Friday, 14 October 2011

Quote of the day...

...comes from Martyn Everett's introduction to the 1988 Phoenix Press edition of Anarcho-syndicalism by Rudolph Rocker;
Historically the oppressed and the disaffected have rallied to the standard of socialism because of its oppositional position within capitalism - an oppositional position which provides the appearance of a radicalism it did not possess. During periods of revolutionary potential, however, people see opportunities to go beyond attempts to ameliorate capitalism, and to instead abolish it altogether. It is important to realise, however, that this is not usually an apocalyptic conversion into revolutionary activity, but is an emerging process involving continual, but unsuccessful attempts to reconstruct a movement of socialist opposition, find new forms of organisation and activity as well as new forms of protest and expression. New movements appear, representing the interests of groups which have not previously confronted capital, and so lack the burden of tradition and the "password" phraseology of socialism, but which nonetheless possess greater potential for revolution. New ideas and new forms of organisation flourish.
Reading this today, I was struck at how readily - though Everett was referring to the movements of the late 80s - this analysis could apply to the anti-cuts struggles of now.

I've written before on how UK Uncut, alongside the student movement, had managed to mobilise a whole new generation of people and inject life into anti-cuts struggles. They pushed beyond the traditional leadership structures of the left, and their actions were far ahead of their politics. Adam Ford takes the analysis further in looking at the "Occupy" movement, set to explode globally tomorrow. In essence, what we have is ordinary people looking for new ways to resist and challenge the system, though not necessarily yet having adopted a revolutionary analysis to go alongside it.

This analysis is important because, as Adam says, it is the "no politics" mantra "which enables the formerly social democratic parties and their 'left' hangers on, against the building of a true revolutionary movement." And the failure of such occupations to mirror the Egyptian experience by linking up with workers' struggle is leaving it prey to a liberal vanguardism which takes ideas such as "direct action" and put a very different spin on them.

As Solidarity Federation argue;
Radical liberal activism talks about 'direct action', but it has a very different take on what that means compared to anarchists, based on a very different reading of history. For anarchists, Emile Pouget sums up the concept eloquently: "Direct Action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action." This is the original idea of direct action as mass, collective, working class action carried out by workers themselves. For anarchists, it is mass struggles which change the course of history – winning things from the 8-hour day to universal suffrage.

However, the clarity and self-evident transparency that Pouget saw in the term 'direct action' has given way with the later emergence of a rival conception which in many ways is the opposite of the anarchist one. This radical liberal version is best summed up by an oft-quoted maxim by Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Here instead of mass, collective, working class action we have individual, exemplary action by 'committed citizens'. A clearer example of the gulf between anarchism and liberalism would be hard to find.

It is this liberal version of direct action that also ends up in vanguardism. Once more the task of social change is taken away from the workers themselves and entrusted to a group of specialists acting on their behalf. However, instead of a vanguard party, here the specialists are "committed activists" willing to sacrifice themselves to arrest and police brutality for the cause of justice. There is no doubting the sincerity, and often courage of such activists. But such a mode of action is nonetheless vanguardist – activists are substituted for the working class in our emancipatory struggle.

This has practical implications for anti-cuts struggles. The liberal conception of direct action promotes tactics which privilege individual actions, often favouring 'accountable action' where arrest ceases to be an occupational hazard but part of the objective. Activists encourage people to glue themselves to crime scenes and get criminal records which can seriously hamper employment possibilities. For full-time activists this isn't a problem (whether they scrape by on the dole or are personally wealthy enough to not need a job). And many students don’t realise the consequences further down the road – consequences which apply disproportionately to working class students lacking the connections of their more affluent peers.

Encouraging people to sit down and be beaten by police is rationalised as providing outrageous footage – a sign of the righteousness of the cause, no doubt informed by a Mead-style misreading of the history of US Civil Rights and Indian Independence struggles (which were won by mass struggles, not individuals martyring themselves). In fact police violence is explained by protestors not being passive enough – the cries to 'sit down, sit down!' effectively blame the victims of police violence. The youths who fight back against the police don't 'get it'. Lacking the 'correct' consciousness, they should leave it to the specialists in social change.
We can see evidence of this in the Occupy movement in America, which led to Crimethinc issuing a "letter from anarchists" which asserted that "not everyone is resigned to legalistic pacifism; some people still remember how to stand up for themselves." Likewise, it has been noted how "the 99%" is an easier tagline for social democrats to hijack than open talk of class combat.

Certainly, as the movement escalates across the globe, these contradictions and tensions will only escalate and become more acute. In part, this is a reflection of a much wider political phenomenon and entirely to be expected given the grip that liberal and social democratic ideas have had on the "left" culture, beyond those of us that the liberal vanguards would write off as "far-left" and unworthy of engaging in debate. But it also reflects the fact that consciousness is a process - what Everett calls "an extension of the struggle into new areas" with new people.

Thus, for militant workers there is a balance to be struck. It is no good simply sniping from the sidelines and making ourselves as irrelevant as the leftists touting orthodoxy. But by the same token to be entirely uncritical in our support of the emerging movements is as opportunistic as the liberals looking to defuse any revolutionary potential that "Occupy" might have.

As the Workers Solidarity Movement say, "the radically democratic nature of the occupations creates the potential for the movement to evolve in any number of possible directions. Whether or not they become genuine resistance movements depends largely on how much the radical left are willing to engage with them, and re-assert the importance of class politics in understanding and countering oppression, by participating in the actions, discussions, and assemblies. A key hurdle has already been overcome: people are on the streets, expressing their dissent, reclaiming public spaces; it remains to be seen what comes of it."