Another year gone by. It’s hard to know what to make of this one. 2011 felt like a year when things were starting to change, and new possibilities opened up; cycles of struggles never proceed neatly, and some of the struggles of 2011 were already over by the end of that year, but 2012 felt, at least to me, like much more of a year of reaction as the wave broke and rolled back. I don’t know how to characterise 2013: certainly, in countries ranging from Turkey to Brazil there’s been massive upheaval, but back in the UK it feels like not that much has really happened. Things continue to get worse, there’s still a lot of discontent but no real resistance, but it’s hard to know how to sum up the year as a whole without just giving a list of statistics about rising homelessness and food bank use.
Welfare, benefits and the bedroom tax
Welfare reform continues to be a hugely important front in the ongoing class war. It’s not all bad news: the DWP were claiming Universal Credit would be rolled out across the country starting from this October. The launch of Universal Credit hasn’t gone as smoothly as planned. In fact, it’s been a disaster, with the government seriously considering the option of tearing it all up and starting again, and this month brought the admission that they’d wasted £40 million on IT technology that’s had to be written off, and they won’t have completed it by 2017. Admittedly, Universal Credit’s problems so far have been more to do with the government’s incompetence than with effective resistance, but it does mark it out as a weak spot worth pushing further on. Considering the amount of IT problems Universal Credit and Universal Jobmatch have faced already, every new piece of sabotage like Universal Automation helps to make a shaky system more unworkable, and makes it more likely that Universal Credit will end up as this government’s equivalent of the National Identity Register: a hugely ambitious, expensive scheme that keeps getting pushed back further and further into the future until the next government ends up scrapping it.
The other big welfare issue this year has been the bedroom tax, and at the end of a year I find it hard to assess how well things are going. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any big, visible, national organisation to co-ordinate the various local groups fighting the bedroom tax, but I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that: it must be frustrating for the various leftists seeking to offer leadership, but I can’t really tell how far the lack of national organisation is a weakness and how far it’s just due to local groups prioritising local organising. The kind of models that the left traditionally rely on, like A-to-B marches in central London, aren’t very effective, but they are very visible, and so they make it easy to get a superficial impression of the strength or weakness of a campaign; in contrast, many of the most useful tactics in resisting the bedroom tax, like helping individual tenants with their appeals, are far less obviously visible, so from a distance it can be hard to tell the difference between an area where bedroom tax campaigners don’t seem very visible because they’re concentrating on serious casework instead of just chasing publicity, and an area where bedroom tax campaigners aren’t very visible because there aren’t any.
The hard work that’s been put into appeals so far has won some important victories, and rather than waste your time with my own speculations I’ll point you to this look at 2014 from a much better-informed commentator. As with Universal Credit, there may not be a single dramatic moment when the government backs down, but a series of determined challenges to the implementation of the bedroom tax on a local level might yet push an unstable policy to breaking point. The arrears are mounting up, and evictions and eviction resistance are one area where direct action could prove vital in the year to come.
Gender and the left (trigger warning for discussions related to sexual violence)
When I was doing my round-up this time last year, I was struck by how much things like patriarchy on the left had come up time and time again, particularly around the Assange case. How little I knew. This time last year, I was quite impressed by the SWP’s willingness to criticise George Galloway for his disgusting comments about Assange, and I thought that, for an organisation I generally don’t have much time for, they seemed to be taking quite a principled stand on the issue of sexual violence. How little I knew.
For anyone on the left, it’s been hard to ignore the SWP crisis this year. I’ve not avoided writing about it completely, but I’ve written about it less than many other people have, because I’m painfully aware that there are no easy answers to draw from the whole sorry mess, and many of the people who’ve attempted to do so have come across as utterly repulsive scumbags, from those who’ve sought to defend the leadership right through to those who could hardly contain their glee at the SWP’s troubles.
Normally, when dealing with a new political development, I’d try and assess it by looking at the consequences, but that would be missing the point here: to try and weigh up the impact of the SWP’s self-destruction by looking at the politics of the ISN, or what this means for anti-fascism and other campaigns that the SWP is involved in, while sidestepping the issues that caused it all, would be to put “high politics” ahead of actual people’s lives, in much the same manner as those still seeking to defend the SWP. Whatever emerges from the ruins, this story is still a tragedy: it’s a series of horrific events where people were treated in disgusting ways, and let down again and again by people that they thought they could trust. No matter how much you dislike Trots, that is still nothing to celebrate. Some of the SWP’s recent ex-members may well have learned a whole load of useful lessons from the whole sad story, but that doesn’t redeem the fact that it happened in the first place. From the perspective of an end-of-year review, it just seems like a grim reminder of how far we haven’t come. The fact that, even after the events of the last year, so many men on “the left” seem to think that one of their main priorities should be to make oh-so-brave, provocative (is it possible to look at the sheer smugness and self-satisfaction of that “About” section without thinking something along the lines of “Ooooh! Ooooh! Dude, Yr So Crazy!”?) attacks on feminism, bravely waging war on the terrible menaces of “identity politics” and intersectionality, just makes it all the grimmer.
Nationalism and the right…
Another worrying development this year has been the noticeable level of nationalist sentiment, which has taken various forms. The EDL, which had seemed to be approaching terminal decline following their various humiliations in London and Brighton, took on a new lease of life after the murder of Lee Rigby, and while the still-mysterious defection of Tommy Robinson may have put the brakes on their revival, they still remain capable of outperforming antifascists in some areas of the country, as can be seen by recent demos in places like Shotton in County Durham. And even if the EDL are no longer organisationally what they once were, it’s still possible that the layer of people who were drawn into far-right activity through the EDL will move over to splinter groups like the Infidels instead of just going home quietly. Even if they achieved nothing else, the EDL’s flash demos this summer definitely had a disruptive effect by ensuring that a lot of energy that could have gone into community campaigns against austerity was redirected into urgent anti-fascist mobilisations.
This year was also noticeable for being the year that the far-right made their first serious attempts to take up the anti-austerity cause, with fascists in Merseyside campaigning against the bedroom tax and the BNP in London imitating Golden Dawn’s tactic of giving out free food. Anti-fascists need to adapt our tactics and messages to deal with these kinds of situation. For instance, on the subject of the bedroom tax, it should be relatively simple to argue that community resistance to eviction depends on strong, cohesive neighbourhoods being ready to confront bailiffs, and a united community is going to be able to defend itself more effectively than one that’s divided along racial lines. In places like Merseyside, it’s probably worth making this argument explicit; in other places, where the far-right haven’t attempted to make this move yet, it might be worth making the connection in a more low-key way, for instance by distributing information about how to appeal against the bedroom tax and other useful welfare advice alongside anti-fascist flyers, or by bringing banners from anti-fascist groups to bedroom tax demos and vice versa.
… and the centre
The situation would be considerably simpler if nationalism was just a question of the far-right, but the problem goes much deeper than that. Certainly, the EDL weren’t the only group to take to the streets in order to intimidate immigrants this summer; when it comes to harassing migrants, they’re mere amateurs compared to the professionals of the UK Border Agency. The state and media have been consistently pushing a relatively soft, fluffy form of nationalism for a few years now, with the various flag-draped Royal and Olympic spectacles; this summer, the respectable nationalism of the centre showed its teeth, with the racist van and the wave of UKBA raids. Anti-fascists and internationalists certainly can’t just concentrate on the racism of relatively marginal groups like the EDL and Infidels and ignore the hatred being pushed by UKIP and all the mainstream parties*, but we also can’t just try and apply the same tactics in every situation. It’s difficult enough trying to apply no platform to the EDL and BNP; there is no way we can even begin to think about denying Farage, Cameron and Miliband a platform for their anti-immigrant sentiments. More to the point, challenging the nationalism of the centre means addressing a different audience: the far-right seek to recruit from the most desperate sections of the white working class, whereas mainstream nationalism is more tailored towards people who feel that they still have something, however little it is, to lose.
The politics of envy
Once, it was traditional for people who talked about class struggle to be accused of “the politics of envy”, whereas the right claimed to be about the politics of aspiration. What’s striking today is that, beyond the dream of re-inflating the housing bubble, there’s no more aspiration on offer from mainstream politics; all we have is an ill-defined, constantly shifting, but always bitter, politics of envy, based on the idea that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying something you aren’t, and they have to be stopped immediately. The government have been waging an all-out war on the living standards of pretty much everyone, and they’ve got away with it so far because they never allow the question to be posed in terms of class against class; instead, they’ve exploited sectional divisions in a way that means they can always pose as the champion of the majority of the working class, making sure that no matter how badly we’re fucked over, at least we can be certain that no-one else is having a nicer time.
The important thing to grasp about the mainstream politics of envy and resentment is that there’s no single consistent message. Yesterday, when the public sector unions were still putting up a token fight, public sector workers were greedy, overpaid layabouts who refused to take their fair share of the pain; now the unions’ pretence at a fightback has mostly been defeated, public sector workers can be welcomed as hardworking taxpayers who need the government to protect them from scrounging benefit claimants; tomorrow the government might proclaim that it’s standing up for unfortunate British unemployed people against the immigrants squeezing them out of jobs, or it might equally well declare that lazy British workers need to take a lesson from hardworking Romanian and Bulgarian migrants about how to work long hours for low pay. This logic of envy and resentment is equally capable of championing hardworking strivers against workshy skivers, or of standing up for young people unable to find a job because of greedy workers driving investment out of the country by demanding such high wages and good working conditions; all that’s needed is that there has to be a scapegoat somewhere.
In many ways, this utterly inconsistent and unprincipled politics is much harder to oppose than the far-right’s arguments, which are at least coherent enough to be able to argue against. When seeking to oppose the ways that mainstream politics demonise certain sections of the class, what’s needed is not just to champion the cause of whatever group is currently out of favour, but to build solidarity between the different sections. The kind of practical solidarity offered by groups like the Anti-Raids Network is an incredibly important first step, and it shouldn’t be dismissed, but it’s not enough on its own. The mainstream media aren’t worried by anarchists showing solidarity with migrants; if it’s just one marginalised grouping seeking to link up with another, then it just provides them with another baddie to demonise.
When thinking about how to build a politics of solidarity to counter the politics of envy, something that stands out is that, although this government’s actual policies have attacked workers in non-unionised workplaces as much as anyone else – as with the introduction of fees for workplace tribunals, which was a huge attack on all workers, one of those blows that’s so crushingly massive it’s hard to absorb how damaging it actually is – their rhetoric has always sought to include them. Whether demonising relatively privileged public sector workers for daring to have slightly better pay and conditions, claimants for being workshy, or immigrants for being a drain on the public purse, the government always portray themselves as championing hard-working, low-paid British workers. In contrast, many lefties often rely, more or less explicitly, on a view of the working class where being a worker is equated with membership of a TUC union. It’s no surprise that, no matter how brutally mainstream politicians attack our living standards, workers in non-unionised workplaces – that is to say, most of them – aren’t attracted to an alternative where people talk as if we didn’t exist, or at best come out with long-winded justifications for why, as we’re not part of the most advanced layers, we’re not worth concentrating on.
Beyond the fragments: unity and division
Many parts of the left are very keen on talking about unity, and how bad it is when people are divisive. Indeed, one of this year’s developments that I haven’t bothered covering is the emergence of Left Unity, a group that I don’t really care about because, as has been demonstrated again and again, calling yourself a “socialist” or “on the left” doesn’t actually say anything about how you’ll behave in practice, so I’m not that hugely interested in whether or not people who see themselves as part of “the left” have a single organisation that they can all be part of. In fact, I’d actually prefer to see separate groups with clear ideas about what they want to do and how they want to do it instead of one big mish-mash with no clear strategy. Of course, this isn’t to say that I’m not in favour of the basic idea of people treating each other – even people with different political priorities – with a bit of basic decency, a state of affairs which is currently all too rare among large parts of the left.
But, beyond the idea of “left unity”, there are other kinds of unity that I think are much more important. For starters, it’d help if people who want to make a contribution to the class struggle could stop acting so divisively by behaving as if the working class was made up of straight white men in unionised workplaces, and dismissing the concerns of everyone outside that category as being “identity politics”**. It’d be a step towards practical unity if left groups could stop divisively trying to brand protests with their political identity, even though they know that doing so will cause ruptures among a previously united crowd.
Most importantly, if we’re going to see a real class fightback against austerity, we’ll need to develop a sense of solidarity among the various sections of the working class that are currently set against each other, like public sector workers, claimants, migrants, and, crucially, workers in non-unionised, mainly private sector, workplaces. This kind of unity won’t just come about through abstract arguments: for instance, to return to the question of the far-right and the bedroom tax, it’s possible to make a case for why racist groups should be excluded from bedroom tax campaigns, and migrants should be welcomed, in quite concrete terms, because claimants hit by the bedroom tax are currently being forced into a position of collective struggle. As long as workers in the majority of workplaces lack any form of organisation, and relate to the world around them more or less as individuals, then arguments about class unity will always sound abstract and unconvincing. Practical unity with other sections of the working class can only become a possibility when these workers start to organise their own struggles and move into action themselves. That’s a dauntingly far-off prospect, but it’s better to face the scale of the problem openly and honestly than to just talk about “the labour movement” as if all workers automatically identified with the TUC or the Labour Party. In the meantime, organising around things like housing can be one small step in the right direction – no matter whether we’re in or out of work, or even if we work at all, we all need somewhere to live.
So, at the close of 2013, what are the prospects for people who want to see a different world, those of us who want to see an end to the current misery but don’t dream of a return to pre-crisis “normality”? In all honesty, things don’t look great. We know that, while some unions might put up a fight and even make real gains in certain industries, on the whole they’re more interested in trying to preserve their influence in the Labour party than putting up any real resistance to even the most vicious attacks – and that’s in the minority of workplaces where the unions even exist. We know that many sections of the left, no matter how much they may talk about solidarity, in practice act on the principle of “an injury to someone who it’s convenient for me to care about right now is an injury to all, otherwise forget about it”. We know that, despite all the odds against us, workers who organise and fight back can still win, as at Crossrail or the University of London; but that level of confidence and organisation is still very much the exception, not the rule. We have some ideas about the world that we think make sense, and they may work well if put into practice, but people who share these ideas are few and far between, and all the big questions are going to be decided by the actions of millions of people we have no contact with, not the small minorities of people who think like us. All we can really hope to do is try as best we can to link up with the people we live and work alongside, and hope that our activities in some way contribute to making things a tiny bit less bad than they would otherwise be.
I appreciate that that’s not a great, rabble-rousing summing-up; but if it’s not inspiring, it is at least an attempt to be reasonably honest. And besides, there’s always something, no matter how small, to take consolation in: I’m still alive, and so are you, and Margaret Thatcher isn’t.
Wishing a happy new year to all readers, comrades and friends. Against all odds, I hope it turns out well for all of us.
* for that matter, NO2EU’s attempts to position themselves as a UKIP of the left – to combine nationalism and socialism, to put it a bit more provocatively – are also quite worrying, or at least they would be if they had any support.
** sadly, this problem isn’t just confined to the Trot left; this year the Canadian anarchist communist organisation Prairie Struggle published their position paper on Combative Unionism, a document which describes “women’s rights” as a “marginal” issue and has pretty much nothing to say about the question of workers in workplaces where unions don’t already exist.