Cautiously Pessimistic blog analyses and critiques Crimethinc's piece on the UK anti-austerity movement, the Wisconsin uprising and the Egyptian revolt.
CrimethInc are probably one of the world’s best-known anarchist collectives. They’re controversial, but they get a lot of attention: certainly, the airport security staff who recently detained a passenger for having CrimethInc posters in his bag thought they’re worth taking seriously. And, while some of their earlier material has contained really embarrassing stuff, such as attempting to pass off the proto-Fascist state of Fiume as an anarchist utopia, a lot of what they’ve written lately has been really good: for instance, their “Dear Occupiers” letter was a serious attempt to engage with the politics of a mass movement and move it in an anti-capitalist direction. I didn’t entirely agree with all of the tone and emphasis, but the basic content was totally sound. So, I’d say their new article “Nightmares of Capitalism, Pipe Dreams of Democracy”, which is a big overview of various struggles in 2010-2011, is definitely worth a read. It’s a serious attempt by anarchists to think through some of the key events of the last two years and draw strategic lessons from them, which is a project I definitely approve of. But, for all that, I can’t recommend it whole-heartedly: it contains some quite serious distortions of the last few years, so I think it’s worth going through it to see where CrimethInc’s account parts company with reality. Of course, it’s also certainly the case that my criticism of their article isn’t coming from any kind of objective position, and will contain all sorts of errors of my own: this isn’t trying to set the record straight in favour of the Truth with a capital T, but just to add a voice to the conversation.
Is the end nigh?
My differences with CrimethInc’s perspective start right in the introduction, where they assert that this crisis is the big one, that capitalism is failing, that:
“this isn’t just a hiccup… but a structural breakdown… a system that never worked for us is on the verge of ceasing to work at all… If capitalism is doomed, we need something altogether different.”
They qualify this by adding that “Capitalism won’t crumble overnight… its demise could take generations”, but overall their perspective seems to suggest that this crisis is so big and serious that there’s no chance of meaningful reforms to restore capitalism to normal functioning. This crisis is undoubtedly very big and very serious, and the idea that capitalism is doomed certainly appeals to me, but there’ve been very big and very serious crises before, and capitalism’s recovered from them just fine. Two recent pieces by Juan Conatz and Nate Hawthorne have raised the question of whether reform is possible, and at the moment I’m leaning towards thinking that it is. If it’s possible that capitalism could manage to patch itself up sometime soon, an analysis based on the idea that the system “is on the verge of ceasing to work at all” would leave us seriously confused and on the back foot when the crisis is over.
On the whole, I don’t have a real problem with anything they wrote about 2010 – I’m not an expert on the US student protests of early 2010, or the May Day actions that year, and the conclusions they draw about them seem quite sound – but the way they use the Millbank protests to make a passing swipe at organised anarchists is quite questionable. To say that the student movement, and the attack on Millbank in particular, was largely spontaneous and not the result of some expert organiser’s strategic masterplan, is an important and legitimate point to make, and one I wrote about at the time. But CrimethInc choose to put it as:
“While individual anarchists were among the first into the building, none of the organized anarchist groups in the UK turned out in great numbers”.
In effect, this isn’t making the straightforward and valid point that long-term political activists, even those with an anarchist analysis, didn’t play that much of a role; it’s making the more contradictory case that activists didn’t play that much of a role, but if they did do anything important, then it was definitely because of the good individual anarchists, not the useless organised anarchists. There’s certainly some truth in the statement that the organised anarchist groups didn’t have great numbers of people there, especially since the organised anarchist groups don’t really have a great number of members full stop, and you could probably write a fairly accurate history of the UK student movement without mentioning them; but to take the time to criticise their absence, while ignoring the fact that they’d organised the Radical Workers’ and Students’ Bloc on the day, and were subsequently attacked in the mainstream media as being responsible for the violence, seems a bit odd. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the faintly embarrassing interview they did nearer the time, when they tried to get participants in the movement to say that they’d “rejected… “professional” anarchist groups like the Anarchist Federation or Solfed”, only to be told that:
“I do not feel they have been rejected by the movement… From my experience working with these groups a little over the last few weeks, they have usually avoided putting their name to anything and instead focused on issues and activities that… in no way conflict with the general feeling of the movement. For example, encouraging direct action, the use of face masks, engaging and networking with college and school students as well as worker movements, and occasionally offering up an alternative analysis of the cuts and the struggle so far.”
Egypt was (more than just) a riot
CrimethInc’s coverage of 2010 in general seems fairly honest, and their discussion of online struggles over information is perfectly accurate, at least from this non-expert’s perspective; but their discussion of Egypt has some very serious problems. In a nutshell, the standard liberal history of the Egyptian uprising talks a lot about the role of square occupations and peaceful civil disobedience, while CrimethInc’s analysis broadens things out to include violent protests and riots, but both of them completely obscure the role played by workplace struggle in the downfall of the regime. The first bizarre statement they make about Egypt is that the revolt “spread to all social classes” – this has some truth to it, but the fact that the generals and other senior figures from the old regime were able to portray themselves as being on the side of the revolt, and so preserve their privileged positions, is surely something anarchists should be criticising, not blandly celebrating. The passing mention of how in the US “Facebook is not usually used to coordinate insurrections but as a space for atomized individuals to compete for social capital” is also somewhat problematic, as it seems like another example of the nastily elitist tendency among activists to sneer at anything non-activists enjoy doing with their spare time; “a space for atomized individuals to compete for social capital” is one way of putting it, “a space for people to have conversations with their friends” would be an equally accurate description, or if you wanted to be provocative you could describe it as a way for people to subvert the wage-labour relationship by spending their work time on unproductive and unprofitable activity, and argue that the use of social networking sites is a covert form of direct action enabling workers to inflict huge amounts of damage to the economy every year.
However, both these points are somewhat marginal to CrimethInc’s main argument, while their dismissal of the Egyptian strikewave cuts to the heart of both why I think CrimethInc are important and why they’re flawed. Like me, CrimethInc are dedicated to the destruction of alienated work, and, unlike the Marxist groups that have a vague commitment to abolishing wage labour in the distant future, but remain committed to productivity and the right to work here and now, they see the struggle against work as an urgent priority for the present. But, crucially, they’re still influenced by their subcultural roots, where resistance to work is equated with dropping out, and so they don’t give events within the workplace the significance they deserve: their attitude to workers fighting back within the workplace is the same sort of vaguely friendly indifference with which many socialists view any issue outside the workplace. So, their take on the huge strike wave that made the fall of Mubarak possible is just to say that “Although the North African upheavals involved labor unrest, they started outside the workplace and remained focused on public spaces like Cairo’s Tahrir Square”, swiftly followed by a reference to “the subcultural strategies that followed” the old workers’ movement, as if gigs and zines were in any way comparable to mass strikes. They say that “In the era of precarity… it makes sense for the factory occupations of 1968 to be replaced with the seizure of public space”, which misses the point that any successful movement against this society will need to feature both, and that workplace occupations are indeed still going on today, and also manages to obscure the distinction between authoritarian regimes, which are based on a repressive strategy banning any public display of dissent, and liberal regimes, which are based on an ideology of democracy and tolerance and so often positively welcome public displays of dissent.
This string of deeply confused statements then continues with the assertion that “police are to the unemployed what bosses are to workers”, which is just untrue: perhaps, for many unemployed people, especially those from ethnic minorities, but also those who shoplift or are otherwise involved in the black market, the police may be their most obvious and visible enemies, but there is no common experience of the police across everyone who’s unemployed that can be compared to the way that almost all workers get bossed around by managers. For the unemployed, the closest equivalent to bosses are in fact the staff who administer the welfare system and can decide to “fire” claimants from their benefits, thus cutting them off from the money they need to live. But it still wouldn’t be enough to just say that “jobcentre staff are to the unemployed what bosses are to workers”, since there has been some joint action between the unemployed and militant jobcentre staff in a way that would be impossible, or at least very problematic, if it happened between workers and bosses. In short, saying the relationship between the unemployed and the police is the same as that between workers and bosses is as useless as saying that cisgendered people are to trans people what white people are to black people; all power relationships are different, and need to be understood in their own right, making simplistic parallels doesn’t actually help to explain anything.
Invisible Workers of the World
CrimethInc’s hostility to organised anarchists and their reluctance to acknowledge workplace struggle combine to make their discussion of Wisconsin one of the weakest parts of the piece. They declare that “anarchists and fellow travelers occupied a university building in Milwaukee in an attempt to spread the unrest; rumors circulated about a general strike”, which is certainly one way of putting it. Another way of putting it might be to suggest that, rather than rumours about a general strike just circulating out of thin air, they might have had something to do with the huge push for a general strike made by the Industrial Workers of the World, including the IWW dual-carders who made two proposals to the South-Central Federation of Labor:
“first, to endorse a general strike and create an ad-hoc ‘Education Committee’ which could instruct affiliated locals on how they could “prepare for a general strike”; and second, to officially oppose all of the cuts that were contained in Walker’s bill. These proposals passed nearly unanimously.”
The IWW’s intervention has been described as:
“what is likely the largest, most concerted, and most successful intervention in a working-class struggle that the IWW has undertaken since the working-class ferment of the 1930s, at least. From mid-February to mid-March, the idea of a general strike was ever-present, such that nearly everyone in Wisconsin had to form an opinion on whether it would be feasible, successful, or justified. Even in many other parts of the country, from New York to California, the notion of a general strike became a legitimate topic for debate outside of the leftist milieu. It is very doubtful whether this would have happened without the activity of the IWW. IWW members from across the union coordinated their activity, and as a result the organization had an impact in the overall mood of the working-class greater than anything in decades.”
Rather than acknowledge that an organisation with many anarchists in its membership intervened in a mass movement to push its politics in a radical direction, CrimethInc just assert that:
“Anarchists of a more insurrectionist bent gravitated to the occupation in Milwaukee, which failed to pick up steam, while anarchists in Madison largely focused on providing infrastructure”, and complain that anarchists in Wisconsin were just “looking on from the margins”.
Since the CrimethInc ideology has decided that formal organisations are useless and workplace struggles are irrelevant compared to seizures of public space, a movement towards a general strike is seen as hardly worth discussing, and if there is anything important about it, it must have arisen spontaneously, so the activity of IWW members isn’t even worth mentioning. For a collective supposedly dedicated to opposing ideology, CrimethInc find it very difficult dealing with events that don’t fit neatly into their worldview.
Just to clarify: I’m not a member of the IWW, and I don’t have any special love for them. I think they do some useful things at the moment, but I also think that, like any other organisation, it’s very possible that at some point they’ll run up against internal limits that make them into a barrier to useful activity, and when that day comes its members should abandon it ruthlessly and unsentimentally. But that’s talking about some hypothetical future date: here and now, I think anarchists in the IWW are doing useful things, so I find it really weird that CrimethInc are so resistant to acknowledging they were present in Wisconsin, especially considering their strong focus on anarchist activity throughout this piece.
An immaculate riot?
The deeply flawed discussion of Wisconsin is followed by a totally unobjectionable piece on the European plaza occupations over the summer, and then a rather one-sided take on the August riots. CrimethInc set themselves the task of identifying the limitations of recent revolts so as to push further next time, and certainly aren’t shy of making criticisms in general, but can’t quite bring themselves to say straight out that anything the rioters did was problematic. North London SolFed’s recognition that “we cannot condone attacks on working people, on the innocent. Burning out shops with homes above them, people’s transport to work, muggings and the like are an attack on our own and should be resisted” is entirely absent from CrimethInc’s piece, which notes in calm, neutral terms that “Five more people lost their lives in the disorder” before moving on to bemoan “how many people identified with the corporate media narrative demonizing the rioters”. I agree entirely that any future revolt must involve “common cause between rioters and other elements of the exploited”, and I wrote about how important this was at the time, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that both the rioters and the non/anti-rioting majority had positive and negative features, whereas CrimethInc seem to think the rioters were straightforwardly goodies beyond criticism, and so those who disapproved of the rioters must just have been brainwashed by the corporate media, rather than having any real humanitarian objection to seeing people being killed or burnt out of their homes.
CrimethInc’s refusal to say anything bad about the rioters seems to be paralleled by their inability to say anything good about British anarchists, as they state that:
“Treating class as a kind of identity politics had not equipped the conservative majority of British anarchists for a world in which the most determinant struggles occur outside the workplace.”
The irrelevance of workplace struggle is seen by CrimethInc as so self-evident that they see no need to back this statement up or try to support it with any kind of further assessment, much like their knowledge of what “the conservative majority of British anarchists” think. I’m skeptical of this idea of “most anarchists” or “the majority of anarchists” whenever people raise it without any kind of evidence; I thought it was nonsense when Rebecca Solnit tried to use “most anarchists” as a stick to beat CrimethInc with, and I don’t think it sounds any more convincing when CrimethInc themselves use it, seemingly as another way of saying “anarchist groups we don’t like”.
Going beyond the left?
The conclusion of their article is largely unobjectionable, and even sound to the point where it seems to contradict a lot of what they’ve already written: having spent a lot of time either ignoring organised anarchists or making petty swipes at them, CrimethInc then conclude that “We need public, participatory calls and organizing structures… Public organizing can complement other less public approaches, but often it’s necessary to render them possible in the first place”, a conclusion I certainly agree with, but one which seems odd after everything that’s come before it.
Overall, CrimethInc are certainly worth reading and thinking seriously about, but their dogma puts serious limitations on their usefulness. A workable anarchist strategy needs to start out from reality as we experience it today, not from the leftist theories worked out in past centuries; CrimethInc seem to promise this, but ultimately they just turn standard leftist practice upside-down, replacing the usual leftist attitude of “workers good, lumpens bad, strikes important, riots unimportant” with a worldview that dismisses workers and workplace struggle. They have a lot of important points to make, but we need to go beyond the limitations that CrimethInc impose on themselves in order to develop a strategy that truly relates to the complexity of life under capitalism today, and is capable of recognising the need for both workplace occupations and square occupations.
That’s probably more than enough about the events of the last few years, so here’s a quick look at some more recent events: Sean Cregan and Andy Baker, two of the six antifascists imprisoned last year, have now been released with an electronic tag, although three more comrades remain inside and in need of support. On the workplace front, the Guildhall cleaners have been intimidated into leaving their sit-in, but the Vita Cortex occupation in Cork seems to be ongoing. The sparks’ struggle is continuing in the new year, with talk of a big day of action this Monday, although I’m not sure exactly what’s planned for it. The Occupy movement’s new focus on housing seems to be spreading to Ireland with plans for a mass squatting campaign soon, and over in the US an interesting proposal’s been put out to “show power and build power” with a one-day general strike on May 1st. Finally, Nate Hawthorne’s written some really interesting stuff lately, “Struggle changes people” and “Occupy Everything, and Everything for Everyone” are two good, thoughtful, and very human, pieces.
Originally posted: January 7, 2012 at Cautiously Pessimistic