Looking for power in Topshop

So, to start with, it’s worth repeating a few of the basics for anyone going on the various protests this week: get a reasonable-sized group together beforehand (ideally, more than two, but not so many that you’re likely to get broken up), buddy up so that everyone’s looking out for someone else, think of a few places you’d like to visit (I won’t make any suggestions because doing that in public is stupid, but I’m sure you can think of some – the less predictable the better), stay mobile and above all, keep an eye on what the cops are doing and don’t get kettled.

Beyond that, I’d like to finally get around to writing that evaluation of the UK uncut protests against tax dodgers that I’ve been intending to do for ages. (Acknowledgements are due to “class worrier”, whose piece on indymedia made a lot of these points more concisely and almost an entire month earlier.) To start off with, a few general observations: one of the fundamental difficulties that any protest campaign has to deal with is that power is very well insulated from any kind of popular pressure. Once every few years, we get the chance to vote, but once that’s happened we lack any way to influence Parliament until the next election rolls round; and we have no control whatsoever over the bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that twist the arms of any government that steps out of line. Occasionally, as we’re seeing with the current outbreak of mass militancy, it becomes possible to break through the barriers surrounding powerful institutions, but normally we’re left with a choice between ineffectual demonstrations outside the centers of power, or using our ability to apply genuine pressure in places where it can’t have any real impact. The summit protests that raged against the IMF, WTO, G8 and G20, but were usually unable to actually stop these institutions from meeting and doing what they wanted, are a good example of the first option, the university occupations over Gaza that saw people taking direct action against targets that had no real connection to the Israeli state are an example of the second. (I’d like to make it clear that I’m not just dismissing either of these protests: the summit protests may not have stopped many summits, but it wasn’t through a lack of will to do so, and the Gaza protesters may not have influenced the Israeli government much, but it’s not like there were many Israeli military facilities lying around that they could have blockaded. People do the best they can under the circumstances, and a lot of the time the circumstances just don’t permit effective action.) Normally, strikes and other forms of workplace-based direct action are the best hope that ordinary people have of wielding disruptive power, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones.

With these thoughts in mind, I’d like to turn to looking at the UK Uncut protests more directly. They aim to discredit the idea that the cuts are necessary by bringing attention to the amount of tax that corporations avoid paying. Here’s my attempt to work out their pros and cons.
1) It’s an idea that seems to have really taken off. Their last day of action saw an impressive number of different protests taking place, and shop and bank occupations have been successful in getting quite positive write-ups from the mainstream media, even in unlikely places like the Scottish Sun. Anything that challenges the idea that “we’re all in this together” and that cuts are inevitable and in our best interests, is a positive development.
2) It’s not just for students. Protests like last Saturday’s day of action mean that workers affected by the cuts can go beyond just cheering while watching new reports of students kicking off, or visiting an occupation for a few hours and then leaving, they can actively get involved as full participants.
3) They can be empowering. Ultimately, I still agree with the Solidarity group that it’s all about “whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self-activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification”. Throughout our entire lives, we’re bombarded with the idea that we can only make ourselves heard by using the “correct” methods – voting, lobbying, etc – methods, which, of course, really rob us of our ability to affect anything. Anything that demonstrates the existence of alternatives is to be welcomed. (Well, not anything, I wouldn’t welcome racists taking direct action against a mosque, but you know what I mean.) It’s easy to forget if you’ve been involved in radical politics for a while, but the first time you do the opposite of what you’re told, take a bollocking from a copper or a security guard, and still stand your ground, is a really liberating experience, and so a lot of people will emerge from their first invasion of a shop or a bank a lot more confident than when they came in. (The opposite can be true, of course, which is why I’m critical of badly-thought-out militant actions: when you get yourself kettled and don’t achieve anything, the ultimate lesson you take away is that you can’t beat the state after all, which is why black blocs and the like can actually end up being a disempowering experience for those involved in them.)
1) To go back to what I was saying at the start of this post, and at the risk of sounding redundant and obvious: Topshop aren’t actually making any cuts. Neither are Vodafone. Even the evil banks aren’t actually driving the public sector cuts. No matter how much inconvenience you cause Sir Philip Green, you won’t make him stop the cuts, because he’s not doing them. So, this is ultimately a propaganda tactic, not an end in itself. No matter how exciting and confidence-building it is, no matter how much media coverage it gets, it’s still indirect action.
2) Much more seriously: Even if the government collected an extra £25 billion, or however much, in tax from corporations and the rich, it still wouldn’t be an extra £25 billion for us. It would be an extra £25 billion for the state, which could choose to use that money to invest in public services instead of making the cuts – or it could choose to push through exactly the same programme of cuts, and spend the money on beefing up the police force to beat the shit out of anyone who complains. We don’t exercise any democratic control over the state, and the only way to get it to do what we want is by fighting it. Anarchists and communists should always argue against any idea that confuses the capitalist state with the abstract interests of “society” as a whole, let alone the working class.
3) Finally, the argument behind these protests is limited because it’s ultimately still within the terrain of capitalist economics. The claim that big business and the rich are avoiding paying £25 billion in tax may sound impressive at first, but it’s simple enough for our opponents to counter-claim with the (not entirely untrue) argument that it would never be possible to collect that money because they could simply flee the country to somewhere with lower tax rates, and from then on it becomes an argument about the details of economic policy, which we’re likely to lose because a) there are a lot of economists who are Tories (or some other form of defender of the status quo), who have done their homework and know what they’re talking about, and b) arguments about the details of economic policy are really boring (even duller than my blog, and that’s saying something), and cause any normal person to stop paying attention immediately. At which point the government can go back to doing what it was doing, and we’ve lost by default. In the long run, the only arguments we can really rely on are those based on communist economics. Not “if this people paid x tax then we could afford y”, but the far simpler and more revolutionary position that “we need this, and we will fuck you up if you try to take it away from us”.

Conclusion: Clearly, these protests aren’t entirely good or entirely bad. I wouldn’t say that anarchists/communists shouldn’t get involved in them, but we should try and keep our demands clear, making sure that the message is “cuts aren’t inevitable, there’s an argument to be had here”, rather than “this particular change to tax laws will mean the state has enough money to sort everything out”. Within the campaign, we should be arguing for a clear class perspective and against reliance on statist solutions. And we should only be involved as long as it doesn’t take time and energy away from anything better: I can’t see any reason why school or uni students would bother getting involved in this, because they’re now engaged in a struggle that addresses their own needs much more directly (most recently, the Birmingham students who occupied their MP’s office deserve massive respect). For those in work or on benefits, the protests against tax-dodging companies may still be the best option immediately available, but we should still be trying to generate the mood needed to take action with our workmates or other claimants around our own immediate interests, and not around the state’s.

Final, totally irrelevant, blog-geek footnote: while I was bored and procrastinating today, I stumbled across this piece of pompous liberal student wankery, so I helpfully explained one of the many reasons why liberalism is so fucking stupid, and took the piss out of a mistake the author had made in the text while I was doing so, because I’m just a dick like that sometimes. At time of writing, they’d removed my comment, fixed the mistake, and closed comments. Liberal commitment to freedom of speech: don’t you just love it?


About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Activism, Anarchists, Bit more thinky, Occupations, Protests, Students, The left and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Looking for power in Topshop

  1. Pingback: Cautiously Pessimistic | The problem with arguing with capitalists « A Collection of Selves

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