Principles, priorities, popularity, pasties and power – thinking about an anarchist strategy

At around this time last year, I wrote a piece looking at some of the tensions between class unity and the need for specific groups to control their own autonomous struggles – not arguing for one over the other, but trying to work out how we can remain faithful to both, even when they seem to come into conflict. Today I want to look at a similar problem – the way in which the need for a realistic political strategy for victory, which is inevitably going to involve focusing our attention on some areas more than others, can conflict with the need to stand in solidarity with everyone who is oppressed or exploited. The inspiration to write this article came from reading “Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality”, but it’s not exactly a response to that; it’s more that Refusing to Wait drew my attention to one side of the question that I’m attempting to find a way through the middle of. As ever, there won’t be any neat, simple answers here, but hopefully some of what I’m going to say might be useful to someone.
Refusing to Wait is a good article, and one that’s worth reading, but I found myself noticing an important absence while reading it: there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a discussion of strategy, and its priorities seemed to be primarily about the moral urge to support struggles, rather than a strategic analysis of how struggles win or lose, and what we can do to help them win. We’re urged to give up ‘divisive prescriptions about what struggles are “primary” and which ones, by extension, are “secondary” or “peripheral”’, but it isn’t clear whether this also means giving up any attempt to decide what struggles are likely to succeed, and where we should concentrate our efforts. Thinking about it, this seems to be the mirror image of the common leftist attitude, as seen in the Commune’s recent piece on anti-cuts campaigns*, where we’re encouraged to focus all our attention on the “primary struggle”, which at the moment usually means members of the public sector unions, and the idea of solidarity with groups who don’t fit neatly into this struggle is viewed as being a bit of a tiresome distraction.
I think there’s two important principles here, and we can’t afford to lose sight of either of them, but they don’t always fit neatly together. On one hand, we’re materialists: it’s not enough for us to just declare that we’re against oppression and in favour of freedom so that at the end God will judge us as being righteous people, our activity is only worth anything if it actually changes something. That means having a strategy for how we can win, and that in turn will inevitably mean concentrating our efforts on some areas more than others, especially while we remain a small and marginalised movement. On the other hand, as intersectionality reminds us, we need to address the concerns of all those who are screwed over by the systems that oppress us, not just those who it’s most immediately convenient to talk about right now. If we abandon that principle, then we don’t deserve to be called anarchists at all, we’re just a pressure group fighting for a better deal for that minority of workers who’re white, male, straight, able-bodied, and preferably in a unionised job. These principles seem to point in different directions: focusing on strategy can lead us to look at those sections of the class with the most power, as suggested in Sheila Cohen’s article, while the intersectionality approach leads us to “move the margins to the center of our analyses” – in other words, to try and orient ourselves to the most oppressed.
As I’ve said, to abandon the most oppressed sections of the class would be a total betrayal of our anarchist principles, but I also think the idea of prioritising the most oppressed – and I’m not saying the authors of Refusing to Wait would advocate this, just that some of their language seems compatible with this tendency – can also lead to a break with our principles. Animal liberation is the most extreme expression of the tendency to ask “who suffers most?” over “how does this fit into our strategy?”, but the arguments about animal liberation are much too big to go into here; less controversial examples would be migrant/asylum-seeker solidarity and solidarity campaigns with various oppressed populations in the Third World, most prominently Palestinians. No-one, or at least no anarchist, could justify the suffering inflicted on migrants by the British state or the brutality dealt out by the Israeli state, but the problem is that, without a strategy for building power together with asylum seekers or Palestinians, and making sure that they have control over any campaigns that affect them, we can be left reproducing the same old hierarchies, with relatively privileged activists acting like charities or representatives, rather than revolutionary organisers.
Of course, solidarity and strategy don’t always have to clash: division is one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of the bosses, and so focusing on marginalised sections of the class in order to bring them into an alliance is often a vital part of a successful strategy. Ignoring people’s problems is never a good way to win them over to your side. And even if we did decide to give up on difficult issues and just focus on easy victories, it’s not always possible to predict what fights are most likely to end in success: by almost any measure, the vast numbers of well-organised public sector workers who struck on November 30th should be more likely to win than small groups of precarious cleaners, many of whom are migrants, but three months on from the big strike, the public sector pensions dispute seems to have totally fallen apart, while the London IWW Cleaners’ branch continue to chalk up win after win.  But just pointing out that sometimes things aren’t complicated does nothing to solve the question of what we do when they are. I don’t really have a way around this problem, but I don’t think it can be solved by either giving up on strategy or abandoning solidarity when it gets inconvenient.
By the way, as with the issue of unity and autonomy, I don’t think the question of whether to focus on relatively powerful or powerless groups maps neatly onto the distinction between “class” and “oppression” issues, if it’s even possible to distinguish between the two. To take two examples of class struggle at the moment, the increase in VAT on hot snacks is an issue that affects pretty much everyone who eats pastry products, which must be a pretty massive section of the population, while the fight against workfare, or ATOS Origin, is much more of a minority concern: while I still believe that workfare ultimately affects us all, it only really has an immediate impact on those claimants who’re chosen for the scheme, and likewise ATOS doesn’t pose much of a threat to people who aren’t trying to claim disability benefits. But just because these issues don’t affect as many people, I don’t think we can drop them in favour of whatever happens to be most popular at any given moment. Having said that, popularity does need to be a concern for anyone seriously trying to build a movement, and I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t campaign around popular issues like the attack on our access to cheap food.
How can we reconcile the need to promote the most popular aspects of our politics in order to spread our ideas, while not backing down from our responsibility to say unpopular things and fight for unpopular causes? This question is especially difficult when we bear in mind that most anarchist groups are tiny with limited resources, and that anarchists aren’t activist superheroes but ordinary working-class men and women trying to fit political activity into the time we have left over from exhausting work or grappling with the benefits system, not to mention our personal relationships, mental health issues, and anything else that might get in the way, so there’s no way we can fight on every front simultaneously. I don’t have any fixed answers, but one useful starting point could be to look at where we already are and work from there – to prioritise the issues that affect us, personally, most directly. Looked at from a strategic perspective, this makes sense because our own problems are often the ones we have the most power to affect, since they’re likely to involve institutions that we’re familiar with and interact with regularly; and looked at from the perspective of intersectionality, it should mean that we’re never in the position of telling each other that our problems can wait because there’s something more important to work on right now. So, if a group happens to be made up mostly of students, then rather than bemoaning their lack of workplace presence, it might make more sense for them to just concentrate on being the best student group they can possibly be; similarly, if a group happens to be mostly made up of people on benefits, then maybe they should prioritise building common struggles with other claimants in their area instead of presenting themselves as a broad organisation that’s somehow representative of the working class as a whole. In the long run, it’s necessary to organise all sections of the class, but intersectionality draws our attention to just how complex that is, and it may well be better to do a good job of organising one sub-section than to do a half-assed job of trying to organise some vague, abstract proletariat.
But I can’t propose this idea without immediately seeing the drawbacks to it: after all, exactly the same logic could be used to justify a male-dominated group to ignore its gender composition. I don’t quite know how to get around that problem, except to say that we should be open and honest about the make-up of our groups: I think that sometimes being heavily biased towards a single section of the class is fine and even something we should encourage, as with the example of an unemployed group above, and sometimes it’s problematic and something that we need to actively work against, as with groups that are made up overwhelmingly of men. Either way, serious, honest discussion and reflection is necessary to decide how we feel about it.
As you can probably guess by now, there’s no neat conclusion to go here. Any strategy that involves abandoning our principles has no chance of achieving the stuff we really want to achieve, but just staying faithful to our principles alone won’t get us anywhere unless we have a workable strategy. Against both the populist urge to just talk about the easy stuff, like not trusting politicians and being pissed off about the pasty tax, and shy away from the hard conversations about things like internationalism and trans politics, and the moralistic urge to hold ritualised protests against every bad thing we can think of, we need to make sure that everything we’re doing makes some kind of meaningful contribution to our long-term aims of challenging existing power structures in a way that threatens those at the top and builds the power of those at the bottom.

* yes, I know this is the second time I’ve written about that particular article. I really don’t want to pick on the Commune here, since I know they’re nowhere near as bad as a lot of other groups on the left, but I think it’s worth holding them to high standards precisely because I have some respect for them. And, looking at that article again, it really does come across as saying that we’re worth bothering with when we’re at work, but we become irrelevant as soon as our contracts end or we get laid off, which is an attitude that can definitely fuck off.

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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2 Responses to Principles, priorities, popularity, pasties and power – thinking about an anarchist strategy

  1. Adam Ford says:

    I don’t interpret Sheila Cohen’s article in The Commune like that at all. To me she’s saying that ultimately the workers employed in any workplace (a ‘public service’ to the rest of us) affected by the cuts need to be organised, and play a central role in the campaign to save their jobs. I agree she didn’t make that sufficiently clear, but in the context of her (excellent) other work, I believe that’s what she meant. Might be wrong though.

    • You might be right, but to me at least I think the article itself came quite close to dismissing the idea that us “service users” can do anything useful. I should also be clear that I wasn’t picking on that article because I don’t think it’s the worst thing ever or anything, just that it was the most recent thing that I’d read that illustrates a certain tendency. I think in the back of my head I was also thinking of the attitude that some left groups came out with after the riots last year where they basically wrote the rioters off as lumpens with nothing to contribute. For what it’s worth, I think one of the really interesting things about the best direct actions to have come out of the American occupy movement (the Oakland general strike, the west coast port shutdown, and now the NY fare strike) is the way that the lines between action by workers in a specific workplace and action by “outside agitators” have become incredibly blurred, but that’s a whole different story, and something that probably needs a whole article of its own.

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