An issue of the anarcho-syndicalist magazine Direct Action themed around... direct action.
Direct Action (SolFed) #14 2000 partial
- Dare to dream: Then do it: People celebrate confidence; capitalism kills it. Dare to dream hard enough, and doing direct action becomes natural and necessary. Notes on some hows and whys of the art form.
- Unharvesting unhinged? GM crops and direct action. Spring has sprung and the time for frenzied crop pulling is upon us once again. A pause for thought.
- New Labour - New Terrorism: The Government is planning to change the Prevention of Terrorism Act, making it a danger to ‘free’ speech and expression, your life, and the alternative media. 100,000 people across the UK could be affected - maybe you are one of them.
- Violence junkies: Direct action and self defence; how violence might be used, or not. Can peaceful ends justify violent means?
- Like there is no tomorrow: The fight to consume the last free lunch is on. The fall-out to worry about is not the crumbs, but the flying crockery. Welcome to consumerism, doing what it says on the tin.
Dare to dream: Then do it
A themed issue of Direct Action on the theme of ... Direct Action? Does this mean that after running themes on everything, from being sick of work, to religion, to surveillance, the DA Collective has run out of ideas? Or could it be they just could no longer resist the pet topic? Let’s just put it down either to withdrawal symptoms waiting for the spring GM crops or the post-Seattle come-down.
Three questions: What’s it all about? Is it good? When and how is it best?
Q.1. What is direct action?
Well, just to annoy pedants, linguists and assorted clever dicks and dickesses, it is doing something, but not indirectly.
Indirect action is where you allow/encourage/tolerate someone else doing something on your behalf and/or in your name. In political terms, this invariably means voting for someone to make all the decisions you know you could and should really make yourself, but don’t, for whatever reason. Appealing to third parties to solve your problems for you doesn’t really work. Especially if they are the very people who created your problems for you or made them worse in the first place. Doubly especially if they stand to profit from your problems.
The alternative is direct action. The general thesis here is that direct action is doing stuff collectively in the mutual interest of the group, not getting or expecting someone else to do it.
Q.2. Is direct action always a good thing?
The obvious answer is no.
Q.3. When is direct action the right thing to do, and then, what sort?
This, of course, is the real nub of the issue.
A starting point answer is that direct action is right if it does not conflict with your basic aims, principles or beliefs and, provided it is conducted at the right time, in the right place, it is likely to help you along the way towards meeting some objectives you have. The first part suggests that you need to have some developed wider ideas before any direct action can hope to be ‘successful’. The second part implies that each direct action must be developed and planned for each unique circumstance, and that the outcome cannot generally be guaranteed in advance – there is an element of risk and uncertainty.
To illustrate the general territory; a couple of examples of really bad direct action. Marxists and other reformist state socialists never had much experience of direct action struggle. To advocate a socialist dictatorship necessarily means going in for snatching political power by outmanoeuvring the present incumbents. Marx’s theoretical, economics-centred approach is fundamentally flawed. Its lack of faith in the working class makes ‘necessary’ the retention of a party, leadership and state – the very things which are the cause of so much of the oppression and misery. The role of direct action in Marxism is restricted to exploiting the lack of confidence within the working class and manipulating them into following the new socialist leadership, thereby providing them with the numbers necessary to usurp the establishment. The Russian Revolution of 1917 involved mass direct action, but the resultant gains were not to be had by the working class, for they had been giving their effort, faith and lives away to the party – and the party got the fruit of their labours.
The second example is direct action for national liberation, where, for example, an identifiable linguistic or geographic group seeks to ‘liberate’ itself from a larger or more powerful group which is controlling and oppressing it. There are numerous active examples, and many have arisen out of imperial colonialism, a particularly nasty chunk of capitalist legacy. Such struggles involve advocating a more local form of state, and in so doing, the national liberation movement bows to the idea that the state is a desirable institution – just not in the current form. As such, it has the fundamental flaw that, if successful, it will generate a new state – which may or may not be ‘worse’ than the current oppressor. The fact is that the state idea involves a higher authority, which inevitably protects the interests of those who have controlling power. National liberation struggles are therefore really a battle over the ‘right to oppress’, between the current state and the would-be new state. To take direct action to support a state, even one which does not yet exist, is to support oppression. Even if it may appear that the liberation struggle involves lesser oppression (at present), as numerous cases show, the newly empowered ‘liberated’ state can often be even more vindictive, power-crazed and oppressive to ‘its’ people than the previous regime.
Thus, an anarcho-syndicalist alternative to the national liberation struggle is to build associations between all people based on global solidarity, against capitalism and the nation state. The point here is that it is not so much what direct action is done, or how, or why, but that all three of these are chuffing crucial.
It is worth examining the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions of direct action in turn, as a way of working out what action is ‘best’ in any given case.
What? Well, I would suggest that direct action is always best taken in defence - particularly of ethical rights. So going out and defending our gains now, defending our rights now, and defending our future are all legitimate forms of direct action. Physically stopping people undermining our quality of life, our jobs, our environment, our human rights, by occupying spaces, withdrawing labour, or what have you, are all top notch.
How? I would suggest that direct action can only be successful in the long term if it is undertaken by people who organise themselves according to direct democratic principles – in other words, they are all directly involved in decision making and action. No political experts, no massed ranks under orders. This is because otherwise, the action will be used by someone else and the rights to the benefits we have fought for will be lost. Cliquey groups and the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ takes hold around direct action groups where the organisational ‘hows’ have not been fully thought out.
Why? This goes back to aims; in my case, the aim of the direct action I do is to help along the new society I crave, built on the principles of equality of access to resources, mutual freedom and respect for people and the environment, social and political solidarity, and the development of the individual through social progress.
It cannot be stressed too much that it is all three which are needed. An authoritarian Marxist may agree with my eventual aims exactly, but we will be totally opposed to one another in every other way. Without agreement on basic methods, aims and principles, direct action may not be as effective as those who give so much time to it hope and deserve.
That is not to say that getting every move thought out way in advance is either possible or desirable. Direct action is like a game of chess where the rules keep changing; you have to have a general direction, even the general basis of theory, and of course, eventual aim and interim objectives, but you also have to be ready to change tactics at a moment’s notice and work out what the implications of this are. Usually, this is done by experience, by looking back at last time or times before, and by talking to others with different experiences. In other words, it helps to be plugged into a wider group, and it helps to blend planning with spontaneity, practical ideas with head-based stuff. Theory is useless without action – but vice versa is also equally true.
better than Prozac
The real beauty of direct action, however, lies not in the planned, specific result of each sortie, but in the result of the experience itself. Direct action is empowering, solidarity-building, and is a cultural form in itself. Anyone who has done any has had the buzz. As someone once said, it is better than Prozac.
By putting our ideas into practice, taking control of our lives, and learning to trust and be trusted in the important heat of the moment, direct action is a now-thing that can help us actually start building the new society in the shell of the old. Direct action is central to confidence, which is essential to creating the culture of resistance, which is at the core of the new society we are building totally independently of the existing capitalist order. Solidarity, the idea that only through co-operation in society can human beings be liberated and free, is given practical meaning in direct action. It means giving something to yourself and to others – it is doing something useful (provided the thinking bits above are satisfied). It is the very negation of capitalism and the state, based as it is on pure self-interest and the pursuit of profit, and indirect, passive deference to a higher authority.
Direct action is both a means of struggle now, and the means by which capitalism can be eventually overcome without the need for a state. It is far more than a mere method of self-managed struggle, it is the means by which capitalism can be replaced without the need for outside interference.
Not only is direct action a means of keeping struggle for a better future under our own, direct democratic control, and not only is it a more effective form of struggle than parliamentary action, it is also a means by which people can become conscious of their oppression and how to counter it. Voting negates consciousness, since responsibility for action is negated, so why think about it, if you cannot do anything real about it? Direct action helps make you think.
Confidence, self-education, solidarity; direct action is far more than just a street tactic. It is the vehicle which forms the basis of both change and the confidence and ability to create further change towards liberation. Through every direct action, people demonstrate to themselves that they are not merely dispensable wage slaves, working class cannon fodder or beasts of burden with little intellect. They gain confidence in their abilities, gain a sense of their own worth, and in so doing become more acutely aware of their own oppression and the need for an alternative to capitalism.
Self-confidence as a primary ingredient in struggle and change cannot be overstated. People celebrate confidence; capitalism kills it. Dare to dream hard enough, and doing direct action becomes natural and necessary. All oppressive societies must develop a belief system that underpins the oppression within society, since they cannot rule by violence alone. At the heart of the belief system is usually the idea that there is no alternative to the current order, that the oppressed have no alternative to their oppression, and that things could/would be worse otherwise. Without the ruling elite, society would collapse into chaos. This simple confidence trick cannot be maintained if masses of people have confidence in themselves and their humanity. No confident direct activist will believe that running society must be left to their "leaders and betters".
In attempting to build a new society within the old, the self-organisation, self-education, and self-confidence around direct action is an ongoing igniter for fresh change. Once it gets going, it feeds itself. The fact that our current oppressors are only too aware of this potential runaway train is indicated by one of their latest plans – to extend their definition of ‘terrorist’ to anyone who is prepared to take direct action.
21st Century: the big one?
While they were developing direct action methods and ideas we still use today, the syndicalists of 100 years ago were laying down the basic tenet of anarcho-syndicalism; that freedom can only be achieved by people themselves. Only through common struggle based on self-organised direct action can people bring about their own liberation. This is the very opposite of the Marxist idea that a transitionary period of state control would be needed in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, because people would be incapable of taking control of society themselves.
The early syndicalist movement was also flawed in that, for many, the revolution was seen as an orderly process, leading to a quick, simple and straightforward transfer of power from capitalism to socialism. There was an identifiable switch-point from the old world to the new.
One problem with such a mechanistic view is that it virtually rules out spontaneity. While spontaneous direct action will never be enough on its own - if it was, the desperate state of 19th Century poverty and oppression would have meant that revolution would have occurred long ago – spontaneity is a critical addition to the modern direct action toolkit. As capitalism turns on the offensive against us, for example by using new ‘terrorism’ laws to ruthlessly smash our organisations and activities for liberation, we need to be able to react quickly and change our tactics and methods if necessary in order to maintain the initiative. The anarcho-syndicalist movement learned from the mistakes of syndicalists and rethought the general strike tactic. Reasoning that, in the face of the brutal force of the state against strikers and militants, the simple withdrawal of labour was going to be too passive and too planned to succeed, they began using wildcat strikes and occupations. This was developed into opportunistically taking control within workplaces. Instead of staying away from work, the idea emerged to take control of it in order to ensure production on behalf of the revolution. The ‘revolution’ in anarcho-syndicalist terms has now become largely viewed as an episode amongst many of increased unrest and conflict between state/capitalism and the movement for solidarity and freedom. There will be no single ‘big bang’, or at least only one that is a bit bigger than the others. Defining moments are all relative – revolutions are times of relatively more change; between them, direct action is an everyday thing – not something to be saved for some mythical one-off event.
sowing the seeds of tomorrow in the compost of today
It is not just idle armchair talk, or the stuff of Channel 4 late night chat-show myths. Direct action is on the rise. Gone is the disastrous cul-de-sac that was Marxism. Gone is any pretence of revolutionary intent from the crumbling ‘socialist’ capitalist puppets, where success was measured in terms of votes at the polls. All ‘ideals’ were long ago sacrificed at the altar of the polling booth. In Britain, the drift away from socialism has finally run its course with the rise of New Labour, which now can no longer bear to speak the name.
At the same time, the more progressive, direct action inspired elements of the ecology movement have managed to organise and successfully counterpose the dominant apathy and desperation in the face of capital power. In the best examples, such groups have increasingly begun to broaden their direct action basis into self-organisations capable of confronting capitalism as a whole. This stems from recognition that capitalism and the state are the root cause of current wanton environmental destruction.
Aims, principles, whats, hows, whys are emerging (or re-emerging), giving real strength to direct action. At the same time, there is a greater realisation that using direct action and self-organisation instead of negotiation and leadership elections is paramount to success. The struggle must be based on solidarity – there are no short-cuts. "Unity is strength" is central to every struggle and every action, and only through this can we really expect to progress.
Unharvesting unhinged? GM crops and direct action
"It is a disgrace these people should occupy private property. The place to make their protest is at the Commons, where they would be locked up for their pains." Lord Macclesfield, on the anti-GM activists who squatted a derelict farmhouse next to his land.
The spring has sprung, and the time for frenzied crop pulling is upon us once again. Maybe now is a good time to take a closer look at our strategy and tactics and ask a few searching questions of our motivations and ourselves.
While I wholeheartedly endorse the destruction of GM test sites by mass direct action, there are one or two nagging doubts in my mind. Firstly, supposing Monsanto is driven out of business by the actions of crop pullers and consumers worldwide, will it really be a victory that we can celebrate? Sorry to sound pessimistic, but what about all the other mega-corporations out there and the governments backing them up? Are they all going to roll over and say, "Ok, you’re right, we’ll be good from now on. Let’s destroy all this genetic technology and, while we’re at it, we’ll stop exploiting people and ripping off the Third World". Get rid of one bunch of fat cats and another bunch takes its place. I’m not advocating doing nothing, just trying to emphasise that we all need to keep our activities in perspective. Without putting what we do in the maize field into context, we are doomed never to make progress. If all we do is destroy and don’t seek to build alternatives, then what exactly are we doing? Having a bloody good time admittedly, but ultimately we need to make a difference to the way future society is organised in order to defeat the exploiters and the blood suckers once and for all.
GM crops and direct action
There is a worrying tendency amongst some in the anti-GM movement to see themselves as some sort of elite, "we’ve got the bottle to actually defy the law, everyone else is just playing at direct action". This "eco-warrior" syndrome is terribly trendy in a post-modernist, don’t get too serious kind of way, but it is bugger all use in the long run. Individual acts of reckless heroism may make good headlines, but they do little to organise MASS activity, which is the true measure of success.
Unless you are prepared to get your hands dirty by raising awareness, writing pamphlets and generally agitating, educating and organising for change, then you are little more than the syrup of figs of the movement - you pass through leaving little trace except a faint whiff of something unpleasant. Preaching to the converted is easy, but not a lot of use in building a genuine mass movement and organising for lasting change.
The anti-poll tax campaign mobilised tens of thousands of people into sustained direct action, yet, once the tax was killed off, the support quickly faded. Now the optimistic view is that many people were radicalised through their involvement in this campaign, and it’s true to say that such a thing is impossible to measure. Some would argue that the Poll Tax organising led directly to Reclaim the Streets. However, most of the potential for mass action dissipated quickly and our problem was how to build on the gains made.
RTS, on the other hand, learned the lessons about building links. The old lefty way of "parachuting in" and trotting out the party line was seen for what it was – the deadening influence of the out of touch. Thus, RTS strives to build connections between environmental struggles, workers in dispute, and global capitalism. Its message is that one area of life -work, health, pollution, or whatever - can’t be separated from others - what’s happening in Nigeria, Stock Markets, consumerism, etc. We need to see the big picture in everything we do and we need to be part of the community we are fighting for, not an elite bunch of activists above it. Sadly, some seem to have lost sight of this aspect of direct action and instead have fallen for the glamour of destruction. One leading anti-authoritarian magazine lauded the J18 action for "putting London back at the top of the world rioting league". So what?
One of the main arguments against GMOs is that they risk unleashing an irreversible catastrophe on the world’s eco-systems. While this is a theory we should never attempt to test out, it can blind us to the value of new technology and the enormous benefits that many innovations can bring to all of us.
The issue of who controls the technology throws up other questions about how big corporations operate and how Third World countries are held to ransom by first world governments and business. Many farmers in India, and indeed many activists here, would not disagree with employing technology that increases crop yields or lessens the reliance on pesticides. However, we all know we cannot trust a company whose sole aim is the maximisation of profit and market dominance.
Only technology shorn of its control by business and politicians can be fairly evaluated and employed safely. It may be that, given such conditions, GM or other innovations can be placed at the service of humanity and improve the lives of people all over the planet. We will never know until we operate in a truly democratic and accountable environment with the necessary checks on the abuse of power and knowledge.
In the light of this, we should be wary of rejecting all inventions and discoveries out of hand. We should ask what benefits can be had, weigh them against any potential risks instead of simply being anti-technology, then work towards the kind of society which unlocks potential, encourages debate and seeks solutions through consensus, instead of the unequal, corrupt and oppressive one we have now.
New Labour, New Terrorism
The Government is proposing to change the Anti-Terrorism Act. Initially, it was brought in as a ‘temporary’ measure after the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974. Now they want to make it permanent. They have also decided to take the opportunity of including a few new categories of English, Scottish and Welsh ‘terrorists’ into the bargain, from democratic demonstrators to people who have occasional thoughts of political dissent.
The Terrorism bill will:
- make any activist at risk of coming under the new definition of ‘terrorist’ at some point in time;
- make refugees supporting the overthrow of oppressive regimes in their own country terrorists;
- make any degree of support for a proscribed organisation into ‘terrorism’;
- introduce powers to the police to declare cordoned areas, within and adjacent to which anyone can be sent to prison;
- introduce new ‘sus’ powers of stop, search and detain, which could affect anyone.
The Terrorism Bill contains a clear and explicit intention; to change the definition of terrorism from being "use of violence for political ends" to the far wider-ranging "use of violence against persons or property or the threat to use such violence to intimidate or coerce the Government, or any section of the public for political, religious or ideological ends". Under both the existing Act and the ‘new improved’ version, people can be arrested without a warrant and held for 48 hours. This can be extended to 5 days by order of the Home Secretary.
The Terrorism Bill signifies the ‘coming of age’ of a vicious piece of knee-jerk reaction to IRA activity. The scope is clearly being widened to include almost anyone the Government does not like or may not like in the future. The Home Secretary will be given the right to proscribe domestic groups and organisations, making it a criminal offence to belong to or associate with them. It will also become a criminal offence to incite groups or individuals to commit ‘terrorist’ acts in a foreign country.
The banning of domestic groups the Government does not like is, frankly, frightening and dangerous. So is the creation of a wide range of new ‘crimes’ that could lead to individual arrests, for example, for ‘associating’.
However, since most of us like a bit of ‘frightening and dangerous’, let’s consider some situations where the new regime might apply. You are involved with a group planning a demonstration. You do not intend it to be violent but you accept that there is a possibility of violence of some sort and so plan accordingly. Sorry, criminal offence.
Your friend asks if her/his animal rights groups can use your front room for a meeting, as their usual place is booked up. You agree, though you do not attend and you do not know what was discussed. Sorry, lending your front room may be construed as ‘support’ – criminal offence.
You are staying on a road protest site and someone mentions in conversation their idea of trashing contractors plant and machinery. The idea is not pursued and nothing is done. Sorry, too late – you were there when it was considered – criminal offence. Worse still, you overhear a discussion about disabling the plant and machinery and you fail to report the possibility of it occurring to the police. Even if there was never any intention on your part to take part – failure to report planned activity is a criminal offence.
You are asked by a friend to have a look around the perimeter of a local research laboratory to see if you can get some idea of what is going on inside – criminal offence. Even planning for defence of a strike or setting up a community action group to organise opposition to a local contaminated site or new development could quite effortlessly fall within the category of criminal offence under the Bill. Now, a lot of people reading this have, at some time, done one of these things, or something similar, in one form or another. Even if you are toying with the idea, well, you’d better get on with it; this Bill is on its way to becoming one of Straw’s laws, if all goes to New Labour plan.
If things do not look too rosy as a British citizen, they could be worse. Under the proposed Act, if you are a refugee and you have left your country of origin because you have been attacked and are in fear of your life because of Government repression, you will have a greater problem. Aside from the fact that, on recent evidence, it is likely you will be denied your rights, bundled into a plane or prison and forgotten about, anyone who advocates from this country the overthrowing of a Government (however heinous) in another, will be committing an offence. Support for the anti-apartheid ANC would have been illegal, if these proposals had been law at the time.
The implications of the Terrorism Bill are clearly worrying to anyone with a semblance of democratic rights. For anyone involved in or advocating direct action, it is frightening – and I do not mean fairground frightening or horror film scary entertainment, I mean brute bullying. This is probably one of the reasons the changes are proposed; pure unadulterated intimidation.
Other reasons are undoubtedly also applicable. One may appear to be a flippant joke: It may provide Special Branch, MI5 and MI6 with something to do – add some meaning to their surveillance of everyday life. ‘Threats’ to UK Plc, imagined or otherwise, have been dropping off dramatically in recent years, what with the crumbling Soviet bloc and the inactivity of the IRA, and that has surely led to some nervous twiddling of thumbs in secret service. Various ideas have included turning them to targeting drugs traffickers – but such people can be a bit nasty. Animal rights, road protesters, assorted direct action advocates are much easier, softer targets.
Another, possibly more realistic but less fetching reason is that this Government seems to have a rather unhealthy, intense commitment to control. Much is made of the ‘one country, one society’ idea in New Labour speak, and any group which disturbs this idea by not playing by the ‘teamworking’ rules is singled out as a threat.
We may muse over the reasons, but the fact remains; the changed Act will be one of the most repressive and reactionary pieces of legislation proposed in decades – including Thatcher’s epics. It is deliberately intended to create a climate of suspicion and fear, and to fuel the populist yet anti-social idea that the average guy/girl next door could be a terrorist. Siege mentality, compliance is sensible, and if you don’t like it, you’d better keep your head down and pretend you do or else. Welcome to the manic smile that is New Labour.
It would appear that, with the will and the majority, the Bill may make it into Law. Although this clearly depends upon the sheer amount and effectiveness of the resistance we can muster to it over the next few months.
But, is it workable? The short answer to this is "not if we can make it unworkable". Four words apply here – remember the Poll Tax?
While the current Act was originally directed principally at the IRA, many people went along with it, rotten though it was (look no further than the injustices of the Birmingham 6, the Guildford 4, the ‘Persons Unknown’ case and the ALF arrests which have taken place under the current Act). The new Bill is so potentially wide-ranging and sweeping in both its powers and coverage, that a lot of people are already well aware of the implicit threat it brings. This is the starting point – the seed from which effective resistance could potentially grow.
It must also be stressed that even the existing Act does not and has never really ‘worked’. By 1991, some 18,000 people had been detained under it but only 250 had been charged with any offence whatsoever. Despite its original intent that the Government could be seen to be doing something about the IRA, it has proved to be useless in that role.
The changes in the Act may even make it more useless as well as creating more opposition. The sheer numbers of people who are potentially criminalised as a result of the changes could even be a device of use against it. For example, if the changes are enacted and are used for the first time, say on a local demonstration, opposition group or stroppy magazine collective (?!), thousands of people could be alerted and instantly present themselves at their local nick to turn themselves in. There are plenty of other ideas around to help make this farcical piece of vitriol unworkable and hold it up to public ridicule.
First and foremost, even if you ignore everything else within these pages, please help yourself, don’t let yourself be terrorised (sic), bullied and intimidated into stopping doing anything you think is important, just because of this Bill. IF YOU DO, THEY HAVE WON. Organise opposition locally, be creative. Can you really afford to stand by and do nothing about it?
Direct action and self-defence; how violence might be used, or not.
Violent confrontations, whether with the state, fascists or the authoritarian left may well be necessary at various times; self-defence is essential, and we must be prepared to do it, but without glorifying it. Glorification must surely be reserved for what we want to promote - co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid...
Direct Action comes in many shapes and sizes. The media obsession is that all such activities are done by hordes of horrid violent thugs who really get off on confronting squads of police in full armour and armed with an array of offensive weapons.
One response to this has been people emphasising the non-violent nature of much direct action. Sometimes so much so, it is as if it doesn’t matter what the action is, how ineffectual, how pointless, as long as it is non-violent. Then, there is the again over-reactive critique of this from the nutter brigade, who just possibly do in fact enjoy fighting with squads of armoured, tooled up coppers. So the see-saw swings.
While the main topic here is about violence used by people who apparently want to help replace the state and capitalism with a better society, it is worth starting with a quick but important aside. Whatever violence has been committed, it vanishes into nothing when compared to that committed by states. It is not just the dictatorships of the Bolsheviks and the fascists and their ilk who use violence. Social democracies have standing armies; what for, if not for the threat and enactment of violence against ‘external’ foes and the enemies within, the people themselves? Institutionalised violence, both physical and emotional, is the cornerstone of the means of social control used by government gurus and captains of capitalism.
Most debates on violence tend to concentrate almost exclusively on terrorism, and/or propaganda by deed, but this is only part of the story and, currently at least, a very small part. Fortunately, the few groups and individuals who are apparently keen to do a bit of bombing to hurt people and shock others into action (or whatever) are either all mouth and no trousers or lacking in ability.
Whilst destroying sections of the ruling oligarchy may seem attractive in terms of giving them a bit of what they deserve, there is little to be gained. The capitalist system rarely relies to any great extent on individuals for its power and coherence. True, a few dozen individuals could be said to have a major controlling influence on the world’s economies, but they can easily be replaced – politicians even more so. Assassinating dictators/leaders may create enough instability for social and political changes to occur but, in the vast majority of cases, it will lead to an offensive against ‘politically subversive’ groups and individuals (that is you, me, and anyone whose face doesn’t fit). The lawmakers don’t need another excuse to harass anti-capitalist thought. This is not to mention the fact that social and political change depends upon long-term shifts in ideas by significant numbers of people – a few people with nailbombs just cannot bring about this sort of useful, real change.
Then there is the problem of, as NATO calls it, ‘collateral damage’. Attacks on targets other than political or military personnel seem to typically take place in either major shopping areas, or transport terminals, usually involving either potential loss of life of members of the public (unwarned version) or the clearing of people out the way (pre-warned version). To rely on the police and the military bomb disposal squads to stop the slaughter of members of the public is absurd. To claim to be trying to create a fairer better world yet to be happy to blow up members of the working class in order for the working class to become sympathetic seems, to be as polite as possible, illogical.
A basic tenet of anarcho-syndicalism is that means and aims are integral parts of the process of transforming society. The end does not justify the means regardless. A society based on collective free organisation of individuals based on mutual aid, tolerance and understanding needs to be struggled for on its own terms. This does not mean pacifism. Pacifism means standing by refusing to dirty oneself with violence, whilst allowing oppressors to attack and harm people amongst us who are unable to defend themselves individually. This is abjuration of responsibility. To condemn violence in self-defence is to tar those who inflict the attacks with the same brush as those who suffer them and seek to defend themselves and others.
Authoritarian left and hierarchical national liberation organisations may find it acceptable to work ‘undercover’ and isolate themselves from real life, but for co-operative, direct democratic organisations of the working class such as Solidarity Federation, such a tactic is counter-productive (at least as long as we are not forced underground).
What about the more day-to-day type of violence, as it were; what the media would call ‘yobbishness’ or ‘hooliganism’?
Rioting may be a blast, it may give an adrenaline buzz, but it does little more than get people noticed. This, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. The meek will always get shat on. However, if you limit your strategy to glorifying pleas for recognition from angry people, you end up offering nothing of use except instructions on making a molotov. Riots, or mass violent civil disobedience are not condemned or to be condemned. When I talk to people about being in Trafalgar Square on the anti-Poll Tax demonstration or J18, a large proportion of them can sympathise with what happened and what people did, but if I say I went out last night and whacked some copper just for being one, many would think I was a nutter who ought to be locked up. I cannot condone random acts of violence against minor individual representatives of the state. Defending a demonstration, strike or picket against attacks is not the same as blind angry attacks.
A concentration of attention on the ‘physical’ detracts from the hard work, long, boring hours and less sexy work which goes into political action. If you only talk or do the haring around, lobbing bricks side of things, you only attract people who are interested in haring around lobbing bricks. Violent confrontations, whether with the state, fascists or the authoritarian left may well be necessary at various times; self-defence is essential, and we must be prepared to do it, but without glorifying it. To concentrate on violence without addressing political issues is to doom the action to failure. Glorification must surely be reserved for what we want to promote - co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid, not what we are against.
Direct actions would be better if the emphasis was more on being relevant and appropriate. ‘Keeping it fluffy’ is as irrelevant an objective for any activity as ‘keeping it spiky’, or whatever the other extreme would be. Direct action is a method of working and a style of political and social action that only works most effectively where it is part and parcel of a wider movement. A more appropriate focus for choosing direct action methods is that wider movement, its goals and the context we are working in.
For social revolution to succeed and not be crushed by the force of reaction or taken over by some self-serving new elite for the left, most of the work needs to be done beforehand. It’s no good planning to just blow away bits of the state in a bloody struggle and expecting a perfect society to fall into place. People have to be ready, willing and wanting to run their own lives. The violence of a revolution, like violence anywhere, is only justifiable in self-defence. It is not a great cathartic bloodletting ritual, or an opportunity for bloody revenge. Unless the majority of people want a social revolution and are prepared to work with and for it, no amount of trained, disciplined, murderous revolutionary cliques can create a better world. If more people cannot be brought into the movement for change by convincing ideas and by example, then any ‘revolution’ is a failure. It’s not very libertarian to offer someone the choice of utopia or a bullet in the head.
While it may be true that theory without action equals nothing, it is equally true that action without theory means you do something stupid. Revenge is not a political ideology, and those who want to use anarchism to release their rage would be better advised to pound a mattress with a tennis racket.
Violence is a heavy tool. It can do a great amount of damage to users and receivers, intentionally and unintentionally. It needs to be treated with the utmost respect, used sparingly and only appropriately. Violence can act against as well as for social revolution. If your aim is a direct democratic society based on equality, solidarity and mutual aid, then bashing a copper or bricking a toff simply because they are is not a reasoned or reasonable objective. Eliminating the need for coppers and the system of privileged classes are reasonable objectives. If you want to beat people up and get beaten up, go hang out at one of the pubs in most towns and cities where like-minded people go, or better still, do something about your excess aggression. If you want to make a better world, think first, then do.
Like there is no tomorrow
The fight to consume the last free lunch is on.
The fall-out to worry about is not the crumbs, but the flying crockery. Welcome to consumerism, doing what it says on the tin.
All the Blairite-Clintonite talk of new economics and an end to boom-and-bust only serves to illustrate the fact that the capitalists’ worst fear is still lurking - and they know it.
Sitting by, watching and hoping, and/or putting faith in political parties and, to put it simply, a set of greedy bastards and power-freaks, is surely not an option.
We live in a consumer society. In fact, the act of consumption has taken on a near-religious significance. People no longer consume on the basis of need. They do it for recreation, or just because they can. Many consumer goods and services do not feasibly add to people’s lives, but the very act of going out shopping and buying things has become a form of pleasure in itself; the quick fix, the way of filling the gap in our lives. We consume, so we are.
The ‘consumer revolution’ underpinned the concept of popular capitalism. This was the means by which capitalism was to throw off its exploitative image and defeat communism. It was capitalism that could produce the fridges, washing machines, cars, clothes and fashion accessories, while those living under state controlled ‘communism’ had to queue for basic food. Throughout the cold war, the glitzy consumer society was constantly compared to the grey world of communism, where people had to survive with just the one TV set and wait years for their new car.
With the evil empire now defeated, the free market dominates the political landscape. Eager to press home their advantage, the free market advocates are attempting to rid the world of any lingering ideas of state control. At the centre of this is the idea of the "new paradigm" or "new economy". Basically, this states that, due to the high tech revolution, free market capitalism is capable of sustaining growth indefinitely, without suffering the effects of overheating, which in the past has led to inflation and recession.
At the centre of this theory lies the US economy, now experiencing its longest period of sustained growth in modern history, having apparently rewritten the economic text book. The deregulated free market economy has finally delivered everlasting growth, thanks to new technology. This global wonder is now toted as the economic model all others should copy. Europe is regularly lectured on the need to deregulate its own economy too. This is not just about cheap bananas, it is the new religion.
Even those in abject poverty must adopt free trade rules on the road to their true salvation. They only have to adopt popular capitalism and they will benefit from the riches of the consumer society. Only a few outdated socialists seem blind to the possibility of the Internet curing the world of poverty and disease. A computer in every village/refugee camp would surely bring an end to world poverty.
new tech, old tat
Beyond the hype and frenzy surrounding Internet share trading, those of a slightly more sane deposition than the free market technology zealots point vainly at the expanding US economy with increasing concern. The question is, what when the US consumer bubble bursts and floods the world’s economy in the sticky mucus of recession? Prophets of such doom are largely ignored by the political classes, media and assorted hangers on, both here and in the US. Instead, the rampage goes on, the giddy participants transfixed by the little parcels of stocks and shares growing ever bigger before their eyes. The great stock market god continues to promise eternal boom. Are we really all about to be transformed into young health-wealth kids, drink only bottled water, live in loft conversions, and submit to the ‘dot.com’ revolution?
That crazy free market ideas should become mainstream is no surprise, for the US boom is being fuelled by consumer spending, which fits nicely into the post-modern theories so beloved by the chattering classes. Taking the heat out of the consumption boom and attempting to ensure a soft landing for the US economy would require state intervention to reduce the flow of funds into the country, which currently keeps the illusion of good times intact. Not surprisingly, dreary old ideas of state intervention to curb spending does not go down too well in a political culture dominated by the religion of free market consumerism. Better to let the US economy rip in the vain hope that the boom can last for ever, than return to the grey world of state regulation and spending limits. The game masters (sic) have become victims of their own propaganda.
Behind the glossy front lies darker home truths. Pull back the curtain of media and political hype and there lies the same old capitalist exploitation based on pure greed. The dream that technology could be used to transform the world for the benefit of humanity is, well, more of a nightmare of reality. Technological change, far from making our lives fulfilling and liberated, is used to make a whole swathe of the population dependant on numbingly stupefying low-paid jobs, and many others dependant on miserly state handouts. Apparently, 1 in 8 of working people in the US have worked for McDonalds at some point in their lives. Welcome the knowledge-based economy, and spend all day putting machine-portioned ketchup in burger buns.
Life for the middle 40% of the US workforce, supposedly in more secure, better paid jobs, is actually little better. As traditional industries have declined and unemployment has grown, capitalism has seized the opportunity to break union organisation and ensure that the new industries remain free of any class-consciousness or collective power. A whole human resource industry has been spawned, designed to promote the idea of teamwork and company allegiance. Unfettered by organised workplace opposition, capitalism has gone into overdrive to extract more wealth from the workforce.
The extent to which US industry has changed in the last 2 decades is breathtaking. The Incomes Study Project in the US found that, between 1983 and 1997, 85.5% of the increase in US wealth was captured by the richest 1% of the population. The country’s wealth rocketed, but 80% of US families received 0% percent of that increase. Latest figures released by the US government show that productivity is now rising by 5%, while costs continue to fall.
With no real opposition, the benefit from productivity gains have gone to the rich. Co-operation from the state in delivering devastating cuts in social welfare benefit has forced workers off the dole and into the new sweatshops of low-paid service jobs. This is the reality behind the new, high-tech revolution. US wages have stagnated save for a few small pockets, while wages for the bottom forty percent have actually fallen in real terms. The gap between the rich and the rest has exploded, so that wealth is now more concentrated than at any time since the 1920s. In the land of liberty, equality and freedom (sic), 0.5% of the population owns more wealth than the 90% at the other end.
When we hear Blair, the Tories and Clinton railing against Europe, urging them to follow the US and British economies into deregulating their labour markets, what they are calling for is workers to be stripped of any last protection to allow new heights of capitalist exploitation. Even the notion that the free market US economy is ‘working’ in the sense of being productive overall is hype; overall economic growth in the US is low to average. At present, compared with Japan and Europe emerging from recession, it looks to be doing reasonably well, but go back to 1989-95, and it was bottom of the ‘G7 growth league’. Back further, during the decades of the post-war period, the US economy was in steady decline against both the Japanese and European economies.
facts, not hype
The collapse of the South Asian economies in 1997, coupled with the poor economic performance in a Europe still grappling with the Euro and German unification, provided a major boost to free market triumphalism, already drunk with the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the stock market now going through the roof, the middle classes can feel rich by taking out loans, ploughing money into the stock market and buy-buy-buying and spend-spend-spending their way to consumption debauchery. Little wonder the chattering classes are filling the Sunday supplements with endless tosh about the new age of leisure. The good life has apparently arrived for them.
However, the clouds are gathering, many of which are originating from a major contradiction at the heart of the US economy. As capitalism drives down wages to increase profits, it takes spending power out of the economy. In effect, it cuts its own throat by taking from the bulk of the population the spending power needed to buy up the goods and services produced by capitalism. This is the age-old problem that has so often led capitalist overproduction to slump. As a certain Mr Marx wrote sometime ago: "The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses, in the face of the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as if only the absolute consumption capacity of society set a limit to them". All the Blairite-Clintonite talk of new economics and an end to boom-and-bust only serves to illustrate the fact that the capitalists’ worst fear is still lurking - and they know it. The key capitalist contradiction remains and, one day soon, the current free market party will end.
Hastening the hangover, the US economy has been resorting to credit to maintain spending power at a time of falling wages. The credit role within capitalism is that it breaks down the barriers to expansion, in effect, stretching the limits of consumption. It allows people to buy goods that they otherwise could not afford. Mass consumption can continue for some time if you have a ‘buy now, pay later’ system, and there is no bigger such a system than in the US. Put simply, a massive sea of credit is keeping the whole economy afloat.
Recent research by Robert Pollin found that the bottom 40% of US households have turned to credit to compensate for falling incomes. They are borrowing to survive. The same research established that three quarters of US families are in debt. Falling and stagnating of incomes has led to a dramatic fall in saving and in 80% of all US families, debt now far outstrips savings.
Even these figures are misleading, for the overwhelming majority of saving in the US is in the form of pension or medical cover. The US now saves to compensate for the lack of a welfare state, while it borrows to pay for today’s lifestyle and to maintain the illusion of prosperity. Britain, a decade or more ‘behind’ the US, is already seeing the same phenomenon, with workers turning to pension cover to compensate for the dying state pension, and private medical provision to obtain basic health care.
Behind the illusion lurks reality. According to US government figures for 1997, US households spend 17% of their income (after tax) on debt service. Research by Martins and Godley argues that in order to sustain 2% growth in the US economy, households would soon have to devote 25% of their income to servicing debt. At some point, the borrowing has to stop and the buying spree has to come to an end. Martins and Godley, hardly raving left wingers or anarchists, argued that if the US financial bubble burst now, US GNP would fall by 0.3% a year, resulting in unemployment above 11% by 2004.
One may have thought the capitalists and politicians would see this coming and move to deflate the bubble gradually, by slowly bringing down the level of debt. However, this assumes that capitalism is driven by logic rather than abject greed. In reality, credit plays another role in capitalism; it allows lenders to earn yet further interest on their cash that otherwise would have remained idle. It allows the rich another bite of the profit cherry. Workers first have a large chunk of their production stolen in the form of interest on their labour, only to be faced with handing over another slice in the form of interest on loans.
Debt is one of the principal means by which the rich maintain and increase their wealth. Forget the social democratic talk of a society in which people can ‘make it’ on the basis of merit. The "self-made" billionaires are the exception to the rule – that is why they get in the papers (unlike the old established stinking rich). As capitalism ‘matures’, the division between wealth and production inevitably widens, and the gap becomes uncrossable.
Research by Kotlikoff and Summers found that 80% of personal wealth in the US comes from either direct inheritance or the income earned on inherited wealth. These idle rich do not run companies or do work, they simply maintain their capital by investing it in companies they have no interest in beyond claiming a share of the profits. Of the total $3.5 trillion of US stocks and bonds, 2.9% trillion are owned by 1% of the population. The other option is to lend money to workers in return for interest. Either way, debt in the US economy means good business for the moneylenders.
During the post-war state interventionist period, some (but not all) of the worst excesses of capitalism were curbed by longer-term measures to maintain demand and some regulation of the financial sector. Now all pretence of restraint is gone and, as the financial sector has let rip, its main role is to create more and greater debt. However, while this suits the financial sector and the rich whose money it manages, it has led inevitably to increasing instability. In the period 1980-96, two-thirds of all IMF member states experienced financial crises. In all cases, these were only prevented from snowballing into global economic crises by massive state intervention.
This must be the bitterest of ironies for the social democrats. Even as we are engulfed in a sea of propaganda hailing the merits of the free market, state intervention quietly remains capitalism’s regular saviour. It has now stood aside from regulating capitalism (at least in the US and UK), but it remains the banker, underwriting a deregulated financial sector that constantly teeters on the verge of collapse due to its sheer all-destructive greed. The US saving and loans scandal led to a growing general crisis in the financial sector, which was only eventually averted by a state bail-out, paid for through tax revenue. This crisis alone cost an estimated 3% of the year’s US GDP. Less well-known crises include Norway’s, which cost 4% of annual GDP, Sweden’s, costing 6%, Finland’s, costing 8% and Spain’s, a table-topping 17%, all of which took place in the late 1980s. Other minor problems include the Mexico bond crisis and the collapse in South Asia, where money pouring in from abroad as loans chasing spiralling financial returns caused a financial bubble which eventually burst, bringing several major Asian economies down with it.
As the US economy charges on, propelled by the debt engine, the likelihood increases that the whole thing will fall apart. When the crash and burn happens, it will be nanny state to the rescue, with economic bailout and reconstruction provided by workers through taxes revenues and yet more cuts in welfare and jobs. Should the collapse come sooner rather than later, there is little doubt that the Japanese and European economies will slump back into recession. According to mainstream capitalist commentators, massive, general slumps are a thing of the past, largely due to the modern state management of capitalism (i.e. throwing in massive amounts of money to prevent localised financial crises spreading). However, when the world’s most powerful economy goes down the tubes, such complacency concerning the impossibility of another 1930s may prove seriously misplaced.
Haywood, in his book ‘Wall St’, describes the stock market crash of 1929 as "best seen as the opening movement of the broader crisis - the unravelling of a monstrously leveraged financial structure. Credit had served to push stocks to unsustainably high levels; it also allowed production to expand capacity beyond the limits of consumption. The crash exposed these limits, announced the unsustainability of promises to pay, and rendered investments unprofitable and debts unserviceable". Rapid deflation culminated in slump; a chilling resemblance to the US economy in 2000.
In the event, a general crisis may ensue, or it may be avoided by luck and taxes. Whatever, to state the obvious, the lives of billions of people should not depend on the ability of politicians to throw enough money into the pot to ‘save’ the idle rich from a disaster of their own making. Sitting by, watching and hoping, and/or putting faith in political parties and, to put it simply, a set of greedy bastards and power-freaks, is surely not an option.
In fact, there are not many options. The only one which springs to mind is direct action; to confront capitalism and expose its weakness. Only direct action offers the possibility of working people taking back the initiative and gaining control of our own destiny. Confronting capitalism directly can drive it further into crisis; almost anything is better than standing by passively and hoping, as the world economy titters on the brink of recession, staggering from one financial crisis to another. With this arrangement, during boom, we lose out as the profits go to widening the gap, and in recession, we lose out as conditions, wages and welfare plummet.
With the current rules, there is only one outcome. We lose, they win. With direct action, the crisis in capitalism can be brought about by the people ourselves, through forcing ever better conditions, leading to falling profits. Those who pay for this sort of crisis will not be us, but the capitalist class and the politicians. The ultimate price paid will be loss of their control, power and authority, as we develop social ownership of the economy. Now, does that not sound like a better idea than merely hoping for the best?
Libcom note - text from here: https://web.archive.org/web/20030807091310/http://direct-action.org.uk/