The ongoing debate started by Keir Milburn’s article about social strikes and directional demands, and continued by useful contributions from the Angry Workers of the World collective and now Australian blogger withsobersenses, is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in strategic thinking about how to come up with a plan to get out of the mess we’re in. (In a refreshing change from the normal rule of “never read below the line”, the discussion in the comments on the withsobersenses piece is also really interesting and thoughtful). As a small contribution to the debate, I’ve typed up a few notes on the two concepts inspired by reading all three pieces:
On social strikes:
I think one of the strengths of this idea is that, if approached correctly, it can be used to shift focus back onto our immediate conditions as a starting point – not “lobby the TUC to call a general strike”, or, indeed “call on the diffuse social multitude to declare a social strike”, but “starting from this or that concrete struggle, what possibilities are open for us, as workers/claimants/service users/pensioners/proletarians/whatever to generalise and socialise this particular conflict?”
Echoing the AWW criticism, I have mixed feelings about the idea of “making visible”, an idea that sounds a little too close to the old activist fixation on “raising awareness”. A lot of the time, what’s lacking is not awareness of the ways in which we’re fucked over, but any realistic idea of how we could hope to challenge our conditions. Indeed, some of the key weapons of capital depend precisely on visibility for their effects: if benefit sanctions, or mass redundancies in workplaces deemed to be falling too far behind in the race to the bottom, weren’t visible, they’d lose a great deal of their power.
At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss the idea of “making visible” altogether: following on from the ideas raised in We Are All Very Anxious, the epidemic of mental illness that accompanies contemporary conditions seems like a particularly suitable candidate for trying to move out of the private realm and into the social and political spheres.
The point about disruption of circulation is a valuable one, and, again echoing the AWW’s points, I can’t stress enough the importance of examining the practical experiments that have been made in this field in the US over the last few years – at the risk of leaning too much on an overused Luxemburg quote, the errors of the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements in this area are of far more value than the most correct formulations of the most sussed small theoretical circles.
A further point: it might be worth trying to think of ways to connect weaknesses in supply chains and transport infrastructure to the limits of current policing strategies. The kettle, after all, is essentially a cop blockade, a way of making sure that no-one and nothing moves in or out of a certain physical space: when aiming to shut down the movement of capital, would it be possible to get our enemies to do a large part of the work for us?
The question of social reproduction, and how we can disrupt the circuits of capital’s reproduction without simultaneously blocking our own, is an interesting one, and worth thinking through in depth. After all, both teachers and transport workers are in a relatively powerful position precisely because the withdrawal of their labour can cause a knock-on effect that prevents other workers from getting to work. In the case of both the Parisian carpoolers and the Bradford crèche, feelings of sociability and co-operation might have been increased, but it also sounds as if the effect was to make it possible for people to get to work who otherwise would have had to stay at home. Is the effect of these activities to heighten sociability, but at the cost of lessening the disruptive impact of the strike?
On directional demands:
While I thought a lot of Milburn’s original article was really good, the discussion of directional demands seemed like kind of a weak point to me. In recent years, some currents of (mainly US) anarchism have made a hostility to demands one of their defining features. As with voting, I don’t think that fetishing a refusal to issue demands is any more use than fetishing the act of making demands in the first place: I’m tempted to say that what’s important is finding formulations that resonate with people, whether those take the form of demands or not.
I don’t think it’s necessary to go all the way and reject the idea of ever issuing demands in any situation to note how many of the most notable movements in reject years, from the riots of August 2011 to Occupy, have taken place largely without demands, and to question Milburn’s idea of demands that “aim to provide a direction of travel”. The big defining feature of a demand is that you have to demand it from someone else, it’s not something you can do for yourself. So, for instance, We Are The 99% and Black Lives Matter, whatever other criticisms you can make of those slogans, are not demands, because they make sense as truths in themselves, without needing to appeal to an external body to justify them.
I certainly wouldn’t say no to a universal basic income, a debt jubilee or a raise in the minimum wage to £10 an hour, but I don’t think any of those things in themselves “leave us… in a stronger position, able to better articulate what we want and better able to exercise the power to get there”. There’s no demand you can make of capital and the state that points to a future without capital and the state.
All this is in danger of getting impossibly abstract and vague, so to look at some real-world examples of the limitations of demands, directional or otherwise: the Living Wage has functioned as one of the most useful demands seen in the UK in recent years, and by bringing together different groups, such as cleaners and cinema workers, it can be said to have played “a compositional role”. The government’s decision to grant a living wage that’s not actually a living wage directly undermines the usefulness and coherence of this demand by ensuring that future conversations about the living wage will be much more confusing, and it seems likely that a similar trick would be pulled with any other “directional demand” that achieved enough popularity.
Similarly, the recent impasse encountered by Syriza, and their abandoning of many of their own policies, show that even when some levels of the state want to grant our demands they still might not be met: just as the local council tell us that they’re very sympathetic to our campaign, but that their hands are tied by central government, when we try to get around this by voting in “erratic Marxists” to run the government it turns out their hands are tied by international financial capital.
But in saying all this, it’s important not to throw the baby of serious strategic thinking out with the bathwater of wanting demands to do things that they can’t do. I think an idea very similar to “directional demands” could be useful, if we just change the emphasis away from demanding things from the state and towards building up our own capacities. Instead of demands, I’ll use the word ambitions here, although that’s a fairly dull way of putting it – if you prefer, feel free to think of them as dreams, relationship goals, desires or SMART Targets instead.
For instance, looking at the Black Lives Matter movement from the perspective of police abolition, instead of making demands for body cameras and other reforms, we can think about what it would take to move us towards the ambition of being able to take and hold space free from the police for an extended period of time, and to preserve peace and order in that area so we didn’t just end up inviting the cops back in again. Looking at Greece, which can probably be taken as an indication of what lies in store for any country that tries to enact social democratic “Plan B” policies, the important thing is not to make any specific demands on the state – a state that is ultimately always at the mercy of international capital – but to set up networks that can realise the ambition of taking care of each other, meeting as many needs as possible, and that can continue to function when the state and the market break down.
Thinking about the situation of claimants and the ongoing dismantling of the welfare state in the UK, the same ambition applies: to make sure that, even if the market can’t provide us with waged work and the state isn’t prepared to help us survive, we can still take care of each other and help each other to enjoy decent, worthwhile lives. Equally, in the workplace, instead of demanding more legal rights for trade unions, we can think about moving towards the ambition of being able to act together with our coworkers in the ways that we think are most effective, rather than in ways the state considers to be legal.
Much more can be said on these matters. Go ahead.