Saying you prefer bullets to ballots is often used as a shorthand for wanting revolutionary change rather than working within the system. But in fact, the politics of armed struggle and electoralism can have a surprising amount in common – they’re both ways in which mass participation can be cut off, when decisions stop being collective things that everyone takes part in and are instead left to specialist representatives, whether they’re politicians or military specialists of one kind or another.
All of this is another way of saying that when I think about the big stories of 2015, and about trying to come up with some kind of a grand narrative to sum up the year, I keep coming back to the upsurge of (roughly) 2010-2012, a wave of, if not quite revolutions, then at least uprisings and insurgencies of various kinds, and the ways in which that wave was broken and rolled back. In first Libya and then Syria (and Ukraine could also be added to this list), that containment took the form of military conflict. In much of Europe and the US, the movement of the squares just came apart after failing to find any organisational forms adequate to take the movement beyond camping. And so we come to the return of the party, a form which had seemed so firmly exorcised in the various square occupations. Thinking about a lot of this year’s big stories, from the Greek referendum to the migrant crisis, I keep on seeing threads leading back to that movement, and the various ways it was broken up and contained. In the years to come, a lot will depend on whether that insurgent energy can be summoned up again.
2015 in learning the Prime Minister fucked a pig
We found out that David Cameron put his cock in a dead pig’s head. I can’t believe I forgot to include that in the first draft of this piece.
2015 in war and terror
When thinking about the year’s events, one obvious, if grim, bookend is offered by the two ISIS massacres in France at the beginning and end of the year. These attacks were, in quite a real sense, aimed against you and me. You may or may not shop for kosher food, like the Eagles of Death Metal, or eat in Cambodian restaurants, but if we don’t accept an artificial separation between French and Turkish or Kurdish lives, then the French attacks have to be understood as part of the same sequence as the massacres in Suruc and Ankara. If we can’t trust “our” states to protect us from ISIS, we certainly can’t see ISIS as some kind of “lesser evil” either.
In response to the latest Paris massacre, the UK government decided that bombing Syria would be a useful token gesture, and so we were treated to a grotesque showdown between an “anti-war” movement led by Stop the War Coalition, an organisation with an incredibly bad track record when it comes to actually stopping any wars, and pro-war politicians. One side invoked the spirit of the International Brigades as a way to legitimise airstrikes, while the other managed to compare the International Brigades to ISIS*. Neither of them had much to say about the case of Shilan Ozcelik. In general, the anti-imperialists looking for a lesser evil to back tended to choose Assad (and, by extension, Russian imperialism), but some of them managed to drift into outright ISIS apologism. On the pro-war side, the politicians backing intervention – a mixture of dishonest little shits and people with a proven record of having incredibly poor judgement on the subject of whether Western military adventures will lead to horrific consequences – betrayed their total contempt for the representative democracy they supposedly believe in with their howls of outrage at the idea of the people they’re meant to speak for speaking back to them, let alone the threat that elected representatives of a political organisation might face some form of sanction for going against that organisation’s policies.
So if airstrikes are a shit response to ISIS, what would a good one look like? A lot of people have seized on Rojava and the struggle being fought by the YPG/YPJ militias there. There’s been a lot of debate about what exactly is happening in Rojava, and as someone living thousands of miles away who’s never visited the place I’m hardly in any position to offer any definitive answers. But I think it’s possible to be attentive and open to the various anarchist and left-communist criticisms of what’s going on there and still think that it’s a lot better than any other alternatives. At the end of the day, the situation’s such a tangled mess that any position is almost bound to get caught up in contradictions – hard-line anti-militarists getting all excited about a war, people proclaiming their support for the PYD while opposing the airstrikes that the PYD welcome – but it’s hard to see how you could avoid these contradictions, other than just by repeating eternal principles with little to say about the specifics, and so ending up with an analysis along the lines of “everything is bad, everything is as bad as everything else”.
At some point, it’s good to take a look at how much impact any of these arguments might actually have. To their credit, Plan C have made some steps towards providing practical assistance to those forces they see as playing a positive role**; if other people have a different analysis, it’d be good if they could make some steps towards putting their views into practice, whether that’s through projects of mutual aid together with people doing constructive work on the ground, or purely negative projects of sabotage against ISIS, Assad, Erdogan or whoever.
And one final thought on the subject: many discussions of ISIS have stressed their fanatical, anti-rational appeal. Put mildly, those who’re drawn to ISIS are never likely to be won over by the politics of the moderate center. Perhaps the most useful thing we can do to fight jihadism is to revive the millennial aspects of our own politics, to start offering a new fanaticism that could provide a possible rival. Why is it that the critique of this world offered by the caliphate seems more tempting to many people than that of anarchism/communism, and what can we do to change this?
2015 in politicians and voting
If the figure of the masked ISIS gunman was the villain of the year, then the year’s hero was the Lefty Saviour Figure, a role that was played at various points by Tsipras, Corbyn, Iglesias and Saunders. A few years ago, the trend among folk influenced by communisation theory was to argue that the crisis meant capital had exhausted its capacity for reform, and so reformism was finished; it’s still possible that the first part of that argument might be true, but this year seems to have offered some pretty strong proof that, in one form or another, reformism will still be around for some time to come**. Like a cliché from a monster movie, the “electoral turn” just wouldn’t die, and everything that I thought might kill it off – the end of the UK election meaning we won’t have another one for five years, Syriza’s no-that-turned-into-a-yes – just seemed to lead to it coming back stronger than ever. Writing about the electoral turn back in May, Plan C had suggested that “[e]ven at their point of failure… electoral politics can be useful if they can clarify the anti-democratic effects of neoliberalism that work against all forms of collective action”, and the Syriza experience certainly did that, but that lesson is only of any use if people learn from it and don’t just carry on repeating the same mistakes.
Taking up the example of Corbynism in the UK, it’s worth being honest about how completely wrongfooted I was by it, having long thought that the Labour left was an entirely spent force, as shown, for instance, by McDonnell not even managing to get on the ballot in 2007, and Corbyn himself just managing to scrape on thanks to nominations from people who didn’t actually support him. It’s like one of those drastic shifts in language, where a word that you always thought meant one thing suddenly comes to mean another: I’d been sure that this word Labour meant Atos, workfare, mass slaughter in Iraq and introducing private finance into the NHS, but apparently there’s all these thousands and thousands of people out there who still think it means something along the lines of “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”.
It’s notable that this has been an example of electoralism that promises to go beyond the ballot box, as Momentum was launched with a blaze of rhetoric about community and workplace organisation, but it remains to be seen what that will actually translate to in practice. Whatever the merits of the revitalised Labour left turn out to be, there’s still some very important dangers and contradictions they have to negotiate.
First, there’s the problem of the actually existing Labour party machine as a functioning part of the austerity state in many parts of the country. However much the recent joiners may be totally opposed to the old Labour “moderates”, it’s still those “moderates” who are running councils and implementing cuts across the country. It’s still unclear how the Labour Party will cope with the pressures of attempting to become an anti-austerity movement while also actually implementing the cuts in many areas. And secondly, less obvious but equally important, there’s the danger of everything becoming about Corbyn. If you want to solve the housing crisis by building more affordable housing, that’s great; if you support Corbyn because you think he has good policies to solve the housing crisis, that’s fine; but if you spend more time talking about Corbyn and defending him from various forms of media bullshit than you do actually talking about the housing crisis (or whatever other issue matters most to you), then you have a problem. Again, this was seen in the aftermath of the vote for airstrikes on Syria, when the media attacked Corbyn for going to the Stop the War Christmas party: everyone correctly recognised this as the media having a go at Corbyn, and in the aftermath we saw lefties discussing whether this meant that everyone should rally round StW out of solidarity with Corbyn, or whether Corbyn should disassociate himself from StW to make his life easier… and once you’ve accepted this framing of things, it’s really easy to drift into forgetting that the important thing is not “how will this affect Corbyn” but “how will this affect people living in the areas targeted by airstrikes?”**** It can be tempting to have a figurehead in the media, putting across arguments that make some kind of sense for a change, but there’s always a great danger attached when it leads to accepting the media’s point of view, where the Big Man is all that counts and the rest of us fade out of sight.
As we move into 2016, the appeal of the ballot box shows no signs of fading. One particularly important test will be the London Mayoral elections, where the Take Back the City platform has been formed by people wanting to offer an electoral voice to the capital’s social movements – an idea that may have seemed pretty straightforward halfway through last year, but will prove a lot trickier now that a huge section of the nation’s lefties have been re-convinced that Labour can offer an adequate home for progressive hopes (even if the actual candidate is not particularly left). Mix this up with the fact that there are still those activists involved with the Greens and even the husk of TUSC, if that’s still going by then, and you can see how the simple, reasonable-sounding idea of “hey, kids, let’s put on a Mayoral candidate!” can become a recipe for vicious infighting. If anyone who’s involved in practical grassroots organising in London is reading this, then I’d like to plead with you to adopt this new year’s resolution: where you’re involved in on-the-ground organising with people from different ideological backgrounds, please, please don’t let any genuine organising efforts be disrupted by stupid shit like who to back for some daft mayoral election.
2015 in other stuff
Of course, of the many possible responses to the Syrian conflict, there’s one that’s proved very popular among people in the most affected areas, a perfectly sensible response that’s as old as war itself: the impulse to get as far as possible away from the frontline. And so it is that the war in Syria ended up being a major contributor to another of 2015’s major stories – the migrant crisis, the point at which the border regime of Fortress Europe started to look increasingly unstable. This is perhaps the area where mass direct action from below was most visible last year: from the huge numbers of people taking practical action to improve their lives by fleeing, and launching hunger strikes and blockades to try and crack the borders they came up against, to the huge outpouring of compassion and solidarity directed at making refugees welcome in the countries they arrive in. Between the fierce determination of those making their way across the borders and the empathy shown by those welcoming them, it’s perhaps here that a genuinely positive mass politics became most visible.
Elsewhere, the tendencies that can point to a better world were also seen in the continuing uprisings against racist police murders and white supremacy in the US, most intensely in places like Baltimore, in the explosions of the South African student movement, as well as other intense struggles in SA, and in the continuing resistance to water meters and the water tax in Ireland, which is causing the state to resort to increasingly intense repression.
The various groups fighting against the London housing crisis also deserve recognition for their continuing efforts last year, from the dramatic high points of the Aylesbury Estate and Sweets Way occupations to the more mundane but equally vital day-to-day work of supporting people at the housing offices. Equally, it’s worth taking a moment to salute those who’ve been fighting long campaigns for justice after having been subjected to dirty tricks by the state and capital – those tricked into relationships or otherwise affected by undercover cops, the Blacklist Support Group, and the survivors of Orgreave and Shrewsbury.
But just as the year saw some promising tendencies in the direction of solidarity and internationalism, it also saw the continuation of various forms of grim nationalism. In the UK, it feels like the days of the EDL being able to pull together big populist street mobilisations around a relatively “soft” racist agenda are long gone, as UKIP has provided a handy electoral home for people who aren’t keen on immigrants but also can’t be arsed with standing around in the cold getting kettled, while the increasingly openly racist remnants of the far-right street movement are currently quite splintered. At the moment, the main threat posed by the far-right is more the danger of producing more Zack Davies/Breivik/Dylann Roof-types than the possibility that they’ll get anywhere by following a traditional march and grow strategy. Having said that, Dover did show the dangers of what can happen if racist mobilisations can pull enough of a crowd together, and while Liverpool was an exceptionally satisfying slapdown for one particular group of wannabe fuhrers, it’s always worth remembering how many mobilisations by the micro-groups go unopposed or almost unopposed, particularly in Rotherham, where a long series of far-right marches culminated in a racist murder. Of course, not many places have the unique combination of circumstances that have made Rotherham such a target for the far-right, but thinking about places like Rotherham, Preston or Stockton is an important counterweight to the London, or London/Brighton/Manchester, -centricity of much of the left.
Elsewhere, as depressing as the UK political landscape generally is, it is worth remembering how the government has stumbled and given up on a number of points recently: most high-profile has been the retreat on tax credits, but there’s also been the collapse of Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements, as well as the scrapping of court charges. It’s worth thinking about the weaknesses that led to these retreats, and how to work on them and sharpen them.
On the workplace front, the situation was largely the same as in previous years: small groups did great work in specific areas, whether fighting wage theft in places like the Brighton hospitality sector, organising cleaners though groupings like the United Voices of the World union, or simultaneously fighting back and analysing the conditions we face, as the Angry Workers of the World collective have been doing. Meanwhile, the response of the mainstream unions to closures in sectors that were once bastions of workers’ power, from the steel industry to Kellingley colliery, has been predictably feeble. The most notable exception has been the surprising militancy shown by junior doctors organising through the once-docile British Medical Association, in a dispute that reached a pause at the end of last year, but seems set to reignite with a vengeance in the new.
2016: preparing for disaster
Despite all the notes of hope, 2015 was, overall, a pretty miserable year in many ways. It’s probably safe to say that 2016 will be too. Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do with the memory of the last twelve months is to look for moments that seem like they point to potential futures and then think about how to prepare for them. The Greek experience is particularly valuable, in that the week or so leading up to the referendum gave a particularly clear glimpse of how international capital will treat any country that tries to experiment with alternatives to neoliberalism, and it’s something that enthusiastic members of Team Corbyn or even Team Saunders would do well to bear in mind. Equally relevant is the vision of the future offered by Cumbria, West Yorkshire and Lancashire over the last few weeks.
A lot of the time, the state and capital are capable of meeting a lot of people’s needs. But they do break down: whether that’s due to state collapse as seen in places like Syria, capital strike as seen in Greece, refusal to take responsibility for stateless people like those in Calais, Dunkirk or Lesbos, or just through an inability to cope with the effects of climate change like the recent floods, we’re going to see more and more situations where the old ways don’t work any more. In those situations, our best bet is what’s been termed “disaster communism”: ways of taking care of each other when the state and the market can’t or won’t cope. The systems that have developed to feed and clothe people in “the jungle” at Calais, the self-organised flood clean-up efforts in the UK and the local councils that have developed to run daily life not only in Rojava but in other parts of Syria as well all point in the right direction, but it’s perhaps the “solidarity economy” developing in Greece, from vegetable gardens and collective kitchens to health care clinics, that offers the most relevant example to follow if we want to emerge from the next few years intact, and hopefully closer to the kind of world we want to live in.
There are dark days ahead. Let’s start making plans for how to survive them.
* to be fair to them, it is worth acknowledging that the person who came out with this line has now apologised for it.
** as it happens, this project seems entirely in line with the suggestions set out in the conclusion of the “purist, abstentionist” Anarchist Federation analysis, which perhaps shows the messiness of the situation and the difficulty of applying clear-cut labels.
*** the fact that one particular communisation theorist actually ended up as a member of the Syriza government is just a particularly ironic icing on the cake here.
**** see, for example, from Matt Carr’s apology mentioned above: “I inadvertently provided ammunition to those who are seeking to use the Stop the War movement to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the movement itself.”