As is traditional at this time of year, I thought I’d take a brief look at some of the year’s major developments. Compared to the year before, the past 12 months have been a bit bleak: from the West Coast Port Shutdown to the public sector strikes to the revolts across the Arab world to the August riots in the UK, 2011 was full of moments that looked like they might have exciting subversive potential, and then either died out entirely or were successfully co-opted by some faction of the ruling class.
It’s not been all bad news: on the fringes of the workers’ movement, a few rank-and-file groups have managed to make real gains – most notably the defeat of BESNA by the Sparks network of electricians, but also the numerous victories won by cleaners. The campaign against workfare has produced some impressive results, as have direct action campaigns organised by tenants against landlords and letting agents. The Civil Service Rank & File Network and the Pret A Manger Staff Union are two exciting new developments that’ll definitely be worth keeping an eye on in the new year, along with other ongoing campaigns like the workfare campaign and the fight against blacklisting at Crossrail.
But, for all the victories won by rank-and-file direct action, this approach is still very marginal. The mainstream of the workers’ movement is still tied to the TUC and the Labour Party, and the performance of the official opposition to austerity has frankly been pisspoor this year. At least 2011 saw some convincing-looking posturing in the form of the big strikes at the end of June and November; in contrast, pretty much everything organised by the union tops, from the botched PCS non-strike in March to the utterly ineffective and now largely forgotten strike in May to the TUC’s unconvincing march for “a future that works” to the NUS’s damp trudge through the outskirts of London, has been so stale and obviously doomed that even committed leftist activists have had difficulty working up much enthusiasm. In 2011, anarchists and radicals faced the problem of trying to convince people that the union bureaucracy would never deliver victory; now, the unions have delivered very convincing proof of that fact, but we face the even greater problem of trying to convince people that it’s still worth fighting even after our official representatives have largely given up.
In international terms, the student movement in Quebec has been hugely inspiring, and generated almost no coverage in the mainstream media; it’s important to try and learn from a movement that’s managed to succeed in confronting austerity when so many similar efforts have failed. The lesson of Quebec is not that “protest works”, but that grassroots-controlled campaigns of direct action and economic disruption can achieve the kind of victories that liberal protests or top-down bureaucratic union campaigns can’t.
In reviewing the year, it’s also impossible to avoid mentioning how much themes of misogyny and patriarchy have cropped up again and again. From the resurgence of anti-abortion activism to the usual vile comments from Republicans to the seemingly endless fallout from the Assange case, with dickhead leftists like George Galloway defending Assange’s behaviour, then other dickhead leftists defending Galloway’s comments what seemed like a self-replicating loop of people being horrifically wrong, to the latest sickening news from India, it’s been a grim year for women. Trying to stay relatively positive, it’s also seen the formation of the new feminist group FemCells, but so far they don’t seem to have spread beyond North and South London.
The emergence of FemCells also links to another notable feature of the year: the number of new radical groups that have emerged. Around the broadly-defined libertarian scene, we’ve seen the appearance of Plan C, the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, and Collective Action, all groups that share some kind of commitment to the idea of rethinking existing traditions and approaches. Interestingly, the appearance of Collective Action took place just a few months before the disbanding of Liberty & Solidarity, the last UK group to emerge in the platformist/Anarkismo tradition. There’s also been the emergence of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, a split from the IWW with politics closer to the mainstream of the labour movement, and also, it has to be said, a really hideous website. What this means for the London cleaners’ branch isn’t quite clear, since John Lewis cleaners still seem to be in the IWW and continuing to make gains.
Over on the Trot side of things, events seem to be equally turbulent, as there seems to be yet another split brewing in the SWP. The positive, constructive side of me hopes that at least some of the people involved will learn a valuable lesson about hierarchies, vanguards, central committees and “democratic centralism”, and move on to doing something more useful with their time; the less helpful, more cynical side of me sort of hopes that, like Counterfire, they just set up a new group with politics identical to the SWP’s, so we can enjoy the spectacle of three competing mini-SWPs complete with three rival “united fronts”. (2013 EDIT: The previous sentence was written last year, before I was fully aware of the causes of the crisis in the SWP. While the squabbling of Trot groups can often be entertaining, I want to make it clear that I don’t think there’s anything at all funny about the very serious incidents that have led to the SWP’s latest troubles, or the appallingly botched way they’ve been handled.)
Having said all that, it’s worth noting that, while radicals aren’t in a great position at the moment, our rulers aren’t having such a smooth time either. I haven’t had much to say about Leveson or “plebgate”, because I don’t really care who wins out of media barons or politicians wanting greater control over the press, or cops versus tories, but there is something interesting about the way the tories have fallen out so sharply with both Murdoch and the police. I’m sure that all three factions would forget their differences if faced with the emergence of any real subversive force, but in the meantime, the relative disunity of our enemies might serve to make the government a bit weaker and more cautious.
When looking at our rulers’ weaknesses, welfare reform is one issue that might prove to be explosive in the new year. The full scale of the planned attacks on benefits is terrifying, but the government seems to be in quite a shaky position here: in just the last few months, they’ve backed down on their plan to scrap housing benefit for under-25s, admitted that they have to keep the names of workfare providers secret because they’re worried about public opposition causing Mandatory Work Activity to collapse, spent £17 million on developing a new system for spying on claimants that only works if claimants voluntarily agree to let themselves be spied on, and delayed their planned benefits cap by six months with little explanation. As Johnny Void says, “The ongoing shambles won’t protect many claimants from having lives thrown into chaos by the incompetence of the DWP. But there remains at least a chink of hope that this ineptness will ultimately mean the collapse of Iain Duncan Smith’s precious Welfare Reform Bill.”
So, at the close of 2012, what conclusions can we draw? The official opposition of the unions and the old bureaucratic left have shown very clearly that they have nothing to offer. Direct action methods have been able to deliver real results where they’ve been used, but these ideas and tactics are still mostly obscure, and far from becoming the automatic, “common sense” reaction to problems in our day-to-day lives. The more-or-less spontaneous, unpredictable revolts of 2011, from the August riots to the viral spread of Occupy camps, demonstrated that social peace never lasts forever, and that the misery of this society always erupts into open conflict sooner or later; on the other hand, the last 12 months have demonstrated that the other side of that unpredictability: you can’t guarantee they’ll turn up, or last for long when they do, and there’s every possibility they’ll turn out to be later rather than sooner.
Normally, this society is dominated by top-down spectacles, with little or no opportunity for those of us outside the structures of power to affect things in a meaningful way. Last year, it felt like that situation was starting to crack a little; this year, from Kony 2012 to the Jubilee to the Olympics to the US elections, carefully managed spectacle was back with a vengeance, and meaningful challenges to the social order were few and far between. But the tensions are still there, and one day they’ll boil over again; hopefully, the experiences we’ve gained will put revolutionaries in a better position to respond to them next time.
Wishing a happy new year to all readers, comrades and friends.