(Tahrir) Square pegs in round holes?

There’s been a fair amount going on over the last week or so. On the workplace front, militant cleaners in London continue to fight for the living wage, and the rank-and-file electricians’ network certainly isn’t running out of energy: last Wednesday saw hundreds turning out for a disruptive early-morning demo in London, and a building site was successfully picketed  in Liverpool  (see here for a video from London). More events are coming up in London, Glasgow, and Manchester soon, so the only problem is that more cities aren’t joining in.
Away from the workplaces, the fight over benefits continues: last week saw protests in 17 different locations for a day of action against ATOS Origin, while the next few weeks will see action against a Welfare to Work conference and a Defend Welfare gathering.
On the legal front, we’ve seen two excellent victories lately with the acquittal of nine antifascists (although we shouldn’t neglect the six who are still inside), and two members of Newcastle’s “HSBC 3” managing to get their convictions overturned on appeal. Meanwhile, a mass show of defiance was successful in putting a stop to police repression of activists in Manchester in the run-up to the Tory conference. Omar Ibrahim, an anti-cuts activist from Glasgow, also had to face the courts recently, although I’m not sure how the trial went. Looking at a different aspect of the fight against repression, the Squash campaign against the criminalisation of squatting also looks like it’s worth supporting.
The biggest single event in the class-struggle calendar over the last few days was the mass protest against the Tory conference in Manchester, although I find it hard to get too excited about that: the turnout was certainly encouraging overall, but I can’t help worrying that the overall message of the day was too party political and anti-tory – and therefore, by implication, pro-, or at least not anti-Labour – rather than just generally opposing attacks on our standard of living no matter where they come from. While there was a visible anarchist presence on the day, with a giant circled-A banner being particularly noticeable, Occupy Manchester seems to have been considerably weaker than the black bloc and UK Uncut actions that accompanied March the 26th. This may reflect a general weakening of the radical wing of the anti-cuts movement over the last months, or it might be a product of badly-chosen tactics: no matter how unexpectedly nice the weather was, spending all day lounging about in a square in Manchester in October is never going to be as appealing as it might be in Egypt or Spain. At the risk of sounding nationalistic, we have our own traditions of resistance, and it’s worth thinking about how to tap into them in future. Considering that the tories had the sheer brass neck to meet in a city that had seen a violent uprising less than two months ago, the fact that the protests were so peaceful is a sign of our weakness, not something to boast about.

The most optimistic explanation for the weakness of the radical presence in Manchester – and I admit that this is the explanation I’d like to be true, not the explanation I believe to be true – would be that people are just moving away from the fixation on Big Days Out and towards a focus on long-term grassroots organising. People occupying spaces like Albert or Trafalgar Square aren’t that much of a threat to the government, but if examples like the proposed occupation of Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield and the occupation of Strathclyde University in Glasgow – the latter following on from the remarkably successful Glasgow Uni occupation – spread to become a standard tactic for defending facilities under threat everywhere, that really would pose a serious challenge to the government’s ability to enforce its policies.
Looking at the international picture, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US has obvious similarities to the Occupy Manchester initiative. It’s hard to say anything definite about such a complex protest, although there’s definitely the possibility that, as with the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s, the police repression these protests are facing could lead many participants to draw radical conclusions quite quickly. This article on the protests makes some interesting points about their limitations.
Meanwhile, other interesting struggles are continuing across North America: the impressively militant longshoremen of Longview, Washington fight on, thousands of Californian prisoners have resumed hunger strikes, and solidarity networks are still slowly rebuilding class power by winning small victories using direct action. Elsewhere, huge strikes rocked Egypt throughout much of September, strikes are also breaking out in Iran, Greece sees another general strike this week as it continues to slide towards total social collapse – or maybe even revolution – and here’s some pictures from the anarchist mobilisation last week in Spain.

Finally, a few quick plugs: Freedom and the Commune both have their October issues out now, and I’ve linked to the Zabalaza books site before but I’ll do it again because it’s just really fucking good and they keep on uploading interesting new stuff on everything from workplace organisation to technology and ecology to feminism all the time, massively recommended as a resource for anyone with access to a printer. Pro-tip: they do have an annoying habit of uploading stuff with odd numbers of pages which then come out fucked up, so if you find one of those then print the front cover separately and then print from page 2 onwards as an even number of pages and it should work fine. Everything else about them is good, though.

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."
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3 Responses to (Tahrir) Square pegs in round holes?

  1. Ross Wolfe says:

    One of the most glaring problems with the supporters of Occupy Wall Street and its copycat successors is that they suffer from a woefully inadequate understanding of the capitalist social formation — its dynamics, its (spatial) globality, its (temporal) modernity. They equate anti-capitalism with simple anti-Americanism, and ignore the international basis of the capitalist world economy. To some extent, they have even reified its spatial metonym in the NYSE on Wall Street. Capitalism is an inherently global phenomenon; it does not admit of localization to any single nation, city, or financial district.

    Moreover, many of the more moderate protestors hold on to the erroneous belief that capitalism can be “controlled” or “corrected” through Keynesian-administrative measures: steeper taxes on the rich, more bureaucratic regulation and oversight of business practices, broader government social programs (welfare, Social Security), and projects of rebuilding infrastructure to create jobs. Moderate “progressives” dream of a return to the Clinton boom years, or better yet, a Rooseveltian new “New Deal.” All this amounts to petty reformism, which only serves to perpetuate the global capitalist order rather than to overcome it. They fail to see the same thing that the libertarians in the Tea Party are blind to: laissez-faire economics is not essential to capitalism. State-interventionist capitalism is just as capitalist as free-market capitalism.

    Nevertheless, though Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy [insert location here] in general still contains many problematic aspects, it nevertheless presents an opportunity for the Left to engage with some of the nascent anti-capitalist sentiment taking shape there. So far it has been successful in enlisting the support of a number of leftish celebrities, prominent unions, and young activists, and has received a lot of media coverage. Hopefully, the demonstrations will lead to a general radicalization of the participants’ politics, and a commitment to the longer-term project of social emancipation.

    To this end, I have written up a rather pointed Marxist analysis of the OWS movement so far that you might find interesting:

    “Reflections on Occupy Wall Street: What It Represents, Its Prospects, and Its Deficiencies”


  2. To be honest, while I agree with your assessment of the limitations of OWS’ politics, I’m not sure they’d be improved that much by a co-ordinated intervention from much of the left – I’m much more familiar with the UK than the US left, but I’d be amazed if large sections of the US left didn’t also share the “blame the greedy bankers” rhetoric that identifies the problem as being about the finance sector, not capitalism as a whole. The Occupy movement certainly doesn’t have revolutionary communist politics, but its politics are as yet largely unformed; in contrast, the left has a very well-formed set of politics, and they’re almost all based around the unions, national liberation movements, and various other distractions that have little or nothing to do with the autonomous class struggle to abolish classes.
    To sum up, since you’re clearly into your Marxist thinkers, here’s two quotes from some of the best of them that sum up why I’m sort of uncomfortable with the “we have the correct programme, this movement does not have the correct programme, how do we make them adopt the programme?” approach (not that I’m accusing you of saying exactly that, but some of your comments do seem to point towards a model that sees a minority of enlightened leftists providing leadership to everyone else):
    “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” – Marx, the German Ideology
    “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.” – Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Questions of the Russian Social Democracy

    I’m not saying that OWS is anything like a revolutionary communist movement at the moment, but it certainly seems like the closest thing around in the US at the moment, with the possible exception of the dockers’ struggle in the North-West. So it’s important to intervene in the Occupy movement and criticise its politics, but not by opposing it to an ideal of communism or the infallibility of a central committee. Does that make sense?

    • Ross Wolfe says:

      To be sure, the most crystalline theoretical accounts of reality often fail to take into account its empirical messiness. Luxemburg, while she is a figure who I revere, was known for her extreme emphasis on the “spontaneity” of mass movements — something which is indeed necessary, but not in which someone should place blind faith.

      I appreciate your insight into this matter, however. The goal should not be, as a member of the Kasama Project put it, to tell them: “Fire your ideas; hire mine.” If anything, the Left has been in a state of fragmentation and disrepair for decades now. As you point out, most of the paleo-Marxist sects simply involve themselves in union politics and Third Worldist national liberation movements (which often have hideously authoritarian tendencies).

      As someone who is deeply influenced by a thinker like Adorno, I see the most important role of the Left in the present moment to be immanent critique. We must refrain from painting a positive picture of the society to come, and instead form it out of a negative account of the society that presently exists. “Marx and Engels were the enemies of Utopia for the sake of its realization.”

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