The centre cannot hold: 2016 in review

So, this was a pretty brutal year in a lot of ways. It wasn’t all grim all the time, but there was certainly more than enough pain and misery to go around. This is an attempt to try and trace a few themes through the year, with the important disclaimer that it’s a view of things as seen by one anarchist in the UK, so it’s very heavily biased towards the UK, the US, and places our media deems important, i.e. Syria. As struggles in the non-anglophone world go, I probably followed the movement against the Loi de Travail in France closer than anything else, but even there I was hampered by the fact that I only saw the small minority of texts that appeared in English, and usually with a time delay of at least a few days.

2016 in learning about prominent politicians shagging a dead pig’s head:

This year, we did not learn about any prominent politicians putting their genitals in a dead pig’s head, which is one of the major contrasts between 2016 and the previous year. I think the closest we got was probably Alex Jones warning us about the danger of Donald Trump copulating with a goblin, which was memorable in its own way, but not quite the same.

2016 in elections, voting and identities:

Terrifying levels of identification with the state there.

It’s hard to write a review of the year without coming up against Trump and Brexit, and perhaps also the Corbyn re-election. It’s also really important to avoid the temptation to conflate those first two, because the obvious parallels can hide as much as they reveal.

Still, looking over the fates of Owen Smith (not to forget Angela Eagle, of course), the Remain campaign, and Hillary Clinton, I think it’s fair to say: this year was not kind to the received wisdom of the neoliberal centre. The new forces that are emerging might not be the kind of alternatives we’d hope to see, but the old logic of “there is no alternative” seems to have been well and truly buried.

Looking at the Brexit vote, one of the things that bothers me most – along with the sheer ugliness of the word itself, which takes some beating – is the way it was successful in forming new political identities based around relationships to the British state or European single market. I’d hoped that these would fade after the vote, but as the Brexit controversies rumble on, there still seems to be a lingering attachment to utterly useless identities like “the 48%”.

It’s hard to say what will come next, but I think it’s safe to say that either we’ll see attacks on our living standards presented as the cost of leaving the EU, or attacks on our living standards presented as the cost of saving the EU. Hopefully we can manage to respond to those in ways that bring together people from both sides of the referendum divide, because fixating on defence or opposition to abstractions like “the EU” can only reinforce that divide, and the demographic divides that go along with it.

I haven’t forgotten the scapegoating of migrants, and indeed the murder carried out by a Leave supporter just before the vote; but I also haven’t forgotten the dehumanisation of the elderly by left-liberal types who seemed to see their own grandparents as being a greater enemy than David Cameron.

When trying to think what a long-term politics based around the faultline of independence or membership of the EU might look like, I try not to lean too heavily on the spectre of Northern Ireland, because I know there are a lot of important differences; but still, I think it’s safe to say that it won’t be pretty, and neither the cross-class nationalist alliance of Leave or the cross-class free market alliance of Remain are good starting points for moving towards anything better.

Hillary Clinton managing to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college is something else it’s hard to draw simple lessons from – in the days after the election, lots of people offered observations along the lines of “here is why Clinton didn’t get enough votes”, but that story is somewhat complicated by the fact that she actually got more votes than her opponent.

I think one thing that does seem safe to say is that the strategy of backing “lesser evils” is a loser. Not just because a lot of the time it’s hard to tell which evil is lesser and which is the greater, but also because trying to apologise for the “lesser evils” seem to actively play into the hands of the greater ones: when the establishment fails, it’s those who’ve most convincingly distanced themselves from that establishment who stand to gain, while those who tried to prop it up in the name of stability end up being brought down with it. Crimethinc, like everyone else, might have called the actual results of the election wrong, but their description of the general dynamic still sticks in my head as a good one.

Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that the lessons of these experiences are very different for those with electoral and non-electoral approaches. There are a lot of people who think the outcome of the EU referendum was bad because Leave didn’t win, and that the outcome of the US election was bad because Clinton didn’t win, or at the outside that Sanders didn’t run and win; many of these people have some interesting things to say, and we can’t discount all their insights on principle, but there is still a real difference in perspective between those chanting “not my president” and “no more presidents”, or between those who see themselves as citizens of Europe and those who are proud to be citizens of nowhere.

For those of us in the anti-state camp, it’s challenging to work out what it means to feel something like Brexit or Trump as a defeat without having any investment in the EU or Clinton. As a recent piece in Mask Magazine put it “…even my own steely refusal to participate in electoral politics felt weak in the knees the day after the election, and my sense is the whimper of “anyone but Trump …” still floats out of us even if it’s shameful and inaudible.” I suppose it’s part of the nature of being an anarchist that sometimes – a lot of the time – there are no easy answers; certainly, I would’ve seen a “boycott the referendum” campaign as a waste of resources almost equal to the “Lexit” or “another Europe is Possible” pipedreams.

It may sound like a vague, abstract cop-out, but our alternatives cannot follow the same logic as the options their system offers: when offered the choice “remain or leave?” we can only respond with the social strike, with rent strikes, by accompanying each other to jobcentre appointments and workplace tribunals, by spreading the demand to reinstate Alba or Kumaran, by walking off the job to demand equal pay for (or with) our coworkers. Similarly, the real alternative to Trump certainly isn’t Clinton, but it’s not Sanders or a hypothetical Labor Party either: it’s Trump hotel workers organising, the prison strike, Standing Rock, the Verizon and Driscolls Berries disputes, Black Lives Matter and the wave of uprisings at places like Charlotte and Milwaukee.

2016 in prisons and policing:

Throughout the year, but especially in the last few months, prisoners have been kicking off on a truly impressive level – recent events may not be quite unprecedented, but you definitely have to go back quite a few years to find adequate comparisons. The national US prison strike that started on September 9th showed an amazing level of organisation and co-operation, and organisers there have shown an admirable commitment to not just forgetting about it once the big moment of excitement’s passed, but staying in touch and building relationships with those who’ve been targeted for repression and reprisals at places like Kinross. Those of us over here might not be able to predict where the next Birmingham-like prison uprising in the UK will be, but we should put some thought into how we can make connections with those who’re singled out in the aftermath of these events. For a new year’s resolution, why not think about how you could assist IWOC, or the Empty Cages Collective, or your local ABC, or just your own group of friends if none of those other options appeal, in linking up with rebels on the inside?

It is also the case that the Prison Officers’ Association have been notably militant of late, and that’s also likely to continue into the new year. Of course, the interests of screws do not automatically coincide with those of prisoners, and the prospect of inmate and guard struggles linking up may seem incredibly unlikely – but, like so many other things this year, events at Holman taught us a valuable lesson about why you should never say never.

The various justice campaigns also kept up their struggles to expose state wrongdoing this year. Most notable was the complete vindication of the Hillsborough families after all these years, but those affected by spycops have also seen some progress with the Pitchford inquiry slowly confirming what they’ve been saying all along, and the firms involved in the construction blacklist have had to pay out large sums, although the full extent of that scandal, and the state and union involvement in it, has yet to be exposed. Meanwhile, the Shrewsbury 24 campaign and Ricky Tomlinson have been keeping the memory of that injustice alive, while the Orgreave campaign had a serious, if predictable, setback with the Home Office’s refusal to investigate. True to form, they’re not letting it keep them down, and look set to be staying busy in the new year.

2016 in war and terror:

It was a bloody, grim, hopeless and confusing year in a lot of ways. From Aleppo to Berlin, the year closed out with reminders of just how much pointless slaughter we’re likely to carry on seeing in the near future. International affairs are often surrounded in a fog of dishonesty, questions where every single side is untrustworthy so it feels hopeless trying to establish the truth; some people might have an adequate grasp of what’s going on in Syria, but I feel like the majority of us would be better off admitting that we just do not know, for example, how far democratic local councils still have room to breathe in rebel-held areas, or what possibilities there are for genuinely autonomous self-organisation in Rojava.

From Istanbul and Brussels to Quetta and Berlin, the continuing fear and misery caused by ISIS-linked terror serve as a reminder of why Rojava’s YPG/YPJ and the International Freedom Battalion are such important and potent myths: they serve as living examples of the fact that it’s possible to respond to ISIS-style terror without just placing our faith in our nation-states to protect us, or just offering empty platitudes about how people do bad things because of alienation. But Aleppo, and the long string of military and political manoeuvres that allowed the regime to conquer it, remind us that Rojava and the PYD are not just myths: they’re real political forces, existing within a very real civil war, and at times they’ve made some very dubious alliances indeed.

What’s happening in Rojava/Northern Syria is not the fulfilment of anyone’s utopian dream: it’s not possible to have socialism in three cantons, and talk of the state disappearing seems more like word games than anything else. But at the same time, the gap between utopia and Assad or ISIS is quite a big one, and I can’t argue with anyone for wanting to hang on to that space, and explore its possibilities. The fact that Rojava still has commodities, wage labour and everything that follows from that is important, and shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not the end of the story by itself either.

It’s crucial that different perspectives on Syria and the Rojava project should be discussed openly, so we can try and sort out some of the truth from the wartime propaganda, but sadly this seems to be one area where discussion is very rigidly policed: say anything too positive about “the Kurdish movement” and you risk running foul of the anti-terror laws that jailed Shilan Ozcelik and kept Aiden Aslin on bail and in a state of Kafaesque uncertainty for months at a time, and saying anything too critical might attract the attention of the self-styled anarcho-censors who shut down a meeting on the subject at the London Anarchist Bookfair.

In closing, I’d recommend “What do you mean you support Rojava?” as one of the most practical pieces I’ve seen on the subject, something that actively calls attention to other PYD-critical voices but still comes from a position of active engagement and solidarity rather than everything-is-the-same-as-everything-else do-nothingism. I would also be very interested to see any similar suggestions from the al-Shami/Yassin-Kassab camp of what we can do to provide practical support to grassroots projects of self-organisation in the rebel zone, or indeed practical proposals from left communist types.

As the new cold war continues to heat up, and the “anti-imperialist” logic of “my enemy’s enemy” continues to show its deficiency ever more clearly, we also need to consider what it means to put our opposition to states like Russia into action at a time when Boris Johnson is also calling for embassy protests.

2016 in antifascism, nationalism and the right:

From Dover at the start of the year to the proposed National Action ban at the end, it was an eventful year, and one where the right made a serious bid to become the main opposition to a collapsing liberal order. In terms of street-level anti-fascism, Dover was a much more intense set-piece than anything we’ve seen for a long while as the police totally lost control, but things quietened down noticeably afterwards as the state got its revenge through the usual series of arrests, house raids, court cases and jail sentences. Meanwhile, the fallout from an earlier confrontation in Rotherham dragged on throughout the year, ending in a dramatic legal victory as the ten anti-fascist defendants who contested their charges were acquitted while four of the far-right group calling themselves “Yorkshire’s Finest” got sent down.

But while things got a bit quieter on the streets, at least over here, the right made their mark in other ways, most notably through the murder of Jo Cox. On the electoral front, it remains to be seen what will become of UKIP now that their single issue appears to have become a success; it might also be worth pondering whether UKIP, with their relative stability, have successfully drawn out the anti-establishment right wing of the tories, or whether there might yet be potential for the Conservatives to have their own Trump/Corbyn moment, and what horrific form that could take.

On National Action, what stands out is just how weird the ban is. Admittedly, they’re not exactly the kind of lovable scamps that it’s easy to defend, and I wouldn’t particularly want to swap places with whatever unfortunate lawyer is going to get the job of arguing that they make a valuable contribution to democracy, but still, a dozen or so numpties who can’t mobilise in public are hardly a pressing threat to the state either. If you were going to ban NA on the grounds of violence linked to the group, the time to do that would have been after the Mold Tesco attack, but that happened at the start of 2015, the trial was finished by September 2015, and there didn’t seem to be any wider political response at the time. Similarly, if you wanted to ban a political group in response to the Jo Cox murder, it’d seem more logical to go after Britain First, who Thomas Mair did seem to have some links to, rather than NA, who took him up as a symbol after the fact, as a somewhat pathetic way of compensating for their total lack of any real-world influence.

Anti-fascists have generally been pretty sensible in refusing to celebrate the ban; as ever, it’s worth bearing in mind the public order legislation that was first brought in against the Blackshirts and then used against striking miners, and keeping a close eye on new government powers and how they’re used.

In the year ahead, it’s likely that street-based anti-fascism of one kind or another will still be needed, but perhaps the most pressing front will be political: maintaining the possibility of opposing the top-down bureaucracy of the EU, or the neoliberal policies of the Democrats or Fillon, without embracing the right-populist nationalist alternative (and, equally, maintaining a resistance to the Brexit project that’s not based around an embrace of the Supreme Court and parliamentary sovereignty). We need to take back the idea of taking back control.

As Crimethinc put it, “If it becomes impossible to talk about how the system is rigged or how the corporate media is implicated without advancing the discourse of the far-right—if NSA surveillance, drones, international finance, corporate profiteering, and the subtle control exercised by social media algorithms become understood as right-wing issues—then all prospects of real liberation will be off the table for another generation or more.” The specific issues here may differ, but the general point is worth bearing in mind.

2016 in workplace and social struggles:

The recent ripple of strike action across a few different sectors around Christmas attracted a bit of attention, but probably the highest profile workplace dispute this year was the junior doctors’ contract issue, which saw some very well-organised and determined action across the country with a good deal of public support. And, like so many other union disputes before it, it ended with a fairly undignified whimper as the BMA, seemingly terrified of their own power, called off further action and pledged to work with the government to implement the new contracts.

Other than that, the rail unions deserve some mention for their regular standard of militancy, particularly at Southern Rail but also in a host of lower-key disputes. The food workers’ union BFAWU also showed some impressive determination, for instance with the mass pickets mounted at Pennine Foods. The equal pay dispute at Fawley oil refinery should be remembered as a brilliant practical example of what solidarity between British and migrant workers can look like, and rank-and-file electricians and other construction workers are still a force to be reckoned with.

In terms of more self-organised disputes, the flagship examples were the Deliveroo and UberEats strikes, but it’s also worth taking a moment to remember the various cleaners’ strikes – both those organised through the UVW, such as at 100 Wood Street, and those that took place through the more mainstream unions, like the Kinsley 3 – the cinema workers organising at places like Picturehouse Cinemas, the various victories won by non-food delivery couriers, and small-scale campaigns against wage theft fought by syndicalist unions like Bristol IWW and Brighton SolFed.

There were a few notable struggles in housing this year – the student rent strikes were able to win some particularly impressive victories, the Aylesbury estate defeated a Compulsory Purchase Order, and ACORN continued building towards a national renters’ union, while taking direct action against evictions on the way.

While the broader “anti-cuts movement” is looking pretty feeble these days, Sisters Uncut have been doing some good stuff, from occupying a flat in London and using it to set up a breakfast club to bringing about the resurrection of the Doncaster Women’s Aid centre after it was closed down by cuts. Boycott Workfare, who were involved in some of the most impressive and effective anti-austerity action in previous years, were relatively quiet this year, although they still sometimes chalk up local victories like stopping workfare at Colchester Debenhams, and the campaign against workfare also saw a notable, but very belated, court win over the DWP’s long-running attempts to suppress information about workfare providers.

Outside of the UK, the main movements I can remember following were the revolt against the Loi de Travail in France and the No DAPL struggle at Standing Rock. Even if the victory won by the latter isn’t as total or clearcut as it seems, it’s still a lot more than would have been won without such ferocious resistance, and a lot more than seemed likely when the camp started. The final few weeks of the year also brought the cheering news that the ZAD in France has seen off an eviction threat.

Those we lost:

2016 was, of course, a year that saw quite a lot of famous deaths, including a few – from Dario Fo to George Michael – that had some kind of connection to the kinds of social movements that I write about. But I’d like to take a moment to remember a few of the less famous lives were lost this year. In particular, I’d like to pay tribute to the Brazilian comrade Guilherme Irish, murdered by his father, to Salvador Olmos Garcia, killed by the police in Oaxaca, to Abd Elsalam Ahmed Eldanf, run over while picketing, Jimi Joonas Karttunen, killed by Nazis in Finland, and all those who lost their lives in the Ghost Ship fire. I also want to remember those who died volunteering in the fight against ISIS, like Jordan MacTaggart, Michael Israel and Anton Leschek, as well as all the others who’ve had their lives wasted in the Syrian conflict, or died while fleeing it. Finally, I also want to remember Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Sylville Smith, Keith Lamont Scott, and all the countless other victims of police terror this year.

And the ones that got away:

So as not to end on an entirely negative note, I also want to celebrate those who beat charges, had their charges dropped, left prison or had their sentences suspended. So, pride of place goes to the Rotherham 12, or at least 10 of them, the Cardiff May Day defendants, and the arms fair protestors who beat the CPS in court (repeatedly), and honourable mentions for Aiden Aslin, Isa Alaali (who had a busy year, as he was also one of the acquitted arms fair protesters mentioned above), and Adam Barr, who had their cases quietly dropped, the Heathrow 13 and an AFN comrade, who had their sentences suspended, and Tina Rothery, an anti-fracking protester who also escaped being jailed.

Similarly, I’d like to wish a big welcome home to all those who made parole, were released from remand, or otherwise got out this year: I’m pretty sure “K & D”, Michelle Smith, and Yusef Asad all made parole after being jailed for confrontations with fascists and racists, as did Kurdish movement prisoner Shilan Ozcelik, while over in the Czech Republic Martin Ignacak was released from remand, and Barrett Brown, Luke O’Donovan and Jason Hammond all got out of prison in the US. Perhaps most impressive of all was the case of Dwayne Stafford, who spent 571 days in prison awaiting trial and then managed to make bail as a direct result of punching the Charleston shooter Dylann Roof. We lost a lot this year, but there were still a few things worth celebrating, and Dwayne Stafford’s unlikely path to freedom is not a bad note to end on.

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."
This entry was posted in Housing, Occupations, Protests, Racism, Repression, Riots, Strikes, Students, The right, Tories, Unions, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The centre cannot hold: 2016 in review

  1. The person who wrote the vice article is despicable, suggest bursting their eardrums, poking their eyes out, fracturing their spine and leave them to sort themselves out.

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