Sunday, 30 January 2011

On the anti-cuts march in Manchester

Yesterday saw two national demonstrations against the government's austerity programme. One in Manchester and one in London. As I was there, Manchester is the one I shall be focusing on. If there is one positive to take from it, it is that disillusionment with bureaucrats and the official leadership has saturated almost the entire movement, and people are demanding militancy.

Perhaps the best bit of the day came just as the march started. I found out about it when a comrade bounded through the crowd and told me, breathlessly, that "we've just fuckin' chased Porter off!" Aaron Porter, President of the NUS, would not be speaking at the rally because he had been accosted by angry students and forced back into the students union. Chinese whispers soon spread that he was "crying like a baby" and had "gone home." But if there was any sympathy for the man, it was well-hidden.

Since the event, some press reports - specifically from the Daily Mail, Telegraph, and Sky News - reported that Porter was faced with anti-semitism, but I have no reason whatsoever to believe this is true.

As The Great Unrest notes, it stems mainly from the chant "Aaron Porter, we know you.  You’re a fucking Tory too!" Where "Tory too" has become "Tory Jew" in the hands of parts of the media. With added embellishment from the Mail. No other outlet bar the three mentioned above suggested anti-semitism on the part of the students, who were in fact rejecting Porter's claims to represent them and his self-serving calls for "unity," which would of course have to be under his leadership.

Despite this incendiary start, the march itself was incredibly pedestrian. Sometimes shuffling, sometimes striding, always flanked by stewards and police, we were led away from the City Centre to Platt Fields. A field next to a church, with a stage and a row of portaloos - hardly the set piece for revolution.

But then, of course, that was never going to be the point. In a movement managed from above by bureaucrats and careerists, it never will be. Their interests are not our interests, and by the nature of their roles never can be. Their role will always be to stage-manage popular discontent, release some pressure, and ultimately ensure it is never a significant danger to the ruling class.

Having relieved myself, and navigated through a minefield of Trotskyist paper-sellers to get to the stage, I found out just how widespread that realisation was. Certainly, it was confirmed by the fact that huge steel barriers and an army of stewards and security stood between the stage and the proles whose only role was to cheer at appropriate intervals and go home feeling they'd accomplished something whilst the established order stood unharmed. Which is another reason why we never obliged to fulfil that role.

The rally was hosted by John Walsh, Chair of the TUC Young Members Forum, who set the tone by referring to everybody as "colleagues." The language of the trade union movement's right-wing, for whom "comrade" is too inflammatory a word and sentiment, and of career bureaucrats, for whom the whole thing is a job, rather than something you do in order to fight for and defend your class interest.

The line-up of speakers was predictable. Alongside the bureaucrats was an obligatory Labour MP, peddling the lie that none of this would have happened if Labour were still in power. All of them faced a wall of heckles, several had eggs lobbed at them, and Walsh was drowned out as he introduced new speakers with chants of "Aaron Porter, show your face!" and "why are we in a field?" The masses were not content to simply sit there and be lectured, and the disconnect between the leadership and the grassroots was demonstrated amply when several of the speakers' polemics on the effects cuts are having was met only with chants of "we know!"

Yet it was only Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, who acknowledged this point and actually bothered to talk about what we should do about the problem we'd had explained to us, in pointless detail, ten times over. Whether it would be reflected in his actions was another matter entirely, but he at least had the sense to talk of solidarity, strikes, and the need to organise ourselves rather than rely on leaders.

Nonetheless, several hundred people at the rally took it upon themselves to break away from this overall very genteel scene and march, unsanctioned, back into the City Centre.

This happened whilst Jane Warburton, North West convenor for the PCS Young Members Network, was on the platform. But I should say that this is not a reflection on her, individually. She is a lay activist, not a bureaucrat, and I know her personally as somebody with a great deal of energy and passion. That she was scheduled to speak at a point by which people were already fucked off with being talked down to by an official leadership actively demobilising the working class from above should not be taken as a reflection upon her.

To start with, people were still marching. They came out of the gates to the field, and were significant enough in number to dominate the road without any fear of traffic.

But soon, police motorbikes zipped through the gaps in our ranks. There were calls to move forward and close the gaps. The march became a sprint. And when we came face to face with an impromptu roadblock, we veered down a sidestreet to get out of the way. Not everyone was quick enough to stay ahead of the first kettle, and there were scuffles as the police attacked protesters and people scrambled to get away.

In the aftermath, people split up into numerous smaller groups. Each took a different route towards the city centre, through smaller side-streets, and along main roads that hadn't been used in the official march. There was still one siginificantly large group much further ahead, and the police cars, bikes, and horses, largely ignored the smaller gangs of flag- and placard-weilding youth as they sped ahead. In some cases, they were what we followed to catch up with the main crowd.

The larger group avoided several more attempted kettles before we found ourselves back on Oxford Road, where the march began. By this time, my thighs were screaming and I had come to realise just how woefully unfit I was. I was no longer sure what the end goal of the breakaway march was, and it was clear that neither were many others.

By the time I got there, police had surrounded the town hall, and a much smaller group of demonstrators protested in front of it whilst many more stood off, not sure what was going on. Eventually, the crowds on both sides of the police lines moved off, coalescing back into a single group and leading the police on a merry chase around the block. However, whether through fatigue or because the police got wind of what they were up to, there was no avoiding the next attempt at containment. Further away, by Deansgate, there was a kettle on either side of the rode, and a flank of police horses keeping the rest of the group at bay.

The stand-off flared up briefly when one man was knocked to the ground by a horse, and both he and a comrade who moved to help him up were tackled to the ground and arrested. Apparently, falling over is a breach of public order. Helping up a fellow man, doubly so.

Some heated words were exchanged with the cops, but not much else. As the main body of people backed away from the scene, those who were more inclined to stay had little choice when there was nobody else nearby and a horse looming over them. Thus, was the event brought to an end, whilst many comrades regrouped in pubs to lick their wounds and have a pint.

The UCU condemnation of the breakaway, as reported by Manchester Evening News, demonstrates the determination of the officials to remain out-of-touch;
We need public support for what's happening with government cuts and I'm not convinced upsetting shoppers in Manchester city centre is the way to do that.

We should be talking about the damage done by Government cuts not the damage done by a small minority of people - it is very frustrating.
But, in reality, the fact is that we should not be "talking" at all. As the hecklers in Platt Fields made very clear (if only the bureaucrats were willing to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices) was that we know what damage is being done by the government.

The idea that what we face is some kind of intellectual argument betrays the absurdity of the "moderate" position. The government is not suddenly going to declare "oh, I never saw it that way," and accept that there is an alternative to cuts. They are ideologically committed to tearing up social welfare and ensuring that the state serves the ruling class, not ordinary people.
And, by "they," I don't mean the Tories. We cannot solve anything by voting Labour. If Nick Clegg hasn't single-handedly dismantled the idea that any politician can represent the interests of the masses over the interests of the elites, then you need a reality check.

To once again quote the Solidarity Federation;
The reason that reason gets us nowhere is that politics is not based on good arguments but on power relations. Democracies institutionalise power struggles to a certain extent, since it’s rather disruptive to have periodic coups and civil wars every time there needs to be a change of government. But only certain interests are institutionalised. Here’s a clue: they’re not ours. Thus none of the parties anywhere near power oppose the cuts (Labour included). The Lib Dems are a textbook example of what happens when previously minor parties get near power – they become all-but indistinguishable from the rest. Since our interests do not figure in this system, reasoned argument gets us nowhere. We win the argument, the cuts go ahead anyway and at best we can feel a sense of righteous indignation.

If we want to win, we need to recognise that being right doesn’t cut it. It’s a matter of power. A case in point: it is true that the British welfare state was founded at a time when the national finances were in a far worse state. But it’s worth looking at what the ruling class were saying when the welfare state was founded. For the avoidance of any doubt, let’s hear from a Tory: “We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution”, said Quintin Hogg in 1943. When the ruling class feared the working class, a welfare state was a price worth paying. Now they don’t fear us, they feel confident to dismantle it. So the paradox is without the threat of revolution, reformism is a non-starter. On the other hand, with an unruly mob on the streets and a strike-prone workforce, those reasoned reformists all of a sudden look like workable negotiation partners to whoever's in government. They'll no doubt claim it was their 'responsible' protests which got them there.

It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument. We might have right on our side, but might will determine the outcome.
Only direct action will achieve anything substantial in the battle we face ahead. This means strikes, economic blockades, occupations, and - yes - people running amok in the streets.
A few people disrupting public order will achieve nothing, but a great mass of people actively wrecking the economy and attacking the power that the ruling class hold above our heads - capital - can force the great to their knees. It is absolutely no good to win the argument if we then go on to lose the class war.

As for the nonsense about "public opinion," I refer you to my recent rant on Twitter [1, 2, 3, 4, 5];
What's with the moderate/liberal left's obsession with "public opinion"? As if the "general public" are some ever-watching, ever-critical entity disembodied from the masses of the working class, for fuck's sake. No, mass direct action will not "alienate" the public if we're the ones carrying it out, you fucking dipsticks!
You're more likely to "alienate" the public by excluding them from what's going on and declaring that only you and your core disciples are "committed" and "conscious" enough to carry out actions, you gang of elitist wankers. 
In itself, yesterday's breakaway achieved nothing in terms of the fight against cuts. However, it did show that there is a growing flank of people utterly fed up of being stage-managed by "leaders" interested only in their own future career prospects. The growing frequency of such actions shows an unwillingness to be contained by official structures or to limit fighting back to impotent shouting.

Such discontent could well go nowhere. It will if any of the numerous contenders for vanguard of the working class are able to leech off it and lead it down the dead-end of "alternatie leadership." 
If we want to stop that, instead of sneering at those who refuse to be stage-managed for the political careers of people like Aaron Porter, trade unionists ought to be joining them. The only reason that direct action has yet to win anything significant is because it's still not the majority carrying it out.
As soon as it is, and the ruling class are cowering in fear of strikes, blockades, riots, and the wrecking of the capitalist economy by an unruly working class, we'll see the balance of class power shift in our favour.