Practical politics and reveries of Rojava: a response to the Anarkismo group on self-organisation and representation

Over the last few months, events in Rojava, where autonomous Kurdish communities have come under attack from the Islamic State, have attracted an ever-growing amount of attention, not least from various anarchist and leftist factions trying to define what the “Rojava revolution” actually means. On one hand, forces more or less supportive of the “Kurdish movement” represented by the PKK and PYD have urged solidarity with Kobane and its defenders; on the other, those holding a hard-line internationalist position have stressed the dangers of being sucked into taking sides in any war, and discussed various negative aspects of the PKK.

Apart from one quick and fairly indecisive article written this summer, I’ve mostly stayed out of these debates, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I don’t want to be one of those people who, whenever dramatic events flare up on the other side of the world, suddenly declare themselves to have been an expert in the intricacies of the region’s politics all along. A lot of the argument seems to consist of competing factual claims about what is actually happening in the area, and that’s an area where I just don’t have enough knowledge to judge. Another reason why keeping up with the various arguments has been fairly low on my list of priorities is that I really can’t see what the practical consequences are: I don’t deny the importance of what’s going on, but for all the actual impact we’re likely to have on the situation, we might as well be arguing about events in 1917 or 1936. ISIS are definitely a horrific reactionary force, and one that “should” be opposed, but issuing abstract verbal denunciations of their wrong-doing seems a bit pointless compared to making real interventions in actual situations where we might be able to have some impact.

Still, for all my reservations, I’ve done my best to keep up with some of the ever-increasing mountain of words that have been written about Rojava, and to try and form some of my own opinions about what’s going on. I think that good points have been made on both the more supportive and more critical sides of the debate, and, as someone with relatively limited knowledge of the subject, I haven’t read much that’s struck me as obviously, definitely wrong.

Having said all that, I thought the arguments put across in “An Anarchist Communist Reply to ‘Rojava: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Perspective’” by the Anarkismo group were seriously flawed, not just in terms of their interpretation of what’s happening in Rojava right now, but also in the general political method underlying their analysis. Despite the title, I think the logic informing “An Anarchist Communist Reply” is one that points back towards the terrain of representative Politics with a capital P, a logic that the best of the anarchist communist tradition has always opposed.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not by any means an expert on Kurdish politics, and so I can’t find too much to criticise about the opening sections of the Anarkismo article, which mainly concentrate on rebutting claims made in the more critical analysis offered by KB. Having said that, I did spot one definite untruth, when they claim that “Nationalism is an ideology aiming at multi-class unity and class society: in its Marxist and now its democratic confederalist phases, the PKK never really fitted this mould.” As Zafer Onat’s article “Rojava: Fantasies and Realities” has made clear, the project being undertaken in Rojava is precisely one where “class society will remain and there will be a federal political system compatible with the global system and the nation state.”

Disagreement about how to interpret the PKK’s programme is a fairly specific issue, and might not indicate a principled difference in and of itself. But when the Anarkismo group move on to drawing broader theoretical points, a more general difference in approach becomes clear. The key section here is worth quoting in full:

“At another level, the methodology also reveals itself: if something is not purely anarchist, it is deemed beyond support. The problem is that most major movements today are not anarchist, or purely anarchist. To say anarchists can never work with other currents – nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, liberals etc. – simply means saying that anarchists will not engage with anyone at all, besides other anarchists.

But since most people are not – whether we wish it or not – anarchists, this means the anarchists will isolate themselves, and do so proudly.”

This is a worldview that only has room for anarchists and other politicos, where people can only be acknowledged once they’ve first affiliated themselves with one organised political tendency or another. Of course, I don’t wish to defend the strawman position that anarchists should never work alongside other activists from a different political background, but I do feel that, while it is sometimes necessary and useful, this kind of work – organising as political activists alongside other political activists – should always be secondary to our major priority, organising with the people closest to us around our immediate practical interests. Sometimes it might be necessary for anarchists to work as anarchists in coalition with other organised political groups, but our aim should always be to work as anarchists in our everyday lives, organising around our interests as workers – or, indeed, as benefit claimants or tenants or pensioners or students or women or queers or as people affected by ethnic oppression.

I don’t want to generalise too far from the conditions of early 21st century England, with its particularly low levels of political mobilisation and organisation, and I understand than in other places, with more active political cultures and a stronger left, the gap between political activism and day-to-day life may be smaller. But in any environment, there will always be people around us who are not actively involved in any organised political current, but who we share common material interests with, so the idea that the only way to engage with anyone else besides other anarchists is to work in organised coalitions with Leninists, nationalists or whoever is plainly false. It’s a view where people only become visible once they’re already part of a movement, so all the hard and important work of organising that movement into being in the first place disappears from sight.

When the Anarkismo group go on to expand further, it becomes clear that their fixation on other “popular forces” leads them to simplistically equate struggles with the formal, organised political forces claiming to represent and lead those struggles. Arguing for support of the PKK, they write:

“Kurds from the popular classes are oppressed as workers and peasants, but as Kurds they face additional oppression. The fight against that oppression is progressive, and is surely an important fight that any anarchist can support. This does not mean blank cheque endorsement of the PKK; it simply means that even if the PKK etc. were ethno-nationalist, but were fighting for an end to national oppression, anarchists should and could still support that fight – critically, of course – simply because the Kurds are oppressed as a people, and anarchists oppose all forms of oppression.”

The logic of this position – that supporting a particular struggle means supporting the dominant political forces in that struggle – may appear superficially attractive when looking at a distant and unfamiliar movement like that in Kurdistan, but it can be quickly exploded by examining other examples closer to home. For instance, in the UK over the last few years, the fight against austerity has been an important priority for anarchists, but no-one with any familiarity with the situation could think that means coming up with a sliding scale whereby we can measure our support for the TUC, the Labour Party, the Greens, the SWP, the SP, the People’s Assembly and the various other organised forces claiming to represent the movement; at its best and most effective, anarchist involvement in anti-austerity struggles has meant taking an active part in struggles alongside workers, claimants or tenants, the majority of whom do not have a fixed affiliation to any particular group, and the rare occasions when such struggles have achieved anything resembling a “mass” or “popular” character are precisely the moments when organised political currents have been furthest from having a monopoly on the movement.

To take an even more specific example, some of the high points of struggle in the UK in the last few years have come out of the student movement, but only someone completely unfamiliar with the situation could imagine that “taking sides” between students and the government means supporting the National Union of Students. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the organisation that officially called for most of the large days of action, may have a better claim to represent the movement, but it’s still the case that, in those moments when the student movement has been most impressive, it’s been so as a result of its ability to mobilise people with no permanent formal connection to any of the organised political groups, NCAFC included. Equally, it might be the case that anarchists could not “remain neutral” between rioters and the state in August 2011, but anyone looking for the organisation representing the rioters in order to send communiqués of support to them would be looking in vain. In all these cases, the vital ingredient has been more-or-less spontaneous forms of self-organisation on a mass scale, and it’s dubious whether any perspective that doesn’t recognise this crucial factor deserves the name of anarchist.

Of course, Rojava is not the UK, and it’s possible, and indeed likely, that the connection between popular struggles in Kurdistan and the Kurdish nationalist parties is much closer than the connection between the organised political left and struggles here. But it’s still the case that the relationship between a struggle, or a group of people, and the political forces seeking to represent them, is never an exact correspondence, and the task of anarchists should be to look for the cracks between forms of popular self-organisation and the political organisations offering leadership, not to take the claims of such representatives at face value. After all, if it was reasonable for the Kronstadt sailors to demand soviets without Bolsheviks, why not democratic confederalism without the PKK?

It is also the case that the closer we are to a movement, the more we’re able to understand these kinds of complexities, and as our relationship becomes more and more distant and mediated, the more we’re forced to rely on official figureheads and representatives for our understanding of what’s going on. But, far from disproving my point, this just calls the claims of the Anarkismo group to “making our own views clear, pushing our own project, and seeking our own influence” into further question: if we’re so distant from a struggle that we can’t engage with it directly other than by going through its official representatives, how ambitious is it to hope to have any real influence on the situation?

The Anarkismo line is presented as a matter of “practical politics”, but it seems more like the consequence of a distant, mediated approach that relies on abstractions like “critical support” to compensate for the lack of real engagement in struggle – after all, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement in Ireland have been able to make a real, practical intervention in the movement against the water tax, and it’s precisely because they have a real connection to the situation that they’re not reduced to relying on absurdities like “critical support for the Socialist Party”.

After all the insistence that they’re really engaged with the situation, making practical interventions unlike the purists who’re detached from reality, the conclusion is presented as

“we support the struggle for the national liberation of the Kurds, including the right of the national liberation movement to exist; second, we oppose the repression and threats meted out by forces ranging from the Islamic State, to Iraq, Syria, Turkey and their Western and Eastern allies; our support moves on a sliding scale, with Kurdish anarchists and syndicalists at the top, followed by the PKK, then the PYD, and we draw the line at the KRG; in practical terms, we cooperate around, and offer solidarity (even if only verbal) on a range of concrete issues, the most immediate of which is the battle to halt the ultra-right Islamic State and defend the Rojava revolution; within that revolution, we align ourselves with the PKK model of democratic confederalism against the more statist approach of the PYD models, and, even when doing so, aim at all times to propose and win influence for our methods, aims and projects: we are with the PKK against the KRG, but we are for the anarchist revolution before all else.”

Reviewing this list, one thing is immediately obvious: for all their boasts of hard-headed practical engagement with real struggles, all they have to offer is a set of principles, every bit as abstract as the most abstentionist left communist position. The actual, real-world implementation of their approach boils down to “in practical terms… on a range of concrete issues” they “offer solidarity (even if only verbal)”. Having spent the entire article blasting more principled internationalists for not being really engaged in the struggle, their grand conclusion for how they can be really, practically engaged on a concrete level turns out to consist of issuing statements. Their statements of critical support for the PKK don’t actually do anything practical to assist any Kurds any more than the most hardline internationalist ones do. I doubt any “purist anarchists” could object to practical suggestions for how to carry out specific projects of sabotage and resistance against specific reactionary forces like ISIS or the Turkish state, but the practical, engaged pro-PKK position doesn’t seem to offer any of those.

In conclusion, despite all the claims that the platformist approach of critical support for the PKK is the realistic way to engage with struggles and have a real, concrete influence on them, this approach doesn’t reflect the complexity that inevitably accompanies genuine, active involvement in struggle: it’s the cheerleading of distant spectators, not a strategy for real engagement with, and influence, over a situation, but a substitute for its absence. It may be unpleasant to accept that we’re unlikely to have any real influence over events in Rojava, but starting from a sober understanding and acceptance of our weakness is a more realistic perspective than deluding ourselves into imagining that “aligning” with the PKK will lead to influence over its supporters. A real anarchist communist perspective has to start from everyday life, organising with the people who share our material conditions, whatever their ethnicity or ideological preference; a vision that can only see “political forces” and their supporters, treating the working class as interchangeable with its movements, and those movements as interchangeable with the most visible formal political organisations claiming to represent the struggle, is worthy only of politicians.

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“I’m trying to tell you it’s a purgatory”: support Ceebo!

Ceebo, the rapper and organiser who became active in anti-police brutality struggles after the LAPD killed his cousin Ezell Ford earlier this summer, has now been sentenced to 17 years in prison on the basis of a very dubious conviction. The explosive reaction to the killing of Mike Brown – which might yet be about to take off again, as people across the country prepare for the impending decision in the Darren Wilson grand jury case – has shown the extent of the anger that exists at police brutality, and using prison to break the spirit of organisers like Ceebo is an important part of the state’s plan to crush resistance. If we want to see sustainable movements that can make it through hard times, we owe it to ourselves not to let those targeted for state harrassment suffer alone.

You can write to him at:

Damonte Shipp
4097640
P.O Box 86164
Terminal Annex
La, CA. 90086-0164
USA

To learn more about Ceebo in his own words, there are a few videos you can watch:

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Celebrating recent victories, planning for the next ones: November round-up

The last few weeks have seen a number of worthwhile acts of resistance, and even a few notable victories in areas ranging from housing to workfare. Johnny Void’s summed up a number of the most impressive recent wins – property directors Redrow have sold their share in the luxury Commercial Street flats after a lengthy campaign against the segregated doors for tenants in “affordable housing”, and tenants living in the New Era estate have forced the family of Tory MP Richard Benyon to make a similar retreat. Meanwhile, Liverpool IWW have forced a recycling contractor to pull out of workfare, and LAMH Recycling, the company that made headlines after a former employee was sanctioned for refusing to go back to his old workplace to work unpaid on a workfare placement, has also abandoned workfare.

Sheffield IWW picketing the Greedy Greek

Sheffield IWW picketing the Greedy Greek

In other news, Sheffield IWW are reporting that their campaign against the Greedy Greek restaurant, which has included a number of impressive mass pickets, has led to improved working conditions and the end of illegal unpaid trials. The public outcry that led to the end of Dapper Laughs’ career and the “mob resistance” that defeated Sheffield United chairman Jim Phipps’ hopes of re-signing the unrepentant rapist Ched Evans  are also heartening signs of a growing backlash against rape culture.

Students showing their anger at NUS sabbs

This week’s also seen a revival of the student movement, with a large and militant demonstration not sanctioned by the NUS accompanied by attacks on the NUS headquarters, as well as a courageous response to ongoing police harassment from some anarchists in Bristol. Overseas, the huge campaign against water charges in Ireland is throwing the establishment into increasing panic, as politicians are being opposed everywhere they go and mass direct action is being taken to block the installment of water meters, although I’ve not been able to find a good article giving an overview of the situation as a whole. And over in the US, an IWW-backed campaign by Whole Foods workers has been successful in winning a wage rise.

If you’d like to contribute to similar victories in the future, there’s a number of things you can do in the next few weeks. On the education front, there’s a call for walkouts and occupations on the 3rd of December, and local marches across the country on Saturday 6th. If you want to get involved in housing struggles in London, the New Era tenants are setting up a contact list of people willing to resist evictions, and the Focus E15 Mothers still continue to hold their weekly stall every Saturday afternoon. On workfare, there’s going to be an anti-workfare Christmas street part in Bristol on the 13th and Liverpool IWW are looking to continue their campaign after the victory at Bulky Bob’s. Finally, two local events for anyone who can make it: a demonstration in Middlesbrough against benefit sanctions, and two pensioners from Barnsley who were arrested for protesting against cuts to travel passes will be appearing in court on Monday 8th December, so anyone who can should try and get down to support them.

Posted in anarchists, gender, NUS, protests, students, stuff that I think is pretty awesome | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

No platforming from above and below: on misogyny and state bans

Content warning for discussions related to misogyny, rape, and rape culture

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a few fairly successful challenges to a few particularly noxious high-profile representatives of rape culture. Dapper Laughs has had his ITV show pulled and retired his character; the board of Sheffield United have now been forced to back down on their sickening statement in which they claimed unrepentant rapist Ched Evans shared their values, as “the reaction to this has been at an intensity that could not have been anticipated when first announced”; and the Home Office have denied Julien Blanc access to the country.

But one of these things is not like the others. Having an ITV show or a career as a professional footballer is not a basic right, it’s a rare privilege that only a few people will ever have access to. In contrast, freedom of movement is something that’s important to pretty much everyone, and so I find myself suspicious of the idea that the Home Office using its powers to keep people out of the country can be a progressive force for good.

Debates over “freedom of speech” and “censorship” often take place on a fairly abstract level, and I don’t think these concepts are much use unless we define exactly what we mean by them. On one hand, there’s what we can call a limited, “weak” sense of free speech, which can be summed up as “the government should not be able to use the law to stop me saying this particular thing.” On the other hand, there’s the much more extensive, “strong” sense of free speech, which is frequently used to advance an argument along the lines of “I have the right to use this particular platform to say this particular thing, and all the money, time and other resources needed for this particular platform to function should be used to amplify my voice when I say this particular thing, and none of the people whose work is needed to make this platform function should have any say over how it is used.”

As should be clear from my summary of the second, “strong” sense of free speech, I don’t think it makes much sense as a principle, and it certainly doesn’t serve as much of a defence for hateful misogyny like that peddled by Blanc. But, having said that, I still think the first, “weak” sense is still an important principle worth defending.

So, for those of us who don’t want to see scum like Julien Blanc giving seminars in how to harrass women, but also don’t trust the tories – or any other set of politicians – to define what is and isn’t acceptable speech, the challenge is to find ways to stop him speaking, without giving the government opportunities to clamp down on everyone’s freedom of speech. To use a comparison with anti-fascism, that’s the difference between a fascist march being stopped by the state banning it, and one being stopped by local residents lining the streets to block it. As a great statement from London Antifascists put it, state repression of our enemies should cause “no tears, but no gloating either.”

This might all seem a bit abstract and pedantic – if stopping Blanc speaking helps challenge rape culture, who cares how it happens? But the question of agency is crucial here. Ordinary people deciding that we don’t want Blanc peddling his hateful ideas and encouraging sexual assault, and taking action to stop him, is empowering, and it certainly seems plausible that the same grassroots pressure that lost Dapper Laughs his career and caused SUFC to back away from Ched Evans could easily have pressured any venue willing to host Blanc into cancelling the bookings. But there’s nothing liberatory about politicians making those decisions on our behalf: the power they use in a way we approve of today can just as easily be used against us tomorrow. This isn’t an abstract theoretical point, it’s a lesson that’s been hard-won through the actual experience of state power, from the laws that were brought in against Mosley’s blackshirts being used against striking miners to racially aggravated public order offences being used to criminalise Asian teenagers saying provocative things to Canada’s feminist-backed laws being used to crack down on lesbian, gay and feminist literature.

It’s important not to be over-dramatic, of course. No new powers are being created here, and the Home Secretary’s powers to exclude individuals the state considers to be undesirable would not suddenly disappear if feminists just refrained from calling on her to use them. Considering all the uncountable injustices in the world, it would certainly be a very poor use of anyone’s time to campaign for the government to drop the ban so we could go about denying Julien Blanc a platform in a properly democratic, bottom-up way. Still, in future, it’s worth thinking about how we can campaign in ways that strengthen grassroots forces that are consistently opposed to rape culture and misogyny, instead of just calling on the tories to behave like good feminists and hoping they don’t use their powers against us.

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Who Cares Loses? Thoughts on the Care UK strike and missed opportunities

Don't stop them now: Brian May showing his support for the strikers

Don’t stop them now: Brian May showing his support for the strikers

So, with Unison recommending the workers should accept the offer of a 2% pay rise – that is to say, a wage cut of 33% rather than 35% – it looks like the Care UK strike may be drawing to a close, although voting doesn’t end until December 1. It’s been one of the longest-running strikes in the history of the NHS, and it’s an exceptionally hard-fought dispute in the context of contemporary UK trade unionism, and now it may be over. I’m not a care worker, and I don’t live in Doncaster: if either of these things were true, I’m sure I’d be a lot more qualified to offer an indepth analysis of the dispute. Still, on the grounds that some analysis is better than none, here’s a few thoughts:

So far, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers’ Party have been heavily involved in supporting the strike, while very little visible activity has been organised by anarchists, or other supporters of a rank-and-file strategy. While some differences exist between the SP and SWP, their attitude towards the trade unions is fairly similar: throughout the dispute, their main strategy was to call for Unison and the rest of the union movement to deliver action on a national level to back the strikers. Predictably, this didn’t happen. I’m sure that the Trot supporters of the dispute have done a lot of good work, and that they’ve had some influence in some of the more positive aspects of the strike, like the links that were made with Ritzy cinema strikers in London, but ultimately, they’re not willing to argue for a strategy that goes beyond simple trade unionism: they’ll call on the unions to deliver more and better action, but when the unions don’t deliver, or try to end a strike by selling a defeat as a victory, the only alternative they have to offer is that things would be better if they were in charge.

In part, the fact that the SP and SWP were able to play some role in this dispute, while other tendencies couldn’t, reflects the fact that both organisations have a presence in Doncaster, while most other groups don’t. But this explanation only goes so far: in an article for Freedom earlier this year, I tried to set out some suggestions for actions that could be taken to support the dispute across the country. There’s not much point in a fantasy football/armchair general approach to class struggle, but in retrospect I still think that all those suggestions were worthwhile, and the possibility of setting up meetings where Care UK strikers could have addressed other care workers directly would have been especially important. Since there’s no point looking to the official union bodies to spread the struggle, the most important thing that could have happened to change the situation would have been if other groups of care workers had taken the initiative, as happened with Gwalia staff in Wales and carers in Barnet, North London. A serious rank-and-file strategy for escalating the dispute would have had to focus on building direct links between these groups of workers, and spreading news of the action to other care workers in the hopes that the confidence, determination and organisation of the Doncaster strikers might prove infectious.

Systematic, committed solidarity work would also have helped strengthen connections with the striking workers and open up the space for political conversations – charging in with an abstract, one-size-fits-all denunciation of the unions and an arrogant attitude of “here is the truth, bow down before us” would achieve nothing, but at the same time, our understanding of the way the unions behave is something that’s been developed through many long and painful struggles, and our knowledge of lessons gained from these past struggles is worth nothing unless we attempt to communicate it to other workers when it might potentially make a difference. The organiser model developed by the IWW stresses the importance of “inoculation” – preparing the people we want to organise with for how the other side might react – and sometimes inoculating other workers against what the union might do (like recommend acceptance of a bad offer) is every bit as much as preparing for the bosses’ retaliation.

In the end, it seems like the Care UK strike may well end with the acceptance of a disappointing, inadequate offer, and anarchists (and syndicalists, left communists, autonomists, etc) played very little role in the dispute. If we had been more active, it’s likely things would have gone pretty much the same way, as the determination and morale of the workers affected, and other care workers across the country, were the most important factors in this dispute, and interventions by small groups of politicos usually don’t affect these things that much one way or another. Still, there are some things we could have done that might potentially have had some kind of an impact, so it’s worth reflecting on those for next time a similar dispute arises, or if it turns out that they’ll reject the offer.

For now, until we hear anything further, there’s not much to do but to celebrate the strength and determination shown by these workers. The offer Unison are recommending they should accept isn’t much, but it’s more than they would have got if they hadn’t fought. And their bravery in taking such an extended strike is an inspiration to us all. On that note, I’ll end with the words of one of the strikers explaining why she’ll be voting to carry on fighting: “A 2% rise doesn’t come close to making up for the 35% they’ve already taken. Although we’re pleased about the impact we’ve had around the country and extremely proud of the influence we’ve had on other disputes, somehow this offer doesn’t feel like much of a victory”.

Posted in strikes, the left | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

They Don’t Care About Us: #FreeCeebo, and other notes on repression and struggle

This summer, while a lot of attention was focused on the aftermath of the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, another young black man was shot to death by the LAPD. Following the police killing of Ezell Ford, his cousin Ceebo, among others, demanded answers about what had happened to him. He recorded a song and video which caused the police to send out a special alert; and he started organising community protests demanding justice for victims of police violence. And now, having been convicted of burglary on the basis of some very questionable evidence, this young man is facing 4-24 years in prison. Nearly a hundred years after Joe Hill was executed for a similarly sketchy conviction, the state is once again using some very dubious charges to silence a musician and organiser for speaking out against power. His sentencing is on November 20th, and his supporters are calling for people to turn up and pack the court then. For those of us who live far from Los Angeles, there’s a few things you can do to help: if you’d like to ask the judge for clemency, write a letter asking Judge George Genesta to show mercy in the case of DaMonte Marquise Shipp Sr., and send it to freeCeebo@gmail.com. You can also donate to help cover his legal costs, expenses while in prison, and the needs of his family here.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, there’s also a fair amount of police-related stuff going on. On Friday 28th, G, a a young Asian man, is facing trial for monitoring a police stop and search, and the London Campaign Against Police and State Violence is calling on people to turn up and support him. On a more historical note, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are going to be picketing the Independent Police Complaints Commission on Friday 14th to highlight the IPCC’s continued foot-dragging over Orgreave, two years after South Yorkshire Police first referred themselves to the IPCC. Staying on the theme of police repression, anarchists in Bristol have recently put out a strong response to the ongoing campaign of police harassment of anarchists in that city. Defend the Right to Protest are also holding a national conference this weekend, although I’ve never been able to work out quite how far they’re an independent organisation and how far they’re a SWP front. You can make your own mind up about whether you think it sounds worth attending. The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance definitely seem pretty sound, and they’re also holding a public meeting in London this Wednesday, with several victims of police spying and misconduct sharing their experiences, including blacklisted construction worker Dave Smith – in case you missed it, some recently leaked minutes have revealed the extent of police collusion with employers blacklisting militant workers.

Also coming up in the capital is a day-long discussion of workplace organising hosted by Feminist Fightback, which looks really interesting. In other news, the Care UK strike may be reaching an end as the affected workers are now voting on a new pay offer after 90 days of action, and Plan C have published an overview of the exciting new wave of housing struggles taking place in London. Finally, some reading recommendations: Someday We’ll Be Ready, and We’ll Be Enough is an interesting long piece from Seattle thinking about movement-building and how to avoid activist burnout, and SolFed have just published a post-mortem on the Pop-Up Union that briefly flourished in Brighton last year, which is a pretty detailed look at one of the highpoints of autonomous class struggle in the UK in recent years.

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It’s all about where you’re at: some fragmented thoughts on the current state of things

This autumn, there’s been a few gatherings of the anti-state/libertarian left, including the Plan C Fast Forward event, the bookfair and the Afem conference. The Angry Workers of the World gathering in Liverpool attracted much less attention than most of these, but it sounds like it produced some worthwhile discussion: the minutes have now been made publicly available, and they represent an interesting attempt to sketch out a rough map of “where we stand” today. I think this kind of public circulation of discussion documents is a good habit: there are lots of tactical conversations about organising that need to be kept private, but there’s no reason for broader conversations about strategy and theory to be hidden away, and making them public is a good way to involve people who, for whatever reasons, can’t make it to physical gatherings at certain times and places.

In that spirit, here’s a few comments on some points raised that I found interesting, and questions that seemed worth raising. By its nature, this post will necessarily be quite fragmented and conversational, so feel free to skip it if that’s not your thing; equally, if you do find this sort of discussion interesting, please add your own points and write your own responses. The more voices involved in this kind of conversation, the better.

“In this sense any ‘political strategy’ would first have to analyse the objective constrains of the ruling class: What is their financial/material clout in terms of redistribution? Do they have a believable vision of ‘progress’, which would benefit wider parts of the ‘middle-class’ and proletariat? Are they able to maintain a divide-and-rule strategy, which pitches certain segments of the proletariat against others?”

At the risk of stating the obvious, a few points on this: Our ruling class are definitely doing a very good job at implementing a divide-and-rule strategy. In terms of having a believable vision of progress, mainstream politics seems considerably more bankrupt. However, to say that there’s no plausible vision of progress coming from the mainstream parties is definitely not to say that a renewed reformism is impossible: the Yes campaign in Scotland, along with things like the Kshama Sawant campaign in Seattle and the Fight for 15 campaign, offer glimpses of what a politics that offers plausible promises to make things better while keeping capital and the state might look like.

Also, while looking at the options available to the ruling class, it’s worth bearing in mind the growing strength of various “insurgent conservative” movements, whose leadership may not be drawn from the traditional elite but whose agendas are broadly compatible with existing social hierarchies. Based on the evidence of the last few years, it seems like discontent with the status quo is at least as likely to be funneled into movements like the Tea Party, UKIP, Svoboda or Hong Kong’s Civic Passion as it is to take on any kind of progressive form.

“Another example from tenants struggle in Poznan in Poland confirmed that as soon as issues of social struggle are detached from workplaces and proletarian existence and are framed as problems of ‘city citizens’ or ‘territory’ they tend to focus mainly on the political terrain, e.g. in negotiations with the local council.”

It would be good to have some more expansion on what this point means, as without having the context available it reads a bit like the kind of narrow workerism that discounts proletarian experiences outside of the workplace. Without knowing the details of what happened in Poznan, I think there are certainly examples of social struggles outside the workplace that managed to stay firmly on the ground of class struggle, from the struggle against the Poll Tax to contemporary SolNet fights against landlords.

“A comrade brought up the question whether the ‘political form of communist/revolutionary organisations’ is equally determined by changes in the social production process as more immediate forms of workers struggles are. We briefly discussed the relation between a ‘skilled industrial basis’ and council communist ideas or the fact that the classical CP was a bridge organization between ‘democratic struggles of a declining peasantry’ and a small industrial working class and that as soon as the peasantry got proletarianised most of the CPs turned into ‘mainstream’ parties.

In some senses even organizational forms of small collectives like wildcat Germany might be based on a material basis of the past”

This is an interesting point, and if previous revolutionary high points, from classical syndicalism to Italian autonomia, were reflections of a certain class composition, then it does seem to raise the question of what a “call centre workers’ communism” would look like. Of course, this is the sort of question that can only be answered in the context of the actual movement that would produce it.

Beyond that, I think it’s worth reflecting on the implications of what it means for political groups to reflect the conditions that form them. The paradox of Mark Fisher is illustrative here: as the author of Capitalist Realism, he’s done a lot to draw attention to the ways our worldviews are inevitably shaped by neoliberalism, but whenever he ventures to suggest practical conclusions, his answers – better electoral candidates, more airtime for communist ideas on television, a general long march through the institutions – are always ones that are thoroughly acceptable in terms of capitalist realism, and the idea of direct action is written off. While we can and should aim to have a bit more imagination than Fisher, we’ll never be able to think in ways that are entirely separate to the conditions we exist in. This point raises serious question for the conception of revolutionary groups as being organisations that exist to keep the memory of past high points alive and then jump in with the correct ideas at moments of crisis. Most existing groups might have been a bit paralysed by the events of August 2011, but then a group that existed in permanent readiness for the events of that summer would be seriously out of step with the conditions of day-to-day life before and since.

“We talked at length about the experience (of three of us) of having been organized within The Commune, a libertarian communist organization and our problems to convince other comrades that a deeper understanding of the composition of the working class is necessary – which was denounced as sociology. In some senses the pluralist approach of The Commune prevented a deeper discussion. At the same time a pluralist formal approach attracted (individual) people who are isolated in their towns, which is a good thing. A ‘proletarian exchange’ about concrete conditions and struggles within a ‘politically pluralist’ frame-work might be helpful, but The Commune was not that place, the exchange was mainly about ‘historical positions’.”

This is an interesting topic, and it would be good to see a full write-up/autopsy of the Commune experience at some point. Like everything else in this society, political organisations are just created by people doing things, but it’s easy for them to appear as some mysterious things that appear, grow, shrink and collapse of their own accord, so publicly discussing what it actually means to be in an organisation is a good way to demystify them. In particular, discussing the Commune experience might be worthwhile as, while the Commune itself seems to have largely disappeared, the “pluralist”/regroupment model, based on the premise that none of the traditional organisational forms are fully adequate for today’s conditions and that we need to be experimenting with something new, continues to be attractive – the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (which may now also be defunct), International Socialist Network and Plan C all broadly fit into this category, so it would be interesting to discuss what members of these groups, and similar projects, could learn from the experience of the Commune.

“We discussed the usage of technology not only in terms of immediate ‘productivity increase’, but as a weapon against workers militancy, such as ticket machines replacing ticket offices in the London Underground. Currently, technology as a weapon seems less a weapon, given that mainly the bosses take the initiative today, e.g. replacement of cash-out tills with self-check-out is not due to mass militancy of supermarket workers. We discussed the claim that nevertheless automatisation is a weapon in class war, given that workers’ jobs are cut, while management jobs, which could similarly be automated, are saved… Also warehouse jobs are much less automated then they technically could be, just because labour is cheap. A comrade working in an IT department also said that the announced large-scale rationalisation of programming work did not take place and much of the work retained quasi-artisanal character.”

This raises the question: where and how could automation (along with the other great capitalist weapon of relocation, closing industries down and moving them to another country) be used in future? What technology would be used to break concentrations of workers’ power in warehouses, the catering/hospitality/service sector, or care work? Are there “hard limits” where human labour will always be needed so automation is not possible? Equally, is there work that needs to be done in a particular place, so worker militancy can’t just be defeated by closing workplaces down and moving them elsewhere?

“In times of austerity and crisis of social integration the state will rely more and more on proxy-wars, both externally, in order to back up its own army operations or to cover them politically in times where the mass of people would not back a ‘war’; and internally, by trying to operate via community middle-men and infiltration, rather than large-scale police operations, which might escalate things.”

In this context, is it worth asking about the “real” reasons behind Tommy Robinson’s sudden conversion to “anti-extremism” in late 2013, given how compatible the Quilliam foundation’s message is with this kind of state strategy?

“Politically organized ‘islamophobia’ did not get major boost after Rigby, IS beheadings or Rotherham: for the EDL demo in Rotherham around 1,400 EDL and NF members attended, but started to beat each other and EDL demo stewards up. For the following demonstration in London only 400 members showed up.”

This statement is broadly true, but needs to be qualified – it is true that the EDL has not managed to become a serious force in national politics as a result of any of these events, but they did lead to boosts in fascist activity on a local level (when’s the last time before Rotherham that the NF managed to do anything of note?) The far-right might not be a significant factor in the big picture, but in assessing any local situation, whether or not fascists target known “red” faces is quite an important question – it would be good to where the post-Woolwich effect led to a lasting boost for the right and where it was purely temporary, and how people feel this has affected the situation where they live, what actual difference it makes on the ground.

“The current scandals are a serious crack in one of the cornerstones of the austerity regime.

- Atos was not able to stem the work-load of the disability benefit tests themselves, they had to sub-contract NHS units; the public campaign seriously damaged their company reputation

 

- The management style of Bridgepoint equity firm, which owns Care UK came into public criticism through the Care UK strike”

In this context, is it worth considering workfare as a form of outsourcing, in which the task of disciplining the unemployed is shifted from the state to private businesses? Following from this, is it the case that, contrary to standard liberal/leftist ideology, privatised services might actually be more responsive to public pressure than public ones? It is notable that most campaigns against austerity have been unsuccessful, but it is substantially easier to pressure a company out of co-operation with a specific government policy than it is to pressure the government – Atos and workfare campaigns are worth thinking about in this respect.

“So far the left has mainly criticized the outsourcing to these companies on a moral ‘anti-privatisation’ level. It would be good to analyse more closely the cracks between ‘public and private sector’ and the workers’ condition and experiences within these companies.”

The Care UK strike is worth considering here, as the left are very keen to sell it as a “political” strike against privatisation rather than just boring old material conditions, and it would be interesting to know how far this is actually reflected in the views of the workers themselves.

“If we see it as a ‘historically new situation’ then it is not surprising that one of the main divisions within the working-class is one between generations (not necessarily of age, but between people hired 10, 15 years ago and those who are hired now). The pay gap between younger and older workers has risen by more than half since 1997, with those in their 50s in 2014 earning 2.6 times more than workers aged 18-21”

It’s worth noting that Labour have already started to use this material reality in an attempt to sell their pro-voting narrative (as repeated by Armando Iannucci at the end of this article), it would be worth keeping an eye out for further examples of the clash of generations trope (see Unity and Struggle’s critique of Ultra for some discussion of an ultra-left variation on this theme).

“There is a similar situation when it comes to the introduction of the Universal Credit, which has only been implemented in a dozen job centres or so. Also the ‘job match’-online program does not seem to be as effective as they had thought. But here regional differences and differences between job centres seem considerable. People are put under considerable pressure to let the job centre check their activity on the ‘job match’ site. In other situations the job centre agents are over-whelmed by the amount of applications people send them as proof of their job search and ask them to stop sending emails to their account.”

I’m sure I can’t teach Edinburgh Claimants anything about this, but it is worth looking at the way the benefit regime is implemented in order to identify concrete possibilities for resistance, such as not ticking the box giving access to your information, using Universal Automation to sabotage the discipline of jobseeking, and so on.

“Various bigger corporations (Nestle etc.) and local institutions (Camden council) have decided to pay their core staff the ‘living wage’. The trade unions present these examples as a role model behaviour for their various campaigns (‘Britain needs a pay rise’ etc.). We don’t have any major insights in US campaigns like ‘$15now!’ in Seattle, which are sold as major working class successes by the UK left, but we heard that the campaign was well funded and based on a kind of ‘simulation’ of workers’ protests and electoral politics – but that many workers who took the campaign for face value and stuck their neck out were left hanging dry.”

On this subject, it might be worth asking the Recomposition collective for more information, as people like Nate Hawthorne have written good pieces of analysis on the possibilities for a new reformism and the Fight for Fifteen campaign.

“We started discussing about the attempts of trade unions to address the unemployed / low wage sector through ‘community unions’, e.g. in the case of UNITE in Liverpool. Comrades described the community branch as a front organization for the Labour party (or mediated through Peoples’ Assembly and TUSC, which operate within the UNITE branch), with a top-down approach, e.g. if you are unemployed and pay lower membership fees to the union you don’t have any voting rights and no union representation in a (legal) dispute. In Edinburgh UNITE community union offered 3,000 pounds grant to the Claimants Union, but asked them, e.g. to put the UNITE logo on their placards.”

On this, I think it’s worth thinking seriously about the relationship between Unite and claimants’ self-organisation – is it possible for us to use Unite’s resources for our own ends, or is this just a standard bit of leftist self-delusion? Unite Community support for the Atos and Boycott Workfare campaigns seem like examples of situations where Unite joined in after the agenda had already been set by claimants. Is it worth £3000 to put a logo on your placards? Is it possible to take union funding and still take actions that clash with that union’s politics, like opposing workfare when it comes from Labour as well as the tories? What will be the future for Unite Community if Labour get in and Unite no longer want to embarrass the government?

“The Amazon strikes or disputes are interesting, in the sense that other people now know about the working conditions in one of the modern low wage companies. At the same time the focus on ‘bad conditions’ at Amazon ignores the fact that compared with the situation at other companies are not really better.”

This is a purely anecdotal piece of information, but seems relevant: when the Metro published a piece about Amazon creating 1000 new jobs with a starting wage of £7.39 and rising to £8.90, several of my (very low-paid) co-workers commented on it and discussed how much they’d like to get into a job with that level of pay. On the other hand, one of my most “political” co-workers had heard some of the horror stories about their warehouses in Germany.

“The LCAP model seems good, but difficult to implement, also because you deal with the most vulnerable people.”

On this point, it would be good to consider the differences between organising social sector tenants and private rental tenants. The SeaSol model is inspiring – especially because landlord abuse is really widespread, it’s a subject that comes up in casual conversations with friends a lot – but has limits, such as the difficulty of integrating new people into the group, and the danger of reverting to a “militant service provider model”. In real terms, does it just become activists doing favours for their friends, and can it spread beyond certain subcultural limits? On the other hand, a case could certainly be made that activists taking up their friends’ material issues is still considerably more useful than a lot of “political” activity.

“many hard fought struggles remain single events (wildcat strike at Scottish gas plant during Independence campaign, Tyneside Safety Glass dispute) or need moralistic media attention in order to reach the wider public (Care UK strike)”

On this topic, it’s worth thinking about what practical actions we can take in solidarity with strikers (it’s looking like the Care UK dispute may finally have been resolved in the time between the AWW publishing their piece and me getting around to finishing off this response, but the issues are still worth thinking over for future disputes). Leftists have been keen on pushing solidarity protests at Bridgepoint outlets to spread dispute, is this effective or just activist do-something-ism? If not, what would be more useful – how do we spread struggle among other groups of care workers?

“many of the disputes at these boundaries affect ‘public services’ (care work, transport etc.); while the answer of the mainstream left is re-nationalisation without further content, strikes in these areas can lead to a politicization: what is the relation between the proletarian interest as ‘wage workers’ and the wider proletarian interest as people depending on ‘services’ – this relation will have to overcome the rather inter-class category of ‘service-users’; one small example of the potential described above might be the ‘off campus’-protest which forged an alliance between striking cleaning staff at London university campus and students, which went beyond mere show of ‘solidarity’”

The RMT revenue strike is a fascinating example in this respect, but it’s unclear whether the rhetoric really amounted to anything in practice. Another notable example would be the call for a sanction strike in the DWP, first pushed by the Civil Service Rank & File Network and then taken up at PCS conference, although it’s yet to be seen whether anything will actually come of it.

“The revolutionary milieu exists in the shadow of these two political and material tendencies. The most genuine elements of the milieu try to weather the storm by ‘anti-political’ direct action solidarity activities (SolNets, IWW), an understandable response of mistrust towards ‘statist politics’, but finally insufficient when it comes to detecting tendencies which could break through the material divisions within the class and the trap of political representation. In the long run this ‘apolitical’ position will fall on our feet: a debate which puts the daily proletarian experience in context of an historical critique of the ‘state’ (also in terms of ‘the law’ or ‘the formal trade union’) will be fundamental.”

This is not intended in any way as a criticism, but rather as a neutral observation: to me, this sounds like classic anarcho-syndicalism, and especially like the core of the IWA criticism of “neutral” apolitical syndicalism. How does this differ from the perspective set out in Fighting For Ourselves or the anti-state tendencies within the IWW, as articulated in pieces like No Politics in the Union? Come Off It!, Wob the State or Wobblyism? If you agree with their ideas, how far do you feel the practice lives up to it? Finally, a recommendation: if you’ve not encountered it already, Lines of Work by Recomposition is an amazing look at daily proletarian experience from a revolutionary perspective, and essential reading for anyone wanting to develop theory that starts from our daily lives, and the workplace in particular.

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