Monday, 31 January 2011

No War but Class War - January 2011

It goes almost without saying that the most significant events this month have been the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia proved only to be the first domino, as protests spread to Algeria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

In Egypt, the people are still in revolt. Curfews have been defied, the police have been chased away by the sheer mass of people, and an uneasy Israel has voiced its support for Hosi Murabak's government. The government responded by shutting down the internet and trying to stop Al Jazeera's rolling coverage, but it has thus far been in vain. A "million people demonstration" has been called in Cairo for tomorrow, with protesters determined to stay in Tahrir Square as long as Murabak stays in power.

But whilst the Egyptian people have overwhelmed the forces of the state, their uprising faces a number of other risks. One of the most significant is outside interference, with Israel supporting the dictator whilst the US and Britain - who have supplied the weapons the regime is deploying against its people - are urging "calm" and that scraps be thrown from the table to placate the revolting masses.

Obviously, this all centres on Egypt's strategic value as an ally in the Middle East. The balance of power amongst the world's elites should be of no concern to the country's working class and it should continue to press only for its own interests against tyranny. But this is not the only concern.

As with any mass opposition movement, there are numerous figures trying to claim leadership of it. Mohammed ElBaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is viewed by the media as the "leader" of the opposition, but Al Jazeera notes that "while hundreds of demonstrators who surrounded him tonight seized the media’s attention, thousands of other protesters nearby took no notice of his speech."

They are right not to, as he has warned against "the dangers of what could otherwise be a spontaneous explosion of the masses" in a bid to see himself installed as head of an "Alternative Parliament." Though his leadership would be more dovish, as "suppression does not equal stability," he represents no improvement in the conditions of the working class. The Egyptian people will not be free simply because they replace the figure at the top of the state structure. Our solidarity ought to be with those who reject all rulers and fight for self-emancipation.

In Greece, spiraling transport costs have generated mass anger and people have responded with a campaign of sabotage. LibCom reports that "on January 8th angry public transport users sealed ticket machines and refused en masse to ride buses, trains or underground services as part of a nationwide protest against ticket price increases of up to 180%." There has also been a refusal by drivers to pay road tolls. More protests are planned.

In the Netherlands, students have been protesting against education cuts. As Red Rebel Ranter tells it;
Last Friday, January 21, the Netherlands saw student action on a massive scale. Fifteen thousand students and sympathisers, maybe more, came together for a protest rally on the Malieveld in The Hague, the city in which the Dutch government is located. The action was called by student unions.

The rally was preceded by a demonstration in which left wing groups and individuals participated. Rood, the youth branch of the Socialist Party (left wing social democrats) was there; the youth branch of the PvdA (Labour party) was there as well. And the Internationale Socialisten participated, as did anti-authoriarian groups like the Kritische Studenten Utrecht and a radical initiative against austerity, Greece Is Everywhere (GIE), in which I have been involved and to which I remain close.

The demonstration brought between 600 and thousand people on the street, accompanied by an large and quite intimidating police presence: cops on horseback, police vans, etcetera. We got to the Malieveld safely, however, where we joined the rally that was still growing, with al large stream of students from Central Station to the muddy field. There, we got speeches by politicians – even by the Secretary of Education responsible for the attacks that students were protesting against.

After the big rally of January 21, several hundreds of students and sympathizers marched in several groups, one to the vicinity of the governmental center, one to the Ministry of Education. Riot police attacked at both actions, there were clashes, some people got badly beaten,or bitten by police dogs (of the four foot variety, of course; I will not insult other animals by comparing them to police); cops arrested 28 people, five of them will stand on rushed trial this week.

The actions combined were an expression of a growing mood of struggle in various sectors of society. The police violence is an expression of a more and more openly authoritarian trend from the direction of the state. We will see if and how struggle will grow nevertheless, but I think students can be proud of what they did so far, and we all can feel encouraged by their spirit and example.
In the US, workers at a Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant demonstrated the power of a united workforce by walking out in a grievance dispute.

One of their number had been given a 30-day suspension for a safety violation, far above the normal penalty for such a thing. But managers felt confident to do so, saying “there’s no way you’ll shut our business down over this.” The workers thus proved them wrong by staging a three-day walkout, in defiance of management threats to lock workers out afterwards and to cut off health insurance.

Nobody, including building contractors and technicians who were striking on another matter, crossed the picket line. Management lost five days of production, about $3 million. They refused to settle the original dispute, but with the workers ready to take similar action again and the local continually filing grievances where there is unfair treatment, that will not always be the case. The workers have had a taste of their own strength, and that will spur on future disputes.

In Canada, bosses at US steel have locked out workers for three months in a pensions dispute. The company is trying to renege on pensions commitments, and the government is standing idly by. However, in a considerable show of solidarity, 10,000 people joined the protest against the action.

The struggle is still ongoing. But if it can draw that many people together for a demonstration, the union should consider more than just protest and actively strike back.

In the Basque country in Spain, workers are staging a general strike. This is over plans to raise the retirement age, and is supported by the main Basque unions as well as the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. However, the much larger UGT has refused to back the action and is trying to negotiate a compromise with the government lacking a mandate from the workers. The CNT has already denounced them as "lapdogs" of the government and urged workers "to fight for our dignity, our rights, our possibilities of working and our everyday life."

Although the fight against austerity in Britain has been muted between December 9th and January 29th, there has been no "Christmas lull" in the global class struggle. Workers everywhere continue to fight against the ruling class and attacks on their livelihoods, against often insurmountable odds. Long may that continue to be the case.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Proof of an old maxim

It transpires that a peaceful UK Uncut demonstration on Oxford Street in London today was met with police violence.

CW2440 - police thug
According to the group's press release;
Before 15:00 outside Boots on Oxford Street a female activist tried to push a leaflet through the closed door of Boots explaining the details of Boots' tax avoidance to the staff.

A police officer then arrested the individual for "criminal damage". Around 20 people tried to help the female being arrested and 10 were subsequently pepper sprayed. Three people have been taken to hospital.
Fit Watch tells us that this was the act of officer CW2440, who "has also been accused of trying to incite violence at UKUncut protests on 15 January 2011." It adds that this follows the comments of Hugh Orde, to the Guardian, that "we must be clear that the people who wish to demonstrate won't engage, communicate or share what they intend to do with us, and so our policing tactics will have to be different ... slightly more extreme."

This is yet more proof that police violence is neither rare nor occassionally "excessive." It is institutional and neccessary to the defence of the state, making all who wear the uniform enemies of the working class. Or, as the old saying goes, All Cops Are Bastards.

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.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Austerity, direct action, and the road to March 26th

On Saturday, I will be going to Manchester to attend one of the two national demonstrations being held that day. The other is in London. The day marks the first big call-out against the government since the explosive  student fees protest in December, and it begs the question of whether momentum gained before Christmas can be reignited.

The new year has seen some demonstrations against the scrapping of Educational Maintenance Allowance. But they have been small in number and largely passive, almost as if to prove the point - nobody paid attention to the peaceful action, and police violence against a student was reported more as a footnote than a reason for outrage. Equally, a university occupation in Birmingham proved to be an isolated act rather than part of a wider pattern. Wither the ferocity and passion that drew everyone's attention to the student movement?

It remains true that the working class are facing the largest sustained attacks in at least a generation. And it goes far beyond the realm of education. But where the fear of what we face had provoked heightened class consciousness and a backlash, now it brings resignation or impotent rage.

What faces the disabled is particularly brutal. Where's the Benefit details the "perfect storm" of policies that is pushing disabled people off welfare whilst removing all support to help them find work.

For workers, Mervyn King warns us that we face the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. Wages will continue to be squeezed as commodity prices rise. However, he offers no remedy and simply tells us our fate is "inevitable."

But the fact remains that the "squeeze" - and the resulting threat of double-dip recession - is only "inevitable" as long as the working class are passive. If we accept the framework of a capitalist economy, where the productive class must suffer in order to balance the books of the parasites reaping profit from our labour, then there truly is nothing we can do.

But we already know that is not the case. The Solidarity Federation's call for economic blockades is a call for the working class to recognise its own power, and the fact that we can make the ruling class fear us. With that fear, comes concession to our interests - i.e. that those of us who produce the wealth of the world do not have to suffer hardship so that those who claim ownership of said wealth through state violence can be kept in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

But if that is our aim, then we need back the explosive momentum that saw Aaron Porter and the other bureaucrats of the National Union of Students sidelined by the very people they claim to "represent."

In part, this means ensuring that the two big demonstrations - 29th January and 26th March - are an expression of the discontent and anger gripping the country. Not simply a set piece for a bunch of worthless parasites to further their political careers whilst patronising and demobilising those they claim to represent.

But that isn't all. Ian Bone makes the point that between these two pillars "there will be local anti-cuts demos as councils set th[e]ir budgets and declare redundancies." I can only second his suggestion that "these will need to start occupying town halls rather than just venting anger outside them." Just as the student movement maintained momentum with university occupations rather than depending solely upon set-piece demos, so "the TUC demo against a background of town hall occupations will be a much more solid event."

As I've noted before, the continued threat of co-ordinated strike action from bureaucrats like Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey simply isn't transpiring. They are content to "spout rhetoric about exactly the kind of civil disobedience they are actively curtailing" and leave it at that. If there is to be direct action across the country, then it must come from the masses, not our supposed "leaders."

We need not necessarily break windows, but we will need to break some laws. In doing so, we’ll no doubt meet the uniformed violent minority of liberalism, defending the interests of the propertied, of capital, of austerity. No riot, no matter how spectacular will reverse the austerity programme alone. But widespread direct action in our campuses, towns and workplaces just might. In 2006, French students reversed the CPE law which attacked the rights of young workers after weeks of rolling direct action, including the use of economic blockades of strategic targets – train stations, department stores, major junctions… It can be done, and as friends new and old, lovers and strangers we can do it.

North African popular revolt spreads to Egypt

Writing of the uprising in Tunisia, I noted that it could lead to nothing or "be the spark of something big" across North Africa and the Arab world. It now appears that the spirit of revolt has taken hold. Egypt is the latest country to see people rise up against dictatorship, and they deserve our solidarity.

Protests began on Tuesday, and were the biggest the country has seen since the 1977 bread riots. As in Tunisia, the response from authorities has been harsh. Protesters have been arrested. Social networking sites Twitter and Facebook have been blocked. The police have been accused of brutality. And still, people are taking to the streets to voice their opposition to corruption, torture, poerty, and unemployment.

As with any unrest, opposition groups are a mixed bag. The BBC provides a reasonable guide - ranging from the April 6th Youth Movement who are primarily responsible for organising protests and utilising social networking to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. However, thus far it does look as though the workerist tendencies of the April 6th movement remain the most prominent, and if that remains the case then we can hope that the uprising will maintain a positive character.

And when I say positive, I don't only mean in terms of political outlook. Of course, it is vital that movements against dictatorship are not overtaken by nationalistic and other reactionary sentiments. But it is also important that they retain a vibrancy and power that makes the state tremble, rather than surrendering to reformism and the parliamentary "process."

At present, there seems little chance of such a surrender. The protesters have had the riot police on the run, and popular anger has the state on the run. As Ahmed Moor writes for Al Jazeera, "the Arabs are alive. And the Arabs are hungry." There is revolution in the air.

Beware all vanguards!

The following is reposted from the blog of the Brighton Solidarity Federation.

Way back in the midst of time (or the mid 19th century to be precise) was an organisation called the first International Working Mens Association – or First International for short, which declared that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves”. We would do well to remember those words as we struggle against austerity, as there’s no shortage of would-be vanguards vying to substitute themselves for mass collective action.

The most obvious of these are the various Leninist/Trotskyist parties, who are openly vanguardist in theory and practice (derived mostly from the writings of Lenin). Leninist theory states that the working class is by itself unable to achieve the required consciousness to challenge capitalism, and so requires a political party led by professional revolutionaries to lead it – a vanguard party. The concept of leadership is very important. Trotsky himself wrote that “the historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership” and this perspective continues to inform his contemporary followers.

This means that vanguardist politics of the Leninist/Trotskyist kind aims essentially at securing leadership of various campaigns and organisations. The clearest recent example is the attempts to unseat NUS President Aaron ‘Despicable’ Porter. The problem here is that the mass, direct action and social disobedience witnessed at Millbank and subsequently in London and across the country has already bypassed Porter and made him irrelevant. So to channel that energy back into replacing Porter with a member or fellow traveller of some Trotskyist party is to recuperate the movement, to go from mass, self-organised direct action back onto the terrain of representative politics, where action once more becomes the preserve of privileged actors – the ‘revolutionary leadership’ of the vanguard party. The proliferation of anti-cuts fronts, all calling for unity whilst splitting off under the leadership of the different Trotskyist parties has to be understood in the same light.

Vanguardism lives by sucking the life out of mass movements, and lives the more the more it sucks. But Leninists/Trotskyists are only the most obvious, because they are self-described, kind of vanguardists. Vanguardism also exists in the form of radical liberal activism, often aping the language of anarchism.

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.

But most importantly, by separating action from class struggle, the liberal activist idea of ‘direct action’ dooms us to defeat. The only power workers have, whether currently employed or not, is in disrupting the economy. Vanguards acting on our behalf, no matter how committed, sincere or courageous simply cannot stop the cuts; the numbers of people willing to be assaulted and arrested as a point of principle are simply nowhere near sufficient. Which is reassuring when you think about it. On the other hand, thousands of young people have already shown a willingness to resist police attacks, break out of kettles and inflict property damage. This mass, self-organised collective action just might generalise into a movement capable of disrupting the economy and stopping the cuts. All attempts to channel it into vanguardist politics of any kind can only throttle that potential.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Dissecting the English Defence League's "mission statement"

On Sunday, the English Defence League published a "mission statement" on its website, purporting to answer the questions: "what is the EDL all about, what does it want to achieve, how will it achieve those things?" However, perhaps the best thing you can say about it is that it is overly grandiose. More critically, it is an absurd and laughable document whose claims don't match observable reality.

Before I go any further, there is a brilliant irony in that both the EDL and their arch enemies in UAF begin their statements by quoting the same man;
“The world is a dangerous place to live in; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” - Albert Einstein, refugee from Nazi Germany
But, both groups will no doubt be relieved to hear, that is where the similarities end.

Now we get to the fun part. The first section is titled "Protecting And Promoting Human Rights," and I was already in stitches at the point when the EDL claimed it "is a human rights organisation." Surely not? If I was inclined to sell the group to non-members, to make it credible, the last phrase I would ever use is "human rights organisation." At least not to anybody who had the slightest clue what a human rights organisation actually does.

To take Liberty as an example;
We run public campaigns to raise awareness of urgent human rights and civil liberties issues and influence national debate. Our supporters are a vital part of our work, helping to make our voice stronger by lobbying their representatives, signing petitions and sending pledges of support. Find out about our current campaigns and take action now.You can also search our recent campaign materials.

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Unless I have missed a trick somewhere down the line, at no point does getting boozed up and going somewhere for a fight come into that. Nor going to Asian areas of big cities and attacking people, homes, and businesses. Definitely not issuing threats to Asian taxi drivers.

I also imagine that no human rights organisation would declare its support for a police force that had just given a young man a brain haemorrhage and pulled a disabled man from his wheelchair. Twice.

This is not to mention that, as an organisation, the EDL do not pass out advice and information, engage in legal work, lobby MPs and provide briefings to parliament, or utilise petitions as part of their campaigning. In fact, I think shouting "Allah is a paedo" and "we hate Pakis more than you" is probably the extent of their "lobbying."

All of which behaviour somehow clouds the nuanced thinking in the group's mission statement. Because, to give them their due, some of what they say does make sense. It's just a shame that they can't offer any way to put the theory into practice, and that their public actions obscure the fact that there is theory at all. A gang of boozed-up hooligans geared up for a ruck simply doesn't reflect the nuances of an organisation which apparently "must always protect against the unjust assumption that all Muslims are complicit in or somehow responsible" for the actions of Islamists.

Take this passage;
We also recognise that Muslims themselves are frequently the main victims of some Islamic traditions and practices. The Government should protect the individual human rights of British Muslims. It should ensure that they can openly criticise Islamic orthodoxy, challenge Islamic leaders without fear of retribution, receive full equality before the law (including equal rights for Muslim women), and leave Islam if they see fit, without fear of censure.

I have written of similar subjects previously. I insisted that it is Muslims who need to organise against Islamists, and that when they do we need to stand with them on the basis of working class unity against all forms of oppression, domination, and hierarchy. And I have been unequivocal in my criticisms of multiculturalism as a political policy.

But when the EDL say they "will continue to work to protect the inalienable rights of all people to protest against radical Islam’s encroachment into the lives of non-Muslims," I have to ask when they did such work in the first place.

After all, even if the threat were as grave as claimed, the EDL is in no position to see off militant Islam;
They don't organise within Muslim communities. They don't counteract the religious arguments of the Islamists with a class argument to address the real issues that affect and concern Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They don't stand in solidarity with those who oppose the extremists in their own midst. And they don't distinguish issues of religious bigotry from those of religious freedom in order to distance themselves from the far-right and racism.

Instead, they remain a resolutely single-issue group, refusing to acknowledge that there may be any subject more important than what the Muslims are up to. They consistently blur the distinction between ordinary Muslims and militant Islam. They take every half-baked fear-mongering piece of trash in the tabloids as the gospel truth (even whilst claiming that the media is a left-wing propaganda machine). And they fail miserably at disguising the bigotry and xenophobia that underpins their ideology.
This also demolishes the claim that the EDL "Promot[es] Democracy And The Rule Of Law By Opposing Sharia." How they will "oppose sharia appeasement in all its forms" or "actively work to eradicate the sharia-compliant behaviours that are already being adopted, and enforced, in our society" under the current "drink-rally-rampage" campaign model is unclear.

They are right to point out that "sharia is incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy." But this is a moot point given that the "creeping Islamisation" they fear simply isn't happening.

To take the point about halal meat, literally the only difference between halal and non-halal - as this particularly hysterical video by  Christian Voice points out - is that with halal, the meat is dedicated to Allah. As it was killed in exactly the same manner, and as I don't believe Allah to be a real entity, this doesn't arse me in the slightest. Nor should it you, unless you're a complete fruitbat.

Moving on, we learn that "a central part of the EDL’s mission is public education." And, once again, I find myself unable to keep a straight face.

Whether or not "the British political and media establishment have, for a long time, been presenting a very sanitised and therefore inaccurate view of Islam, shaped by the needs of policy-makers rather than the needs of the public" is a matter for debate. My own view is that the media and politicians have reinforced and even fuelled the fear-mongering of the EDL, the BNP, et al as a way of dividing the working class against itself. I argue the point here, here, here, here, and here, as just a few examples. Five Chinese Crackers and Enemies of Reason also make good points on the subject. The EDL, of course, beg to differ.

But, whatever your opinion, you have to wonder where the EDL's "campaign of public education to ensure that all aspects of Islam that impact on our society can debated in an open and honest way" is. It insists upon its own point of view, refuses to engage with dissenting opinions, and spends most of its time causing aggro. Which might be counter-productive to open and honest debate.

On the matter of "Promoting The Traditions And Culture Of England," the same points arise. EDL members, like all nationalists, talk in ill-defined terms about "our culture," but they display no particularly nuanced understanding of what it is. Let alone respect, when they need a piss.

Here, they claim to "recognise that culture is not static, that over time changes take place naturally, and that other cultures make contributions that make our shared culture stronger and more vibrant." Which is fair enough. Indeed, it's a point I've made myself, though I contend that "our culture" is defined by class far more than nation. In any British city, working class heritage is rooted in old public houses, the old streets full of homes built exclusively for labourers, the sites of historic trade union victories and vicious clashes with the ruling class. Our culture, as workers, is a world away from the culture claimed by those in high society or big business.

But this is something on which socialists and nationalists will never see eye-to-eye. Just as the latter will never agree that the armed forces don't "risk their lives every day in order to protect our culture and democratic way of life," but to serve the interests of political and economic power.

Either way, once again, we find ourselves asking the same question. How will the EDL "campaign for legal remedies to ensure that those working within these important institutions are not exposed to abuse or aggression from within our country," when the only "legal remedy" they have so far concocted is to throw frozen sausages at Islamists when they protest against the soldiers?

On the final point, the EDL's "international outlook to enhance and strengthen our domestic efforts" has so far consisted of getting their arses handed to them in Holland, and joining in with the circus of madness that is the US Tea Party movement. The best you can say about the idea of "the global struggle against Islamic intolerance" is that it is overblown bravado. Surely, if such a thing were necessary, then it would be within the remit of a government and military operation, rather than a rag-tag bunch of people causing mayhem within a police kettle?

This new mission statement, then, does not tell us "what the EDL is all about." Rather, it illustrates what the sophists would like us to believe it stands for. But, whilst they may be refining their rhetoric, they remain fundamentally a fascist organisation. Not a human rights one.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Err, not really...

As I've mentioned previously, the BNP is worried about finding itself increasingly irrelevant in the rising climate of austerity and class war. To counter this, alongside its usual tactic of racialising economic issues, it has been trying to play the victim card on the back of increasingly absurd claims.

The latest rambling heap of bullshit is this;
The police’s undercover operations unit is actively involved in supporting extremist far leftist and communist UAF public violence against the British National Party, sensational new photographs have revealed.

The photographs, which show now-exposed undercover National Public Order Intelligence Unit police constable Mark Kennedy taking part in a UAF protest against the British National Party in Derbyshire during 2009, have been released by party spokesman Simon Darby.

In the photographs, taken by a British National Party activist at a UAF demonstration outside a licensing application for the 2009 Red, White and Blue event, Pc Kennedy is clearly visible.

Wearing dark clothes and carrying a green rucksack, Pc Kennedy, who was known by the nickname ‘flash’ amongst his far leftist colleagues because he often funded activists’ transportation to demonstrations and their accommodation, can be seen in the crowd of UAF protestors.

The UAF is headed up by Wayman Bennett, an executive member of the extremist communist ‘Socialist Workers’ Party.’

According to earlier revelations about Pc Kennedy, he often took the lead in organising events and a recent court case against environmentalist activists collapsed when it was revealed that the policeman was behind the attempt to occupy a power station.

It is however Pc Kennedy’s involvement in the UAF and its activities against the British National Party which have now taken centre stage following the publication of the new pictures.

“Bear in mind that no less than 19 UAF demonstrators were arrested for public violence outside the British National Party’s Red, White and Blue event in 2009,” Mr Darby said.

“In the light of Pc Kennedy’s involvement in the UAF demonstration, the party and the public have the right to know how much of this violence and subsequent cost to the taxpayer was actually coordinated by the police in the first place,” he said.
The only problem, of course, is that this story makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. For a start, it isn't like 2009 was the first year that anti-fascists demonstrated against the BNP's Red, White, and Blue festival. See reports of 2008 on Indymedia, for example.

Then there is the fact that, as a way to gain credibility, undercover police were given "an ‘authority’ which covered me to infiltrate activist groups and be involved in minor crime such as trespass and criminal damage."

In other words, rather than "coordinating" actions, was to earn the trust of the group they were trying to infiltrate in order to be able to gather evidence of their activities.

Photographs of a single undercover cop at a UAF event do not prove "active support" for the far-left. They certainly don't prove "state-sponsored subversion of a legitimate political party" or that police "organise[d] public violence against the British National Party which could then be used as propaganda against us by the media."

What they may prove, however, is that the BNP is a dying organisation, desperate for attention, and that it thinks low enough of its supporters intelligence that they would believe such nonsense.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The problems of police infiltration

In recent weeks, more than a few reports have emerged of undercover police infiltrating a range of activist groups. For more specific details, see recent stories on Fitwatch and Indymedia. The latest scoop is that these spies were cleared to have sex with activists in order to blend in. Understandably, this has provoked much outrage and concern. But the question remains: what can we do about it?

There are reactive actions in the pipeline. Tomorrow, female activists will be conducting a "blockade" of Scotland Yard, saying that "women in the UK should not have to worry about being sexually abused by policemen. It is as simple as that." This is fair enough. The idea that the state should actively encourage its agents to exploit the sexuality of those it supposedly serves in order to aid it in disrupting and suppressing dissent only further demonstrates why that institution of domination ought to be dismantled.

Other initiatives, such as the call on Facebook for "an independent judicial inquiry into the undercover police surveillance of environmental protesters" are more misguided.

After all, the whole point of a state is to exercise authority and dominion over its subjects. Of necessity to its own survival, it must put down challenges to the ruling class, and no "independent" review will end this practice any more than the Chilcott inquiry will see Tony Blair indicted for waging an illegal war of aggression in Iraq. Any and all faith in the system to right itself is wholly misplaced.

So, what can we do? As Adam Ford points out, this is a problem unique to broad-based anti-capitalist movements. Because it is "workplaces and neighbourhoods are where the day-to-day battle against capitalist domination is fought," and "it is there that the resistance is most protected from stage subterfuge." We know our work colleagues and our neighbours, and an infiltrator is far easier to root out. But, in broader spheres, "it is surely impossible for such activists to guard against clandestine state intervention."

Despite this, one thing activists must not do is become paralysed by suspicion. If organised resistance retreats into itself, it becomes disconnected from the working class. Thus, we do the state's job for it by defusing the threat of popular anger exploding upon the establishment.

By remaining open enough that people beyond the "professional left" can become involved, we of course return to the problem of easy infiltration. Especially since, in Ford's words, such infiltrators are given "police licence to commit crimes" so that "they will necessarily gain a certain amount of trust from people who don't know them." I am one amongst many who has operated under the presumption that "if they are putting themselves at risk, they must be trustworthy."

To combat this, yet remain open enough to not become insular and irrelevant, is surely a very fine balance. I doubt that there is a formula, and if there is I certainly don't have it.

What I do know is that as police tactics evolve so must our responses. New weapons to combat state suppression emerge all the time. Fitwatch is one. Interactive maps to avoid kettling on demonstrations is another. As long as we're willing to learn the lessons that present themselves, it's not unfeasible to think that we can move a step ahead of police evidence gathering techniques.

RIP Mark "Mozaz" Wallis

Mark Wallis, an anarchist and photographer in Sheffield, has passed away. Though I never got to know him personally, despite apparently walking right past him at a demo in Sheffield last year, I was familiar enough with him to be saddened by news of his passing.

That we can make connections with, and feel a pang at the loss of, people we would never otherwise meet is perhaps one of the positives of the internet. Though we had our disagreements, one of which led to him removing me from his Facebook account, we continued to converse via Twitter, and I was quite proud that he continued to re-post my blogs on his own when he thought the message worth spreading.

For those who knew him better than I, there is a far more fitting tribute to him over at Incurable Hippie's blog. For my part, I will simply end with that timeless sentiment: rest in peace, comrade.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Economic blockades and the royal wedding

As I've previously reported, Ed Miliband is not happy with the idea of disruptions to the royal wedding by trade unions or, I imagine, anybody else. However, I think that the idea is a delightful one, and it is worth looking at what could be done to maximise the distruption.

There should be little doubt that at least a hint of political pressure came into the timing of the engagement and the wedding. It is, as others have put it, nothing more than bread and circuses for the masses. We get a public holiday so that we may flock to London or turn the television in order to see our betters wed with a degree of finery and luxury that we can never afford.

But this event should not evoke in us national pride but class pride. After all, the only substantial effect of William Windsor and Kate Middleton's wedding is that we get a long May Day weekend. And if, the day after Workers' Memorial Day, we are getting four days off in time for International Workers' Day, then I would politely suggest that looking up to royalty with pride and awe is not the most fitting celebration. The order of the day has to be class warfare.

Barring something truly unforseen, on April 29th the working class will still be facing brutal austerity measures. Workers will still have job losses hanging over their heads. The spectre of homelessness will still loom large for tenants and mortage-payers. The most vulnerable will still be stairing into the abyss of even deeper poverty. And people will still be trying to organise and fight back.

But, if the royal wedding is the target for our anger and frustration, then there is the question of how we go about it. One thing is clear is that we have to go beyond the peaceful and the symbolic. We don't need protests: we need direct action.

The more moderate and reformist sectors of the anti-cuts movement may not be on board with this. Indeed, the Sunny Hundals of this world view direct action as "mob violence" and believe that the whole point of any campaign should be to "win the argument" so that “laws get passed via Parliament” that suit our cause. But this approach is quite clearly getting us nowhere.

As the Solidarity Federation point out; 
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.
Thus, it is clear that "symbolic protest won’t cut it" and we need to "move from largely awareness-raising into the realms of economic blockades" in order to get anywhere.

This is where we need to look both in order to effectively disrupt the wedding and, more broadly, bring the state begging. Despite union leaders such as Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka continually advocating it, "sustained, co-ordinated strike action against austerity looks unlikely," but "economic blockades have been used to great effect in France both as a standalone tactic and in support of strike action."
And it is a remarkably simple concept;
The essence of the idea is to blockade economically significant targets from shopping centres to commuter hubs to fuel depots in order to inflict economic damage comparable to a strike. To be effective, these must be mass actions, otherwise the police are adept at arresting the participants, especially if d-locked or glued-on in the activist fashion. We don’t need martyrs, we need results! We’ve already seen that large crowds can be capable of defending themselves against police attacks, especially if they go prepared knowing what to expect (like some of the protective clothing that has appeared on London demos).
Of themselves, and across the country, such actions would prove a thousand times more effective than even the most explosive a-to-b march. And, if the unions did muster up the will to see co-ordinated strikes - i.e. if the membership forces the hand of the bureaucracy - then that goes double.

We should be looking to disrupt the royal wedding, almost as a rule. Not only is it a relic of that most entrenched and immovable form of class system in feudalism, it is a considerable public expense for two rich people at a time when the poorest in society are being continually and ruthlessly shafted. And if we would pause a struggle against the ruling class out of deference to the distraction they have created, they have no reason to take us seriously.

And that, ultimately, is the point. As SolFed say, "winning the arguments and making reasoned criticisms is all well and good, but it won’t stop the cuts." We will only start winning concessions "when the ruling class fear us."

Friday, 21 January 2011

Quote of the day... this gem from one Tony Blair;
People think of WMDs as concrete things like tanks or rockets, but they can be in peoples minds – in the intellectual capability of scientists to develop them.
This quote, from his testimony at the Chilcott inquiry, marks perhaps the most fatuous attempt to justify the illegal and murderous invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, the only person reporting the quote at present is Ian Bone, with the line not appearing in the coverage from any major news outlet.

Of course, as I've written before, "little to nothing will come of the verdict" of this inquiry. "We are not going to see Bush and Blair in the dock for war crimes any time soon," and to expect such international wrongs to be righted through the very state system that perpetrated them is foolish. I would also caution against singling out Blair as exceptionally guilty in this instance because, despite his particular zeal, he was simply playing his part in a socio-economic system which expects military force to be used when neccessary to secure strategic markets and resources.

However, the lack of this quote in media coverage is telling. Particularly from the liberal outlets which have spoken out against the war.

For instance, the Guardian urges people that they "are looking for something that isn't there – the smoking gun that proves Blair's villainy." The reality, it insists, is "mistakes, his misplaced optimism in the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) intelligence about WMD, the efficacy of invading such a snake pit as quasi-Stalinist Iraq or the Pentagon's reckless occupation strategy."

In other words, oppose the war because of the strategic errors, not because it was fundamentally a wrong thing to do. Whilst the Guardian is correct about there being no final proof of Blair's villainy - this being real life rather than a Bond movie - its argument remains that of the more dovish element of the ruling class. Opposed to the war for tactical reasons, it has absolutely no wish to challenge the presumptions that underwrite the narrow debate in the mainstream media.
We should not, as even the "anti-war" establishment would no doubt like us to, "move on," or leave this in the past. This is not just about one conflict, or one warmongering leader.

Afghanistan, equally illegal and unjust, goes on. More arenas of battle will open up, as the markets require. And innocent people will continue to die. The point is not opposing a single war (thus giving up once it is over), but challenging the very concept of war and wholesale slaughter.

"Libertarians" continue to get the wrong end of the stick on education

Both Tim Worstall and the Devil's Kitchen have picked up on this phrase in a Telegraph article on education reform;
Unions said a proposed review of primary and secondary school subjects would render the curriculum unfit for the needs of a modern education system.

They insisted that a renewed focus on detailed subject knowledge was “elitist” and would alienate thousands of children, particularly those from the poorest backgrounds.
This, naturally, leaves them flabbergasted. Worstall asks, "it’s elitist to know things now, is it?" Whilst  DK postulates a belief that "poor people cannot possibly be interested in learning because, presumably, they want to ensure that they and their children remain poor for ever" as the reason teaching unions "have got to go."

However, looking deeper into the article itself, we find what Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, actually said;
Teachers want another curriculum review like a hole in the head.

This is a pointless review when ministers have already determined that children should have a 1950s-style curriculum.

Last week the Coalition Government dismissed a whole raft of current core subjects as unimportant. A review is unlikely to change this prejudiced and elitist view.
Which, actually, doesn't take the view that "knowing about stuff in anything greater than the most cursory detail is "elitist"." Imagine that.

Not that we should be surprised that the smugly anti-union demagogues of the libertarian right have taken to quote mining. Or that they deliberately conflate the Telegraph's fallacious interpretation of opposition to the present reforms with the real views espoused by the NASUWT and others. It fits in perfectly with the false binary that they have created between "statists" and "libertarians."

It is that false binary which blinds them to the real problems with the debate on education. In particular, the misleading use of the word "freedom" by right-wingers when pushing something which merely shifts authoritarianism and domination into a different form.

Take this quote from John Dunford, formerly of the Association of School and College Leaders;
The Government must stick to its promise to give schools and colleges more freedom to plan what is appropriate for their students.

The review should recognise that while employers are seeking young people with the essential skills of literacy and numeracy, they are also looking for increasingly essential skills such as team-working and communication.

Similarly, while they are looking for young people with good academic and vocational qualifications, they are also looking for young people who are successful independent learners who display qualities such as creativity and resilience.

The review’s recommendations should encourage schools and colleges to develop in young people, in a planned way, a range of skills and qualities that prepare them for both life and work.
As I've noted before, "freedom" is a quality only deemed suitable for those in charge.

The private interests which would own schools under the government's plans would be "free" to mould students as they see fit. They would be "free" to shape young people according to the needs of the bosses. (Who, incidentally, are being granted the same "freedom" in how they treat workers according to government plans.) At no point are the freedoms, the wishes, or the needs of the students themselves ever discussed.

The present education system is far from perfect. But what the government is offering, and the libertarian right seems to be throwing itself behind, only serves to make things worse.

Giving children over from a system with some transparency and oversight to unaccountable private tyrannies  is not "libertarian." It only serves to reduce their freedoms. Such a move needs to be fought, not just to preserve the existing system, but in favour of a genuinely libertarian alternative.