Shift #12

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Submitted by shifteditor1 on December 10, 2012

Editorial - Whose Ritz? Our Ritz!

Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by shifteditor3 on December 11, 2012

So that was it. We had ‘our’ moment, ‘our’ J18. March 26th was the day that the emerging anti-austerity movement had been waiting for, and there were certainly parallels (both political and aesthetic) to the heydays of the ‘movement of movements’, as little as 10 years ago, when black-clad anarchists turned their backs on the marches of global justice coalitions to smash the windows of McDonald’s, Starbucks and luxury hotels.

After Millbank, nobody knew what was going to come next, but could it have been predicted that we’d return to the aesthetics of the black bloc? After Millbank, despite the escalated forms of action that took place, the distinctions of good protester/bad protester, anarchist/liberal, student/worker were hard to uphold. But what did the smashing of the Ritz, on March 26th, amongst other ‘symbols’ of capitalism/wealth, signify?

Smashing up Oxford Street and the militant forms of ‘action’ that took place on the day no doubt felt exciting, a break from several things - passive marching, respect for private property, obedience to the law etc. And in this way they can certainly be experienced as transgressive - revolutionary even - a ’step up’ from the traditional lobby, march, go home format. This was the first time that you could seriously talk of a black bloc in the UK. Spontaneous and presumably unplanned, this did not hamper the unravelling of events once people got to the West End/Soho: surrounded by the symbols of wealth and capital, energy high, the city became an outlet for the frustration of the workers, students and unemployed who took part. However, although there were elements which felt like markers of progress on the day - the levels of militancy, the amounts of students still active since the education protests and the unquestionable antagonism toward the current political/economic system - there were also familiar flaws and potentials which weren’t taken advantage of.

While the black bloc was vanguard in its form of action (we mean this both in a negative and a positive sense: negative in its separatism and scorn towards public sector workers on the demo; positive in its move to create a discursive space outside of the sanctioned and sanitised world of Barber, Miliband & Co), its content was a shameless and at times embarrassing political patchwork borrowed from the much more articulate UK Uncut and from social democratic populism dressed up as ‘class war’. Black bloc tactics are an important strategy to protect ourselves and to maintain the same anonymity that the authorities use to protect corporations, the police, etc. But a strategic focus on tactics should come hand-in-hand with a political strategy and analysis. At a time when the discourse of the anti-globalisation left makes sense, with the political/economic system blown open and exposed for what it really is, how do these forms of action make use of this opportunity and resonate with those outside of the militant activist ‘ghetto’?

But then again, the UK Uncut message, however media friendly and attractive it may seem is also deeply flawed. By focusing on tax evasion we run the risk of supporting the legitimacy of the state and hiding the inherent inequality of capitalism beneath calls for fairness (‘we pay our taxes, why don’t you’). Attempts at trying to match up this ‘lost money’ with the budget cuts also serves to mask the political element of the cuts behind simple, technocratic solutions.

For many anarchists and anti-capitalists there was a strong ‘get rid of the rich’ message. Whilst this might be a first step toward a class analysis we must be careful with anti-rich politics. Millionaires are not the same as the bourgeoisie. From many anarchists there was a peculiar combination of ’smash the state’ but also calls to ‘tax the rich’ (presumably a call to increase income tax, inheritance tax, taxation of financial transactions, and similar). While no-one was arguing for austerity, no-one really seemed to be making the case for ‘luxury for all’ either. Arguments that placed capitalism at blame, structurally, for blocking universal prosperity, were lacking. The ‘anarchist’ alternative seemed to rely almost entirely on the redistribution of wealth, rather than on the argument that there is no distribution without production, and that it is this sphere of work that we have to address to really provide a class struggle alternative and an alternative to the attacks on our quality of life.

Whether we were smashing windows, occupying Fortnum and Mason’s or marching on the main demonstration, there is clearly a concern here that we are separating ourselves off, giving ourselves a very distinct identity from each other, from ‘ordinary people’. Contrary to Millbank and Dec 9th, where even Cameron admitted that a majority of people were making trouble, March 26th saw the dusting off of the traditional protest narratives of the violent minority. So if there’s a group of maybe a few thousand annoying the cops in Piccadilly/Trafalgar Sq. while 300,000 are listening to speeches by the Labour leader, there’s clearly the question of how we relate to wider struggle against cuts, especially those of the public sector workers present. This will be a key task in the coming months - one which is, unfortunately, much harder than breaking a plate glass window.

A day in three parts - Nic Beuret

Nic Beuret's account and analysis of the TUC-organised March for the Alternative on the 26th of March - in his own words, "What happened on the 26th and why did it leave so many with such an empty feeling?" Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on May 10, 2011

March 26th saw over half a million people take to the streets of London to protest against the latest regime of austerity, cuts and social reorganisation. This multitude of bodies had no one single (or simple) demand. Their dissent flowed through select channels on the day; three well worn acts of an old play, one that looked tired and failed to evoke much feeling from the audience or the actors on the streets. What comes next is the pressing question, but we need to first look at why the play failed to resonate. What happened on the 26th and why did it leave so many with such an empty feeling?

ACT ONE - THE MARCH

The march on the 26th was significantly larger than had been anticipated when the Trade Union Council (TUC) reluctantly called it last year. The TUC’s complicity with the human rights organisation, Liberty, and the Metropolitan Police around the management of the protests was born of a particular fear – one that may still come to pass. Their fear was (and is) that the mass of bodies on the march would not merely flow smoothly into electoral politics but instead move beyond it into some realm of civil disobedience. They fear that we will move past the existing consensus that organises our lives and become ‘ungovernable’.

In many ways their fear is justified – disobedience is becoming attractive and the impotence of electoral politics (and the bankruptcy of the Labour Party) is patently clear. Since the global downturn began there has been a return of workplace occupations and wildcat strikes in the UK, and a series of uprisings and revolutions around the globe. Their fears were heightened by the militancy of the student protests last year and the actions inspired by groups like UK Uncut as well as the range of disobedient struggles by groups defending libraries, nurseries and other services and spaces.

The sheer scale of numbers involved in the march speaks to the powerful potential for disobedience and resistance. On their own, however, numbers are just one public relations element in the electoral cycle; fodder for headlines, opinion polls, party manifesto promises and back-room deals - much like the Iraq war protests of 2003. Complicity with the police was the only possible response to the not-yet disobedient mass, to contain it and direct it towards acceptable political spaces and ward off any possible contagion from its proximity to more radical forms of politics.

In many ways the moment of fear may have passed, in part because the radical left failed to make the most of the potential on the day. Disobedience is not the preserve of the radical left.

Disobedience and resistance are both continually coming into being throughout society. But the tides of rebellious desire, spontaneous in their eruption, also tend to ebb without channels within which to flow. Spontaneity and organisation have a necessary (if conflictual) relationship – in whatever form they take (gang, collective, union, party, social network, etc) – that is necessary for substantive social transformation ‘from below’. The radical left has an important role to play here; not as leaders but as co-conspirators, comrades organising resistance through their proximity to other potentially rebellious bodies.

The two main co-conspiratorial bodies on the day – UK Uncut and Black bloc - both failed to make something more – more disobedient, more radical, more disruptive – out of the day. UK Uncut because of their organisational and political limits and the Black bloc because of their separatism and misjudged theatre of militancy.

ACT TWO - THE OCCUPATION

Somewhere in the order of 4,000 people headed off from the TUC march towards Oxford St on the 26th. However singular and distinct they were, their actions were largely conditioned by the narrative (political and organisational) of UK Uncut, and a much smaller number as a part of the Black bloc. So while the radical left in general can be said to have fallen short of what was possible, particular attention has to be paid to the two ‘groups’ that demarcated the disobedient space on the day.

After March 26th it is clear that UK Uncut has reached its political and organisational limit. Beyond the critique of the ‘leaderless network’ form adopted by them over the last year, their network on the day failed. By all accounts the dispersed actions were poorly coordinated and left largely to the initiative of individual groups who lacked the means to effectively communicate between themselves. The main occupation on the day was so badly organised that several of the groups, organised by flag colour, were ‘led’ by people who didn’t know where they were going or what the action was.

This lack of organisational capacity speaks to a larger problem. Calling UK Uncut a ‘banner that actions can take place under’, a network that needs no further coordination or leadership of any kind, both mystifies the actual organisational processes that are at play and works to inhibit the development of other forms of coordination. UK Uncut is clearly not leaderless - it is obvious that there are some core personnel narrating the story via ‘owned’ communication channels and by the dominance of their voices both within the network and publicly (manifesting an invisible hierarchy of the most unreconstructed kind). All this is enabled by the rhetoric of a leaderless network. There is no such thing. All structures have spaces, processes or bodies that have more or less access to power than others. The important question is not whether or not there are leaders, but how power is distributed and decisions made.

If the problems with UK Uncut were purely organisational, it would be easy enough to call some form of spokescouncil (as in the days of the anti-globalisation movement), or arrange some form of participatory democracy or delegate structure. We can speculate that perhaps the fact that this hasn’t happened echo’s some of the similarly problematic processes within Climate Camp – a political precursor to UK Uncut. It also points to the urgent need to analyse the NGO-ification of social movements in the UK. But the problems of UK Uncut go beyond organisational forms and into its political content.

Tax avoidance is an easy entry point for many people and it directs outrage towards those that embody a kind of capitalism that is built on theft and dispossession. However, while it might be easy and simply it misdirects people and their outrage in three important ways.

Firstly, it rests on a false assumption - one that moves people back towards the kind of policy-driven politics that the TUC favour. The basic political ‘ask’ (to use the NGO concept that underpins so much of the strategy of UK Uncut) is that if all the tax that large corporations avoided was paid there would be no need for cuts. The problem with this is that the cuts are not necessary per se (i.e. for purely economic reasons, as evidenced by the variety of economic strategies being pursued by other neoliberal governments) – the cuts and restructuring are political and would still be taking place if the tax was paid. Targeting ‘unpaid’ tax reinforces the idea that it is this ‘missing’ money that is the problem and ignores the immediately political nature of the restructuring.

Secondly, targeting tax avoidance as a practice accepts the reduction of politics to economics. Part of the neoliberal project is to reduce politics to a narrowly defined species of economics. Individual responsibility and a belief in the market as a fair mechanism for distribution are both essential to neoliberalism. Fighting the political reordering of society by calling for companies to play fair ‘just like us’ leaves this form of politics intact. What UK Uncut is calling for is mere correction, one brought about by a (very) ‘civil’ disobedience.

Finally, the main actor prefigured in UK Uncut’s actions is the ‘good citizen’ – one who does the right thing, who pays their taxes, participates and above all believes. This wholesome figure, if it ever existed, is certainly fracturing under the weight of the crisis. This is exactly where the outrage and defiance we have seen over the last six months comes from, with the betrayal of the old form of citizenship and aspiration, of the promise of social mobility and the payout on entrepreneurial activity. Using this figure reinvigorates what is now a false constituency and misdirects people’s anger and rage.

What attracts people to the actions of UK Uncut is something that many seem to instinctively grasp as appropriate to the moment – the occupation. The occupation as an idea has been bubbling up through the imaginary within the UK – from Climate Camp to the numerous workplace occupations that have taken place over the last three years, as well as examples from Greece to France and Tunisia to Egypt. Occupation has a strong grip on our imagination of disobedience. It is this that we should take from UK Uncut - people recognise it as an appropriate tactic for this moment and one that speaks to our reappropriation of time and space.

INTERMISSION

The terrain of the 26th was marked out by two different forms of protest that both led back to existing political forms of expression, both aimed at reform and both ultimately correlated to a reduced constituency. What we saw was a mass of bodies from a range of networks, organisations, groups and tendencies take part in these two spaces. While the potential existed within this disparate multitude to go beyond the limits of the TUC march and the UK Uncut spectacular occupation, on the day this did not manifest itself. Hope lies with some of the actions and forms that emerged before the 26th – such as the university occupations, the local anti-cuts actions and town hall ‘riots’, the various service actions and campaigns around childcare and the NHS.

This hope requires that people quickly recover from the fact that while most organisations were building for the TUC march or actions on the 26th, few had any plans for what comes next. Despite a vast amount of the radical left proclaiming otherwise, the latest neoliberal restructuring of our lives is not a re-run of the Poll Tax. It is in fact completely different. Our parallel is not with the Poll Tax but with the Structural Adjustment Programs that until 2008 have been taking place in the global South. We need to look to the forms of resistance in South Africa, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere, and not to the much-reified Poll Tax resistance and riot.

ACT THREE – THE BLACK BLOC

According to those that took part on the day, at their height the Black bloc numbered around 500. While the boundaries between the Black bloc and the remaining mass involved in civil disobedience were not absolutely distinct, the Black bloc was a clearly demarcated form on the day, and needs to be analysed as such. Especially, it marked itself out as the militant anti-capitalist body above all others.

The Black bloc as a form came into its own during the anti-globalisation movement. Its purpose was to form a visible anarchist body that engages in property damage against specific targets that embody capitalism. It was, ten years ago, an attempt to engage in a form of militant theatre that broke with the non-violence mantra of other protesters and to bring into the movement a form of class analysis that was perceived to be lacking.

On March 26th, as an alternative to both the TUC march and the UK Uncut inspired actions, the Black bloc’s propaganda of the deed had two implicit aims: to deepen and generalise the militancy on the streets and draw attention to a critique of capitalism through its choice of targets. The Black bloc failed on both points.

The Black bloc does not represent militancy – this isn’t, but should be, obvious. Reviewing the various analysis and conversations surrounding the events of the 26th, it would seem that this is the perspective of many on the bloc. There were 4,000 people actively engaged in radical disobedience on the day and 500 on the bloc at its peak.

The majority of the militants who have come out of the various protests over the last six months, many of whom engaged in property damage, chose not to join the Black bloc. This does not mean that they were any less militant for it. Militancy cannot be reduced to property damage, nor is property damage the most militant form of protest. As the history of Black struggles in the USA teaches us, sometimes taking a seat in the ‘wrong’ place can be the most militant action of all. Militancy has become generalised, and with 4,000 militant bodies in the streets, what was the point of the Black bloc as a separate entity? As a piece of militant and aggressive theatre it wasn’t needed to maintain visible antagonism on March 26th, or to develop the existing militancy out there on the streets. Nor did it generate ‘more’ militancy in the same way the Millbank riot in November 2010 did. Why?

Millbank was a mass action – it wasn’t a self-defined group that smashed its way into the Tory HQ but a huge section of the demonstration. Its character as such made it resonate – it was open and undefined. The protests that followed had similar characteristics: huge sections of the crowd were involved in fighting the cops during December, for example. This open and undefined nature created spaces where bodies came together to find a common need for militancy. It was this free-for-all nature that generalised militancy; the open relationships in struggle without pre-definition beyond a shared anger and rage. And it is the closing down of this space that was the ultimate achievement of the Black bloc on the day.

By failing to do something that took things further that others could join without losing their own political identities, or by refusing to act as just a part of the larger mass, the Black bloc actively separated itself from the remaining militant bodies and ruptured this openness.

This exclusivity meant that the imagery of the Black bloc in action struck no chord in its audience. All they saw was empty theatre – what they were expecting from ‘the anarchists’. Symbolic actions, including attacking banks, can be vital moments in a rebellion. But the power of these actions comes from their resonance – people must feel the moment and realise what lies at the heart of that feeling. But what they saw was a group of bodies alien to them, apart, engaged in actions they could not be involved in or identify with because they were not the Black bloc. The Black bloc ultimately marks out a territory – we are the militants, taking the battle to the state and capital, and you are not – that fractures the potential for mass insurrection. There are times this alienness can serve to excite the imagination, but when it is but a small part of a larger militant mass, it has the opposite effect and undermines its own reason for being.

FINALE

The frustration with the 26th is born of the potential to move through those limits that currently define our resistance. A potential that was not fulfilled for a transgression that somehow didn’t come to pass.

It is clear that the politics of the TUC and the old electoral left are long past being able to serve even reformist ends. It is less clear what emerges beyond the politics of UK Uncut and the Black bloc. What was surprising was the lack of visible presence from the other main character on the stage in the lead up to the 26th – the students as a singular body. After all it is this body that made many think something more was possible. As individual occupations and groups they were there, but somehow their presence was not felt, not as a moment of rupture. Perhaps it was impossible that they could provide this moment on the day. Perhaps something else was needed. Or, perhaps, the day was made for something more subtle and quiet – a series of subtexts and whispers that ran between the lines and acts of the play.

We haven’t really begun to explore what militancy could mean – we don’t really know what is possible anymore. We need to move out of our old roles and habits, and find new ways to inspire resistance and revolt and make both endure. The day could have been, and should have been, a space to explore what this could be. But we lack, as a radical left, the places for these conversations and seductions to happen. After the 26th it’s become painfully clear that we need forms of organisation to carry this militancy further. If militant organisation has any meaning, it is in this – to inspire revolt and make it endure beyond the moment of insurrection and riot.

Originally published in Shift magazine

Nic Beuret is currently a member of The Paper collective and was on the buggy bloc with his daughter on March 26 (while his partner caused havoc in the city). He has variously been involved in a successful community nursery campaign in Hackney, resisting job losses as a shop steward in his workplace, local anti-cuts campaigning and No Borders activism in Australia over recent years.

Anarchists and the Big Society

Much has been made of the supposed links between the "Big Society" of David Cameron and anarchist politics. Percy takes a closer look. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by shifteditor3 on December 11, 2012

The Big Society is an unnerving idea, one that has tripped many with even the slightest public conscious as they stagger towards confronting the austerity regime. Amidst the dismantling of social provisions of the State, it seems this vacuous rhetoric goes straight to the heart of undermining the traditional foundations of progressive movements; calling for cooperation and solidarity in lifting society to a higher plain of socialisation. It is, of course, a divisive use of language, but even so, it has been approached with caution. There is nothing new taking place when the ideas and values of the Left get swept up with and become part of the status quo. This time, again, Conservative party intentions seem not only to incorporate but also to subvert or blunt the political concerns of broad groups from community charities to squatted social centres.

When the government asks its subjects to “come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want” , it’s fair to take a skeptical step back and reflect on what is going on. Not just because it seems out of character for a Conservative government to propose an approach that offers such a particular form of social agency. Looking back, our experience of modern Thatcherite conservatism is one of social destruction and decapitation of the means for social action. Of course, few on the broad left would ponder on the idea of the Big Society without skepticism and we only need scratch the surface to reveal the dogma of Neoliberalism. David Cameron is, after all, following in the footsteps of Thatcher, but the Big Society is something more than a ploy to differentiate him from the deeply unpopular ‘there is no such thing as society’.

When the Big Society was first introduced as a potential policy for the new government it was met with instant scorn and distrust. Britain’s large Third (or charity) Sector has dealt with funding cuts while continuing to make up for a lack of political will to tackle the social grievances in this country. Any calls for charities to further their provision of social services while putting a halt on funds was seen as insulting and misguided. An embarrassing policy U-turn for the government was anticipated.

But the concept hasn’t gone away. Charities and voluntary organisations never had the unity of perspective, nor the political impetus, to present a real challenge. Instead they criticise the perspective of the government for their lack of consultation and their failure to recognise charities need more money, not less. Then, reluctantly, they work longer hours and accept more volunteers. Initially, it is easy to denounce the Big Society as incapable of delivering – in the short term in particular the results will be sparse – but in the long term the success for the government will be more subtle.

The Tories claim the argument for a free market has been won. Despite this they have always known there are winners and losers and that markets still need something (pacifying) to hold the fabric of society together. The Big Society is the attempt to expropriate community and compassion, to ‘provide’ the ideas of social responsibility (outside the State) without providing anything at all.

Charities and publicly funded institutions will call the Big Society unsuccessful. And that’s fine, but the danger is we lose sight of the government’s long term objectives, to re-establish the role of the state – to dismantle and reassemble the notion of the ‘public’ – and make way for a new moral order that sanctifies the existing social divisions while incorporating social action as a solution to the inability of capitalism to close the divide.

Our 21st Century Big Society claims to hand power to communities through decentralization and fosters a spirit of social action. This presents a problem. Social action among communities has always taken place. Big Society is a huge insult to all those in established institutions, plus all those who work tirelessly outside these institutions - often for no financial return - in the interests of community and social change. Those who struggle to stabilise the social deficit between the rich and the poor, those with and those without opportunities, between the exploited and the exploiters.

The means of community resistance is now being triumphed as the saving grace of our future homogeneous and socially aware society. The role of the state is changing. It can no longer function with the pretence of being a publicly contested space, a place for ideologue and bastion of public need. Now we have managers of the economy and administrators of law and order. When we consider the changes in State form we can see the removal of political ideas which are being replaced with a logic of economic governance. The Big Society is the perfect solution for a small government that protects total capitalism. The rolling back of the State is precisely a removal of social responsibility for (homes, health, education) the things it took so long for social struggles to achieve. Such changes will inevitably provoke protest.

Chants of ‘No Cuts’ and ‘pay your taxes’ that have been heard across the protest landscape suggest the State should uphold its responsibility to serve our needs and mediate our social life. Furthermore, there is a moral plea being proposed to the rich to avoid legal loopholes, perhaps even for State law to be firmer in regulating capital. We could say these pleas call for a stronger, bigger State. Or simply suggest a confusion of ideas among the direct-action Twitterati.

An evident insecurity has also taken hold among anarchist and anti-capitalist circles. The drive towards cooperative organizing, community empowerment and resilience has left many in fear that their actions will complement the rhetoric of the State. Particularly, anything that is volunteer led, without funding and is mostly achieved at the expense of the time we have left after selling our labour, is understandably ill at ease. What needs to be tackled is not the method of social action, but rather the cause.

So how are anarchists supposed to interact with a shrinking State and public condemnation of the removal of State support initiatives? Why are anarchists against the austerity cuts? What are we protecting here?

An ideological push towards total-market-capitalism is being presented as an economic necessity with a social policy to salvage the cohesive quality that social rights once achieved. But beneath the image it is clear that Tory plans to foster cooperation are shrouded in a veil of economic slavery and consolidation of a republic of property. As a global phenomena, the establishment of State administered legal systems - which work most effectively for the protection of property rights - cement capitalism in the logic of the State. Of course, it has been like this for some time; however, the destruction of the ‘public’ consciousness of the State marks the final process of the separation of Politics from Economics.

This diversionary separation, once achieved, ensures the safeguarding of the economic logic and perfomative role of the government that operates on two different strata. Any challenge is met with Law and Order and sanctioned State violence. And so, the coercion of the State lies in its protection of forms of living and dissemination of moral norms. The protection of rights of property - and the moral order that follows - exacerbates exploitation and directly binds the nature of the economy to the State. State politics and the economy are presented as power, or forces, in their own right, but are in fact wholly linked and support each other. Social relations are embedded in the economic inequalities that are protected and maintained by State law. The majority of populations are denied access to valuable property or ownership of resources that give opportunities for capital accumulation.

The Big Society is a negative policy that aims to make up for the inequality and disproportionate allocation of resources that create the social inefficiency of Capitalism. It is a policy that aims to affect the grievance without affecting the cause. We could call this a meta-policy, following market economics, which accepts existing socio-economic relations as given, yet outside the realm of politics. Furthermore, the Big Society extends the myth of abstract equality. Before the law, it is claimed, we are all equal and equality of rights equates to an equality of being and meritocratic impartiality. Meanwhile, the inequality of society is separated from the politics of the State. Any social divisions deriving from this inequality are smoothed out, or made (somehow) irrelevant, in part by the participation in an imagined community. Instead of exchanging wages for labour, active members of Big Society initiatives receive moral fortitude for their actions and sense of belonging to a community committed to social values and provision of care. We are all in this together.

Capitalism, many would argue, is a planetary catastrophe. The Big Society aims to make the catastrophe of communities in Britain more bearable while reproducing socio-economic relations for the benefit of a certain class. The unequal impact of these austerity cuts, the integration of market capitalism into all aspects of social life, the proliferation of crisis-capitalism - the march of the zombie - can only be made bearable through an assault on the mediator of socio-economic relations, as well as development of forms of living and social relations that do not seek to extract capital from relationships; not simply by cooperative social actions - at one’s own expense - that leaves the social reproductive potential of capitalism in place.

We should not be afraid of the incorporation of our language and ideas into the rhetoric and function of the State. We must occupy the rhetoric! Transform it with an understanding of our relationship to the State. It is an invisible hand that, safeguarded by the State, creates the division, exploitation and mechanisation of social life. It must be revealed as the hand of the State.

The necessity now is to subvert this negative cooperative society for a more positive one. For a community where social action can encounter a new form of lived social experience. An experience that can inform a new politics by its critique of State form, recognition of economics as politics and creative engagement with social reproductive forces. We are human by our own being, and not the membership of someone else’s vision of society. The Big Society separates community from the means for people to establish their own communities as they please and are desirable for them. It separates citizens (equal under law) from the wider context of citizenship – the potential of social agency – and ignores the binary between citizens and the state.

Only once it is realised that equality, democracy and liberty cannot be provided by a government authority that protects private property are communities able to locate the critical part of their struggle for social care. The other, creative part will be realised in the production of communities to come. We want to protect our public services (many of which were founded on the principles of working-class self-help initiatives), not because we rely on the State for support but because it is part of an experience beyond Capitalism that was forced on the State. The Conservatives may develop their policies around an anarcho-capitalist vision of the future, by dismantling the State’s ‘public’ function, but anarchists should continue to point to the destruction of the Common in the relations of people to economic value. The anarcho-capitalist Big Society poses a development in State form but not a change in the relevance of anarchism. Property is still theft, not simply in a classical sense in the denial of its collective possession and use for other purposes, but, under the tyranny of rent and sanctity of profit, of the social means to a life of one’s choosing. When it comes to social action, we are not all in this together, but we should come together, for the Common and beyond the State.

Percy is involved in the University for Strategic Optimism

March 26th and the aftermath – where next for the anti-cuts movement?

Jon Gaynor on the events of March 26th, and the questions posed to the anti-cuts movement by the day's events. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on April 25, 2011

Well, we should have seen it coming. The police, media and protest organisers were talking up the prospect of “violent troublemakers” “hijacking” the TUC march for weeks in advance of March the 26th, and a few smashed windows and paint bombs later, they showed us - in the words on the Daily Telegraph - “Britain's face of hatred” in all its spectacular glory.

The distinction between “legitimate”, “peaceful” protest on the one hand, and on the other the “violence” of property destruction was used and abused in the aftermath the demonstration, with Teresa May describing “black shirted thugs” rampaging through the West End, championing the arrest of 146 protesters and outlining further curbs to the right to protest. While the number of arrests was consistently quoted in the media within the context of “violence”, the overwhelming majority (138) of them came from the mass arrest of the peaceful occupants of Fortnum and Masons. In fact, only three people were charged with criminal damage, and two with assaulting police officers.

While the mainstream media and police had already set up their distinction between “peaceful” and “violent” protesters well in advance of the day, and made maximum use of it afterwards, this division began to be mirrored in radical circles in the distinction between the peaceful disorder of UK uncut and the “violence” of the window-breakers. Some UK Uncutters appeared to object at being lumped in with the black bloc, and sought to distance themselves from its actions. Describing their occupation of Fortnum and Masons in an article for The Guardian the following day, Alex Pinkerman pointed out that “Balloons and beachballs were the only things being thrown in the air. A basket of chocolates was accidentally knocked over so we picked them up.”

While the binary distinction between “peaceful protesters” and “hooligans” is obviously questionable, there is some mileage in comparing the actions of UK Uncut and the black bloc. Mainly, this is because of the nature of the targets. Some of those of the bloc's were simply posh shops and other ostentatious displays of wealth, Topshop was smashed because of the Arcadia group's tax dodging, and the Ritz Hotel is owned by the Barclay brothers, who live offshore their own Island, Brecqhou. Fortnum and Masons, which was occupied by UK Uncut, is owned by Wittington Investments and has its own elaborate tax-dodging schemes.

In this article, we want to look at some of the issues surrounding both forms of protests, and make some suggestions for the direction of the anti-cuts movement.

The promise and limitations of UK Uncut

The UK has seen a wave of high-street demonstrations under the banner of the UK uncut campaign, many of which have been organised locally following call outs distributed through the internet. The protests have seen a number of stores associated with Tax-Dodging picketed, occupied and flyered in cities and towns up and down the country.

The targets of the campaign have been pretty specific. The most high-profile company to be taken on has been the UK-based telecoms giant Vodafone, which is the most profitable mobile phone operator in the world. Last year veteran investigative magazine Private Eye broke a story on Vodafone's successful tax-dodging, which had involved setting up a subsidiary company in Luxembourg purely to route profits from the company's acquisition of Mannesman through a country with a more agreeable tax regime. After a lengthy legal battle, which apparently was going HMRC's way, the taxman agreed to let Vodafone pay a tax bill of £1.2 billion, rather than the full £6 billion in estimated tax. Vodafone have since dismissed the £6 billion figure as a “urban myth”, despite the fact their accountants projected for it in their own bookeeping. Understandably, the story produced a groundswell of anger, of which these demonstrations are a product.

Target number two is head of the Arcadia group empire - and author of the Efficiency Review advising the government on how to shape its cuts - Sir Philip Green. Green, who made his fortune on the back of workers in South Asia working 12 hour shifts for poverty wages, took home a paycheque unprecedented in UK history when he paid himself £1.2 billion in 2005. This was paid to his wife, living in the tax-haven of Monaco, so as to avoid tax.

The demonstrations have garnered a good deal of attention from the authorities and the media, both of whom have launched investigations into the “ringleaders” of the protests. On their own, the demos have caused a fair bit of disruption, and brought to light the fact that the same government seeking to impose historic cuts in the standard of living in the UK is also allowing its friends in business to avoid fulfilling their tax obligations, if nothing else shattering the great lie that “we're all in this together”.

There are evidently positive aspects to the protests, but some of their limitations are immediately striking. Fundamentally, the protests don't push beyond the logic of social democracy, in fact, playing devil's advocate one could go further and argue they are compatible with a right-wing populist analysis of the crisis: tax-avoiding multinational companies are sucking money from the country, unlike the hard done-by 'British taxpayer', forming another fundamentally alien parasite on the country's back – add it the the list with the EU, immigrants, etc…

Furthermore, the basic logic of the callouts is the need to uphold the rule of law – these companies have a legal obligation to pay their taxes, which they shirk. This much is stated up front by UK Uncut, who, styling themselves as “big society revenue and customs”, state that “if they won't chase them, we will”. Essentially, the argument as it stands is for the state to live up to it's promise and to actually deliver on the idealised face of its material function. The role of the state in capitalism is to underwrite the functioning of the capitalist market. The state is a prerequisite of capitalism in that the ability to guarantee private property rights and therefore the ability to buy and sell requires a legal and judicial system and repressive state body there to make those rights possible. What makes any property yours or mine, but much more importantly what makes the property of the capitalist his is ultimately the ability of the state to adjudicate and guarantee that he can dispose of his accumulated wealth as he pleases. In practice this means the need to mediate parties and maintain the social fabric in the face of potential unrest – translated into bourgeois ideology in its current, successful iteration as an even-handed regime of “fairness” where we are all taxed, prosecuted, and end up on the receiving end of cuts fairly. Witness every political party attempting to outdo one another by positing the “fairness” of their plans for the economy and attacks on working class living standards in the UK. The state is a subject of criticism because it fails to fulfil its promised role correctly, not because this promised role, along with the toleration of tax avoidance and the regime of austerity all step from its role as a key actor in the continued existence of capitalism.
However, saying this is not to dismiss these protests out of hand or deny they have positive aspects that can be built on, or that there is no space for growth and dialogue. To remain aloof to nascent movements and all the inevitable contradictions real people in the real world bring with them as they become politically engaged is to condemn ourselves to irrelevance.

One positive feature of the demonstrations is the fact that protesters in many cases are willing to create disruption as a tactic. Effective direct action, be it in the form of strike action, demonstrations or occupations is effective by virtue of its ability to disrupt the normal functioning of society. In a society entirely based on the accumulation of capital, this means the disruption of the economy. Occupations of high-street stores have the capacity to inhibit buying and selling and affect directly the normal working of parts of the economy. If we are to effectively resist these cuts, we will have to recognise that ultimately symbolic protests and petitioning representatives to manage capitalism differently isn't going to cut it. The rowdier of the UK Uncut protests have involved high-street linchpins like Topshop being effectively shut down and unable to trade. Such disruption needs to take the form of mass action, and links need to be built with shop workers – the vanguardist paradigm of a few activists on an “action” supergluing themselves to things is no basis for a mass movement, and promisingly many UK Uncut activists recognise this fact.

Another positive aspect of the protests – with qualification - is the fact that the line spun by the government, opposition and media on the ultimate inevitability of the cuts agenda is being rejected. Clearly, the “there is no alternative”, “Britain is bankrupt” line on cuts to public services isn't washing with people, and with good reason – it's hardly a convincing argument when HMRC is haemorrhaging billions in unpaid tax. This rejection is obviously positive. However, this needs to be qualified. Ultimately, if those on the receiving end of these attacks feel the need to balance the state's books on capital's behalf by offering alternate solutions to Britain's deficit there is a problem. Firstly, because we can question the degree to which public debt is a “problem” for capital anyway, as opposed to an integral part of the functioning of states in today's world which is neither inherently “good” or “bad”.1 Secondly, the overall subordination of everyday life and our needs to those of the economy needs to be questioned. Many attacks on tax-avoidance take the desirability of a healthy national economy as a given, with tax-dodging companies being seen as at least in part to blame for capitalism's present difficulties.

Of course, nascent movements are going to be full of contradictions. People don't develop a perfect analysis (if such a thing exists) overnight, and any mass movement against the cuts that may appear is going to be full of all kinds of illusions in social democracy, the labour party, the petitioning of our representatives, the rule of law and order and so on. There remains the possibility of escalation and radicalisation, that participants in such campaigns can move beyond the initial limitations they have. There are a number of positives to such protests which can be built on without tempering constructive criticism.

“Violent protest”

There are criticisms to be made of black bloc-type actions too, but first it is necessary to question some of the common assertions about these kinds of protests, which inform some of the most common criticisms. One obvious point to make is that the policing of protests, even the “fluffiest” of peaceful demonstrations makes any situation implicitly violent. The role of the police is to exercise the state's monopoly on violence; under capitalism this means providing the underpinning of commodity exchange and capital accumulation by guaranteeing property rights and containing any social unrest that could pose a threat to capital. In the context of a demonstration, the police's presence represents ultimately the threat of state violence.

Another obvious point is that property destruction is not violence – violence is the harming of living things, breaking a window is damaging an inanimate object which can be replaced by another. By this reasoning, the overwhelming majority of the black bloc's actions were nonviolent.

However, there are criticisms to be made of this kind of spectacular protest. One is practical – the risks involved as far as prosecution goes compared to the outcomes are significant. Another is that the black bloc strategy can lend itself to a kind of protest tourism and the separation of political action from our daily lives. There are many activists for whom politics is something they do at the weekends, “actions” unrelated to day-to-day organising and agitation in communities and workplaces, the front line of our exploitation by capital. There isn't much evidence that this was the case in London, but nonetheless it is a tendency associated with these kinds of actions that must be borne in mind.

Still, the “disorder” was much more captivating for many of the marches participants than both the official rally and its unofficial rivals, such as that organised by the National Shop Steward's Network, which was a washout. Many demonstrators, admittedly overwhelmingly younger than the majority of the TUC marches participants, were pulled into the unofficial splinter marches and direct action which the black bloc were part of. The author even saw a fair few afternoon drinkers out for a pint before the football getting involved. So much for the elitism of this actions, as was roundly asserted on the internet in the following days.2 Moving forward – dialogue, direct action, and mass action

March 26th was inspiring, both in the numbers who turned out to show their opposition to austerity and the willingness of many to break out of the straightjacket of police-”facilitated” protest. But mass demonstrations like it are not going to beat the cuts.

Ultimately, being right isn't what matters. We can turn out in the hundreds of thousands to make the point that the deficit is a fraction of what it was for decades after the war, that the cuts aren't necessary, that they are opportunistic, that they are laying the bill for the financial crisis at the feet of those who didn't cause it, that the government could raise funds by cracking down on tax evasion, by selling the banks it owns, by returning corporate tax levels to somewhere near what they were for most of the postwar period, etc, etc. We're right, but that isn't what matters.

What matters is the balance of power between capital on the one side and those it exploits on the others – all those who have to work for a living, will have to work for a living (students) or those who must scrape by on the dole. The government feels confident enough that they won't face significant resistance that they're even cutting the pay of the police and prison guards.

So how do we go about building a movement against austerity that can win?

First, by resisting attempts to divide and rule. We have to reject the narrative of “peaceful” protests being hijacked by “extremists”, of property destruction as being inherently “violent”, or of UK Uncut being the legitimate face of direct action as opposed to hooded youths.

Secondly, by taking what is effective from the protests which have emerged so far. Occupying a shop en masse and denying it a day's trading is an effective way of causing economic disruption for those who are not in a position to go on strike or take other workplace action. This logic can be expanded to carrying out economic blockades, which have been used with success in the past 20 years as part of protest movements in South America and France. Direct action is only meaningful when it is mass action which has an economic impact – it is alienating and counterproductive when it becomes the preserve of activists “doing actions” for their own sake.

Thirdly, by not fetishing “non-violence” - either as unthinking reverence for property even when it belongs to a company like Fortnum and Masons, or refusing to defend ourselves in the face of police violence. Peaceful protesters chanted “this is not a riot” and held up their hands as they were brutally kettled and dispersed during the G20 demonstrations in 2009 – it didn't stop them being beaten by the police.

Originally published in Shift magazine.

  • 1http://libcom.org/library/public-debt-makes-state-go-round
  • 2See Andy Newman at Socialist Unity: “The self-indulgent actions of a small minority of protesters yesterday in occupying Fortnum and Masons, and enagaging in vandalism at the Ritz and elsewhere was I believe tactically mistaken, and elitist.”

gingerman

11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Excellent article. There has been some top literature doing the rounds on this subject. This is one of the best I've read.

Arbeiten

11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Good Article man, the critique of UKuncut needs to be put forward, but of course it should remain in a friendly manner.

As for Andy Newman and Socialist Unity. What can I say, heh, voice of the proletarian! [sic]

Udo_Bukowski

11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

"Ultimately, being right isn't what matters. We can turn out in the hundreds of thousands to... {prove}... We're right, but that isn't what matters.".

Asbo-fucking-lutely. Reading between your lines, your inherent criminality as a wannabe revolutionist was covered in 1848 Marxian texts. The sub-Hegelian style you employ is a tedious Debordist switch (much beloved of the former WAGS), but you've proved nothing to me... some satirical references, commonplace activist beliefs... show me the money, find me an accountant who didn't major in journalism that will expose this shit.

Working outside the law ain't that hard.

RitaRearguard

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Doubtless many people have analysed the events of 26th March in London to death but personally I believe that there are still some lessons to be drawn for the future struggle.
The demo was of significance due to its size and the veracity of direct action. Indeed without the size of the demo so much direct action would not have been possible and conversely without the direct action the event would have been just another march from A to B and Milliband would have been able to hijack the headlines.

The fact that it was so large shows that there are still many trade unionists who deferentially answer the call of the TUC, but again many people came not through any union. The fact that thousands of people occupied Hyde Park and central London carrying out direct action whilst the police were kettled, out manoeuvred and forced to retreat shows that with numbers, courage and tactics the police can be at least held in check and we have the power to change things. Both the size of the demo and the strength of direct action have inspired other people to get involved.
Let’s seize back the language, there was no violence till the police started attacking people in Trafalgar Square in the evening. Damage to inanimate objects is not violence, passive protest and direct action with or without damage all have a part to play in the movement. We must have the debate in the movement about tactics but not let the media set the agenda. Just because they say something is wrong doesn’t mean to say that people out there agree with them, if they do we have to have that debate. There have been many people who support or at least respect the actions of the Bloc and when people are assured that the damage was not discriminate but targeted to the corporations and banks that are inflicting damage on us many people (and even some cops) can see the point.

We are all agreed that the way forward is a general strike at first limited and then outright. Such actions will lies and distortions from the press which again we will not heed and let them set the agenda; we set the agenda through debate. And when the police attack such a movement then the tactics which were practiced in the streets of London on the 26th March will be needed.
Indeed to get to the general strike we must push the movement forward by assisting people to gain confidence in their own actions, showing that the state can be defeated and sowing disobedience to break the hold that society has on many people who as they suffer under the system will increasingly lose their passivity.

We must beware those who would divide the movement.
There is no contradiction between the tactics of the Bloc or UK-uncut, both are necessary at different times. If the Bloc and breaking windows becomes a fetish then we have lost the plot, it must be used as one tactic amongst many and not become elitist or give the impression of being estranged from the movement.

Rita Rearguard.

JIMIXY

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Impressive article, especially the critique of UK uncut, however I contest this,

'Another obvious point is that property destruction is not violence – violence is the harming of living things, breaking a window is damaging an inanimate object which can be replaced by another. By this reasoning, the overwhelming majority of the black bloc's actions were nonviolent.'

Violence is defined as - behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/violence?view=uk. this clearly includes property as well as people.

JIMIXY

Violence is defined as - behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/violence?view=uk. this clearly includes property as well as people.

that is the bourgeois definition of violence! (that holds property to be more sacred than humans)

for instance the bourgeois state will ensure that no 'violence' is committed against TopShop's shop fronts, but will fail to remove a homeless person from the violence they inevitably experience during a life on the streets.

March 26th – The emergence of a new radical subjectivity?

Alessio Lunghi and Seth Wheeler analyse the events of the 26th of March and the aftermath. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on May 16, 2011

The explosion of militant activity that escaped the A to B route on March 26th led to the inevitable round of condemnation from both the authorities and the mainstream media, as well as the busy hum of internet debate between those in the direct action/anarchist communities and the wider anti-cuts movement.

For us, these subsequent debates have attempted to return participants of direct action to easily codified ideological positions, and as such, has disguised the transformative and fluid nature of a new antagonistic radical subjectivity.

November 10th – the emergent radical subjectivity

Since setting the agenda with the storming of Millbank on November 10th 2010, the student movement has posited a combatative character for the broader fight back against the governments austerity measures. Students have shown an advanced level of self-organisation and a capacity to respond in the face of increased levels of state repression. The attachment to a more ‘immediate’ means of action has led to a convergence with the proponents of direct action, anarchist and autonomist ideas. This ‘meeting of minds’ has produced a dynamic and antagonistic sphere that exists within the broader anti-cuts movement.

The actions at Millbank were welcomed by many in the anarchist/direct action movements, as a breath of fresh air, ushering in a new cycle of struggle that would overturn the long period of sterility in street based action. While the 10th November was reflective of a growing dissatisfaction with parliamentary politics, it was broader in participation than the pre-existing far-left and anarchist groupings. While anarchists and other militants were present, the day belonged to a new, and as yet unidentified, political subjectivity. This subjectivity has since grown in size, confidence and militancy throughout the student demonstrations, occupations and actions that characterised the winter of 2010.

The first crisis of this new movement came on December 9th, when parliament voted through the rise in tuition fees. Rather than abandon the struggle as a lost cause, a period of ‘regroupment’ around university campuses began. Plans were laid out that intended to extend the terrain of struggle beyond the confines of the university. In London, this was expressed in a wave of squatted occupations, such as the nomadic Really Free School, the Anticuts Space in Bloomsbury and the occupation of the Jobcentre in Deptford. These spaces adopted the organisational form and aesthetics of the university occupations defined as they were by political openness, debate, creativity and horizontal formation.

March 26th - One Day, Two Spheres

The March for the Alternative, organised by the Trade Union Congress ( TUC ) - had a clear aim. The Labour Party and their Trade Union allies did all they could to ensure a clear pro-labour, pro-growth message to the day. As March 26th approached, it became clear that two political spheres were beginning to appear on the public stage – the institutional and the antagonistic. The former defined by the limitations set out by liberal democracy (an A to B route, march, rally, appeals to parliament), the latter by its aspiration to circumvent or transcend these limitations.

Dozens of autonomous feeder marches were organised and were subsequently declared “unofficial” by the TUC. This act of control was the the first demarcation between these loosely defined spheres. Many of these feeder marches were organised through the networks and spaces established out of the previous winter’s struggles. As such these marches were characterised by their autonomous and decentralised political forms, some of which had no or limited consultation with the police on agreed routes.

Politically organised calls, such as the ‘Radical Workers’ and ‘Militant Workers’ Blocs further aided the exposure of participants on the feeder marches to more radical identities and ideas, with a large militant Black bloc of around 600 people forming at ULU. The unwillingness from the TUC – the institutional sphere - to embrace the diversity of messages emerging from within these movements, was significant in enabling radicals and militants free reign to build up strength and influence.

The ‘antagonistic sphere’ of the anti-cuts movement acknowledged the limitations of ‘calling upon parliament’ to effect change. Despite the contradictions that exist inside it (e.g. UK Uncut’s militant lobbying) commonalities are shared that emphasise direct democracy and direct action as a means of affecting change.

UK Uncut’s action has focused on a sustained campaign of targeting tax avoidance by corporations. They employ peaceful civil disobedience, theatre and occupation as the form their actions take. The viral dynamic, reproducing replica demonstrations throughout the country, is testament to the accessibility of this form of action. Actions that are both open and participatory, not reliant on someone’s physical ability to confront the police or damage property. Their actions carry with them the possibility of ‘another’ world - transforming banks into nurseries etc - and as such are an interesting model for symbolic protest that both disrupts the flow of capital and posits the possibility of another post-capitalist relationship to space. As such the form their action takes has an ability to generalise but is contained inside a restrictive content that does not seek to posit a systemic critique. While proponents of UK Uncut come from a broad cross section of society, its numbers have been blustered by students radicalised in the fees struggle. As such many of their actions have cross-pollinated, carrying both anti-tax and fee messaging.

There is also another aspect of this broad antagonism, one characterised by property destruction, combative attitudes towards the police and the ability to circumvent police “kettling” techniques. All these experiences, as well as the legalistic and anti-surveillance lessons were learnt in the recent cycle of struggle and as such created the basis for the popularity of the Black bloc for March 26th.

We suggest that UK Uncut and the Black bloc, rather than being projections of separate ideological concerns, are reactions to existing modes of resistance and democracy. Therefore an unofficial union has occurred, a united front of antagonism to the current order of things and for the time being have empathy for each other. UK Uncut’s message is too limiting to express exactly what is necessary to say about the cuts, the crisis and capitalism. The Black bloc freely articulates itself through a symbolic immediacy, but is unable to build the conditions for a wider participation. UK Uncut as well as the Black bloc need each other, and the refusal to denounce one another is reflective of this. As our conceptualization of this sphere suggests, it’s a space that is in constant development, one that seeks to escape fixed identities.

Identity and Boundary maintenance

‘Militancy’ is often conflated with an anarchist identity, bolstered by a lazy media, who at the first opportunity will define any form of action that steps outside of legalism as being derived from an anarchist politics.

Political identity informed by ideology has a tendency to calcify thought. Ideologies contain preformed sets of ideas and interpretive tools that attempt to assimilate and codify possible interactions in line with its own principles.

While the hundreds of red & black flags that many took up on the Black bloc, were useful in reaffirming and uniting the bloc on the day it easily codified the bloc as a purely ‘Anarchist’ expression. In reality the bloc’s ‘politics’ was more than that of its symbolism. Many on the bloc removed their dark clothing, replacing it with normal clothes so as to join UK Uncut outside of Fortnum & Mason’s. We assert that this was more than a means to disappear into a crowd, but representative of the new radical subjectivity, that possesses the ability to shift from one form to another inside this antagonistic sphere.

Placing the ‘militant action’ into a more defined and political constrictive ideology has enabled the media and police to manage the actions of this “violent minority” as separate from legitimate participants (contained inside the institutional sphere) – this narrative exists as the default position of the establishment.

This equation of the Black block with anarchism has been repeated in the analysis of various left commentators and political blogs. Many of these have denounced the Black bloc actions as belonging to an anarchist vanguardist minority. This is ironic given that many of these political commentators supported similar militant actions at Millbank, seeing those as an articulation of a generalised radicalism. Therefore the aesthetics of the Black block (tied to an anarchist/militant identity) have contained how far the actions have resonated.

It could also be argued that the Black bloc on March 26th was an expression of anarchists’ new found confidence to act in conjunction with others, as well as a means by which people radicalised in the recent wave of struggle could enact a militant symbolic engagement.

Some in UK Uncut have been quick to distance themselves from the property damage undertaken by the Black bloc and posit themselves solely as proponents of peaceful, civil disobedience. This has been undertaken for a variety of reasons – as a defence, to enable such actions to continue without huge levels of policing; and to keep UK Uncut’s core message of tax justice separate from other ideological expressions.

Those in the Black bloc who have spoken to the media, have also extended the hand of solidarity to UK Uncut (see Brighton Solidarity Federation’s Open Letter), again promoting the ‘diversity of tactics’ narrative but ideologically positioning themselves outside of what they see as UK Uncut’s limited analysis.

This ideological ‘boundary maintenance’ is an attempt to ‘own’ activity on the day, to clearly delineate and equate action (form) with politics (content). This disguises the fluid nature of the new subjectivity, positing instead pre-formed identities and limitations.

Conclusion

We state that both participants of UK Uncut and Black bloc exist within a commonality, defined by a shared history and a mutual attraction. That this commonality is the basis of a new antagonistic sphere, wider than these two visible elements, that have characterised and shaped an attraction beyond the dominant institutional space which is fast loosing ground to it.

This was illustrated on March 26th when huge crowds stayed to support the Fortnum and Mason’s occupation, the crowd swelling into the thousands, who were then involved in cat and mouse games with the police, resisting baton charges and police dispersal. As yet the political content of this subjectivity is still developing but posits a radicality in its forms, if not currently in its content.

The new subjectivity is categorised by a tendency towards consensual decision making, a rejection of hierarchy, open political debate, participation and a fluidity in how it articulates itself. Our initial investigation leads us to pose more questions than we have answers. These include - but are not limited too: What are the political demands or aspirations that exist within the fuzzy boundaries of this ‘antagonistic sphere’? In what sense are these demands radical? How will this sphere interact with or expand into other forms of struggle?

Taking inspiration from the new movements we believe that inside the context of symbolic engagements, we need to re-conceptualise the meanings of actions that capture the public imagination, inspire confidence and participation whilst fostering collective power. We need wherever possible to escape the straitjacket of the rigidity that ideology can impose on these tactics, that ultimately leads to their over-coding/association with fixed and easily manageable identities.

On the evening of March 26th , Business Secretary Vince Cable, in a pre-written press release, reinforced the coalition government’s message that the demonstration will not change the course of the governments austerity measures, a definitive response to the institutional sphere. It seems that the institutional sphere is fast running out of space to move and accommodate the demands from the antagonistic sphere for more radical action.

The next challenge we see is how this ‘antagonistic sphere’ mutates to embrace any new wave of industrial disputes also faced with cuts and whether or not it can resonate within these struggles. This will be the true test of it and may begin to ‘flesh out’ its political content. When previously contained symbolic actions spill over onto the terrain where capital requires a discipline and dominance for it is stability, things will really start to get interesting.

Originally published in Shift magazine

Popular education as a doomed project? - Inga Scathach

Popular Education often appears as a panacea for the anti-authoritarian Left. Inga Scathach looks at the uses and abuses of the term and the practices. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by shifteditor3 on December 11, 2012

There’s the rumbling of a groundswell. You can hear it murmuring if you eavesdrop at activist-type gatherings. Unless you listen really closely, you may be mistaken in thinking it to be another utopian proposal, flung haplessly into the ring of consensus decision-making. But this is not a recent radical fad to be horizontally-organised beyond all recognition: popular education has been practised in Latin America for the past 70 years. Developed as a way of working with politically marginalised communities to identify the sites of their disenfranchisement and act towards addressing it, the region’s political ignition has seen its popularity grow. From its emergence in Brazil, the technique has gone global in the past 30 years, with particularly strong uptake in countries (at the risk of falling into lazy categorisations) in the global south. What distinguishes popular education from other forms of education? And why is it increasing in popularity?

Largely credited to the fieldwork and writing of Paulo Freire, popular education is based on the recognition that conventional forms of education replicate the oppressor-oppressed relationship. This Hegelian understanding addresses the authoritarian approach favoured by formal education as a dialectical relationship. By drawing on Hegel, it also echoes Marx’s bourgeoisie-proletariat dichotomy, and allows us to understand education in the context of the social relations that exist to reinforce capitalist and colonialist functions. By recognising the function of traditional forms of education as hegemonic, popular education supposes to offer a radical alternative that emancipates participants rather than perpetuating their subjugation. So, how does it work in practice? It is first important to note that even within a form of education that eschews the prescription of a curriculum, popular education theory has an aim: to address political marginalisation and confront hegemony as an emancipatory process.

The main aim of popular education is understood as conscientisation (a somewhat clumsy translation from Freire’s native Portuguese - conscientização) for action. Both components are key here, as “to surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognise its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation.” Conscientisation is a process of increasing critical consciousness of our present condition and the situation of self within existing power dynamics, and feeling compelled to respond to this by taking action. Popular educators reject any notion that people can become politically conscious without also wanting to act on their understanding, or that genuinely political action can take place without analysis. Consciousness and the will to act are acquired simultaneously and are facets of the same process. In order to build a political awareness, learners and educators need to participate in a mutual process of unpacking each others’ ontological assumptions. Henry Giroux acknowledges the imperative of dialogue and discussion in this exploration of ideas by referring to developing a “language of critique” and “language of possibility”.

The role of pedagogical philosophy as a method of confronting hegemony was explored in depth by Gramsci, while Augusto Boal explored variations on the dialectic form in his Theatre of the Oppressed. More recently, bell hooks has applied a feminist, anti-racist approach to university education and come to very similar conclusions on aims and methodology. It is hooks’ work that helps us address the question of popular education’s ever-increasing exposure, and why it might be gaining attention in radical circles. Speaking in a US context, she suggests that “without ongoing movements for social justice in our nation, progressive education becomes all the more important since it may be the only location where individuals can experience support for acquiring a critical consciousness, for any commitment to end domination.”

Reluctantly drawing tenuous connections between recent political developments in the UK and an ongoing global emancipatory project, there appears to be a correlation between growing interest in forms of education and rapidly diminishing economic and political agency: the simultaneous decimation by the British right of what little democracy remained in Higher Education has coincided with the launch of the government’s meritocratic Free School programme; meanwhile, there has been a surge in alternative education projects such as the Really Open University, Really Free School, Ragged Universities and Open Schools, while large numbers of school, college and university students of all ages are becoming radicalised into direct action and property destruction. Having been the preserve of education theorists and a clutch of radical educators, the buzz around popular education is getting steadily louder in our changing political climate. But is it a helpful tool, a cumbersome methodology or a lethal weapon? Does it work?

It’s not just radicals and progressive educators on the left that are falling over themselves to comment on this project. The inclusion of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed on the reading lists of most US teaching programmes (and many UK ones) has triggered a backlash from the hard right. Sol Stern asks “How did this derivative, unscholarly book about oppression, class struggle, the depredations of capitalism, and the need for revolution ever get confused with a treatise on education that might help solve the problems of twenty-first-century American inner-city schools?” Stern’s question is a sobering reminder of the vulnerabilities of our approach, and of too hastily extrapolating meaning from a few snatched phrases of conversation or comments on Indymedia. The word on the street might be that popular education is where things are at right now but adopting popular education methodology is not necessarily indicative of political perspective. That its key theories are being explored within the American educational establishment should be enough to temper any blind acceptance or over-zealous enthusiasm.

If we come good on our intentions to be honest with ourselves, popular education is discussed frequently in radical circles but rarely translates into practice. One theory is that conscientisation is crippled by process. Through facilitated and mediated workshops, rather than open and dynamic storytelling, exchanges of experience become neutered. Without the shared learning and emotional outpouring of lived experience, individual perspectives prevail, and the process fails to find the flash-point of community solidarity, indignation and a call to action. Non-radical educators put popular education techniques into practice regularly. It’s easy to use participatory methods and use words like “empowering” and “inspiring”. However, the explicit aim of popular education is to inspire action, which raises questions about the integrity of many so-called popular education projects. So, how can we ensure that popular education doesn’t become just a toolkit for facilitating yet more meetings?

It would be naïve to believe that the oppressor-oppressed relationship is simply a relational dichotomy between individuals. The true oppressor-oppressed dichotomy is internalised - with the oppressed replicating the behaviour of the oppressors, with which they have become acculturated, and vice-versa - and can only be addressed through honest self-reflection and evaluation, or praxis. The nature of this internalised dialectical relationship means even the most committed pedagogue is still engaged in a process of self-emancipation. In part because of this impossibility of fully transcending the self, popular education is not inherently anti-oppressive. In fact, at times it can replicate the very same social relations it attempts to expose. From a feminist analysis, the emphasis on sharing lived experience through storytelling has been used to feminise political projects and legal battles. In a group dynamic, it also allows the loudest voices to dominate, and these usually reflect the relational privileges in the group. The abiding struggle of educators is to facilitate without leading. In trying to create space for horizontal learning, popular education practitioners risk exposing themselves and learners to the tyranny of structurelessness (ed.: for more, see Jo Freeman’s seminal 1970s text The Tyranny of Structurelessness) - whereby hierarchies become established via the attempted negation of their very existence.

The rhetoric of popular education, with the specialised terms and concepts discussed in this article, raises questions of who has access to what information and who then controls the content of discussions and flows of dialogue. Both Arlene Goldbard and Joao Bosco Pinto have criticised the all-too-frequent attempts of self-styled activists to embark on ‘awareness raising’ crusades, involving the dissemination of pre-selected knowledge misleadingly branded as popular education. Although increasing numbers of practitioners are adopting popular education techniques in various settings, there is no possibility of an emancipatory encounter without confronting our own motives, and abandoning the mythology of consensus.

Theory aside, the practice of popular education is a sticky affair. With an arsenal of techniques that includes theatre, storytelling and art, popular education carries the risk of being adopted by liberal arts organisations or the kind of social movements that promote self-improvement over confrontational political action. As with any radical project, there exists the tendency to fascinate and attract lifestyle activists, and while this seems somewhat contradictory to its raison d’être, popular education is proving no exception. In spite of aiming itself squarely at politically marginalised communities, it is frequently co-opted as a tool for the left to wave around while only really putting it to any use within existing networks.

Part of the enthusiasm for ‘doing’ popular education stems from a global south fetishisation that has been increasingly widespread in Europe since the heyday of the alter-globalisation movement. The proliferation of the technique through peasant movements in India and Argentina triggers ‘outreach’ obsessives into a heroic fantasy of liberating the working class; while its long-standing connections to Latin American struggles also lend popular education a certain cachet to revolutionary communists. Popular educators need to move beyond an understanding of political marginalisation as poverty and small-holdings, and furthermore beyond popular education as the only means of developing critical consciousness. Framing the pedagogue as a missionary-liberator who radicalises the marginalised through supposedly emancipatory techniques is missing the point: “I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves.”

Popular education is not imperative for conscientisation, merely an approach to developing it. The international student protests that have been taking place over the past six months demonstrate that students are developing a critical political consciousness and, crucially, innovating and hybridising modes of action in direct response to understanding the conditions of our existence. Our marginalisation is not over land rights or indigenous practice, but it is still over our political agency. We are educated with the linguistic and creative skills to articulate our desires, but we cannot yet transcend the dialectical relationships that govern our lives. It is the political climate, not an educational paradigm, underpinning the conscientisation of today’s students.

In response to hooks’ comment, is there still a place for popular education when social movements emerge? Perhaps a useful way to see popular education is as a method of agitating for conscientisation where the conditions for this don’t already exist. This means recognising the goal of popular education as planned obsolescence. As an approach confounded with contradictions, perhaps it only reaches the point of resolution when its continued existence is no longer required. Are we radical enough to face the facts?

Inga works with popular education and anti-oppression practitioners across the UK on projects aiming to support local struggles and community self-defense. http://www.sowestand.com

Remember, remember: Climate Camp

In this article published in Shift magazine, the authors take a critical look back at the climate camp movement and their involvement in it. Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on June 17, 2011

Since the first ‘climate campers’ descended on Drax coal fired power station back in 2006, SHIFT has maintained a critical dialogue with the camp. This dialogue has at times been a process of development for both projects, at others a running battle. In February, the attendees at the Climate Camp ‘Space for Change’ gathering made the decision to enter into a metamorphosis; leaving behind the traditional ‘one camp a year’ model to allow for more flexible and effective forms of action. This short article will take a retrospective look at the role of the Climate Camp, as an embodiment of a radical environmental politics, as well as a structure for organising towards social change. Looking back over the (many) internal and external critiques that have been thrown it’s way, we are left asking: considering the unquestionably important contribution the Climate Camp has made in shaping environmental and anti-capitalist action and discourse in the UK, what lessons can we learn?

The original principles of the camp were as follows:

1. Climate change is already happening and its effects will be catastrophic if we don’t act now.
2. New technology and market-based solutions are not enough to address the problem - tackling climate change will require radical social change.
3. There is a need to work together in our communities to come up with solutions. We cannot rely on business and government to bring about the radical changes that are needed.

No sooner had the camp put up its first marquee, done its first action and had its first media presence, the interventions into the seemingly less radical principles started crashing in. As an article in Last Hours magazine, printed after the first camp, concluded, “It seemed like a lot of people at the camp seemed to be placing faith in our movement – or this one week of climate camp – being able to stop climate change. We really need to be more realistic (which doesn’t mean being more compromising it means being more demanding)”. Following this there was an attempt by the ‘Westside’ neighbourhood to get the camp to adopt the PGA hallmarks “as a way of reaffirming the radical basis of the Climate Camp”. Whilst there has undoubtedly been a strong critical current arguing that the camp, in many ways, has failed to live up to these principles, here at SHIFT we maintain that this critique was always intended to move us forward, to challenge ourselves in the present and to learn from the past. In 2009, together with Dysophia, we produced the reader ‘Criticism without Critique’, a collection of many of these dissenting voices. What were the major criticisms?

Carbon fetishism.

This is particularly pertinent when we consider the current Japan nuclear disaster and George Monbiot (our celebrity climate camper) coming out in favour of nuclear on the basis that (reflecting on Fukushima) nuclear is objectively less harmful, to people and the planet, than coal. Leaving any social or political factors out of his analysis, in the same way that the focus on the airport industry, or indeed any other ‘top contributor to C02 emissions’ does, is a reductionist presentation of the complex and inherently everyday social relationships of human and natural resource exploitation, private property, commodity exchange and profit that underlay global environmental and social injustice. Similarly the COP-15 summit was described as ‘post-political’ in its failure to engage with environmental issues beyond the level of carbon emissions.

Ethical Lifestylism:

“The decision to go to Heathrow was wrong”, (Shift editorial, issue 1). Whilst this was also a criticism of the focus on carbon and the demonization of the aviation industry as a distraction from the ‘root causes’ of climate change, we also felt that “the emerging social movement against climate change is as radical as an ethical lifestyle guide”. We were wrong. The camp evolved radically; the first camp booklet promoted a list of lifestyle choices that was to become unthinkable in later years. However, we still argue that the focus on individual lifestyle change as a means for promoting or agitating towards large scale political change is a prominent feature of the anti-capitalist left and is at best naïve and at worst conservative. Hence we would contest this reflection on the camps decision to come to an end: “This tendency (to criticise lifestyle change) was seen in Climate Camp with some people saying action should never impede the actions of individuals and that ‘government and corporations’ should be the sole targets. The anti-cuts campaigns are much more comfortable from this position (as long as we ignore the contradiction of anarchists complaining about a reduction of state intervention in our lives)”. The focus on lifestylism isn’t problematic because it’s a drain on our energy, it is a much bigger head fuck to work with a total systemic critique, and the anti-cuts struggle, I would agree, offers the perfect platform to challenge the capitalist political system in its entirety.

The state/austerity:

“Top-down government intervention may be the fastest way of reducing CO2 emissions. However considering the intrinsic necessity of capitalism to reproduce wealth from the exploitation of human and environmental resources and the role of the state to manage and maintain this, all calls on the state to lighten the load on the environment, will inevitably find the burden falling onto the human”.

(Shift editorial, issue 7).

At the Blackheath climate camp we held a workshop titled ‘Green Authoritarianism’ where we aimed to challenge state led solutions to the climate change problem. We were shocked by the response. Again, pertinent to the anti-cuts movement that is currently in its infancy, the tendency to defend certain features of the state that we saw as immediately beneficial (such as taxes, in the case of Blackheath) is a sticking point.

“Let’s get this straight. There is nothing wrong per se with fighting for state concessions… there is no comparison to be made between the demand for a minimum wage, for example, and the hope for higher taxes (on us, not the rich), population surveillance and control, or carbon permits… [However] rather than building a movement from sand with state concessions that will inevitably crumble we have to develop our politics, be bold in our positions, and imagine the un-imaginable.”

(Shift editorial, issue 7).

Indeed there are many lessons that the anti-cuts struggle can learn, both politically and organisationally, from the Camp for Climate Action and its decision to drop an organisational structure that was beginning to limit its potential. As many have said this is a brave move, and one that should be celebrated and embraced as we negotiate the role of the anti-capitalist left in the fight against the cuts.

“Now is a chance to team up with the anti-cuts and anti-austerity movements and play a crucial role in the revolutionary times ahead. Anything but co-ordinated action is doomed to fail.”

(‘Metamorphosis’ Statement made by the Climate Camp after the ‘Space for Change’ gathering).

But how do we go about this? Many have already started to ask this question and highlight potential difficulties,

“Indeed the task of linking climate justice with anti-austerity measures needs to be taken up in more detail than the general call for green jobs.”

(’The Movement is Changing, Long Live the Movement’, Res0nance.)

Many attribute the camps move away from a more up front anti-capitalist position to the desire to ‘build the movement’ and make environmentalism ‘more accessible’ to the general public. In many ways the Camp for Climate Action has eventually ceased to exist (in its previous guise) as it no longer resonates with the ‘hardcore of anarchists’ whose creativity and passion gave birth to it, or with the ‘ordinary people’ with whom they so desperately tried to appeal to (via ‘fluffy’ methods of protest, corporate style publicity and a savvy media strategy). As I consider this dilemma I think of the current arguments we are having about the role of anti-capitalists, particularly in their manifestation as ‘black bloc’’ at the TUC march on March 26th. Anti-capitalist politics do not translate easily into ‘action’ but they do make sense and we do not need to water down the messaging to appeal to ‘ordinary people’. The media is not a tool for us to use and a reduction of anti-capitalist politics to direct action or over simplistic lifestyle politics loses us friends both inside and outside of the anti-capitalist movement. Instead of trying to ‘win people over’ by rose tinting our anger and rage we should speak honestly about the frustration that we all feel and recognise it in the less valorised forms of action that people take everyday, we should explain our choice of tactics, whilst being open to listen to other ways of creating change.

The climate camp was continuously responsive to criticism from all angles, accused of rejecting a more radical anti-capitalist position they responded with workshops, targets and banners that attempted to address the links between capitalism and climate change. The camp has set the path for many new people towards anti-capitalist politics and has proved itself to be an example of an open-minded and flexible experimentation towards radical social change. Asking we walk!

We consider ourselves to be climate campers, we were there from Drax to Edinburgh, heckling in the corner and washing up in the kitchen, getting shouted at in workshops and putting up the very marquees that housed them. The experiences that the Camp for Climate Action gave us are invaluable and we wouldn’t be having these conversations without the energy and creativity that many, many people, have put into these experiments. For this we thank you! See you on the streets!

To ‘the movement’: on work and unions in an age of austerity - Tom Denning

In an age of austerity, at a time in which industrial struggle seems to be on the agenda in a way in which it hasn’t been for years, activists are asking questions about unions. What can we expect from them? How should we relate to them? Why are they as they are? Originally published in May 2011.

Submitted by Django on May 27, 2011

We begin with who we are

Movements tend to reproduce their own social base and subjectivity according to the tactical repertoire which constitutes them. The things they do determine who takes part, and who takes part determines what they do. Thus, a movement based around students, unemployed people, NGO workers, and those with jobs that allow them a high degree of personal flexibility, tends to reproduce itself based on a set array of actions: camping, occupying or blockading commercial property, street-theatre, banner drops, etc. – with an apparent diversity, but all a characteristic response to the lack of a mass social base rooted in contexts of everyday experience in which non-activists can be mobilised for . . . action.

The ecological anti-capitalist movement has largely been constituted outside, and to an extent, against, work. It has not therefore, often, found itself with plurality of militants at a single workplace, or in a given industry, who need to, or who could, struggle within that context. Where the movement has had such a plurality; there is quite probably little or no collective awareness of that fact, and there has been little or no effort to bring them together, or support them. Their social position has not been seen as a potential tactical lever by the movement as a whole, and perhaps not even by the workers themselves.

Therefore, the movement tends to relate to workers’ struggle, and therefore to unions, as something outside itself. When activists need to get normal jobs in large workplaces – and they show enormous creativity in not doing so – they often leave the movement; particularly if they also need to put time into a family. So – as in the case of debates over open cast mining, or coal-fired power stations, unions appear as an external ally or adversary: not something we’re part of.

Just as there is, in general, no useful revolutionary theory not based on revolutionary practice, there is no useful critique of trade unionism which does not rely on, or imply, a practical project to supercede unions in practice. That is: cheering or denouncing unions, whether from inside or outside, is wholly sterile. Even a nuanced critique, which understands the countervailing dynamics of the union form (how they express class struggle; how they hold it back) is somewhat sterile, unless it is linked to practice. Such a nuanced critique is nonetheless necessary.

The unions: what they are

Unions, in Britain today, seek to bargain with employers over workers’ terms and conditions and are based on a mass worker-membership. They are stable institutions, persisting through occasional disputes, and rather longer periods which see little conflict at all. From these facts, a number of dynamics follow.

Firstly, unions appear as an expression of workers’ self-organisation, and reflect, to an extent, workers’ opinions and perceptions. However, they are also better adapted to compromise – which is what they spend most of their time doing – than they are to struggle. As permanent institutions based on a fairly passive membership, they acquire a permanent administrative staff and a leadership to run them – what is often called ‘the bureaucracy’. In the absence of permanent industrial warfare or revolution, they need to be able to compromise with the employer. And therefore they also need to compromise with the state, which seeks to regulate industrial relations through a legal framework which appears to offer a proper procedure for industrial action, but without making it too easy. Thus, over time, unions develop an institutional interest in capitalism, and a symbiotic relationship with the state. In the UK, this relationship is expressed partly, but not wholly, through the unions’ support for the Labour Party.

However, this process is not something entirely apart from workers. The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded. So, all is well between workers and unions? Not at all. Typically, the leadership of the union has a greater interest in compromise than the base; a fact which is often exposed when workers decide to struggle. They probably weren’t all that interested in the union when it wasn’t organising struggle, but when they do engage, are confronted with an organisation which has become more suited – in terms of its form and leading personnel – to compromise than the sort of action they want, or need, to win. Just as workers seek to organise through their union, they also discover a conflict with the official leaders, structures, and rule-book.

These dynamics also affect the nature of trade union demands. Not only are the demands not revolutionary, they very rarely move beyond wages and redundancies, to question the content and nature of work, and the place of the worker within society as a whole.

Unions are therefore best understood as the expressions of two countervailing dynamics.

On the one hand, unions are a basic form of workers’ self organisation against the day to day predations of capital; they express – albeit in a very staid manner – the class struggle. On the other, unions are institutions which seek to control and limit that very self-organisation, limit the militancy of its members in pursuit of that aim, and limit the scope of demands they raise. These tendencies are both so strong, and so integral, to unions that it is rare that one entirely wins out. The extent to which one prevails over the other differs from time to time, and place to place, depending on the circumstances.

Ideas about trade unions

Most Trotskyists identify the struggle over work precisely with the trade union struggle; and attributes the failings of unions in large part to a ‘crisis of leadership’, which can be solved by themselves being in charge. They are probably also officially in favour of democratising the unions, and will generally support unofficial action. Trotskyists generally accept that unions are ‘not revolutionary’ (the remnants of a critique of trade unions which was common in early 20th Century Marxism), but rarely have a general structural analysis, such as the above. They do not, typically, prominently raise the possibility of struggle beyond the unions.

The orthodox ‘ultra-left’ position adopts the opposing view. Rather than seeing unions as institutions ripe to be captured and redirected by revolutionaries (and implicitly free of a structural relation to capital and the state), they see unions solely in their aspect of a limit to the class struggle. This, at its worst, results in a total disengagement from trade unions, and a tendency to denounce every defeat of the working class as evidence of ‘union sabotage’. There is little acknowledgement that workers organise class struggle through unions, still less that workers often choose to end disputes themselves. Blaming ‘the union’ posits a bogeyman, wholly external to the workers’ movement – and prevents serious engagement with the subjective and material sources of workers’ interest in compromise with capital. It also lets us off the hook: given that we have failed to build support for our ideas – direct action, participatory democracy, anti-capitalism – don’t we have cause to take a hard look at ourselves?

A third position, which is often held implicitly but very rarely expressed, is that of critical routineism. Many libertarian activists who are formally critical of both perspectives are involved in their union because they want to do what they can to oppose day to day injustice. They don’t necessarily want to take over the union, and are aware of the limits of trade unions, but neither do they have a clear idea of how to go beyond it. Often, the union will take up alot of their energy, not leaving much time for extra-union-routine politics. Whilst individually critical of unions, their day to day activity doesn’t move beyond trade unionism.

Critique beyond theory: the need for an independent practice

Earlier in this article, I argued that the lack of an independent libertarian revolutionary practice in relation to work was not only a product of our movement’s sociological isolation, but a cause of it. We’ve seen that unions are the crucible of countervailing dynamics, which express class struggle, just as they stifle it. We’ve seen that trying to take over trade unions is likely, in the end, to be as futile as denouncing them from the sidelines; and as unlikely to develop an anti-capitalist dynamic as individualised routine. What does that leave? Loren Goldner calls it ‘extra-unionism’: “be in the union, be outside the union, but your perspective is beyond the union”. But how?

There are no easy answers. But it’s possible to suggest a few different approaches.

Industrial networks. At present, our movement makes no serious attempt to ensure that militants working in the same job or sector get together to organise collective work. A first step would be to make it part of our regular practice that health workers and education workers, for instance, meet in fora such as the Anarchist Bookfair. Discussing perspectives for organising solidarity and agitation could form part of this.

Solidarity unionism. In the US, the IWW has developed a workplace organiser training which has been taken up and adapted by the Solidarity Federation here in the UK. The purpose is to train workers how to build collective confidence and power on the job, without relying on official structures or mediation. In the US, the Starbucks and Jimmy Johns workers’ unions have been two important consequences of this approach. We need to stop thinking of ‘direct action training’ as based on a discrete series of skills, such as lock-on and tripods, but instead about we involve non-politicos in direct action. Contact SolFed if you’re interested.

Base groups and bulletins. In the 1970s, libertarian socialists in Big Flame and the early International Socialists adopted an effective organising model. It was particularly well suited to large factories, but there may be a way to apply it today. Militants based inside and outside the workplace would work together to produce a regular workers’ bulletin, designed to reflect the experience of work and struggle, and help workers communicate with each other. Rather than laying down ‘the line’, at their best they’d show the radical implications of being honest about our working lives, and provide a way to organise politically at work, without relying on the union. The support of outsiders was often necessary due to the pressure of work, family-life, and union activity.

Workers and service users: in and against the state. Cuts are attacks on service users and workers. In the late ‘70s, another period of public sector cuts, workers and service users found ways to organise to support each other, in a way that cut against the capitalist logic of the state sector which divides the working class against itself. These attempts are documented in chapter 6 of the book In and Against the State.

We live in an economic and political reality very different from the high points of class struggle, characterised by mass expressions of workers’ autonomy. But, once again, workers are in the front line. Where will we be? To find a way to answer this in practice will require ingenuity and experimentation. But unless we learn to speak with our own voice, we will never be heard. And if we are never heard, we might as well be mute.

Some of Tom Denning’s previous articles discussing the movement against cuts can be found on the Red Pepper and New Left Project websites, as well as for the May Day International project

Originally published in Shift Magazine

Spikymike

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

The author makes some common sense points here, has taken some easy pot shots at the trots and there are some worthwhile practical pointers at the end of this short text, but it also contains a number of unsubstantiated generalisations.

Thus it dismisses the whole of the 'ultra-left' in one swoop with an accusation that they (whoever 'they' might be?) only see the limits which unions place on class struggle and avoid any analysis with routine accusations of union sabotage, but provides no evidence for this and no actual refutation of the many more nuanced analysis available on this site alone. Loren Goldner is mentioned but it is not clear if he is regarded here as 'ultra-left'?

Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and [i]everywhere? That is not self evident.

The author says that a 'nuanced critique is necessary' but there is no evidence of that here. It adds nothing either to the library texts which do attempt a critical analysis of the unions or the various texts and debates on workplace strategies, so it's unclear why it has been posted here (even if it had some introductory function for the readership of SHIFT magazine).

As an aside I would suggest that in terms of industrial bulletins the old british 'Solidarity' Group has more to commend it than either IS or Big Flame in roughly the same period.

posi

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Thus it dismisses the whole of the 'ultra-left' in one swoop. . .

It doesn't. It refers to the orthodox ultra-left. By that, I meant, roughly, the positions of the ICT and ICC. Loren Goldner is on the ultra-left, but - judged by that standard - his position on unions is not orthodox.

Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and [i]everywhere? That is not self evident.

To be honest, it pretty much is self-evident to all those who aren't on the orthodox ultra-left. The creativity displayed by that political tendency in ignoring the fact is, of itself, no evidence that it isn't the case. Edited to add: also, I refer to unions "in Britain today": widening the analysis to "everywhere" would bring in some more negative examples, but also some in which unions do have a more active pro-class struggle role than here.

The author says that a 'nuanced critique is necessary' but there is no evidence of that here.

By the standards of the positions I mention, one of which is very popular on these boards, it certainly is nuanced.

As an aside I would suggest that in terms of industrial bulletins the old british 'Solidarity' Group has more to commend it than either IS or Big Flame in roughly the same period.

You may well be right, but I've never seen any of them myself. Are any online somewhere?

For the record, the piece was already one third over the word limit I was given. In that space I had to explain the disengagement of the movement in question from unions and labour militancy, give a structural overview of unions, evaluate popular political positions and strategies in relation to them, and propose some practical steps. Of course, it doesn't properly back everything it says up with a host of historical examples. Gradually, I am trying to find time to produce something which does so: but that will be a pamphlet, and a long one at that, not a magazine article.

Android

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I read the piece after reading Spikymike's and posi's comments. I think the strongest part of the text was the stressing the importance of linking theory with a political practice and it is also a useful contribution from a different angle to the ongoing discussions around class struggle theory and practice that has centered so far on SolFed's contributions.

I do not think the "orthodox" critique of the unions is as orthodox as is being suggested:
Tom Denning / posi

The orthodox ‘ultra-left’ position adopts the opposing view. Rather than seeing unions as institutions ripe to be captured and redirected by revolutionaries (and implicitly free of a structural relation to capital and the state), they see unions solely in their aspect of a limit to the class struggle. This, at its worst, results in a total disengagement from trade unions, and a tendency to denounce every defeat of the working class as evidence of ‘union sabotage’. There is little acknowledgement that workers organise class struggle through unions, still less that workers often choose to end disputes themselves. Blaming ‘the union’ posits a bogeyman, wholly external to the workers’ movement – and prevents serious engagement with the subjective and material sources of workers’ interest in compromise with capital. It also lets us off the hook: given that we have failed to build support for our ideas – direct action, participatory democracy, anti-capitalism – don’t we have cause to take a hard look at ourselves?

I think I know what posi's means by the term 'orthodox ultra-left'. The common denominator being that a critique of the unions features prominently in analysis of the class struggle and a rejection of a political practice that is geared toward reforming / democratising the unions and a rejection of building official union oriented rank-and-file groups to achieve the former inside the union framework / structures. Also, the constituent parts of the 'orthodox ultra-left' differ on theory as well as practice regarding the unions. The only group within this camp that you could say approaches a moralistic and sectarian rejection of the unions (i.e. members do not join unions unless they have to) is the ICC, which they explained on here before was a tactical position, not a principle. The other elements of this camp posi is critiquing do have some engagement with the unions - in that there members have been and are union members depending on the opportunities for political work and articulating their politics and furthering their objective of independent class action. So, on the whole the orthdos do not have objection to never being in a union or never attending a union meeting as you seemed to be setting up with your 'total disengagement' comment. I think there focus is more that they will contribute where ever they can to moving past the unions and workers acting for themselves. So in that sense I do not see the position as all that different between CWO and the old Subversion group that Spikymike was in. I am not going to go into the theoretical differences here between the different ortho groups which ranges from the ICC, ICT, IP through to the old Wildcat and Subversion groups.

I may comment on some of the other elements of the text later that are worth discussing.

Also, I have just posted Paul Mattick Jr.'s piece on WI which looks at the unions and contains an implicit critique that probably falls under the ortho banner using posi's schema.

posi

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Hey Android, thanks for that. I do appreciate that there are differences within what I identify as the 'orthodox ultra left' (I'm not trying to invent a term of art here, I just had to call it something for the purposes of the article). I appreciate the CWO are somewhat less crude than the ICC, but in my experience of conversations with members, and their interventions in meetings (I haven't read any major texts), I find many of the same features, for example:
- denying that trade unionism wins anything worthwhile for its members (then, eclectically, acknowledging specific counter-examples, even general statistical trends, before going back to saying the same thing again)
- making the denunciation of unions the main feature of any intervention, but without (generally) anything useful to say, positively, about means to transcend the unions, and without acknowledging explicitly that there is a massive problem at the level of workers' current subjectivity (or, admitting that "of course, workers are not straining at the leash..." but then totally failing to integrate the significance of that fact on the level of the general analysis),
- An inconsistent account of what 'the union' is... e,g. when a shop steward organises unofficial action they are a worker, acting independently of the union, when a shop steward fucks over a member they are providing just another example of the union's perfidy.

However, I acknowledge that the CWO are not against being members of unions, and arguing their case at union meetings: good for them. That is why I said total disengagement is something that happens "at worst". I have also never heard anyone from the CWO claim that action organised by a union was "really" organised (independently) "by workers", but that the union had cunningly taken credit (which could conceivably happen, but isn't what has characterised recent strikes in the UK). I guess that CWO members wouldn't be stewards or branch officers, but although I disagree with that (and think the SolFed case by case position makes more sense), that is a relatively less important tactical call.

Android

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

I just had to call it something for the purposes of the article). I appreciate the CWO are somewhat less crude than the ICC, but in my experience of conversations with members, and their interventions in meetings (I haven't read any major texts), I find many of the same features, for example:
- denying that trade unionism wins anything worthwhile for its members (then, eclectically, acknowledging specific counter-examples, even general statistical trends, before going back to saying the same thing again)
- making the denunciation of unions the main feature of any intervention, but without (generally) anything useful to say, positively, about means to transcend the unions, and without acknowledging explicitly that there is a massive problem at the level of workers' current subjectivity (or, admitting that "of course, workers are not straining at the leash..." but then totally failing to integrate the significance of that fact on the level of the general analysis),
- An inconsistent account of what 'the union' is... e,g. when a shop steward organises unofficial action they are a worker, acting independently of the union, when a shop steward fucks over a member they are providing just another example of the union's perfidy.

Having read a good bit of the ultra-lefts material on the union question, particularly from the 70s and 80s which for the most part is not online. Just to comment quickly on your bullet points so I can get back to the football.

While the role of the unions in class struggle may appear to focussed solely on denunciations and maybe there members you spoke to lapsed into defending an analysis and drifting into dogmatism. I do not know I am just going on what have you said. But for instance IIRC the differing analysis of the defeated class struggles in the 80s was aimed at the unions, but also took internal weaknesses such as the question consciousness or subjectivity as you seem to be calling it.

I am just going on reading material of there's alone, having not asked them directly. But they do not deny that the unions can achieve reforms / concessions since 1914 a la the ICC. But that the ability to do so is linked to the position of the accumulation cycle (e.g. post-war Britain) and worker militancy.

'Cleishbotham' (who is the only CWOer who reads this afaik) can clarify if I have misrepresented the CWO's analysis.

Although I think it is important to be factual accurate and historically grounded*, not alleging anything in the former. Although I did think Paul Mattick Jr.'s approach is superior to the one outlined in the text above, even if there is a difference in focus they are comparable.

*which I do appreciate was hampered by the limitation on word count etc, look forward to your more extensive text on this question.

Cleishbotham

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Android has done the CWO a good service by highlighting our specific analysis as part of the communist left. I don't blame Posi for lumping us withe the ICc since the latter have taken teh privilege of referring to themsleves as "the Communist Left" (even to the extent of putting their own logo on the group of that name on revleft). We too are complicit in this as my comrades don't think posting on forums like this is a real priority for communist work.

I actually thought the original article was quite thoughtful and made some points which we could all agree on. In repy to Spikymike I don't think the old Soildarity group (to which I belonged 1970-73) was very good on the unions (but it might hav ebene beter than Big Flame). I did not realise this when I joined it (and I was only forming my ideas anyway) but the title of Ken Weller's pamphlet "GMBU - Scab Union" eventually struck me as wrong - as today all the unions are scabs from the poijnt of view of real independent class struggle. Before that has Posi reaching for the I told you so button can I say this si not based on mere analysis but on actual concrete experience.

Our positon is based onthe view that the problem is not so much the unions as the lack of class consciousness and class identity today. We don't go into struggle making the unions the issue - the issue is the struggle itself. The union apparatus though will always reveal themselves at some point as an obstacle to real unity or a real fight. I mysefl have organised a struggle which involved uniting members of 6 unions (and I had to rejoin hastily my own union to do so). Naturally we won as long as we stayed together but finally folded when union sectionalism kicked in.

We have also had people coming to us as shop stewards telling us that they were doing the real work because they were inside the union and acting only for the members only to find that the union apparatus manoeuvred them out of office when they became a nusiance to them. (The alternative for shop stewards seems to be to accept a quasi managerial role and go on TUC courses where they are told how to negotiate and manipulate the membership (leavened by beer, meetings with celeb TUC leaders and teh rpomise of a shinign career away from the dreary world of real work).

I don't know where Posi has met CWO members but his anecdotal evidence suggest they must have been involved in lengthy discussions or else he has read too much into a few scattered comments.

What his article though lacks is a historical perspective. We built the unions of the C19th but they were controlled by the members more directly and they disubursed strike funds when needed. Today most of us only find out we are in aunion when they move into action to negotiate away our jobs or tell us to simmer down whilst they negotiate for us. This is because the unions in the corporate state capitalist model we have today exist to negotiate the price of wage labour FOR capital. If the union "wins anything worthwhile for its members" it tends to be of short term duration and of minimal value.

It is true many of the most class conscious workers in the UK are in unions (this is not the case in France or Spain I am told). Ergo we don't start by denouncing the unions (this is another difference we seem to have with the ICC who have tried to translate the French perception into UK conditions) but by seeking to promote the collective struggle. We also have a strategy based on our Itlaian comrades experiecnc of attemtping to create workplace groups of anti-capitalist workes who are union members but hwo see the need to go beyond trades unionism (but that is another subject). Our bottom line is that we certainly don't adopt any strategy or tactics which separates us from the mass of the class whilst at the same as recognising that the unions are not neutral bodies when it comes to class struggle.

Spikymike

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

OK so I appreciate the circumstances now in which posi's article was written and it does make some valid points, as I think I acknowledged.

But having read some of 'The Communes' articles on the Unions and posi's further comments I still consider that there is a lack of understanding of the significant changes that have taken place in the historical development of capitalism, working class composition and the capitalist state. As a result this severly underestimates the degree of integration of unions within capitalism, meaning that we cannot maintain a pro-revolutionary strategy orientated towards the trades unions, even if that moves beyond traditional trotskyist inflenced leftwing politics.( which is not however a defense of the activist politics of 'the movement' addressed in the article as any alternative).

I take references in the article by posi to 'workers' to mean 'working class' and that 'workers self-organisation' means 'class self-organisation'. This is the critical point, since our experience of the everyday activity of trades unions in this country, and most others in varying degrees, is of an organisation which is perceived by most workers as an 'outside body' because it is, in reality, an 'outside body'. At best viewed as having some kind of insurance function for individual workers and at worst little more than an extension of the companies human resources department. Trades unions will of necessity seek to present themselves as genuine representatives of 'workers' (both to workers and to employers) rather than 'the working class' and will from time to time have to justify that by 'organising' sections of workers to do battle with the employers. There is therefor always the possibillity of action starting within the union framework going outside and against that framework in the right circumstances and with the right encouragement. The problem cannot of course be reduced to a question of trade union 'betrayal' since they are functioning under modern capitalism in their normal and accepted way towards workers who's consciousness is most of the time limited, at best, to a 'trade union consciousness'. (which is not to say that the working class cannot achieve a positive class consciousness through their/our own efforts under some circumstances). The 'encouragement' I refer to does need organising and that will mean in most cases at present, in the British context at least ( though a pro-revolutionary analysis can hardly be limited to the British experience), that pro-revolutionary 'militants' will be members of existing unions whilst seeking to organise through independent networks that cut accross traditional trades/professions/employers etc. Beyond that the level and nature of involvement with existing unions is open to discussion, but it is clear that trying to maintain an independent pro-revolutionary class stand whilst also holding any kind of official representative union position will be unsustainable.

Understanding the nature and function of trades/industrial/general unions in modern world capitalism and the necessity to go 'outside and against', at some point, in struggles of any significance, derives from both an analysis of the evolution of the capitalist economy and capitalist states and the everyday experience of our class.

As regards the Solidarity industrial bulletins, only a few of these are on line thanks to Marky B's efforts, but he might be pursuaded to scan some more from my collection including the interesting series of 'Motor Bulletins'. My recomendation was primarily in relation to the period mentioned in posi's article. As someone who eventually split with other comrades from the Solidarity (for Social Revolution) group (in part) over their analysis of trades unions in relation to the experience of Polish Solidarity, I am of course not recomending that groups whole practice around this issue.

I'm sure all of that marks me out as an 'ultra-left' in posi's terminology but maybe not 'orthodox'.

AIW

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Looks like a very useful article. I haven't read the longer responses which I guess are about debating semantics. It would be more useful if you could hyper link it, particularly your most practical proposal "contact Solfed". Is it the SF External Relations Officer who should be contacted or your closest local?

Joseph Kay

11 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

external relations is probably your best bet, some locals are better with emails than others but they're mandated to put you in touch with the right people and follow up to make sure it gets through.

Alf

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I appreciate that this article does represent an attempt to present a more 'structural' approach to understanding the role of the unions. It is based on a real concern to play an active role in the class struggle. But I don't think it can offer a real way forward.

I think I need to respond to some of the caricatures of the ICC that have been drawn here. Back in the 80s, when the ICC was seriously involved in workers' struggles for the first time, sometimes in movements that achieved a significant level of self-organisation, we began a discussion about how do we fight against the obstacle represented by the unions. We agreed, with some the exception of some comrades who went in a different direction, that it was not a question of abstractly denouncing the unions and presenting ourselves as 'outside' the movement. We agreed that our role, above all in directly agitational activity, was to offer a concrete way forward for the struggle. You can argue that we have massively failed to do this (although a serious argument would first establish what we have actually done in the class struggle, which might involve asking us some questions). But there is no point in arguing that we are actually, consciously in favour of getting up in workers' meetings and saying "the unions are bad, we really hate the unions, they are so bad. Since 1914 they've been this bad". Or some such.

Regarding the issue of the nature of trade unions:

"Unions are therefore best understood as the expressions of two countervailing dynamics.

On the one hand, unions are a basic form of workers’ self organisation against the day to day predations of capital; they express – albeit in a very staid manner – the class struggle. On the other, unions are institutions which seek to control and limit that very self-organisation, limit the militancy of its members in pursuit of that aim, and limit the scope of demands they raise. These tendencies are both so strong, and so integral, to unions that it is rare that one entirely wins out. The extent to which one prevails over the other differs from time to time, and place to place, depending on the circumstances".

Perhaps I will come back later to this idea of the "dual class nature" of the unions, which is not new: Pouvoir Ouvriere in France in the 60s and 70s was putting forward a very similar argument. But if, as Tom says, the unions are still "basic forms of workers' self-organisation", then anyone who takes the organisation of the working class seriously would have to devote a considerable part of their energies to the task of actively defending the unions, to strengthening them and spreading their presence. The unions were certainly built up over many years of workers' struggles and through huge sacrifices by working people, and communists have never lightly jettisoned genuine "expressions of the class struggle", however limited. The leftists do at least take this task seriously: in many ways, without their tireless work, the unions really would be dead. If unions really were forms of basic proletarian self-organisation, why would you not positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on union responsibilities at every level - not least to combat the negative influences within them?

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Alf

But if, as Tom says, the unions are still "basic forms of workers' self-organisation", then anyone who takes the organisation of the working class seriously would have to devote a considerable part of their energies to the task of actively defending the unions, to strengthening them and spreading their presence.

this doesn't follow imho. you could think unions are sometimes a "basic form of workers' self-organisation" (e.g. the wildcat-prone brighton GMB binmen branch), but still think there are better strategies to pursue than 'building the unions', and yet still recognise an attempt to e.g. fire a militant rep is an attack on self-organisation and the unions at the same time (since bosses don't necessarily draw that distinction, even if communists think they'd be smarter if they used the union against self-organisation rather than opposing both).

Alf

If unions really were forms of basic proletarian self-organisation, why would you not positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on union responsibilities at every level

i also think this is a false deduction. it's like saying 'if the capitalist state isn't collapsing, you must be positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on state positions at every level' - it simply doesn't follow from the premise. I mean street gangs can be a form of proletarians self-organising, it doesn't mean we should be salting the local gang kids for communism!

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I agree with JK's first point, although I'd make a bigger claim on the second: I think there is more to be said, from a class POV, for unions than street gangs.

My answer would be that Alf is able to make this deduction only because, by the end of the paragraph, he has apparently forgotten that the perspective under discussion is precisely a dual one, and that inferring anything from either side of the contradiction in isolation will produce error for precisely this reason.

As I said on the other thread, Alf is quite correct that this approach is not new. I hadn't heard of Pouvoir Ouvriere, but it's obvious enough that plenty of academics have picked it up, as well as elements within operaismo and dissident Marxism more generally. I don't know about the anarchist tradition.

btw:

STRUGGLE IN, WITH OR AGAINST THE UNIONS?
One of the unusual features of the Swedish labour market is its high level of union organisation (80% of workers in 2005) in comparison to England or Ireland. This of course raises the question of how the ideas of Faceless Resistance relate to union organisation; do they oppose it, complement it or ignore it? The presence in Sweden of the SAC, a large syndicalist union, throws this question into sharper relief. Kämpa Tillsammans tend to remain ambiguous on the question of union organisation, stating that they are neither for or against union organisation; unions are a fact of life for workers in capital, and so long as people have to sell their labour, unions will be there to handle the deal.

For Kämpa Tillsammans focusing on the question of union organisation is a mistake, the real power in a conflict comes from workplace militancy, regardless of whether this is expressed through a union or not, arguing that ”regardless of the view on the role of the trade unions, every successful struggle at workplaces came from the solidarity between workmates; a strong workers’ collective.” Thus the role of revolutionaries should be to build the workers’ collective, rather than building the union organisation. The union framework for disputes can be used by the workers when it is appropriate and discarded when it is not, but the foundation for struggle must always be the solidarity and organisation of the workers.

http://www.wsm.ie/content/faceless-resistance?page=434

Though I would say that "building the workers' collective" isn't necessarily counterposed to "building the union organisation". I would say there are time when the latter could encourage the former - e.g. encouraging people to come to a union meeting to vote for a strike ballot.

Would we prefer the masses were consistently up for doing things another way? We would! Is this necessarily the point? No! So is there a need to search, in practice, for ways to practically build support for other ways, whilst recognising the hold of the current ones, and the necessity to mobilise in that context? Yes!

Alf

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Joseph K wrote: 'if the capitalist state isn't collapsing, you must be positively and enthusiastically be in favour of taking on state positions at every level' - it simply doesn't follow from the premise. I mean street gangs can be a form of proletarians self-organising, it doesn't mean we should be salting the local gang kids for communism'

I don't follow this . My argument is posited on the notion of unions as part of ourselves, unlike the capitalist state. It's irrelevant whether it's collapsing or not. I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them. But there are differences of approach behind our premises: I don't think a street gang, by definition, can ever be considered a proletarian form of self-organisation. I recall Aufheben arguing this about the Crips and the Bloods. Those gangs were already part of the mafia (in the general sense) - capitalist enterprises if not a shadow state. Not the main issue here, but I think it does point to a different understanding of what we mean by the workers' movement, and what it means to see youself as part of it.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them.

but this is precisely what's at issue: they're either the goodies or the baddies, we must bulid and defend them or expose and surpass them. Posi's argument is precisely that it isn't so clear-cut.

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

exactly.

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Alf

I think it does follow logically from the premise that if unions are proletarian, we should be defending them and building them. But there are differences of approach behind our premises: I don't think a street gang, by definition, can ever be considered a proletarian form of self-organisation.

Alf, I think you are making the same mistake that Alexander Roxwell made in our discussons about 'National Liberation' movements.

That is, to regard any political activity by workers as to be worthy of our support, just because these actions are taken by politically active workers.

But isn't this a problem? Surely we must categorise workers' activity by its class content (or lack thereof) from our proletarian, Communist perspective?

As I asked of Alexander, without receiving an adequate reply, 'would we support workers joining the SS?', just because they are clearly politically active workers.

The problem is, the activity is inimical to our politics.

So, if we categorise 'SS membership', 'street-gang membership' and 'collaborative union membership' as non-proletarian, non-Communist, non-class-conscious, from our perspective, why should we 'defend and build the unions'?

I'm aware that you'll say that being in a union is not similar at all to the SS or street gangs, and on some level you're correct, but if we see the mainstream unions as part of an erroneous attempt by workers to square the circle of being a member of a nation and of being a worker, then we should not 'defend and build' them.

Union members might be 'politically active workers', but isn't joining unions a step in the wrong political direction, as far as 'defending and building' Communism goes?

Perhaps you'll argue that becoming 'active' is in itself a step in the right direction, and that the contradictions of 'union membership' and 'proletarian self-activity' will become apparent to workers in the future, and they'll learn to reject the 'union', but I'm yet to be convinced. I'm more inclined to believe that joining a union actually disarms workers for the future, making them more passive and dependent upon hierarchies, rather than it provides a basis for class-conscious advancement in the direction of Communism.

I suppose I'm saying that to join a union, a worker is usually moving away from Communism, not towards it.

Steven.

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

LBird, you have completely misinterpreted Alf's position

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

In LBird's latest post, the ultra-ultra-left has finally achieved its telos: total detachment from base reality, and the really existing working class. It will, henceforth, spin frictionless, pure and true, bathed in the light of the eternal communist idea. Congratulations comrades! Down with the opportunism of the ICC, just another part of capital's left wing!

By the way, I found this especially inimical to our politics - http://libcom.org/news/london-underground-strike-threat-wins-reinstatement-unfairly-sacked-driver-24062011 I read it, and just thought: "bastards!" Didn't you?

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Steven

LBird, you have completely misinterpreted Alf's position

It would be really helpful, Steven, if you could add a bit more detail.

posi

By the way, I found this especially inimical to our politics - http://libcom.org/news/london-underground-strike-threat-wins-reinstatement-unfairly-sacked-driver-24062011 I read it, and just thought: "bastards!" Didn't you?

Giving a small example of a union action that benefits workers isn't much of an argument, is it? The point is, how do we make a balanced judgement between both the good and the bad consequences of union actions?

Your example is similar to me giving an example of the SS shooting Jewish bosses and Stalinist commissars, and claiming, because we Communists want to get rid of bosses and Stalinists, that we should support the SS. Surely the problem is that, on balance, the SS is not in favour of Communism, even if some of its actions can be seen as in some way helpful?

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

On balance, the working class is not in favour of communism. So, we don't see any latent communist content in the working class, any more than we do in the SS, right?

Also, the SS shooting Jewish bosses and Stalinists was not good for communism, not in context, and not even as isolated incidents. Who does something, and why, matters. Because of this, making an analogy between union and the SS begs the question.

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

Who does something, and why, matters.

That's exactly my point, mate.

You gave a good example of a 'win' for workers, following union action. But is it correct to say constant small victories by unions will lead to complete victory for workers?

Perhaps another analogy might help.

If the hunter wishes to capture a bird, they lay a trail of birdseed which ends under a propped-up box.

The bird eats each morsel and thinks 'A win!', because it has had some food. With each seed, it grows more sure of itself - a succession of 'wins' leads to a full stomach, no?

Well, 'no', in fact. It leads to the hunter's dinner table. Well, in fact, it does lead to a full stomach. But not the bird's.

If the union leadership wishes to capture a class...

posi

Who does something, and why, matters.

Who? Something? Why?

As you correctly say, it 'matters' to discuss these issues. Perhaps I'm wrong, or just using shit analogies, but it's worthwhile for Communists to discuss it.

Lurch

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Quote: (Spikymike)

"[i]Where is the evidence or logical argument that 'unions appear as expressions of workers self-organisation' or that they 'are basic forms of workers self organisation'. This may have been historically valid but is it still true today and everywhere? That is not self evident.

Reply (Posi) To be honest, it pretty much is self-evident to all those who aren't on the orthodox ultra-left.

I don’t think this is an adequate response to Spikymike’s question. If it’s so self-evident, we wouldn’t be (continually) having this debate. There wouldn’t be the world-wide phenomenon of ‘wildcat’ strikes, outside of the ‘official’ union framework. And given the evident failure of this alleged ‘basic form of worker’s self organisation’ to preserve either living standards or jobs (let alone forward an alternative to this shit that is capitalism, as Tom’s article happily admits it doesn’t and never has) it’s little wonder the debate won’t go away, however exasperated or rude Posi becomes.

I find Tom’s approach in the article (allowing for word-count constraints) really weird.
Quote: “The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded.”

Leaving aside the ‘mass of workers’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, France, China, Spain, etc, who in recent months (and largely without or even against the Trade Unions) have displayed their opposition to the capitalist status quo (albeit with illusions about attenuating its effects), this is like saying that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is the ‘fault’ of the wage slaves who refuse to overthrow it! Stupid workers! Clever Posi.

This approach ‘forgets’ that unlike previous revolutionary classes, the modern proletariat has no possibility of building up within this society an ‘alternative’ way of organising things, let alone the fact that it’s subject to the dominant ideology which insists there’s ‘no alternative’, and which also rams down our throat that unions are workers’ organisations, be you for them or against them.

This approach ‘forgets’ that it’s not what this or that worker thinks but ‘what the class as a whole is forced to do (or attempt to do). It’s an economist, localist and immediate view which only sees ‘right here, right now’ and wants to forget both the previous experience of workers (“We start from where we are”), or the guiding light of the future, the perspective, the ‘general line of march’ – a different society. Tom’s view is British pragmatism at its ‘finest’.

With his disdain for theory, with his (correct) concern to be practical, Tom/Posi ‘forgets’ that a 'practice' divorced from any political foundations, orientations, or framework of principles is nothing but a practice suspended in mid-air, a narrow-mined immediatism, which can never be a truly revolutionary activity. Any separation between theory and practice that opts, either for theory without practice, or for practice without theory, destroys the unity of the immediate struggle and historical goals.

All this, no doubt, in so much theoretical bollocks to Posi/Tom. For him, the unions are a ‘barometer’ of class relations. They are ‘neutral’, swaying this way or that, according to the momentary ability of the lazy workers to get their act into gear. They’re neither good guys nor bad guys – it’s ‘more complicated than that’. When the workers struggle, the unions respond to their demands (not very well, admittedly, according to Posi). When the workers are quiet (and they’re so quiet, so often), then the unions safeguard ‘what is’ (increasing capitalist exploitation).

For Posi, maybe. For others (and there’s no need to differentiate between the different left communists – here I agree with Tom: they all say the same thing in essence), unions are the weapons of the state within the working class.

Posi would like us to celebrate the recent re-instatement of one union official on the London Underground after strike action: “I found this especially inimical to our politics.”

Me too! The reinstatement of one militant through the union mobilisation of thousands of workers to strike masks the defeat of the union campaign to resist 800 lay-offs. Couldn’t have illustrated it better.

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Lurch

If it’s so self-evident, we wouldn’t be (continually) having this debate.

Unless some of us were really dogmatic and stuck in a theoretical rut.

There wouldn’t be the world-wide phenomenon of ‘wildcat’ strikes, outside of the ‘official’ union framework.

Unless the perspective under discussion was a dual one, which was also able to explain the strong tendencies toward trade union integration.

Leaving aside the ‘mass of workers’ in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, France, China, Spain, etc, who in recent months (and largely without or even against the Trade Unions) have displayed their opposition to the capitalist status quo . . .

It's good we're leaving them aside, because my point was that "workers themselves accept capitalism and the state" - which is true in all these countries. That's not to say they accept its present form or policy, but they self-evidently don't subjectively want to do away with either institution entirely. Which is precisely the point.

this is like saying that ‘actually existing capitalism’ is the ‘fault’ of the wage slaves who refuse to overthrow it!

That's an odd way to put it. I prefer "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself".

With his disdain for theory . . .

Actually, I like theory. I like it so much, I like it to be at least half-decent.

The reinstatement of one militant through the union mobilisation of thousands of workers to strike masks the defeat of the union campaign to resist 800 lay-offs.

How does it "mask" it? "Mask" in this sentence plays no clear role at all. What does it mask from who, and where's the evidence? What is the relation between the alleged "masking" and the thing happening in the first place? What is the relative success of unionised and un-unionised workplaces in resisting lay-offs in Britain in the last decade? Why?

LBird

But is it correct to say constant small victories by unions will lead to complete victory for workers?

But nobody says that, do they?

What LBird and Lurch cannot grasp, apparently, is that workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content. There are not two wholly separate monads: unions are made up of workers, and often a full time staff, a series of regulations, rules, procedures, norms, and a dose of ideological glue. These things, when articulated together, are "the union". "The union" includes a number of "the workers", or at least a proportion of the activity of a number of the workers.

Lurch and LBird's entire politics on this question amount to complaining that workers are not communist, and denouncing their non-communistic activity, in the hope that the masses will eventually see the light they have brought, and take up the true path. In contrast, I see any "true path" as a development of the real movement which begins from the real practice of the working class today.

baboon

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

We don't have to start from the real practice of the working class today to see that the major role of the unions for many moons now is to divide the working class one from the othe whether it is engaging in struggle or not.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

'How can you say this coin has two sides? I see only heads. Not only do I see no evidence for this 'tails' of yours, even if you produce it, the historic role of coins is clearly heads, displaying the sovereign...'

Lurch

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Fine picture Joseph: nice coin. Unfortunately we’re discussing trade unions. And their two sides consist, on the one hand, enforcement of capitalist relations of exploitation and, on the other, the encapsulation of workers’ revolt against these relations into manageable, ‘legal’ and, eventually, harmless (to the staus quo) expressions. That’s their currency.

Posie wrote:

“Lurch and LBird's entire politics on this question amount to complaining that workers are not communist, and denouncing their non-communistic activity, in the hope that the masses will eventually see the light they have brought, and take up the true path.”

What demonstrable crap, a complete wriggling, dissembling and avoidance of what you, yourself have written in black and white: “The mass of workers themselves accept capitalism and the state, and it is their lack of willingness to engage in relentless anti-capitalist struggle which provides the basis on which unions are founded.”

It’s not me who’s complaining, asserting that “workers are not communist”. That would be you. Clearly. That’s why you’re desperately searching for short cuts, some 'practical' solution to very real and historical problems confronting the proletariat and its political minorities.

Personally, I’ve no doubt that the proletariat, the international, exploited class of collective, associated labour, is the only sector of our society that contains within it the seeds of a new epoch, that it is – whether it succeeds or fails – it is a truly communistic class. I’ve no problem with a discussion about how to make the work of ‘pro-revolutionaries’ ( to use Spikymike’s phrase) more effective, 'unless some of us were really dogmatic and stuck in a theoretical rut” like yourself, so determined to jettison the past lessons of the workers movement, in search of the ‘critique beyond theory’ which, on examination, is just a re-hash of the old, reformist refrain: ‘we must be where the workers are’.

Your tired old idea that trade unions merely reflect the state of the class struggle (maintaining capitalist normalcy in times of ‘quiet’; positive organs of defensive struggle when things hot up) makes even the tired old rejoinder sound fresh: just because a policeman helps an old lady across the road doesn’t mean he’s not part of the repressive apparatus.

What, apparently, I (and others) don’t get is that “workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content. There are not two wholly separate monads: unions are made up of workers, and often a full time staff, a series of regulations, rules, procedures, norms, and a dose of ideological glue. These things, when articulated together, are "the union". "The union" includes a number of "the workers", or at least a proportion of the activity of a number of the workers.

Errr, and? Like some sociologist you’re telling me that workers organise part of their activity into this or that organisation (which, apparently, gives it class content). Which gives a church, Manchester United Football Club, my local allotment or even local Lydl’s a ‘class content’? Please.

Look, if I’m misunderstanding you here, or inadvertently distorting what you’re saying, then point it out. Unlike you, with your alleged ‘puritans’ standing on the sidelines’, I’ve no need or desire to distort the praxis of others.

Finally, for the moment, we’ll return to your citation of the recent re-instatement of one LU worker as the result of union strike ‘threats’ as “especially inimical to our politics.”
I take this to mean that you think this confirms your case that union struggle can pay off for the working class (even if the actual words you used tend in the opposite direction – perhaps you meant ‘illustrative of’). Well it’s not me who argues that unions can’t appear to ‘win’ this or that for the working class.

But really, are you denying that everywhere (you, the AF statement on Libcom, the major bourgeois media) have presented this ‘one man re-instated’ as an example of ‘unions winning for the workers’, (or maybe unions bullying to get what they want) whereas, in fact, 800 jobs have disappeared? Has not the coverage (including your own modest contribution) served to nudge our attention away from the 800 dissapeared posts, and towards a 'victory', however modest (or loathesome, if you're the Daily Mail), for the unions? Find another word if you don't like mask.

(PS: Haven’t a couple (or maybe just one) of Posi’s wilder posts been ‘disappeared’ by the admins without mention or trace? I merely ask.)

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

What LBird and Lurch cannot grasp, apparently, is that workers organise a proportion of their activity through unions, including some with real class content.

Posi, I presume that Lurch would agree with me that your latter statement is correct.

The real issue is, not that we 'cannot grasp' this point, but that we need to decide what weight 'a proportion' and 'some' have in our weighing of 'real class content'.

Evidently you agree that not all workers' activity is through unions, only 'a proportion', and you agree that even of that 'proportion' only 'some' is class-based.

'Some' of 'a proportion' doesn't sound too impressive.

Why paint these issues as black and white?

Lurch

Finally, for the moment, we’ll return to your citation of the recent re-instatement of one LU worker as the result of union strike ‘threats’ as “especially inimical to our politics.”
I take this to mean that you think this confirms your case that union struggle can pay off for the working class (even if the actual words you used tend in the opposite direction...

Lurch, our comrade posi was being sarcastic about a line I used, that, regarding union activity, 'The problem is, the activity is inimical to our politics'.

Lurch

Errr, and? Like some sociologist you’re telling me that workers organise part of their activity into this or that organisation (which, apparently, gives it class content). Which gives a church, Manchester United Football Club, my local allotment or even local Lydl’s a ‘class content’? Please.

Yeah, I wish someone would answer our question about how do we weigh the 'class content' of workers' activity.

As I've said, with a purposefully extreme example to help illustrate the problem, 'activity' alone would lead one to see workers joining the SS as a positive political step.

And I'm surprised that those who are opposed to 'support for national liberation' can't see that this issue is an extension of that one. After all, if workers join a national liberation movement, why shouldn't we also see that as positive, if we see union membership as positive? Surely both are actually a step in the wrong direction for Communism?

National unions and national liberation - are they the two sides of Joseph's political coin?

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Lurch

It’s not me who’s complaining, asserting that “workers are not communist”. That would be you.

I'm not complaining about it, I'm stating it as a fact. Which it is. Isn't it? What separates us, as I've said, is that your politics amount to denouncing activity which is not fully communist, I'm looking for real expressions of class struggle activity. In Britain, unfortunately, there's not much anywhere, relative to alot of other places. But in any such survey, the real organisation of much of it through unions is an important fact.

(PS: Haven’t a couple (or maybe just one) of Posi’s wilder posts been ‘disappeared’ by the admins without mention or trace? I merely ask.)

Yeah, capital, the unions, the PLO and the libcom admins are in league to disrupt the discussion forums of the communist left, the only real threat to the existing productive relations.

LBird

Evidently you agree that not all workers' activity is through unions, only 'a proportion', and you agree that even of that 'proportion' only 'some' is class-based.

Well, yes. But for me, the question is not only how much of workers' union activity is class based (I think it's quite alot, even in Britain at the moment, albeit at a very timid level - e.g. basic sticking up for each other at work, a higher price for our labour power and all that). It's also how much of workers' class based activity happens through unions. So it's also important to me that, in Britain at the moment, quite alot does. If there was a massive, militant, extra-union workers' movement in Britain, then the question wouldn't be posed in the same way. Are you guys living in Britain, btw?

Just to repeat something I've said on another thread, I'd like to explain my reasons for objecting so strongly to the orthodox ultra-left (as I call it) on this question. My reason is that I think it's a political language which shows total disdain for, and is completely alienating to, the layer of class concious trade union activists who, for perfectly good and rational reasons considering the situation they are in, are choosing to organise a portion of their activity through unions. And I think it is totally disastrous if revolutionaries alienate this layer. Which, as long as people go around talking like Lurch and LBird, is what will happen.

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

... for me, the question is not only how much of workers' union activity is class based ...

Yeah, but how do we define 'class based activity', as opposed to mere 'union activity', by workers?

Some (much? most?) 'union activity' is not related to class issues in any conceivable way - passive members wanting and being offered loans, holidays, cheap insurance, etc.; individuals volunteering to be stewards for their own selfish reasons, the thrill of power, to keep themselves 'in the know' about future events (and their workmates 'in the dark'), or as a back route to a supervisor's job, or as a step on the road to becoming a union fulltimer with a more secure job; I'm sure we can all think of lots of reasons which would define forms of 'workers' union activity' as non-class based.

But even when we move to activity that can be seen as in some way as 'class-based', there are various levels.

Take fighting for better pensions - clearly 'class-based' in some way.

Workers can fight for their own pension, and not really give a hoot that younger workmates are on lower pensions. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or, though better, they can fight for all members of their own workforce to receive better pensions, and not really give a hoot about other workers in their industry. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or they can fight for their own public sector pensions, but not private sector.

What all these examples have in common is that they are based upon the worker's own interests in their pension - it's just the pool of support gets wider.

While these are 'class-based' in some way, I wouldn't see them as 'class-conscious'.

For me, that would involve workers fighting for someone else's pension rights, even though their own are already secure. That is, fighting for their class interests, not just their own.

Of course, this is all on a spectrum, and has the potential to develop from the lower to the higher activity.

The real question is, 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'.

This is a judgement, not an obvious answer. Especially given earlier my 'bird and seed' analogy. An apparent move 'up the spectrum' might be a trap, actually 'up the garden path'.

posi

It's also how much of workers' class based activity happens through unions. So it's also important to me that, in Britain at the moment, quite alot does.

Is this true? Isn't it possible to argue that most (much? 'quite alot'?) class based activity actually happens outside the unions? Does it depend on how and what we define as 'class based'?

posi

If there was a massive, militant, extra-union workers' movement in Britain, then the question wouldn't be posed in the same way.

Oh, for the question to be posed in that way! Our disagreements would dissolve then, too.

posi

Are you guys living in Britain, btw?

Well, I am, but I can't answer for Lurch, who I don't know.

posi

I'd like to explain my reasons for objecting so strongly to the orthodox ultra-left (as I call it) on this question.

Who are the 'orthodox ultra-left'? I'm not in any organisation anymore, and I'm open to new ideas, which is why I constantly ask questions. And I've been persuaded and educated by other posters on this site. One of the times my questions weren't answered, and I was met instead with accusations of belonging to a tendency I didn't recognise, was when I was in the SWP and was castigated as an 'RDGer' (?).

posi

My reason is that I think it's a political language which shows total disdain for, and is completely alienating to, the layer of class concious trade union activists who, for perfectly good and rational reasons considering the situation they are in, are choosing to organise a portion of their activity through unions. And I think it is totally disastrous if revolutionaries alienate this layer.

This begs the question though, doesn't it, posi? Is there a 'layer of class conscious trade union activists' who are in danger of being 'alienated' by us pointing out some home truths? Or are they merely a 'layer of trade union activists', who need to have become 'alienated' from the capitalist system before they'll even listen to a word we Communists will say?

All these issues need to be judged. And discussion can only help us to do that.

posi

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Workers can fight for their own pension, and not really give a hoot that younger workmates are on lower pensions. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or, though better, they can fight for all members of their own workforce to receive better pensions, and not really give a hoot about other workers in their industry. When their own is secure, they stop fighting.

Or they can fight for their own public sector pensions, but not private sector.

What all these examples have in common is that they are based upon the worker's own interests in their pension - it's just the pool of support gets wider.

While these are 'class-based' in some way, I wouldn't see them as 'class-conscious'.

For me, that would involve workers fighting for someone else's pension rights, even though their own are already secure. That is, fighting for their class interests, not just their own.

Of course, this is all on a spectrum, and has the potential to develop from the lower to the higher activity.

The real question is, 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'.

This is a judgement, not an obvious answer. Especially given earlier my 'bird and seed' analogy. An apparent move 'up the spectrum' might be a trap, actually 'up the garden path'.

OK -

a) I think your analogy about birds and seeds is a pretty patronising view of workers. It's also the sort of argument which doesn't differentiate your perspective from total disinterest in actual, really existing workers' victories in the short term. If any short-term victory can be dismissed as bait, why care about any victories at all? In fact, why not just scab on the next union organised strike at your work?

After all, workers sometimes start within a union framework, and then move outside it. So there's not just one trail to be followed. If you don't accept that there have been any revolutionary scenarios at any point in history before, then you're just speculating without evidence. But if there have been, which were they?

b) You use pensions as an analogy, but we could also look at workers striking over redundancies. In Britain today, that often involves striking for other workers (in the same company) who are at risk of redundancy, not for one's self.

You ask: 'is that potential more likely to be realised within the union, or outside of it?'

Statistically, as a matter of fact, today, it is more likely to be realised within unions. You give me a few examples of workers outside unions striking in defence of other people's jobs or pensions, and you might be talking about something real (we're talking about contemporary Britain, remember). As it is, you're not.

There are currently no strikes which aim at the welfare of the whole working class, except insofar as, for example, cuts will hurt services. This is a function of the demoralisation of the workers' movement. I agree that mass strikes (which won't happen any time soon, but anyway) will not be organised by "the unions" as such, though I suspect they will rely on union people at the grassroots, rather than a wholly alternative layer.

Who are the 'orthodox ultra-left'?

See above.

This begs the question though, doesn't it, posi?

No. Because my motivation for repeating the argument is not, itself, the conclusion of the argument: it is just a reason for repeating that conclusion. And that workers' perform an appreciable amount of class based activity in unions is a premise of my argument above, but not a conclusion of it.

baboon

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Why would any "pro-revolutionaries", whose primary task must be to support the unity of the working class, want to support or stand up for organisations whose main task is to keep the working class divided amongst itself?

The "tendencies and counter-tendencies" argument is a diversion since the main tendency overwhelmingly outweighs and overpowers any sort of counter-tendency.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

baboon

The "tendencies and counter-tendencies" argument is a diversion since the main tendency overwhelmingly outweighs and overpowers any sort of counter-tendency.

'a materialist, dialectical approach is a diversion since i'd rather restate my position without argument.'

baboon

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I don't think that one can use the dialectic to bring the dead back to life. There's volumes of stuff on here trying to prove that there's some sort of life, something, anything to be supported in various national liberation struggles. One recent one was how the murderous Vietnamese regime was "better" than the murderous Cambodian one - there's always a lesser evil, always something to justify working class support - it's what leftism feeds on.
In 1919 in Russia, the unions came to the aid of the state in helping to crush the factory committees, the last and only hope of the revolution. The unions continued with this work into the early 20s. Even in revolutionary Russia the unions defended the interests of the state against working class organisation. And since, the unions everywhere, have the fundamental role of being against the working class and defending the national interest and no amount of dialectical spin will alter that.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

i'm not talking about national liberation, although i suppose it is easier to have the same analysis of everything regardless of its concrete content: goodie or baddie?

baboon

In 1919 in Russia, the unions (...) fundamental role

so 'the unions' are an abstraction across time and space? the idealism thickens! this is straight out of Plato, in the name of Marxism.

Lurch

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Well since you put it like that, we'd better get rid of that abstract call to 'smash the state'.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Do you just not follow the argument? Because if this is an honest misunderstanding I'm happy to explain it in simpler terms.

Lurch

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Do you just not follow the argument?

Certainly not just 'follow it' - I've tried to participate in it. You try not to be so supercillious.
But by all means, please explain the central thesis of Tom's arguement about the movement and trade unions in 'simpler terms'.

Joseph Kay

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Well as i understand it the argument is, distilled as much as possible:

1) millions of workers are members of trade unions (uncontroversial)
2) most industrial action is organised through trade unions (i assume this is also uncontroversial)
3) trade unions have institutional interests apart from and in opposition to working class self-organisation (uncontroversial)
4) struggles which begin as union-initiated can go beyond this, like the LOR wildcats, the Royal Mail wildcats after CWU stitch-ups or the Brighton Cityclean GMB branch's willingness to wildcat (presumably uncontroversial?)
5) therefore, there are counterveiling forces at work in the trade unions, one the one hand an institutional interest in collaborating with capital and the state, on the other hand a limited expression of workers struggles, and possible point of departure for more self-organised direct action

It seems like only the conclusion (5) is in dispute.

[end plain english/begin philiosophy]

Possibly also point (4) is in dispute, which is what seems to be being dismissed by the platonic idealism: 'you can give examples of successful union struggles, but these are irrelevant to the true historic role of the unions' (i.e. it doesn't matter what examples are produced, the theory has been deduced already and, as the essence of 'the unions' is known - their historic role - no mere concrete example can contradict it).

Lurch

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Thank you. Pause (on my part) for reflection.

baboon

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I'm not used to university type discussions JK so I appreciate your concern to cut the sarcasm and keep it simple.

I know you wasn't talking about national liberation - I was. I was talking about it because the same fundamental anti-working class position as that of the unions is defended in saying, yes there's something, however small in defending these structures - in this case, say, Vietnam's government against Cambodia's regime, because one has killed less people than the other. Or you could support the former because it's given one more grain of rice to a worker than the latter - in that case there is something positive to it. Forget the fundamental counter-revolutionary nature of the nation state, this state in relation to that state, by dint of a grain of rice to one worker has to be better for the working class. Down with the state JK, down with the national state and long live internationalism!

The role of the unions is even more clearer to me than that of the nation state - indeed they are part of the same nation state. Trade unions haven't always existed as you probably know. They have a history in a similar way to the nation state. They have developed from organisations of the working class to their integration into the needs of the nation state and its defence both economic and imperialist. That a worker gets a grain of rice from the trade unions makes not whit a difference to their function as statist organisations, dividers of the working class and funeral directors of the class struggle.

Are you surprised that the unions in the major countries are involved in workers' struggles sometimes initiating them. Why would that contradict anything about the unions being against the working class? What do you think that their role is?. Look at the unions in China who have opposed the class struggle - what good are they for the Chinese state?
Of course the unions initiate struggle that, among many other things, is part of their role. Unions like those in the People's Republic wouldn't be any good for the British, French and so ruling classes.

For you, on the one hand the unions have a statist role and on the other are an expression of the workers' struggle. For me the overwhelming evidence of the last hundred years of the trade unions is one of integration into the capitalist state and the defence of that state's national interest against the working class.

LBird

11 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

baboon

I know you wasn't talking about national liberation - I was.

Yeah, it wasn't JK who introduced the juxtaposition of 'national liberation movements' with 'unions', it was me. I did this because it was JK who, with others, convinced me of the anti-NLM argument, and I wanted to test the argument that the two types of organisation which contain workers had similarities.

So for example, to amend JK's point 5, above,

Joseph Kay (amended by LBird)

5) therefore, there are counterveiling forces at work in the trade unions and National Liberation movements, one the one hand an institutional interest in collaborating with capital and the state, on the other hand a limited expression of workers struggles, and possible point of departure for more self-organised direct action

Could the amended quote be just as valid as the original?

I (and I presume baboon and Lurch) would answer 'Yes, it's valid to align the two together, and conclude that the statement is wrong in its conclusion'.

Whereas JK would see it as invalid, but still hold the original statement is correct.

Joseph Kay

Possibly also point (4) is in dispute, which is what seems to be being dismissed by the platonic idealism: 'you can give examples of successful union struggles, but these are irrelevant to the true historic role of the unions' (i.e. it doesn't matter what examples are produced, the theory has been deduced already and, as the essence of 'the unions' is known - their historic role - no mere concrete example can contradict it).

I'm sure you know enough philosophy of science, JK, to reflect that your hasty criticism that "it doesn't matter what examples are produced, the theory has been deduced already and, as the essence of 'the unions' is known - their historic role - no mere concrete example can contradict it" is an incorrect criticism, and it is an entirely scientific approach, according to Lakatos, for example, and is not an example of 'platonic idealism'.

FWIW, I entirely agree with baboon,

baboon

For me the overwhelming evidence of the last hundred years of the trade unions is one of integration into the capitalist state and the defence of that state's national interest against the working class.

You're right, JK, all the 'concrete examples' of 'union wins' in the world can't contradict the theory. But then, the theory is also based on some countervailing empirical evidence, like the General Strike.

As I've said all along, it's a judgement. And your outlining of the anti-NLM argument, which helped convince me, has also helped me to form this judgement.

baboon

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

LBird, I’ve been back and read your references to likening the union question to the national liberation question and generally agree with your line of march; ie, “positives” can be taken from both in national contexts but an internationalist position can only be against both.

I’m taking a bit of a liberty and want to reproduce (pre-publish rather than unpublish) a quote from the second part of text on class struggle in Africa that I’m translating for the ICC (the first part is on its website) made by a historian who has studied the subject. It’s just one point and no doubt there will be those that say that this is just another example of listing what’s deficient in the unions; that it’s another example of intransigence and vulgar proletarian obstinacy – which is exactly what it is.

Just a couple of points first:
In the 50s, 60s and 70s, in the labour camps of Russia, East Germany and other Soviet bloc satellites, all the workers were in unions and from this basis extremely important class struggles broke out. That doesn’t mean that labour camps have “counterveiling” tendencies within them (though this may be more difficult to see with the democratic trade unions).

Dialectic materialism has been mentioned above with someone kind enough to show a picture of a coin so that us dimwits can see what’s meant by two sides. This presumably means that a dialectical approach to the unions understands that it’s not one thing or the other but a “dialectical” mixture of both. I think that this shows a misunderstanding of dialectics and an even bigger misunderstanding of dialectical materialism (for me the real essence of marxism). There is no need at all for revolutionaries to trap or make excuses for workers in a trade union consciousness or of trade union consciousness being a possible stepping stone to wider and deeper struggle. To talk of “alienating” the working class by taking positions against the unions is to contribute to the enforcement of a trade union consciousness. But what, from the point of view of dialectics, the workers believe in at a particular moment is not the point. Whether the working class is aware of it or not there is a necessity for a different order and, dialectically, the state of things will inevitably break apart. For marxism the most profound expression of dialectics is not something as trivial as two sides of a trade union coin but the negation of the existing order and the proletariat as a revolutionary class and the bearer of communism. Where do the trade unions, with their structurally divisive activity and constant defence of the national interest stand in relation to that? I see no substantial difference between the opposing tendencies in trade unions’ position and that of the “critical” position of the SWP.

Anyway, I’ve got sidetracked and the quote is from Iba Der Thiam and his “Histoire du Movement syndical africain 1790-1929” and concerns a mass strike involving the Dakar region that broke out against the colonial power France in early 1914: “It was an economic strike certainly, but also political, a strike of protest, a strike of sanction, of reprisals, decided upon and put into effect by all the population of Cape Verde... The strike had a clearly political character and the reaction of the authorities was something else... The administration was both surprised and disarmed because it had nothing like the classic union organisation with offices and rules on the ground. This was a general movement taken in hand by all the population and whose leadership was invisible”. How can there be any doubt nearly a hundred years on, with one “betrayal” succeeding another, and the daily work of division and their function as state organisations that the trade unions are against the working class?

posi

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Is there a direct analogy between "national liberation movements" and "the unions" for the purposes of this argument?

First of all, although I've agreed with everything JK has said on this thread so far, I think we may disagree on this. I think, for example, that there is some real, positive and important content to, for example, mass struggles in Palestine against the separation wall, and against the occupation. On that level, I think JK may agree - but we might not describe it theoretically in the same way.

In general, I don't think that "national liberation movement" is a particularly helpful term for analysis, insofar its not clear whether it includes mass struggles such as I describe as well as Hamas, etc. I would prefer starting with a more specific analysis: talking about the role and structural significance of the mass anti-colonial struggle, the post-colonial pseudo-socialist or Islamist militia, etc. (I don't think we have to end up endorsing any of these to make it worthwhile disaggregating them.) But anyway, leaving that aside for now . . . we can continue that discussion on the thread below the review of Against Nationalism if people want to.

But let's take a specific example. Why is Hamas disanalogous to the RMT? Because:

1 - participating in Hamas is (to polarise) political, whereas participating in the RMT is to participate in a diverse organisation with political plurlity and freedom to organise for one's views without expulsion. Gorter says something like "every union . . . is a party, for or against the revolution". And, true, we are polarising: every organisation lies somewhere on the line between politically restrictive on the one hand, and pluralist and based on mass participation on the other - and at times of revolution, such as Gorter was talking about, the political role of the union may become extremely important and sharply posed, overwhelming its pluralist mass basis. The general difference in quantity, however, amounts to a difference in quality (thx Engels) in this case. In those countries where union are organised more politically (France, Italy, Spain), this is less true, but still true enough to be important. It would be less true again of a mass informal anti-colonial struggle . . . but again, still true enough to be important.

2 - The RMT is based on meeting the material, immediate class needs of its members through struggle, and its day to day activity reflects that, Hamas is not. It is a class-based need to protect jobs by threatening strike action, it is not a class need to escalate ethnic tension by detonating bombs on Israeli buses. It is a class based need not to have to be shot as you walk to work, or have freedom of movement in one's town, but these things are not addressed as immediate needs by Hamas, only in the abstract remote sense in which they would be solved by national independence. They are addressed as immediate needs by various local committees in the West Bank, so the differences are smaller there again...

3 - The extent to which Hamas fucks people, and the class struggle, over massively exceeds that of the RMT. Suicide bombings and beating demonstrations off the streets are not analogous to not, I dunno, not calling for an indefinite political strike for communism, or failing to absolutely win every economic battle outright, or whatever you want them to do.

There are other differences. The level of open democracy, the fact that the RMT's weaknesses are in part expressions of the weakness of the class, etc. etc. These differences are not incidental to the particular example in question, which I have chosen because it is easy to illustrate: they are structural reflections of the different roles which unions in the old industrial bastions of the core and national liberation movements in the oil-producing periphery play in world capitalism today.

baboon

Look at the unions in China who have opposed the class struggle

Forgive me, but aren't you in favour of a communist party?

baboon

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

I forgive you Posi, but I don't know what you're talking about.

If you're suggesting that in some way I support the CCP then you haven't understood a word I've said.

The dialectic is used above to demonstrate that, because there are two sides to a coin, unions can have a proletarian context. My problem with such a methodoligical approach is that such a "theory" can apply to anything where workers are involved: national liberation, imperialist war, popular fronts, united fronts, socialist paradises, anything becomes anything in this abuse of the dialectical materialism.

LBird

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

baboon

My problem with such a methodological approach is that such a "theory" can apply to anything where workers are involved:...

Yeah, this was my key question to Alexander Roxwell in our debate about National Liberation Movements, and it's my key question now, regarding the unions.

That is: 'Why should the mere presence of workers in an organisation in itself give sufficient reason for Communists to support that organisation?'

Perhaps there is a satisfactory answer which differentiates NLMs from unions, but if there is, I'm yet to hear it.

As I've said, the argument against NLMs seems to me to be completely applicable to the argument against unions.

posi

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

LBird - Well if it's the key question, then the key answer is above. Why don't you engage with the differences I set out?

Baboon - my point is that it's ridiculous to use the experience of a state labour front like the official unions in China to denounce every other union in the world. Just because something is described using the word 'union' or 'party' doesn't make it identical to every other thing described by the same word.

LBird

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

LBird - Well if it's the key question, then the key answer is above.

Why not give me the 'one-line answer' then, to a 'one-line question', rather than spend your 'line' telling me to look amongst your 'several paragraph' post?

Do you think this is a game? You don't seem to want to engage seriously, and would rather play childish tricks.

I'll do it for you, eh?

posi

[A union, unlike an NLM,] is based on meeting the material, immediate class needs of its members through struggle...

This assertion, though, is at the heart of our disagreement. And even if it is true (fully or in part), does it go far enough to justify Communists supporting unions?

Lurch

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

The essential point about 'overtly' state unions in China today (or in the old Eastern bloc) is that they are useless for controlling struggles, which is why the ruling class elsewhere expends so much energy in trying to persuade such states (usually under the guise of 'human rights' campaigns) to adopt western-style 'free' trade unions, along with other 'democratic' safety valves. That's why the UK bosses paper the Financial Times in a June 2010 editorial (at the height of last year's strikes in factories like Honda) argued that what was required in China was 'free' trade unions which could prevent such struggles from reaching the point where production was halted, quality wrecked and continuity of supply threatened (western firms haven't invested squillions in 'low wage' economies just to see their production fucked up). That's why, since 2004, a TUC delegation has visited China twice (and hosted one return visit) in a bid to push this process along - all facilitated by the same British ambasadorial team that arranged Cameron's sales junket earlier this year. That's why the US, when re-writting the constitutions of defeated Germany and Japan in 1945/46, insisted on strong trade unions (and co-opted a top US union official to oversee this process). That's why so much western support was given to Solidarnosc in Poland, the movement which took over the workers mass strikes and assemblies in 1980/81, and eventually, after the fall of the Wall, provided much of the first 'free' Polish government.

posi

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Why not give me the 'one-line answer' then, to a 'one-line question', rather than spend your 'line' telling me to look amongst your 'several paragraph' post?

Because it takes more than 'one line' to answer 'the' question, and I 'already answered' it. Are 'you' serious?

Do you think this is a game?

I'm not sure. But if it is, it's not much fun.

This assertion, though, is at the heart of our disagreement. And even if it is true (fully or in part), does it go far enough to justify Communists supporting unions?

It is true, definitely. I was referring specifically to the RMT, just because it's an easy case study. It is simply not credible to say that the higher wages and job security of RMT members on the tube, for example, compared to others, is nothing to do with the strike action which has been organised through the RMT. That would be nonsense. Sorry.

In general, if you google 'union wage premium' then you can see statistical estimates for the impact which union membership has on earnings, which tends to be between 10% and 25% in the US and UK.

"Communists supporting unions" is a totally meaningless phrase. Communists participating in unions, certainly.

http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/19987/1/The_Union_Wage_Premium_in_the_US_and_the_UK.pdf

LBird

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

It is true, definitely.

Well, that's the assertion. Let's look at the evidence.

posi

I was referring specifically to the RMT, just because it's an easy case study. It is simply not credible to say that the higher wages and job security of RMT members on the tube, for example, compared to others, is nothing to do with the strike action which has been organised through the RMT. That would be nonsense. Sorry.

Well, I'm not (and I don't think the others are, either) saying that "higher wages and job security...[are] nothing to do with the strike action...".

In fact, I agree with you: they are the result of strike action by a union.

The real issue, which seems to be being missed, is:

"can 'higher wages and job security achieved through union struggles' in themselves be categorised as either 'class conscious' or 'leading to Communism'?".

It seems to be an 'open and shut' case. Yes, workers are 'better off', through struggles in which they have taken at least some part, so we conclude that 'unions' are of some use to workers.

But, can't the same argument be used about National Liberation Movements? It seems to me that at least some NLMs have lead to workers of the 'liberated nation' being materially 'better off' than before the struggle. I'm sure that this would be the line of argument which would be taken by Alexander Roxwell, in his support for NLMs.

I suppose what I'm asking about is, how do we define 'class consciousness' and 'leading to Communism'.

Surely there has to be more evidence than just 'workers being better off', because that can be achieved within the capitalist system.

And even if the system starts to break down, the mere fact that improvements have been achieved in the past by their peaceful union-based struggles within the system, could lead workers to defend that 'proven' system, rather than launch into the unknown of 'class struggle' and 'Communism'.

So, the question remains, still undecided by the 'evidence'.

Are the 'unions' a valid tool for workers to develop 'class consciousness', or are they a 'bait' (like the birdseed analogy), which lead to uncertain tactical victory, but certain strategic loss?

Once again, I say 'It's not clear, it's a judgement'. Let's discuss it like Communists.

Joseph Kay

11 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

posi

In general, if you google 'union wage premium' then you can see statistical estimates for the impact which union membership has on earnings, which tends to be between 10% and 25% in the US and UK.

although you can argue that there's a counfounding variable behind the correlation: workers' willingness to take collective action which tends to lead to higher union membership and better pay. it would be interesting to see a breakdown by threatened or actual industrial action vs pay premium; i'd imagine non-striking unions come out bottom, the RMT near the top. so it's not union membership per se that's causal, but willingness to take collective action. of course most of that action is organised by or through trade unions.