public enemy no. 1. But if everyone dresses in the same colour and hides their faces, it is immeasurably more difficult for the police to identify and arrest someone, committing a crime or otherwise, because that person can just blend in with the crowd.
That’s all it is! The colour doesn’t even need to be black - there have been blue blocs, red blocs and white blocs in other contexts - but black is the easiest colour. The Black Bloc wear masks purely to hide their faces. They don’t want to hide their faces from other marchers, but it would be very dangerous not to do so when committing a criminal act or being with people who the police think might. In fact Black Bloc people pull down their masks to talk to other demonstrators, because they want to connect with other marchers. They just don’t do it at the time they commit criminal acts. Furthermore, many of the people joining in the jolly chanting, giving out leaflets, marching with community or workplace groups, were in the bloc before or after these other activities. They are not distinct from the rest of the march except that they will adopt an anonymous persona and certain points.
On a Guardian blog a comment asked, ‘Why do you have to hide your faces in black scarves? There are other ways to hide your face’. This misses the very practical point; everyone has to look the same, and black is easiest. Nonetheless, behind this comment and others like it is a more serious and less naive point. Black is to many a sinister colour. Hiding your face is a sinister thing also. Finding something sinister means finding it frightening. In fact, when we have a bloc on the scale that we had on March 26th, we need to address this as a movement: some people were scared of us. The bloc needs to reflect on itself and see itself through other peoples’ eyes. Those in the bloc know this, of course.
Furthermore, the bloc on the 26th maybe missed the point that wearing black is an act of self defence; it is not a uniform. What was carrying mass-produced black and red flags all about? It gave the Bloc the appearance of an army with insignia. This was both thrilling and unsettling. It also gave the impression that the bloc was centralised in some way. Someone had made and given out the flags. Onlookers might wonder, was someone therefore in charge after all? So we have to address the nature of the bloc and find ways to get our message across.
The first step, because of the way the press and to some extent other marchers responded to it, is to make it clearer who the bloc is? As noted, the core of it used to be anarchists taking up direct action at street level because of the sham that was civil society under New Labour. We had to wake people up to the fact that Thatcher may have gone, but still no one in power gave a damn about what we thought. As also noted, many of those newly identifying with the tactic are students radicalised both by witnessing bloc activity on the student demos of 2010-11, most definitely by having their voices ignored after those demos by the state, and also by being condemned by both the lecturers’ union (UCU) initially and then by the Student Union itself.
But their credentials as young people willing to stand up to the Tories does not endear them to the same trades unionists, lecturers and teachers and parents who spoke up for them after the students demos. This is because now the children are out of control! They have gone too far! Now they are wearing black and calling themselves anarchists! And somehow it has become the case that by wearing masks and hiding their personal identity, members of the bloc have waived the right to determine their own collective identity. So, whereas people without masks at Millbank and kettled Parliament Square were ‘ordinary, hard-working students’ fighting for the future, liberal commentators now observe that members of the bloc are ‘middle class’, by which they mean, ‘representative of no one but themselves’. And along with the press, they also throw in the idea that they are ‘unemployed’ rather than students, as though through their own choice.
We take issue with this idea that the Black Bloc consists of middle class layabouts not only because it isn’t true, but so what if it was? The premise rests on a very outdated understanding of class composition and the student economic experience, which are far more complex.
The new kids on the bloc are the same people who won’t be able to go to university if fees are raised. A large percentage is really young in terms of the traditional Black Bloc demographic, Further Education students, who are contesting the end to Education Maintenance Allowance. And a large number are current HE students including many who also work, having no other way of housing and feeding themselves at university. Indeed, only a relatively small number of students even from relatively well off backgrounds sail through their degree without worrying about money. So, none of these groups in the bloc are privileged. It is no wonder that they share the belief that most ‘radicals’ abandoned long ago - again under New Labour - that FE and HE and ALL education should be FREE. At Millbank, this ideal was expressed in placards but felt hopelessly optimistic. The presence of this idea now in the Black Bloc shows us that the students are deadly serious about this and mean every word of what they say.
In addition, the bloc contains workers, with the same sort of demographic as non-bloc workers on the march. Some are in skilled and secure jobs (if any jobs are secure at the moment). But most take action in the context of threatened redundancy, family members losing their jobs, and the severe forms of exploitation and under-payment at work that the young experience most severely.
Many are also trade unionists. This might surprise some non-anarchist readers, but anarchist workers are more likely to join a trade union than many other workers. There is a very high level of consciousness about the need to organise collectively in an economic context as a means of defeating the bosses. So whilst anarchists have very specific critiques of traditional unions, we also consider that if there is a union in our workplace, that is where we will meet other militants and it is with these people that we need to organise. Anarchists will often also be members of workers organisations such as the IWW the Solidarity Federation that are based around specific industries, rather than dividing works according to their function and workplace status, as traditional unions do. It is also often anarchist workers who run the risk of attempting to unionise workplaces that are not unionised. It is increasingly in this latter kind of industry that young workers are employed.
Then there are those who first got involved after taking part on the G20 demonstrations in 2009. Many attended that in order to express in a creative way their frustration at greed and inequality and, very largely, at the destruction of the environment. They were kettled for hours and beaten arbitrarily, and the death of Ian Tomlinson scarred and changed them forever. So they are sick of being patronised since then and told to wait their turn and leave things to the reformists. What has that achieved? Everything just got worse. So don’t tell us to sit quietly in the corner anymore. Throw in the inspiration that was the Greek Winter of 2008 into the mix, and you have today’s Black Bloc.
Finally, so what if some of them did turn out to be from middle class backgrounds and are unemployed by choice? Work for most of us is one of the worst aspects of life under Capitalism. Is it only wealthy university students who are allowed to take a ‘gap year’? In their case it is between school and HE, and they might travel round the world at their parents’ expense. Given the low cost of JSA to the tax-payer, is it so bad that some might want to be unemployed for a time before, as they inevitably and increasingly must, they attempt to join the rat race. Isn’t it the ideas that they come up with and the radical structures they create in this hiatus that their critics really resent and even fear? Their backgrounds could be middle class in some cases, but their identification, demonstrably, is not.
Again, it’s about context. Many on the bloc come from inner city London estates and have no money, no prospect of a job, no way of accessing education and, with the new cap on Housing Benefit, even less chance of leaving home. But if these kids were rioting on their estates, many people who have recently criticised the bloc would sympathise with their frustration as unemployed, discriminated against victims of the police and the state. If those kids were masked, they’d be relieved, for their own safety, because we all know what happens to kids in police stations. At the same time, as in the inner city riots of the 1980s, commentators from anarchists through the whole spectrum of the left and to liberal commentators wondered why they were trashing their home area, asking, “Why don’t they take it to the rich?” Well now they are. Deal with it.
Anarchist Communism and the Black Bloc
The student movement has transformed the established anarchist movement within the space of a year because of the breath-taking lack of compromise in its vision of equality of opportunity, and the speed with which it took this to its logical conclusion – we must bring down inequality. Students now joining the movement might be shocked to learn how ‘anti-student’ the anarchist movement was until relatively recently. There was a perception that students – university students that is - were privileged and apathetic. Class War took the piss and talked of beating them up; a magazine was launched called ‘Anti-Student’. In the Anarchist Federation, if a student joined, by and large we expected them to disappear off home in the first holiday and that we’d never see them again. What a different material circumstances make!
But how good is the bloc at representing anarchism more generally? The rest of the movement is small and does not have anything like the impact that the bloc now has. So the bloc is our ambassador. What people think of the bloc, is what they think of anarchists. So again we return to the issue of Black Bloc strategy. Is it enough? Isn’t it necessary to build into it somehow the full scope of the anarchist message and have a strategy not just for the bloc but a strategy for changing society? This has to be through generalised class-consciousness and it isn’t clear yet how the bloc contributes to this. Is the bloc aware that it can’t substitute itself for the class? It can’t start the fight for us, and neither can it win it.
As the article in this issue on Greece demonstrates, rage at the police murder of a young man that turned into a Winter of Rage, fire and fighting, and even to the tragic death of some workers in a bank, was not nihilism or insurrectionist posturing. It has breathed life into a popular movement that, even though it looks nothing like our anarchist movement, is coherent, self-reflexive, and building a better world with workers and others in Greece’s inner cities. All anarchist movements are highly literate. It’s just something that goes with the territory. But the Greeks use literature in a different way and every action that looks like a Black Bloc action is accompanied by a leaflet explaining what has been done and why, to help people understand who anarchists are and to encourage the public to come to their social centres and squats and see for themselves which, by all accounts, they do.
The bloc makes it impossible to miss anarchists, just as is the case in Greece. So how does the bloc communicate what anarchists believe to ordinary people? How can those people ‘find’ us if all they see of us is masked and anonymous. We still need to work on that, but part of it is certainly having a non-secret face, by being a group or organisation that people can meet, debate ideas with and hopefully join. Can the bloc point people in the direction of more easily accessible anarchism?
People who condemn Black Bloc violence on demos, or question why they did this on ‘someone else’s’ demo, are missing the point about demos. In themselves nowadays they mean nothing because in our obsession with this disempowering parliamentary democracy their purpose has been unclear. Demos began as expressions of collective class anger and they were effective because of the implicit threat of violence that lay behind them. The message was, “We are giving you a warning”, and often it served the state best to take heed of that warning, because next time we might not just listen to a few speeches and then go home.
Nowadays it is as though the ‘threat’ is nothing more than that we might not vote for you. And we didn’t anyway! People in their droves didn’t vote for the Tories and they didn’t win the election, and still they are doing this, and doing it legally! How much more evidence do we need that parliamentary democracy is nothing of the sort.
As if we hadn’t got the message, on Sunday 27th Vince Cable told us that marches of this sort wouldn’t change the government’s mind. Let’s rise to that challenge! Let’s become the violent majority. If we did that, the irony is that we would need to use very little violence at all even to property, let alone against people.
Forward to the General ‘Social Strike’
As we go to press, education unions are discussing co-ordinated strike action for June 30th. This can take place legally because of the stage that the UCU is at in its dispute with employers, but there is talk of un-related unions taking action then too. This is a long way from the general strike that which we know the TUC will never call. However, that makes it is all the more important that anarchists - trade unionists and otherwise - should support local activists taking action. Aside from members of the unions in question observing the strike day, it is just as important (and maybe more so) that we begin to put into practice more concertedly and generally tactics that anarchists have been discussing. We need to do this from the perspective of a movement able to co-ordinate action and mobilise nationally, as workers, students, claimants and service users. We have a hugely significant role to play whilst the trades unions work out what to do about the fact that most workers are still too afraid to undertake even legal action. That means arguing for interlinking tactics such as
• Economic blockades, for example disruption to and occupations of businesses and commercial communications (everything from roads to e-mail). This is the sort of action UK Uncut and the Solidarity Federation have been advocating and undertaking. It includes also mass non-payment of, say, bus fares (see the article on Greece elsewhere in this issue), and occupations and solidarity pickets of workplaces where workers face redundancy or victimisation.
• Social strikes, which go beyond the concept of workers downing tools and support for economic struggles. We need these because workers, even those in unions, have very little clout in the current legal climate. Why should we wait for them to kick-start action on issues that affect us anyway? Tactics include sit-ins, read-ins, teach-ins and even work-ins where services are threatened, such as old peoples’ homes, libraries, NHS buildings, and voluntary sector projects such as the CAB, homeless shelters, women’s services. Also, it means support by workers for people without economic power, for example by dole office workers in support of claimants, including people in receipt of incapacity and disability benefits.
• General assemblies to co-ordinate this action, involving everyone affected by the cuts, regardless of whether they work or not. These may be in town centres, colleges, day centres, communities or wherever people identify their collective interests as lying. If they take over contested spaces such as universities or wasted space such as empty Job Centres – both of which have happened – so much the better. They must be horizontally structured and avoid organisational models that would allow authoritarians to take over.
These things are already taking place and being planned. But we are arguing for anarchists making every effort to help co-ordinate such action, because collectively we are so much more threatening to the state and empowering to the working class than we are alone. As such we need to be part of generalised anti-cuts campaigns, because it’s all very well us organising horizontally, but we need to make it clear why non-hierarchical structures are more effective, full stop.
So if June 30th looks like happening, be there! If not.....let’s start something.
Published in the Anarchist Federation's theoretical journal Organise! (#76).