Aufheben - Inside movements

Aufheben articles from inside movements.

Submitted by Joseph Kay on June 13, 2010

Articles in this series -

Auto Struggles: The Developing War Against the Road Monster
Kill or Chill - An analysis of the Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill
Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK
Anti-Capitalism as an Ideology... and as a Movement?

Aufheben magazine emerged from the need of a number of people involved in struggles to develop theory adequate to those struggles.1 Writing about the struggles we are involved in has therefore always been a central part of the nature and function of the magazine. In the early 1990s, around the same time that Aufheben was first being planned, the UK anti-roads movement emerged in the form of a direct action campaign. At this time, we and those who shared our analysis were in the doldrums politically. There was an aura of defeat following the weakness of opposition to the Gulf War;2 there was a low level of strike activity – this was only five years or so after the defeat of the miners’ strike; and the high points of the poll tax rebellion had not been the start of a new wave of struggle, and in fact were becoming a fading memory.

The struggle against roads seemed interesting, at least. Here was an example of militant collective activity involving a new generation of activists. Not only that, while we could grasp the issue of road-building as a current tension point in capital’s endless need for self-expansion and hence as a class issue, the struggle was outside the production process. The potential of such ‘environmental’ struggles to become conscious sites of conflict with capital were there from the beginning, therefore. But a superficial glance, seeing only the rhetoric of the campaigns (with their frequent references to ‘local’, ‘green’, ‘environmental’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘democratic’ issues), might have missed the unfolding of this potential into actual, as the dynamic of the struggles in practice took them beyond the words and concepts of many of the participants. Some of us therefore went along to participate in the campaigns at Twyford3 and the M11 in East London. In doing so, we came to develop our own ideas.

In writing these articles, therefore, we were not external researchers but part of the events. On the one hand, through the articles we sought to contextualize the events, and to bring to bear certain ideas to the understanding of what was happening with the anti-roads and other movements. But it is perhaps the raw experience conveyed in some of these articles that makes them engaging to read, and is one of the reasons that they have been grouped together for this volume. That direct ‘insider’ position thus meant not only discovering tendencies and acknowledging nuances we might otherwise have missed, but a passion and a feeling in our analysis. These were exciting events – some of the most exciting and enjoyable in our lives – and some of that excitement finds its way onto the page. On the other hand, therefore, getting involved in these campaigns affected us –not only emotionally but also in terms of ideas. Through our participation in the anti-roads movement, we came to develop our ideas about non-workplace-based class struggles; our anti-roads articles and the experiences they is based on were important for our theoretical development.

In fact, we eventually went beyond some of the ‘new’ ideas expressed in the anti-roads articles. At least in the case of ‘Auto-struggles: The developing war against the road monster’, which is reprinted below, when we look closely now at what we have written, one of the things that grates is some of our own use of certain concepts and categories from the ‘revolutionary’ milieu. Specifically, since this article was written, we developed a critique of autonomia, and wouldn’t now use some of the concepts from Negri in the uncritical way we did back in 1994. In our defence, these ideas did make sense at the time as we tried to develop an alternative to the ‘workerism’4 that failed to grasp the significance of the new anti-roads struggles.

When ‘Auto-struggles’ was first published, in Summer 1994, we were a little nervous about how it would be received by our friends on Claremont Road, which by then had become the iconic and practical heart of the ‘No M11’ campaign.5 However, as shared experiences within the campaign served to validate much of our class analysis, the more influential No M11 activists became increasingly receptive to our way of talking and thinking. So much so that one of us was sometimes asked to speak publicly on behalf of the campaign, as if he was a ‘representative’ No M11 activist. Part of ‘Auto Struggles’ was then reprinted by some Earth Firsters to help their comrades understand the social-material context of what was too often interpreted by eco-militants as little more than a moral issue. Not long afterwards, we were asked to give a presentation to folk in Brighton about the significance of the events in Wanstead and Leytonstone. The text of this presentation was then reproduced in collection of articles by other ‘No M11’ activists, then worked up into a pamphlet by us,6 and finally expanded into a chapter in this book.7 The increasing popularity of what was at the time a novel perspective on the anti-roads and ‘environmental’ movement reflected the fact that more people were moving towards a class position; many liberal ideological shibboleths were being challenged practically. We were a part of that move.

The No M11 campaign overlapped with the beginning of the UK-wide movement against the Criminal Justice Bill (CJB), and not just in terms of time. Many of the points above apply equally to the CJB article ‘Kill or chill?’, reprinted here. We were active in the local and national campaign, and enjoyed just as much as the next person the humiliation of the cops at the Hyde Park riot in 1994. It was experiences like this that for many participants clarified the role of the state and the police in imposing an alien order. But, again, there were many liberals in the campaign and hence lots of arguments. Theoretically one of the things that was useful about this article was the historical situating of the nature of the CJB struggle in the retreat of social democracy, a theme we elaborated later, particularly in the ‘Dole autonomy’ article.

The anti-roads movement diversified not only into the anti-CJB campaign but also the anti-car Reclaim the Streets (RTS). RTS itself formed the basis of the UK part of the world-wide ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. ‘Anti-capitalism as ideology... and as movement?’ was written in Sept 2001, when the movement (such as it was) was already in decline – at least from the UK perspective. This article reads as much less sanguine than the roads and CJB articles. We were less excited than previously, and somewhat less involved, too. This was despite the fact that many in this ‘movement’, unlike the No M11 and CJB campaigns, explicitly referred not only to ‘capitalism’ but to the movement itself as ‘anti-capitalist’.8 Of course, we were initially as excited and intrigued as everyone; and we and our friends again took part in at least some of the actions, including travelling abroad. But the summit-hopping aspect – a characteristic feature of a movement that was not grounded in the ‘everyday’ – that worried us was also one of the features that eventually worried other participants. Combined with burn-out and the battering at Genoa, the ‘movement’ had perhaps already passed its peak when the attack on the World Trade Centre towers meant that ‘anti-war’ replaced ‘anti-capitalism’ as the main concern for many people.

The emergence of the anti-roads movement and the decline of the anti-capitalist movement respectively mark the beginning and end of the 1990s. This period might be thought of perhaps as a time of transition in the UK. It was a time that saw the emergence of a new generation of activists who knew little if nothing of our earlier heritage of (reading backwards) the poll tax riot, miners’ strike, peace movement, and the entrenched working class militancy of the 1970s. It was also a transition time for capital in the UK, as it sought finally to confront the by-products of the Thatcher years – in particular, a huge army of the unemployed who had by now themselves become entrenched. If the dole as a living alternative to work was one of the fruits of the social democratic compromise, then the rationalization of the benefits system in order to kick some life into what had become an inefficient two-tier labour market was clearly part of the continuing retreat of social democracy. Our analysis of changes to the benefits system, and the resistance to these changes, was important in the development of our ideas around this theme of retreat of social democracy.

It was sometimes suggested that we inflated the significance of the dole and local struggles around it. Certainly we seemed to write a lot of articles about it! This was for a number of reasons.
First, we saw the changes taking place in the benefits system as important in the general restructuring happening at the time, especially in relation to the theory of the ‘refusal of work’ that had been developed in the years previously.

Second, we like many of our friends and comrades had been on the dole for long periods through the 1980s and 90s. We were involved in a crucial argument about how to fight the threatened changes. Many of those in the nationwide network of groups campaigning against the reforms to the dole shared an adherence to individualistic anarchist strategies based on the accumulated experience of oppression and resistance in JobCentres. Favoured methods included giving advice to individual claimants on how to avoid crap jobs and penalties (‘duck and dive’), and targeting individual JobCentre workers. Against these method (which in fact many claimants do anyway) we argued that collective action was needed. In particular, claimants themselves were too small and weak on their own and needed to coordinate opposition with JobCentre workers who were themselves in dispute with their management. Indeed, we saw in the arguments for ‘duck and dive’ and tactics to threaten JobCentre-workers9 (which were largely all bluster anyway) the way in which features of the original ‘refusal of work’ had now become a rigid doctrine standing in the way of practical resistance. This version of ‘the refusal of work’ was not based on a revolutionary class analysis, but was rather a militant sectional position-statement of claimants against those slightly more powerful than themselves.

As well as arguing with fellow claimants in the nationwide campaign, we were also involved in arguments with other claimant activists who seemed to be involved in every other campaign but that around the dole. In the 1980s the dole was the activists’ grant. The activists of the 1990s too tried to use the dole in this way. As we say in the ‘Dole autonomy’ article, you could not squat up a tree full-time to block a road unless there was a liveable unemployed benefit system to sustain you. What frustrated us at the time was that many of those who relied so heavily on this ‘grant’ didn’t seemed to recognise that it should therefore be the focus of their struggles – at least not until too late. The fact that so many people privileged others’ struggles (for example, in Papua New Guinea – or anywhere but at home), seeing them as somehow ‘more deserving’ than their own needs was evidence that the dead-end of liberal moralism we had fought against was still a major influence. Indeed, the individualizing experience of the dole, and the personalized lifestyles that flourished on it, both encouraged such liberalism.

Though this article, written at a time when we were most active in the dole campaign, conveys some of our excitement at our small victories, in fact this campaign was by far the least influential of the four ‘inside struggles’ described here. We may have frightened the JobCentre managers, but there was only on a couple of occasions a significant mass mobilization against what was in effect a massive attack on the working class as a whole.

The M11 link road was built, an ‘urban motorway’ through leafy Wanstead. But the anti-roads movement grew bigger immediately afterwards with the development of the national campaign against the Newbury by-pass. The movement only fell into a decline when the government abandoned the roads programme. The political controversy and financial costs incurred by the direct action movement must take a large part of the credit for the failure of what was originally planned to be ‘the biggest road building programme since the Romans’, according to Government hubris.
The Criminal Justice Bill was passed. Vestiges of the anti-CJB movement – in the form of networks and links made between various opponents of the Bill (including inspiring connections between workplace and non-workplace struggles)10 – continued, however.

The ‘anti-capitalist movement’ has shrunk in size. It still makes a show of protest whenever there is a G8 summit but in somewhat ritualistic form;11 there is little sense of ongoing development in the movement now.

The UK government did not in the end impose the workfare-type system they promised at the time of ‘Dole autonomy’. The incoming Labour Government’s ‘New Deal’ had workfare-like elements; but by the time it was introduced, the economy was already beginning to recover. It was this economic recovery that absorbed many of the unemployed back into the workforce and meant that the targets for reducing unemployment were met anyway. The networks of opposition fizzled out, and the dole is now a much harsher place, than in the 1980s and 90s. At the time of writing, the UK is in recession and unemployment rising again. At the same time, the Government have again suggested the possibility of a workfare-like scheme, an idea, it seems, that will raise its ugly head again and again, whether as serious policy or merely as a public display of getting ‘tough’ on those of us who have apparently lost the will and skills to return to the labour market.

Articles in this series -

Auto Struggles: The Developing War Against the Road Monster
Kill or Chill - An analysis of the Opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill
Dole autonomy versus the re-imposition of work: analysis of the current tendency to workfare in the UK
Anti-Capitalism as an Ideology... and as a Movement?

  • 1See ‘Theoretical criticism and practical overthrow’, in Aufheben #15, 2007.
  • 2See ‘Lessons of the struggle against the Gulf War’ in Aufheben #1, Autumn 1992.
  • 3See Intakes: Some critical notes on ‘Earth First!’ in Aufheben #1, Autumn 1992.
  • 4In this context (and rather confusingly, given that autonomia was itself originally called operaismo – i.e. ‘workerism’), we refer here to those leftists, such as the Socialist Workers Party, for whom only struggles in the workplace were understood as necessarily having revolutionary potential. Their dogma was eventually outweighed by their opportunism; by the time the anti-roads movement had been superseded by world-wide ‘anti-capitalism’, the SWP had seen the light and jumped onto the bandwagon with their front Globalize Resistance.
  • 5The end of the beginning. Claremont Road: E11 not M11. Leeds: Clare-zine (1995.)
  • 6Still available from our website at
  • 7‘The politics of anti-road struggle and the struggles of anti-road politics: The case of the No M11 Link Road campaign’ in George McKay (Ed.) DiY culture: Party and protest in nineties Britain. London: Verso.
  • 8The predominance of the term ‘anti-capitalist’, like the difference in timing of the ebb and flow of the movement, was also something peculiar to the UK. Elsewhere, the movement was more typically referred to as ‘anti-globalization’ or ‘global justice’.
  • 9The most controversial of these was ‘three strikes and you’re out’. This method personalized the issue by identifying the individual JobCentre workers who had issued sanctions three times by threatening to plaster their names and pictures all over town (with the obvious implication that they should be meted summary class justice’). While some JobCentres undoubtedly had more of these jobsworths than others, such tactics played into management’s hands and undermined attempts to create an effective alliance against management. The ‘policing’ element was only a small part of the role of the JobCentre client adviser, one that many used their discretion with, and it was in out view badly misconceived and far removed from a proper class analysis to place such workers (many of them having to live on benefits and in conditions of insecurity) on a par with the police.
  • 10See ‘The politics of anti-road struggle…’ op. cit. The Brighton activist news-sheet Schnews is a further example of a campaigning feature of the CJB struggle which continues to this day.
  • 11See ‘Intake: Inside and outside the G8 protests’ in Aufheben # 14, 2006.