As an anarchist, I want to see mass, decentralised, open, non-hierarchical movements taking effective action to disrupt the structures that control and dominate us. Recently, we’ve seen quite a few decentralised, non-hierarchical movements, and the public sector strikes at the end of this month certainly look set to cause quite a bit of disruption, but, with the exception of Oakland, and possibly also Dallas, these two elements seem very difficult to unite. So I’d like to muse a bit on how we can make the upcoming public sector strikes more like the kind of grassroots action we want to see, and a bit less like a futile exercise in losing a day’s pay.
The public sector strikes on the 30th of November are now only a few weeks away, and compared to this time in June, it seems like the anarchist movement is making much less of a fuss about them, although there are some exceptions, such as Phil Dickens’ regular reports from inside the PCS. This might be because June was a bit politically dead otherwise, whereas these strikes are competing with the Occupy protests and the next student demo for our attention, but whatever the reason, they don’t seem to have generated that much discussion – for instance, at time of writing, the N30strike.org site is still just under construction.
How should we respond to these strikes? On one level, the answers are relatively simple: we should seek to spread them as widely as possible, to radicalise them and weaken the union bureaucrats’ control of the situation, and so on and so forth. The problem is, these are basically just slogans, not a guide to how we can practically affect the situation right now. As with many causes and movements, from a distance this just looks like something we should be supporting, but when we get close up, it becomes apparent that the action itself is very difficult to separate from the undemocratic union bureaucracies that control it. How can we build support for the strike without just acting as dedicated pawns for the union leaders?
The difficulty of the situation is increased by the fact that we’re really not playing on home turf here: those of us who weren’t even born when Thatcher took power can’t even remember what a mass militant grassroots movement look like, and we’re up against professional manipulators who literally manage workers’ struggles every day as part of their job, and many of them have been doing this for decades now. One answer is that we should be spreading participation as widely as possible: union bureaucrats have a relatively easy time keeping control of the situation if they’re just dealing with a small minority of libertarian activists in a tiny meeting of politicos, controlling a large meeting with a lot of participation from the rank-and-file is harder. But again, this doesn’t tell us how we get to that point. To some extent, there’s a vicious circle going on here: as long as the unions carry on being uninspiring and ineffective, not many people are going to want to go to union meetings, and as long as people avoid going to union meetings, the unions are going to carry on being uninspiring and ineffective. In places where anarchists and our fellow travellers have enough influence that we can start our own projects and actually draw people in, it definitely makes sense to be setting up our own structures for rank-and-file activists to co-ordinate with each other, but that’s definitely not the case everywhere, and even where we can do that I think it’s still worth trying to intervene in whatever official union bodies are in charge of the action.
But all this still doesn’t answer the question of what we actually want to achieve. This is a tricky one, but at the moment, I think our major goal should just be to create spaces where people can talk to each other. I know how weak and uninspiring that may sound: I’m not really that fussed about enabling conversations, I want to get on with driving politicians and union bureaucrats out of the movement, with making scabs and bailiffs taste a bit of the misery they inflict on others. I want an insurrection so massive and total it’ll make every revolt in history look like a storm in a teacup, I want to deal the death blow to this undead economy and every other structure that rules and ruins our lives, I want freedom and I want everyone to have nice things. But none of that’s really on the table right now, so we need to start from what is possible. And at the moment, I think making conversations possible is about the right level of ambition. It’s really noticeable how union bureaucrats and many leftist party hacks seem set on making sure that all strike-related events are completely top-down and have no space for discussion, and I’ve heard one prominent local leftist declare that he doesn’t want any “messy arguments” on November 30th – that is to say, any critical conversations where people might be able to voice their discontent with the limitations of one-day strikes, and start to plan out something better. If we want to move beyond the same old crap, that has to start with people talking to each other and collectively working out an alternative, so I think the key argument to be having at the moment is against endless rallies with top union bureaucrats speaking*, and in favour of as much open discussion and debate as possible. Of course, any open space is sure to be exploited by endless leftist hacks looking for a chance to spout their party line, but it’s still better than nothing. Creating a space for ordinary workers to share ideas with each other could end up leading anywhere; just marching out of work for a day, listening to the same old speeches, and then going back to work the next day cannot lead anywhere but to another entry in the long list of Great British Working Class Defeats.
Closing round-up: the students’, sparks’ and cabbies’ protests this Wednesday sound promising, especially as this interview from Shift magazine suggests at least some of the rank-and-file electricians plan on leaving the official Unite demo to meet up with the students. The police certainly seem to be getting ready to unleash serious repression on the day. Speaking of the cops, the latest news about the Christopher Alder case is truly sickening.
Looking abroad, Autonomous Struggle of the Glittertariat, Anarchist News and Americans Against the Political System all have more reports from last week’s events in Oakland. Excitingly, Occupy Dallas have now also put out a general strike call – I know I linked to it above, but stuff like this is important enough to be worth repeating. Interestingly, this one is also set for November 30th. Mass strike action taking place simultaneously in different continents really would be amazing.Finally, the North-East Anarchists’ website has a lot of interesting stuff on it, including a report on recent actions by the sparks, a call to unite the various current struggles, more information about how lefty shenanigans helped lead to the EDL attack on Occupy Newcastle, and an invitation to a Northern anarchist gathering in November – as someone who’s been around for long enough to remember quite a few other promising-sounding initiatives that led nowhere, from the 2009 conference to Network X, I have to say I’m slightly skeptical about this one, but we’re living in strange and unpredictable times, so I’m very open to being pleasantly surprised.
* this is another thing I’ll never understand about many lefties: I can understand wanting to get a “big name” to draw people in, but that only works if you get someone who’s actually famous. Sure, if you get Beyonce or Ant and Dec to speak at a meeting, then that will actually bring a big crowd in, but why should anyone give a flying fuck about the fact that you’ve got the regional secretary for Unite speaking?