So, another year has come and gone. To be honest, it’s not really been a great one, overall: on an international level, the wave of revolt that rolled around the world in 2010-12 feels like it’s still rolling back, with most of the struggles that broke out having been contained one way or another.
In particular, something that’s been vividly illustrated over the last few years is the dangers of a popular revolt being turned into a military struggle: from Syria to Ukraine, we’ve seen how tragic the results can be when widespread anger against an unpopular regime can be captured and channelled into nationalist directions, especially when wider imperialist forces are involved.
In the UK, I don’t think there’s been many big, definitive moments that sum up the year as a whole: just like in 2013, life for most people has mostly continued gradually getting worse, and my real pay, just like yours, is probably worth less now than it was 12 months ago. Still, there have been moments of really inspiring resistance: in particular, the emerging movement against police brutality and white supremacy in the US has been amazing to see, and the amount of organising that seems to be happening around housing in London at the moment is also very encouraging.
2014 in feminism, gender and misogyny (content warning for discussion related to sexual violence):
Just like in previous years, when thinking about themes that run through a lot of the year’s big stories, sexism and patriarchy have come up again and again.
On the left, there’s not been anything to rival the SWP’s rape coverup and subsequent messy split, although Russell Brand’s continued interest in radical politics has, once again, raised the question of prominent lefty men with dodgy attitudes, most recently with the discovery that he endorsed pick-up artist Neil Strauss’s book. To his credit, Brand himself seems able to accept that his behaviour has been sexist and he needs to work on changing it; as I don’t know the man personally, I can’t judge his sincerity very well, but I do think that, when Brand is discussed, his sexist record needs to be part of the conversation. While I can’t say how much I do or don’t trust Brand as a person, what I do know is that, after all we’ve learnt about Great Men and their defenders, after Healy and Galloway and Assange and Sheridan and Smith and Hedley, anyone who’s still so desperate for an idol to look up to that they try to shut Brand’s problematic gender politics out of the conversation is definitely not to be trusted.
While the picture is still pretty grim when gender’s concerned, it does feel like feminists have achieved some things this year. While I’m skeptical of the idea that state bans can ever be a useful tool, the huge outcry against Julien Blanc, coming so soon after the backlash against Dapper Laughs and the storm of opposition that forced SUFC to abandon their plans to re-sign Ched Evans, does definitely make it feel like there are a growing number of people prepared to challenge misogyny in some way or another. Of course, targeting individual, easily recognisable baddies like Blanc or Dapper Laughs shouldn’t distract us from the broader work of challenging patriarchy as a structural force, because sexism isn’t just about the cartoon-villain misogyny of pick-up artists and men’s rights activists, but also about the internalised, normalised ideas and behaviours that mean nice, well-meaning people end up saying and doing horrible sexist things; but, having said all that, while individual arseholes losing their careers may not be enough, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
More generally, I feel like, compared to a lot of other movements for progressive change, feminism seems to be doing quite well; it’s hard to measure, but feminist voices certainly seem quite prominent in pop culture, and it feels like an encouraging number of people are growing up with feminist ideas as part of their “common sense” worldview. It’s always tricky trying to draw direct comparisons between one struggle and another, but I do think it is at least worth asking what other movements could learn from the progress that feminists have made in the culture wars.
But while some progress has been made, there’s a long way still to go. There’s a long list of horrors I could name, but I think one of the things that I’ll most remember about this year, and something I’ve failed to write about up till now, has been the ongoing mess of Gamergate: an unpleasant example of a movement organised with misogyny as one of its guiding principles. Gamergate has attracted lots of attention from both the mainstream media and feminist commentators, but I’ve really not seen much discussion of it on the radical left. In some ways, it’s easy to write off: people complaining on the internet about computer games is pretty much the opposite of what we’re inclined to think of as proper, serious politics. But I think that would be a mistake: the harassment that’s come out of the Gamergate campaign is both real and serious, and the Elliot Rodger shootings, and the threats against Anita Sarkeesian, reminded us that misogynists are just as capable of carrying out terrorist massacres as racists are.
Just as mainstream racism helps to enable racist attacks, antifeminist movements like Gamergate help to provide an environment in which sexist violence is encouraged and normalised. Even if it was “just the internet”, the internet is increasingly becoming a ground for serious political contestation, as the current round of cyber-sabre-rattling between the US and North Korea shows. While the political identity of groups like Anonymous is inevitably confused and contradictory in many ways, hacker culture so far has been characterised by some kind of commitment to progressive ideals, and there’s a long tradition of hacks, from Operation Chinga La Migra back in 2011 to Operation Ferguson, #OpKKK and the targeting of Cleveland police in the wake of the Tamar Rice murder, that seem inspired by the hope for a better, fairer world that’s more often associated with “social justice warriors”. It’s hard to imagine hackers formed by the kind of internet culture that Gamergate promotes getting up to anything so noble. One of the key questions that this year has raised has to be how we can confront and disrupt attempts to organise misogynist movements, both on- and off-line.
2014 in the workplace:
This year hasn’t seen much in the way of big, high-profile national disputes. For my money, probably the most significant workplace action of the year was the 90 days of strike action taken by care workers in Doncaster, but the Care UK strike never really managed to break out of its isolation – Unison, let alone other unions representing care workers like the GMB, never wanted to treat the dispute as worth national attention, the left groups who got involved just pushed a strategy of calling on Unison to deliver solidarity, and other, more rank-and-file tendencies who might have been able to suggest a more practical strategy for relating directly to other care workers never really got involved.
Now that it’s ended with the strikers accepting a deal that’s a tiny bit less bad than Care UK’s original offer, but far less than the wage they’d been on previously – roughly speaking, a cut of 30% rather than 35% – a worrying precedent has been set for care workers across the country: if the Doncaster strikers could display such exceptional determination, but still end up being ground down and picked off in isolation, what hope is there for any less militant groups of care workers?
On the fringes of the workers’ movement, some progress has been made with organising in non-unionised workplaces: the cinema workers who’ve been organising at places like the Ritzy, Curzon Cinema and Everyman Cinemas, the hospitality workers who’ve been organising in Brighton and Norwich and Sheffield, and the ongoing organising effort among warehouse workers in West London. These efforts are mainly very small-scale, but they’re still a welcome step in the right direction.
This year’s also been notable for two surprising developments in workplace law, as both the introduction of flexible working rights and the tribunal victory on overtime and holiday pay have shifted the ground slightly in favour of our rights as workers. Of course, the law in itself shouldn’t be relied on, as bosses often manage to cheat us out of our legal rights, employment law in general is usually stacked against us, and any loopholes that give us too much power will end up being overturned, but what is vital is our collective confidence as workers, and to the extent that any legal protection can help to strengthen that, these developments are worth discussing and sharing information about.
Finally, as the year ends, the PCS have just put out an alarming announcement that, in the face of government hostility, they’re suspending all union elections for 12 months. While the government’s plan to weaken PCS is definitely real – the reference in the leaked government document to “further proactive measures targeted at key union activists” is pretty chilling – the decision that PCS can’t afford democracy in 2015 still feels very dubious. I’m not a member of PCS, and so not best placed to judge the mood of the membership, but I feel that if I was an activist within PCS, and faced with trying to convince other civil service workers that they should care for the union and fight to protect it, even in spite of its distinctly patchy record of supporting its own members, I don’t think that having to simultaneously tell them that their union’s leadership had decided to “reduce expenditure on elections” because they could no longer afford democracy would make that message any easier to sell. For all its flaws, the PCS is probably one of the better mainstream unions around at the moment, and it would be a defeat for workers, both in the civil service and more generally, if the government is able to break it; on the other hand, letting the PCS leadership get away with deciding that they can just suspend elections is also a very dangerous precedent to set.
2014 in housing, welfare and austerity:
The highpoint of class struggle in the UK this year has probably been the steady growth of a self-organised movement over housing. Two particular highlights from the start and end of the year were the effective scrapping of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland in February and the victory won by New Era tenants who forced Westbrook Partners to pull out of their estate – a temporary victory, but a victory nonetheless – but there’s been a lot of other important action around housing throughout the year: the Carpenters’ Estate occupation, tenants in Bristol pushing landlords into making repairs and reducing rents, Glasgow tenants winning refunds from rip-off letting agents, the Poor Doors campaign pushing Redrow into pulling out of 1 Commercial Street, and, perhaps most impressively, direct action preventing evictions in a lot of different places – Nottingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Southwark & Lambeth, Newham, Salford, Queens Park and beyond.
Eviction resistance has to be one of the most powerful forms of (relatively) small-scale direct action. In a better society, of course, it wouldn’t be needed at all, but while evictions continue to happen, it’s good to see so many people willing to turn out to block them. In particular, it’s worth comparing the results of ground-level eviction resistance to the attempt to ban revenge evictions, which was sabotaged by two Tory MPs, both landlords, just talking the bill out. This shows the difference between top-down and grassroots solutions: trying to change the law ultimately depends on relying on the property-owning class, and even actual landlords, to act in our interests. Tenant-led action like eviction resistance allows us to act for ourselves, without relying on anyone else.
The New Era and Focus E15 campaigns have been hugely inspirational, but what’s most important is that they aren’t just isolated outliers, but just the most visible tip of a movement that includes many other, less well-publicised groups, like Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth.
While a lot of the most impressive anti-austerity action this year has been about housing, worthwhile action has taken place on a lot of other fronts as well. Near the start of the year, there was the wave of claimant protest that led to Atos pulling out of the Work Capacity Assessment contract, while the direct action campaign led by pensioners and disabled people in South Yorkshire has won full reinstatement of disabled travel passes, partial reinstatement of elderly travel passes, and beaten attempts to break the campaign by using the law against key activists. They now intend to continue until the cuts to travel passes are completely reversed.
Recent months have also seen a partial revival of the student movement, with a large and unruly demonstration not sanctioned by the NUS as well as a number of occupations, and more marches for free education planned at the end of January. The long-running campaign against workfare has also continued to make steady, small-scale progress, with a number of workfare users pulling out after being targeted.
Meanwhile, over in Ireland this year has seen an impressive campaign of resistance to water charges, with huge demos just being the most visible point of a campaign that’s also included widespread direct action to stop water meters from being installed.
2014 in nationalism, internationalism and war:
On the whole, 2014 was a pretty bad year for internationalism. While the uprising in Bosnia at the start of the year was marked by a heartening rejection of nationalism, elsewhere we’ve seen anger at existing political elites channeled into a wide variety of forms of insurgent populist nationalism.
Probably the most glaring example has been the situation where the Maidan movement in Ukraine brought down the existing government, only for things to descend into a lengthy standoff between Kiev and Moscow, with self-identified anti-fascists and fascists fighting on both sides. In all this mess, many leftists have found themselves siding with one side or another, leading to embarrassments like British Trots attending a conference organised by Russian ultra-nationalists who then invited a wide selection of European fascists to the follow-up event. The success of the Ukranian far-right has also served to embolden fascists in nearby Sweden, where far-right activists stabbed several people leaving International Women’s Day demonstrations.
Closer to home, while the right-wing nationalism of UKIP is very different to the left rhetoric that was used to promote the Yes campaign in Scotland and the SNP, there is definitely a similarity in that both seek to tap into widespread discontent at an out-of-touch political class, and they promote national independence as the answer. Now that the hopes of an independent Scotland have been laid to rest, at least in the short term, the question that remains to be answered is how far the energy that was poured into the Yes campaign by people hoping for a better, fairer Scotland will now go into ongoing organising projects, and how far it will simply dissipate.
Meanwhile, while it remains necessary to challenge nationalist groups at street level when they try to do things like attack anti-fascist football fans, the story of Darren, a former EDL activist who’s now abandoned far-right politics to get involved with the labour movement, has shown the rewards that can come from doing the longer, more low-key work of talking to people to win them away from racist ideas.
Elsewhere, in Hong Kong’s Occupy movement, the nationalist group Civic Passion have been playing a prominent role that has caused some commentators to draw comparisons with the far-right presence in Ukraine’s Maidan.
Finally, one of the bloodiest conflicts this year has been the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The turbulence in the region has drawn a lot of attention to the autonomous region of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan, and led to a widespread, and frequently heated, discussion on how pro-Kurdish independence forces like the PKK should be understood, and how far the project of “democratic autonomy” in Rojava is a break from past nationalist movements, as well as how far it’s possible for any force in the region to be truly independent from the various larger powers who are more or less openly intervening. It’s interesting to note how quickly the “critical support” advocated by some anarchists has led to acting as a fairly uncritical mouthpiece, with perhaps the most glaring example being 325, a publication that’s usually aligned with the extreme nihilist/“anti-civilisation” wing of anarchism, suddenly deciding to start running straightforward war propaganda like excited photos of US & British Special Ops veterans who’ve joined the war against ISIS, with no attempt to analyse the social transformations that have taken place in Rojava or their limitations.
Clearly, the politics of the Kurdish movement and its supporters are very different to those of the other nationalist movements discussed here, with the partial exception of the “radical independence” wing of the Scottish independence movement. Most of the anarchist and left backers of the PKK/PYD are nowhere near as daft as the 325 lot, and the people attracted to the resistance in Kobane are drawn to it for good and noble reasons. But it’s precisely when nationalism appears most seductive that it’s most necessary to be suspicious of it, and to ask the hard questions – about people living in that area who don’t fit neatly into the national identity, about conflicts between people who share the same national identity, about the internationalist idea of solidarity across all national borders, and about what “national independence” can really mean in an age when national economic policies are often written by international financial bodies, and elected governments can be replaced by unelected technocrats like Papademos in Greece and Monti in Italy.
2014 in racism, repression and resistance:
For most of the second half of the year, and especially in the last few months, the ongoing #Blacklivesmatter movement against racist police killings in the US has been a huge inspiration. The prospect of anything similar happening over here seems to have got the police quite rattled, judging by the ridiculous decision to arrest 76 people for violent disorder after the Westfield shopping centre protest.
It remains to be seen how the movement will continue after the break in momentum caused by the holidays, as well as the shift in the overall political climate caused by Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s killing of two police officers – as well as the shooting of Shaneka Thompson, who shouldn’t be forgotten just because she isn’t a cop – but the recent police killing of Antonio Martin in St. Louis, along with the decision not to charge the killer of Dontre Hamilton, show that the cops, and the system of impunity that protects them, aren’t going to stop killing black people any time soon, so it looks like we can expect more flashpoints to erupt in the near future. The Ferguson National Response Network has a few events listed for the next few days under the slogan “New Year, Same Focus”.
Elsewhere, there have been other important struggles against repression: in just the last few months, there’s been huge protests in Mexico after the police-linked kidnapping of 43 students, along with the shooting of several others, and Greek anarchist prisoner Nikos Romanos has won the right to education after a hunger strike backed by a massive solidarity movement across the country.
Meanwhile, the Operation Pandora crackdown on anarchists in Spain has triggered an angry response, and Operation Pandora is just part of a larger repressive trend that’s also seen a new “gagging law” with the introduction fines of 100-600 euros for offences such as filming police, lack of respect for the police, and unauthorised gatherings in public places, as well as heftier fines of 601-30,000 euros for preventing an eviction, resisting authority, or refusing to dissolve a protest, and incredibly high fines of 30,000-600,000 euros for “organisation of events or recreational activities despite prohibition by the authorities”.
In the UK, we’ve seen survivors of a number of historical cases of repression continuing long-running fights for justice: from blacklisted construction workers like Dave Smith, and the surviving members of the Shrewsbury 24 still continuing their fight against the state that fitted them up, to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the women tricked into long-term relationships with undercover cops. In all these cases, their persistence and determination has been admirable, and I wish them all the best for the new year.
Looking to the future:
The next few months will be very difficult for anyone committed to independent working-class politics. As much as I dislike the various political parties, it’s still the case that a lot of good, committed activists are drawn to one party or another, and it’s often possible to work productively with individual party members on a local level. If you’re involved in an organising project alongside party-affiliated activists, then get ready to take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility or else put the whole thing on hold for the next few months, as the odds are that they’ll suddenly find their union or community commitments are completely eclipsed by the need to go out door-knocking to spread the good word about their favoured candidate.
Conventional political wisdom has it that elections are an important opportunity for activists to “get their issues on the agenda”, but, to take an example that’s so obvious it’s practically a cliche, students did a pretty good job of getting tuition fees on the Lib Dem electoral agenda last time around, and it didn’t do them a whole lot of good. We might be able to get politicians to talk about the issues that matter to us in the weeks leading up to the election, but once it’s over that still doesn’t leave us with the power to actually make them do anything.
The challenge is not to try and influence politicians – a strategy that inevitably ends up with our schedules and priorities being set by the politicians we want to try and appeal to, rather than worked out collectively from below – but to work out our own agenda, and stick to it – not to push a particular electoral candidate, or even to push an anti-electoral message as such, but to push the same issues and problems that mattered to us six months ago, and will still matter to us in a year’s time.
To take housing as an example – if we can “put housing on the agenda” for politicians this election season, we’ll get some fine-sounding rhetoric out of it, and a few more politicians posing for photo-ops with New Era tenants and Focus E15 Mums, but that in itself doesn’t mean anything in terms of policy changes. In contrast, if we organise together with our neighbours, then we can apply our energies right now to preventing evictions, or pressuring crappy landlords into making overdue repairs, or getting unfair fees back from rip-off letting agents. And the best bit is, because our power to do this is something we create together, not dependent on any outside source, we’ll still have the same collective power to do these things long after the electoral circus has packed up and gone home. Whatever your main priority is, that lesson is worth bearing in mind through the weeks and months of electoral distractions that are coming up ahead.