Mind your own business! – Thoughts on selfishness, selflessness, and winning

To begin with, the usual round-up of recent events: Locked-out workers in Hull are continuing to use direct action to disrupt the economy and put pressure on their employer, causing huge traffic jams and threatening to attend BP’s annual general meeting in London. I think we can learn a lot from them. Another exciting example of direct action took place in Deptford, as the Social Centre Plus successfully resisted eviction. Meanwhile Italy Calling reports on a wave of repression and raids against anarchists and insurrectionists in Italy – without knowing anything about the defendants, I can’t say whether I support their politics, but we should always oppose state repression. Continuing on that theme, Strathclyde Police appear to have launched a clamp-down on anti-cuts activists, and the HSBC 3 Defence Campaign are asking for cash for an appeal against the convictions handed down to two activists in Newcastle. In the unlikely event that anyone reading this has a lot of money knocking around that they don’t know what to do with, I’d also advise you to consider giving a bit to support Liverpool Antifascists. Finally, this isn’t really news as such, but I’d like to encourage everyone to send a message of support to Ed Woollard, the single individual who’s been most victimised for his role in this phase of the class struggle. What he did was stupid and thoughtless, what the state’s doing to him – and might yet do to any of us – is intentionally vicious.

With that out of the way, I’d like to get on to the main subject of this blog, which is to try and explore the tensions around selfishness and selflessness in politics in a bit more depth, building on the ideas I talked about in my last post, and a post on selfishness and solidarity over at Infantile Disorder. In particular, I want to think about two classic anarchist/communist slogans, “the liberation of the oppressed must be the act of the oppressed themselves” and “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and try and explore how they relate to each other. I usually try and avoid claiming to have all the answers, but this is especially true here – there’s some suggestions I want to make, but this is mostly me raising questions rather than claiming to answer them.

Fighting for our lives - a very self-interested slogan
First off, I’d like to look at some of the reasons why, generally speaking, I think that “self-interested” campaigns are likely to be better than purely altruistic ones, assuming that you can ever draw a neat distinction between the two. First of all, there’s the issue of representation, which is a pretty massive one. The entire spectrum of mainstream political opinion, right through to the very far left, presents “political representation” and democracy as being the same thing, whereas anarchists see them as being opposites. As soon as a representative gains the power to make decisions, that power is taken away from all the other people directly affected by that decision. We can easily see the problems with politicians claiming to decide what’s best for everybody else, or union leaders making decisions on behalf of their members, but at a more grassroots level, the same dangerous logic can affect solidarity campaigns where one set of people talk about what another set of people need. That sounds very vague, but last year the SWP gave a very clear example of what I’m talking about by sending a group, mostly made up of students, to disrupt the talks between British Airways bosses and Unite. Campaigns about issues that affect us directly don’t suffer from this danger, as they allow people to talk for themselves rather than being represented by anyone else, whether that’s politicians, union leaders, or well-meaning activists.
Beyond my unease around the issue of representation, there’s also the very important issue of winning. I think that self-interested campaigns are much more likely to be successful than selfless ones for two main reasons: motivation and power. For a start, it’s possible to get burned out and want to give up when it comes to fighting for what’s right, but you’re much less likely to give up when you’re fighting for something that you believe will benefit you personally in addition to being right. It’s possible that I tend to use the movement against the Iraq War as a bit of a boogeyman, but I do believe the course of that movement shows how a great number of people, no matter how determined they are at first, and how heroic their cause is, can quickly become tired and unwilling to fight on when it looks like they’ve lost. In contrast, struggles like the great miners’ strike, or the Liverpool dockworkers in the 90s, show how people will fight with endless determination when they don’t think they have any other options. Of course, not everyone fights in their own interest all the time (if they did, capitalism would’ve collapsed long ago), and it’s possible to find examples of things like the animal liberation movement where people put massive amounts of energy into purely altruistic struggles, but in general I think it’s fair to say that the promise of a reward, or the fear of disastrous consequences, will generally be more effective than just good intentions alone in motivating people to fight on.
There’s also the issue of how we can bring about change. This is a generalisation, and there’ll be plenty of cases in which it isn’t true, but I’d say that problems that affect us directly are more likely to be problems we can do something about than those which affect other people. To take a pair of extreme cases, a lot of people on the left spend a lot of time talking about the horrific acts carried out by the Israeli state in Palestine. What the Israeli state does is undeniably monstrous, and when comparing problems like these to the problems in an average British workplace – say, people only being allowed a fixed amount of time to take cigarette, tea, and toilet breaks, rather than being able to have a break whenever they feel like it – to say we should concentrate on the latter sounds horribly uncaring, insensitive, and perhaps even racist. But it’s also the case that the Israeli state doesn’t really need anything from us and so doesn’t care what we do or say, whereas our immediate bosses need a lot from us and so are very sensitive to what we do. This means that even a fairly simple bit of organising can win a small victory in the workplace (see the “Events admin” bit of this piece for one example of a successful struggle over break times), whereas almost nothing we can do will have any impact on the Israeli state. Even the smashing of EDO, which is as far as I’m aware the most direct protest against Israeli state murders in Britain in recent years, still only actually affected a company that deals with the Israeli army, not the Israeli army itself. It’s obviously the case that stopping a house demolition or a state murder in Gaza would be much better and more important than winning an extra five or ten minutes per day for workers to spend slacking instead of working in the UK, but I’d argue that that isn’t really the choice that faces us, and it is a better thing to successfully win more break time than to have no impact at all, which is the likely result of any attempt to make the Israeli government listen to us.

So, having set out my case in favour of selfish campaigns, I’m now going to look at the areas where it falls apart a bit. As I’ve said, I think “the liberation of the oppressed must be the act of the oppressed themselves” and “an injury to one is an injury to all” are both vital starting points for anarchist/communist politics, but I think they point in different directions. One of the most obvious examples is that of women’s liberation – we can all agree that the oppression of women is a problem, but starting from “the oppressed themselves” we can conclude that the answer is for women to organise against it, and any involvement by men will lead to the risks of (mis)representation that I talked about earlier, whereas starting from “an injury to all” we can conclude that it’s a problem which affects everyone, and so everyone should be involved in fighting it. But gender oppression certainly isn’t the only area where these tensions exist – talking about ethnic and racial oppression, or lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer politics, the same issues come up quickly. It’d also be a mistake to just see these issues as just being related to what gets talked about as “identity politics” as opposed to “class struggle”. To take a case that’s clearly and obviously about class, when unemployed people start to fight back they’ll obviously have more of an impact if they can connect their struggle with industrial action by jobcentre staff. On the other hand, joint groups of claimants and militant jobcentre workers might lead to the very troubling prospect of angry unemployed folk, sick of being pushed around by bossy jobcentre staff, turning up to meetings to discuss their problems and then… being told what to do by bossy jobcentre staff again. Similar issues exist with groups like teachers and school students – again, their interests both overlap and clash.
There’s not a simple answer to any of these questions, or if there is I don’t know it. I would say it’s worth bearing in mind that general, inclusive organisations and specific separate ones aren’t mutually exclusive, so I’d encourage people to join both groups like anarchist federations and anarcho-syndicalist unions, which tend to take the “injury to all” position, and also to organise with other people in the same position as them, using the “…the oppressed themselves” approach. Assuming they can find the time, of course – yet another reason why you should be fighting for more tea breaks, so you can have some chance to rest among all this constant organising!
But none of this can settle whether any given group, dealing with a specific situation, should have an inclusive or exclusive approach to membership, and how inclusive or exclusive that approach should be. That depends on all sorts of factors that’ll be specific to each situation, not to mention things like “common sense”, so you’ll never find a one-size-fits all answer laid down on a blog somewhere. Sorry if that’s not much of a conclusion, but it’s better than just coming up with some fixed position and presenting it as The Great Answer to everything.

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 Bit more thinky, Gender, Internationalism, Racism, Repression, Unemployment/claimants and welfare and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mind your own business! – Thoughts on selfishness, selflessness, and winning

  1. Adam says:

    Thanks for linking to me, and I’m glad that my article provided some inspiration for yours!

    If I’m reading you right, I think you’re saying that the two sayings overlap, which I would agree with. In regard to feminism, I would say that ultimately the liberation of women must come from women themselves”. However, I would also relate feminism to the class struggle, which allows me to say that an injury to women is an injury to working class men too. So I try to put the feminist perspective whenever someone says or does something sexist, but there’s not a lot more I can do.

    I think another appropriate leftist saying to throw into the mix is ‘Act locally, think globally’. If I’m correct, this came out of the anti-globalisation movement in the late 90s, but it’s pretty much used by ‘lifestyle anarchists’ and left liberals these days, as a way of supposedly helping the global ‘other’ through your own small acts of self-sacrifice, such as boycotting this and that. But I think it’s too good a slogan to get wasted on that kind of thing, and should be rescued for the global class war!

    • Yeah, speaking of good slogans that get used in dodgy contexts I was thinking of mentioning “Fighting for our lives” – for all the stuff CrimethInc get wrong, they undeniably have a way with words, and I think with that title they pretty much hit the nail on the head.

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