Monthly Archives: March 2011

Break these walls down: Some thoughts on the way forward

by Liam McNulty

Taking up from where Edd left off in his discussion of the relationship between UK Uncut, trade unionism and the shoppers of Oxford Street, it seems clear that if the government is to be defeated the gaps between different sectors of the anti-cuts movement and between the movement and the hitherto passive members of the public need to be bridged.

It has been a cliché since the late 1970s to speak of the forward march of labour halted but one does not have to look too far to see mass action by trade unions gaining results, significant despite their limitations.  Action by unions and students temporarily halted the First Employment Contract in France and though the French trade union movement has a more militant tradition, let it not be forgotten that union density across the channel is much lower than in the United Kingdom (Table 3).  It is possible that the French trade unions punch above their weight, drawing in wider layers of society.  More on this below.

Nevertheless, the patterns of labour organisation have changed, perhaps irreversibly, since the late 70s and the onset of deindustrialisation.  These ONS statistics are slightly out of date but they are a testament to several fundamental changes.  Firstly, union density is higher for women than for men (undermining the lazy media image of Teamster-style union ‘thugs’).  Secondly, this suggests a bias towards the public rather than the private sector, a trend corroborated by the relatively high incidents of union density in Northern Ireland (39.7%) and the north-east of England (38.9%).  Thirdly, ‘more than a third of employees aged 35 and over were union members, compared with a quarter of those aged between 25 and 34.’

This raises problems for the trade union movement but it also gives some reasons to be hopeful.  Both good and bad is the strength of public sector trade unionism.  The cuts in places such as Northern Ireland are primarily aimed at public sector jobs, which threatens ruin for hundreds of thousands.  On the other hand, when whole families are included it brings in potentially millions of people who will be sympathetic to militant action to protect what is amongst the last bastions of trade union strength and a source of employment for whole areas of the United Kingdom.  More worryingly, however, is the prospect, as in Ireland, of the ruling class playing the public versus private card in order to divide the workforce.  The narrative of ‘gold-plated public sector pensions’ serves to cover the complete failure of the private sector to deliver a basic standard of living by stirring up resentment at the public sector’s modest pension entitlements.  This must be challenged.

The main source of weakness for the trade union movement, however, is its failure to sufficiently organise in the private sector and amongst young workers.  The private sector brings with it problems such as casualised employment, agency contracts, and outsourcing.  These problems are most pronounced for young workers, a contingent under-represented in trade unions.  One reason for this is clearly the break in tradition caused by the disruption to traditional patterns of employment in reasons once dominant by single industries, such as steel in Sheffield or shipbuilding in Belfast.  Moreover, privatisation and outsourcing has done a lot to fragment the workforce and mitigates against collective class consciousness.  At a rally during the UCU strike, one comrade related a story from Thursday morning’s picket line, unfavourably contrasting the picket-crossing private couriers in the near empty vans with the CWU member in the full Royal Mail van who remained loyal to basic ideals of solidarity.

What activist group such as UK Uncut have done is to involve lots of young people in forms of militant protest for the first time; young people who may be students or unemployed, perhaps working in sectors of the economy that are largely unorganised or who have not for various reasons felt attracted to trade unionism.  The UK Uncut maxim that ‘if the economy disrupts us, we must disrupt the economy’ has a lot of truth to it. Nevertheless, it may be unfashionable to say so but disrupting shoppers on a Saturday afternoon is not going to challenge capitalism any more than peasant riots against the gabelle salt tax threatened French absolutism.  If the RMT shut down the tube network, however, the impact on Topshop turnover will be felt; if workers occupy a factory and seize the means of production then they strike a much more high-impact blow.

This is not to say, of course, that disrupting the sphere of commodity circulation and raising consciousness of corporate greed is pointless.  Not at all.  Indeed, both a strike and smashing symbolic targets involve people combating the reifying logic of capitalism by stepping outside the roles predetermined for them by the dominant economic system, whether as consumers or workers.  Both are acts of conscious subjects engaged in political activity.  However, we must realistically assess where the locus of economic power rests.  A thousand broken windows will still not equal the disruption if the country’s workforce bring the economy to a halt. I say this not because I’m a dull Marxist for whom fun is forbidden, or because I have a metaphysical predisposition towards the idea that the working class is the most powerful agent of change.  Rather, it is because the organised workers’ movement still, despite its diminution and limitations, represents the largest cohesive collective agent in society.  Of this there can be no doubt.

Alas, haven’t I spent the first part of this article bemoaning the lack of private sector union organisation and the under-representation of young workers in the trade union movement? Yes, and this is where I think a common praxis between the trade union movement and other sections of the anti-cuts movement is important.  It is a truism that successful trade union struggles build confidence and membership- just look at the RMT.  It is also the case, however, that anti-union laws and lower trade union density have made spectacular victories in this country less common.  On the part of the unions, more has to be done to engage with young workers and organise marginalised sectors of the workforce, especially in the service sector (bars, shops etc).  The General Unions of the late nineteenth century came to prominence off the back of illegal and militant struggles yet the very general unions such as the GMB today recoil from anything like the tactics which brought them into being in the first place.

There needs to be a convergence between those young people who are attracted to disrupting Oxford Street and the union members who remained on the march.  This requires direct activists joining trade unions, suggesting militant tactics at branch level and pushing from below at rank-and-file level.  We must break down the dichotomy between dull, legalistic trade unionism on the one hand and direct action on the other.  As Edd writes below, sabotage, machine-breaking and others forms of disruptive activity are not alien to the trade union movement, they are integral to its history.  There have already been incidents such as when CWU members blockaded the streets of London and some reps threatened occupations of sorting offices facing closure.  We have also recently seen factory occupations at Vestas and Ford-Visteon.

The anti-cuts movement needs to become like an octopus, with one body and many limbs linking together activists, community groups and organised workers in common struggle.  This requires militant trade unionists to be less like the dour-faced CGT stewards separating Parisian workers from the students of ’68 and more like the radical CNT members whose strikes in Barcelona involved whole communities through food protests, student pickets and confrontations with state power; it also requires groups such as UK Uncut to engage more with trade unions and concentrate less on secretive stunts.  The movement in the UK is on a scale not seen for years and it would be idiotic to squander the creativity and ingenuity of new forms of protest.  Rather, we must harness our collective forces and wage struggle against the government on every conceivable level.

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Rallies and Riots: Hyde Park to Piccadilly

by Edd Mustill

I’m going to add my personal account of Saturday’s protest to the many that are already out there, and hopefully draw some political conclusions from it. As always, discussion is welcomed and encouraged.

Marching and Uncutting

On Saturday I spent most of the day, more by accident than design, leaving areas just before things kicked off in a big way. This happened at Fortnum and Mason’s, Piccadilly Circus, and Trafalgar Square.

The march itself was, I reckon, at least half a million strong. Why the TUC still seem to be playing down the numbers is baffling, and perhaps a worrying indication of their (lack of) future plans. I spent the early part of it finding, losing, and finding again people I knew in places. I was still on the Embankment by the time the rally in Hyde Park was under way.

Ed Miliband’s Hyde Park speech pulled out the usual cliché about the “peaceful” movements of the past, including the suffragettes, who burned churches and whose window-breaking antics make today’s students look like Autoglass. There was not only nothing in his speech about class (we expect this from Labour by now), but nothing even about what Labour’s “alternative” is. No hint of policy, except to say that “some cuts” are necessary.

The trade unions were out in force in their contingents, and it really was a sight to see. Uniformed firemen, the huge banners of the RMT, doctors in their uniforms. Encouragingly, many in the trade union contingents were younger than I expected. The left was organised and engaged with the marchers.

There are moments, on huge demonstrations, where you can see and feel the ocean of people surrounding you, the jokes being cracked, the songs being sung, the drums beating. You lose a friend in the crowd, swap an anecdote with a stranger, and you think, “How can this possibly not make any difference?”

Then you walk past Parliament and Downing Street, and you remember that just marching never makes any difference.

When I saw the UK Uncut flag appear out of the window of Fortnum’s, I had to ask someone I was with what the shop actually sold. Perhaps this shows how unlikely it is that “normal” people will ever shop in those places or, for that matter, be able to stay at the Ritz. But some people were dismayed by the choice or target, and some people by the use of direct action (both from UKUncut and from the black bloc) altogether. “Look at that,” one Unison member said to another as we went past the Ritz. “That’s terrible.”

I spoke to some who were very much in favour of direct action, but wondered why more “political” targets hadn’t been chosen. UKUncut’s targets are softer and easier, and revolve around the central political demand of “pay your taxes,” which is hardly radical. The politics of the group is unavoidably amorphous, but seems to be based around the sub-Keynesian assumption that getting tax-dodging companies to pay up can solve the current capitalist crisis.

The obvious potential contradiction here is that you’re demanding that the state, currently steered by a Tory government, acts against these companies. We don’t have any tax-collecting powers.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the UK Uncut actions have been very good, but the disciplined Marxist in me is saying, sooner or later you need a strategy for confronting the state.

A narrative quickly developed, pushed by both the police and the TUC, that there were two separate protests, and the direct action had nothing to do with the main march. But by the time we passed the Ritz it had been done in. Also, this had the immediate effect of confusing UKUncut and the black bloc protesters on the day itself. The BBC News ticker on Saturday night read “Police clash with protesters from UKUncut in Trafalgar Square.” This atmosphere possibly contributed to many knee-jerk condemnations of the direct actions from the left, like this from Andy Newman and this absolute garbage by Anthony Painter on LabourList.

Those complaining that the later action took media coverage away from the main march are just wrong. There was a lot of coverage of the march, then something else happened, which got covered too. That’s how the news works. I’m pretty sure that, with everything going on in the Middle East, the networks would have moved on pretty rapidly anyway.

To paraphrase Matthew Perry’s character in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60, I’m sure the media would be happy to cover the TUC if only anyone from the TUC would say or do something.

Rioting

It didn’t really dawn on me until later on Sunday that I had spent my Saturday evening wandering through a riot. I came to the conclusion that riots are weird. Does this have any political implications?

Having left Hyde Park we decided to check out Oxford Street, but there was nothing going on. Several shops were shut and guarded by riot police. People were shopping away. Normal life continued around a huge demonstration that could have been a life-changing experience for those on it. Later, as I went home on the tube, there were no excited conversations, or even indignant rants against violence. There was no-one heading home with their home-made placard. So obviously we have a lot of work still to do.

On Regent Street a group of people were dancing in the middle of the road, holding up four riot vans. Shoppers came out of H&M to take photos, then wandered away. After a while the vans turned round and left. I have no idea if this logistically helped any protesters in other parts of London. Soon after the vans left another one pulled up, a short-shield riot squad formed up and charged up the street. So the police tactics were confused. That’s when the fundamental characteristic of a riot hits home; it’s weird not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because no-one else does either.

The police appear clueless, just responding to the latest event. The black bloc appears to have fragmented and is running around choosing targets somehow. Two people sit down in Piccadilly Circus and begin to paint a picture of protesters on the Eros statue, before noticing that a building appears to be on fire, and a line of riot police have silently appeared in front of Boots, as if from nowhere. On Haymarket, a man is tackled to the ground by seven police officers and an attempt to de-arrest him leads several dozen anarchists to congregate outside a hotel where Ho Chi Minh used to work. As we turn round, a squad of TSG rush out of a van straight through us. We don’t hang around.

Is any of the chaos useful? It’s difficult to know straight away. It is probably no more or less useful in itself than a TUC rally in Hyde Park. We have been treated to the usual cliches about how all the anarchists must be middle class, but the black bloc didn’t seem any more or less middle class than, say, the teachers’ unions’ contingents. And the crowd in Trafalgar Square certainly wasn’t.

We need to recognise how complex people’s political positions can be. Could it be possible that there are people who think that smashing up the Ritz is an important political statement, and also think that trade unions are organisations crucial to the fight against the government? Could be. Could people exist who want to march, go to a rally, and do some direct action? Let’s hope so, for the sake of the movement.

Opposing or denouncing direct action in order to seem more “serious” or “responsible” is meaningless. Does anyone on the far-left who calls for a general strike seriously think that it would or could pass off without some picket-line scuffles or property damage? Does no-one in the trade union movement remember that there was a time when industrial sabotage was a feature of many big strikes?

Strikes are a form of economic warfare, or sabotage, and they cost people money. Of course, it’s “better” when this sabotage is organised, directed, and sustained democratically by unions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that any other form should be dismissed as useless. Why not argue that strikes are counterproductive because they might “alienate” people from the cause?

Doing the rounds on the Facebook walls of a lot of lefties is the following quotation from Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Catchy. But in its full context, it is clear King is criticising riots as a childish exercise. Could we take more from Malcolm X’s discussion of “extremism”?:

“When one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings then he is a sinner… Patrick Henry said ‘liberty or death’, that’s extreme. Very extreme.”

Like it or not, the West End riot was a series of political acts. To pretend otherwise is to accept the police narrative that it was just criminal elements in it for themselves. If that was true, why wouldn’t they do it on a weekend when 4,500 cops weren’t on duty in central London?

Closing the gap

There’s obviously a huge political problem confronting the anti-cuts movement. Only a tiny minority of those opposed to the cuts are at this stage comfortable with taking direct action, just as only a minority are in favour of taking militant industrial action. There are also differences over what forms of direct action to take.

The crucial question now is this: how do we get more people more militant while still being able to engage with the people who carried on shopping around Oxford Street?

We know from the student occupations that militant action can (and if it is to be successful, must) be part of a political debate. The Fortnum and Mason action did not “detract” from any debate; if anything, it at the very least highlighted the tax-dodging behaviour of the business. It concretely highlighted the sort of “alternative” that the TUC figures were nodding towards in their Hyde Park speeches. That is, a limited one. The anarchists and the organised far-left have, of course, nominally got a much more holistic alternative in mind: revolution.

On Saturday we saw, broadly speaking; moderate activity with reformist goals (from the TUC), moderate activity with revolutionary goals (from the far left), militant activity with reformist goals (from UKUncut), and militant activity with revolutionary goals (from the black bloc).

Individuals in the anarcho-syndicalist Solidarity Federation have published this letter urging UKUncut activists not to fall for the false divide between “good” and “bad” protesters. They rightly point out that “repression is not provoked by violent actions, but by effective actions.”

It seems that, unless the unions and/or the far left are willing to organise more militant actions, they will remain the “stunts” of a few. The direct activists should be union organisers in their workplaces, working to democratise their unions.

The various left groups who are now turning their attention to the possibility of bringing about a general strike should talk about not only the quantity of strike action, but also its form. Will the picket lines do what picket lines are meant to do? Will there be work-ins? Will there be wildcat action? Does enough rank-and-file strength exist in any union to pull this off? If not, how can we change that?

Because unions are big and on the front line, their adoption of militant tactics would involve far more people than UKUncut or anarchist groups can currently mobilise for such ends. But in the meantime there’s no point decrying direct action as the work of a minority – after all, nearly everything is. Even a general strike would be. For its part, The TUC should, if possible, be giving legal support to those who get in trouble on its protests, not disowning them.

Whether or not Saturday was a success cannot be known yet. It depends on how many people go back home determined to carry on fighting, rather than seeing the march as an end. The TUC appears to have no strategy. The left’s strategy is largely to rely on the TUC to call a general strike. Meanwhile, direct activists risk being isolated from the rest of the movement.

In future articles I’ll try to express some more ideas about what I think should be done next. In short, we need to be in a position where direct action and trade unionism are not seen as mutually exclusive. We need, somehow, to redevelop militant unionism.

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Not just marching

This is a guest post by The Bastard-Octopus

Hundreds of thousands of conversations will have been had this weekend, and countless more will be happening today as people return to work, about the tactics of several thousand anti-austerity protesters in London on Saturday.

“Extremists” have once again been accused of “hijacking” a march to express their own viewpoints. Strangely, hijacking does not mean leading the march to an altogether different location, but deciding oneself to break a few handful of banks’ and luxury shops’ windows, away from the bulk of the march.

Some allegedly sympathetic commentators have bemoaned the police for arresting UKUncut demonstrators who peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason’s, when instead they should have targetted the “career troublemakers” who destroyed property earlier in the day.

All of these accounts bear roughly the same narrative: half a million people assembled in London to pacifically navigate from Embankment to Hyde Park; their day of genuine and even cute placard-waving was ruined by a hardcore with their “own agenda” – occupying some buildings, breaking others, and throwing paint on a couple statues. Many of these activists have received heavy criticism for wearing black clothes and masks – making up the “black bloc.”

This is an intervention in defence of direct action.

I am prepared to admit that on Saturday I did mask up, and I happily encourage all friends to do so, whether we have the intention of breaking the law or not. Wearing a mask is first and foremost a means of protection, and not a symbol of aggression.

Walking around the demonstration, a number of people stopped to offer abuse to myself or some other fellow activist for having made the decision to wear a mask. We were told variously by supposed comrades to “grow up”, not to be so “cowardly”, or just generally shouted at by people who have presumably not attended a demonstration for over a decade.

Masks are a demo-must for any activist who does not appreciate being photographed by the police for merely being in attendance on a march, protest, or action. We don’t wear our masks for fun, but because we staunchly believe that it is both appropriate and a responsibility for us to resist the existing situation, and that in leaving our identities open to theft by the state we make not only ourselves but the movement vulnerable.

People never complain about dissident voices being raised under pseudonyms and monikers on the internet – why is it that protecting our identities in the open air should be so different? Certainly there is an instinctive reaction of mistrust to the sight of someone able to register you, but not vice versa. But this reaction is coloured so fundamentally by relationships of power: I’ve yet to hear a single protester heckle a police officer for having a visor cover her/his face.

To have any understanding of what it means to be an anti-capitalist is therefore also to recognise that those who smashed panes of glass and turned over a few bins on Saturday were not doing it for the craic, just as they did not dress up for the simple sake of it.

Let us reappraise the situation here: are we not in the midst of an economic turmoil unseen since the early twentieth century? Are we not seeing the vast bulk of public services closed down or sold off in an effort to recoup the money spent on bailing out the financial sector in 2008-9?

What in comparison to these attacks, which will leave millions without income, is a broken Santander window? What in comparison to these attacks, which will even leave thousands dead, is the occupation of a luxury grocer’s?

And if the situation will not be moved by the relatively small-scale destruction of property that we saw this weekend (especially in relation to the 1990 anti-poll-tax demonstration), what good will a passive march do? All signs point to the necessity of greater participation in and new forms of direct action, new ways of disobeying those who would gladly destroy so much.

The dichotomy between “protester” and “anarchist” or “troublemaker” is entirely false. Anarchism is a school of thought which leads virtually all adherents into active and regular protest. Protest in itself is an intention to “make trouble” for the authorities. It is not intended to be easily digested by those with power: it is supposed to be a spanner in the works to make the gears of oppression harder to grind. A protest which can be greeted with warm words by any Minister (or, dare I say, even leader of the Opposition) is no protest at all.

As for the specifics: Property destruction is one form of protest which hundreds, if not thousands, chose to partake in one way or another this weekend. Just the same, occupations are a tactic by which we can make ourselves heard. Such tactics are called direct action because we act directly, immediately, personally. We do not wait for others to do something for us – the urgent situation demands urgent resolutions.

There is hence a variety of reasons why a good number of protesters chose to mask up on Saturday. First, a commitment to act directly against the movement to fling the vast majority of people in the UK into such brutalising situations; to cause as much disruption as possible in order to bring the process to a halt. Second, a commitment to stand in solidarity with those who intend to disobey so openly – protecting their identities by fostering mass-anonymity. And third, something which most marchers unfortunately seemed not to understand, a commitment to protect one’s own identity, whether breaking the law in the end or not. I hope to see even more people taking responsibility for their own lives, and taking precautions to protect their own identities by wearing a mask at the next anti-cuts demonstration.

So-called “anti-cuts” activists or advocates must get away from bashing the tactics of direct action and start to question how it is that those with the power can get away with so much. Then and only then can they come to the table and offer us suggestions of ways forward – suggestions which are currently missing from every criticism of Saturday that I have heard so far.

The “direct activists” (for want of a better term) among us should move on to discuss how the police managed to have such a successful day on Saturday: meting out so many more injuries to protesters than were sustained, arresting so many protesters (and even legal observers) without much hassle, and kettling thousands once more, without any sincere media coverage – let alone scrutiny – whatsoever.

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Anarchist protest hijacked by TUC

by Edd Mustill

Anarchist protesters expressed disappointment last night after their protest in central London was hijacked by elements from the TUC.

Protesters advocating militant direct action against businesses accused of tax-dodging were dismayed when TUC stewards in pink bibs broke away and directed crowds into Hyde Park.

A huge anti-cuts march set off from Victoria Embankment at around midday, and marchers attacked the Ritz and Fortnam and Mason’s, but by mid-afternoon most protesters had been diverted from action and were standing around on some grass doing nothing. This course of action was widely denounced as counterproductive by organisers.

Jezza, an anarchist from East London, said: “I find it disgusting that every time we hold a protest we have to put up with these idiots coming along. You never see the Ed Milibands or Brendan Barbers during the bread-and-butter work of community organising but as soon as there’s a big march they all come out of the woodwork, just wanting to further their own political agendas.”

Sarah Smith, a public sector worker who came to the protest by coach from Newcastle, told us: “I was all in favour of kicking off, but when we got here I found out we’d have to listen to some boring speeches in a park.”

Commander Bob Broadhurst, the officer in charge of the policing operation, said: “We like dealing with the anarchists because at least we get some exercise. But when the TUC appear, some of our officers find it difficult to stay awake, alert, and on their feet for a whole shift.”

By the evening the remnants of the TUC elements had left Hyde Park, allowing the protest to resume as planned.

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What happened in Trafalgar Square?

By Patrick

Last night, and this morning, fragmented reports were circulating about some serious police violence at Trafalgar Square. The mainstream media have (sparsely) reported police moving in on a crowd ‘throwing water bottles and coins’ late last night. The twitterverse (I won’t name sources, but I can if necessary) has a few reports that someone tried to stick some stickers on the new olympic clock, the police tried to arrest them by way of snatch squad, and it all escalated from there. Also, a youtube video appears to show some ‘robust’ policing.

Unconfirmed reports are circulating of a broken arm, police using batons so hard that they broke one, and of 200 arrests (but this may be in reference to the Fortnums/Picadilly kettle earlier in the day).

All this seems might confusing – yesterday evening, the Square apparently had a carnival atmosphere, with music and a small bonfire, and the action was planned as an occupation of the square, not as a base to occupy or damage other targets. Yet only a few hours later, it seems to have been totally (and violently) cleared by the police.

So what happened? I’ll try and update this post as more information comes in.

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March 26th – Live Updates

By Patrick (scroll down to the bottom for the introduction)

20.33
A few thoughts on why these kind of events frequently end up in a ruck with the police:

This was probably not one of those times when sheer police brutality sparked fights between protesters and police. Rather, the causes of ‘scuffles’ and ‘skirmishes’ might be a bit different. Basically, this afternoon saw hundreds of thousands of people gathered in our capital city with the stated aim of pursuing a social change of some sort. Even the most labourite opportunist was calling for a change in fiscal policy, and the majority of people want some fairly fundamental changes to our economic structure (e.g. the tobin tax, state direction of credit, state investment in industry and an end to privatisation). However, the way the day was organised and directed was meant to shut down any and all possibilities for change, creativity, or freedom of any sort.

Let me explain – first, the TUC had hundreds of stewards, backed up by 4500 police to ensure that people stuck to the agreed route. The TUC refused to support any feeder marches, or in fact, any plans that were not made by the TUC itself. The vast majority of protesters could have felt more free, more self fulfilled, more like changing society if they had just wandered the streets with a small group of friends. Second, the ritualistic rally at the conclusion of the march could not have been designed better to disempower people – a huge, imposing stage, with a pre-arranged set of ‘speakers’ who will repeat the same hackneyed phrases over and over again. Many of the protesters, maybe not knowing London very well, and having coaches or trains to catch at a pre-arranged time, had no choice but to listen to said speeches until it was time to be shuttled back home.

No attempt was made by the TUC to encourage creativity or self-expression, and every attempt appears to have been made to turn the rally into something like a Catholic Mass – a visually imposing platform occupied by men making meaningless, empty statements for an agreed amount of time before everyone is allowed to go home. The worst part of it all is this: we are told that this is how you fight for a better society. The enormous cognitive dissonance produced by these two opposing elements of the experience will do one of two things. It will either make people very passive, tired and depressed, or it will make people take seriously the empty statements about change.

If the latter happens, then the next step will be anger – anger at the boredom you have just endured, anger at the internal conflicts of the situation. Anger, which becomes, when all possibilities for its expression in a productive manner, intensely destructive.

The events of today were a microcosm, a parable for British Society as a whole. Opportunities for dissent, creativity, and meaningful movement towards social change have been shut down, and continue to be shut down, not by outright violent oppression, but through governance – through placing people in situations where they are encouraged to feel passive, through the anti-trade union laws, through increasing restrictions on protest, on squatting, on free parties and raves, through the very civilised way that three big political parties (all with very similar agendas) have hegemonised politics, and through the way these parties of the state have their hands on every sizeable organisation or grouping of people. All but a few narrow avenues of social life (now and in the future) have been shut down. The reaction to this is either passivity (apathy, falling electoral turnout, falling union membership and so on) or anger and violence.

I’m not saying that many of the people who were fighting the police today had gone through this process from cognitive dissonance to intense anger all in one afternoon, rather, they have been going through it for years, and when the opportunity arises to break out of the tight webs of governance, if even just for an hour, then they sieze the opportunity. However, since so many previously ‘legitimate’ and ‘peaceful’ and productive, and creative avenues of social change and social life have been shut down, the process inevitably ends in illegal acts, and a fight with the police. It is only at this point that violent oppression is used by the state, once protesters, squatters, ravers, or workers have found that, to do anything remotely empowering, the law must be broken, once they have ‘disgraced themselves’ by becoming the ‘violent’ ‘extremist’ minority.

The ruling class and the state are quite clever when you think about it – society becomes more unequal, more tightly governed, less fluid, less likely to change, more easily exploitable by the powerful, but at the same time, the (serious) opposition to this, the opposition actually hoping to make things better, becomes more other-ised, more separate from the mainstream, a more justifiable target for the kind of violent repression that would cause outrage and scandal if it was wrought on ‘normal people’.

Erm, yeah. There might still be a kettle at Picadilly, thousands partying on Trafalgar Square, unconfirmed reports that riot police may be moving towards the square. 150 in hyde park, camping. I’m signing off for the evening, hoping everyone has fun tonight!

19.58
The occupiers who emerged from F&M have been kettled (despite police promises they would not be) and are being arrested one by one. There’s still reports of incidents here and there, but the main attractions seem to be a nice warm bonfire at Oxford Circus, and music and socialising at Trafalgar Square. There’s a bonfirein Hyde Park as well – I’m not sure if people are planning to camp for the night.

18.27
BBC reports that UKuncut activists just emerged from Fortnum and Mason’s. Police are making sure no more are inside. The situation in Picadilly is getting a tad ugly, the crowd is not kettled (I think), but a few are still focused on breaking police lines. Stay mobile! Head on to the next thing!

Resist26 tweet that the Hyde Park occupation starts at 7. Let’s hope they have the organisation and the people to pull it off.

18.12
Apparently people are either kettled or being driven away from Fortnum and Mason. Maybe moving to Trafalgar Square would be fun? I’ve heard no news about the Hyde Park occupation, which showed some promise of making contact with a wider group of demonstrators.

18.07
Many in the twitterverse have been complaining that the media gave loads of coverage of direct action and the black bloc, and very little to the 300,000 peaceful demonstrators. Well, that’s probably because the 300,000 didn’t DO anything very interesting.

No-one is going to put you on telly for making a carboard sign and going for a walk in the park. Sure, you may have travelled a long way, but people travel across the country every day of the week. You don’t have to smash windows or throw stuff, but at least do SOMETHING vaguely interesting if you want some media coverage.

I don’t want to devalue the efforts of old or infirm protesters – merely getting to London is a great achievement if you’re not at your physical prime. However, the younger, able bodied of the ‘peaceful majority’ can’t really justifiably complain that the media gave them little coverage for taking a walk in the park and listening to boring speeches that we’ve all heard before.

17.48
Take a look at the scene inside Fortnum and Masons – no theft or damage. Outside, the story is slightly different, Santander Branch near Picadilly has just been smashed in.

17.43
The Met report only two police officers injured. Let’s take a note of that now, for when they try and inflate the numbers later. UPDATE [17.51] – the BBC now says 4 officers injured.

17.38
It’s hilarious watching the BBC struggle with the concept of the Black Bloc – ‘we can see a member of, er.. an allied to the Black Bloc’ … ‘it’s not a group, it’s more of a uniform, or a, er….’

17.33
A group not kettled near Picadilly are heading to F&M, some scuffles and Police violence. Resist26 are calling for an occupation of Hyde Park.

Anyone who is tired, don’t forget the convergence space in Mayfair – there might be food, good discussion and somewhere to sit down for a bit.

17.30
Something noticable about the media coverage (and the line argued by the Tories) is that the TUC and the Labour party have not articulated the ‘alternative’ much trumpeted by the march. Why is this?

To my mind, the standard left-keynsian alternative is piss easy to articulate. You cut less, over a longer time, pass new legislation to crack down on tax dodgers, you employ more people at HMRC to collect more tax, and you allow ‘economic growth’ to erode the rest of the deficit. Miliband, Barber, and co. seemed incapable of articulating their simple reformist programme. Are they that inarticulate? Or is media bias so extreme that even the (non-radical) keynesian response to the crisis is censored?

Probably not. I imagine that Labour and the TUC are keeping quiet about the content their ‘alternative’ because it is pretty horrific – it would involve a massive driving down of wages (through inflation and a continuing lack of bargaining power on the part of the unions), longer hours, and harder, more competitive work. ‘Going for growth’ will mean a significant erosion in the living standards of their core constituency.

Sorry about the rant – there’s not a lot to report on right now.

17.16
A tent has been set up in Trafalgar Square, apparently there’s a good atmosphere, with dancing and music. Remember: social change means changing social relationships and forming new ones, it involves discussion and thinking – so get down there and meet some people! Y’know, if you want to.

17.10
Apprently kettle forming outside F&M – run away if you’re there, or you’ll miss dinner! Apparently there’s already a kettle at Picadilly Circus. If you’ve gone prepared – put on a tie and whip out a copy of the telegraph, and bluster in a posh voice until the Police let you out.

17.06
London Indymedia’s twitter feed claims there’s another wave of thousands of people moving towards Oxford Circus. Unconfirmed.

It will be interesting to see where everyone goes now the rally has finished. It seems unlikely that every single one of the 500,000 will head straight for coaches or the pub, when there’s still an opportunity to protest against tax dodgers?

17.04
The BBC are continuously repeating the SAME two interviewees they spoke to on the march who condemned the ‘violence’. Maybe they couldn’t find anyone else to condemn it?

17.02
Sukey says 150 riot police rushing towards F&M now. REMEMBER – civil trespass is not a criminal offence. Does this picture show aggravated trespass or criminal damage? (Btw – that’s a realy question, aggravated trespass is a vague offence, and I’m not really sure where trespass turns into the aggravated variety).

16.57
A sky news employee tweets ‘Marchers shouting “shame on you” to people occupying Fortnum’ – more deliberate misinformation, akin to the Aaron Porter ‘anti-semitic chant’ accusations. Obviously, the protesters outside were engaging in the time-honoured tradition of shouting ‘shame on you’ at the police. Meanwhile, it’s reported that Libyan state TV is showing pics from the March, and claiming it’s a protest against the imperialist actions of NATO and the UN. Media is so easy to manipulate. It seems to be designed to allow journalists to say whatever the fuck they want with no consequences.

16.55
Reports from those inside F&M say no goods have been damaged. If that’s true, they’ve committed a heroic act of restraint and non-clumsiness.

16.46
Not that I’m opposed to illegal action, but Sukey does make an interesting point:

‘Notting Hill Carnival 1 million people, 230 arrested. 26 March Under 500,000 people, 13 arrested. Nice family day out then.’

This raises the question – should activists understate the militancy of protests, so maintain a ‘fluffy’ image (as Sukey seek to do), or should they overstate the ‘violence’ to emphasise that violence is justified? The answer, as ever is – tell the truth as far as possible, and refuse to accept that other individuals’ actions in some way ‘represent’ your actions or those of any other protesters.
16.42
True to form, UKuncut have put out this press release explaining the action at F&M.

16.34
On Numbers – what do ‘numbers’ at a demonstration mean? Many appear to be treating the march as a sort of proof that lots of people oppose the government, like a big opinion poll. So why not just conduct an opinion poll? Others see it as ‘sending a message to the government’ that unions and communities are willing to act. However, if we’re sending a message, we have to be willing to act on that message. Union leadershis, the TUC and especially the Labour Party seem totally unwilling to use this mass support to act.

Surely, the only point of going out onto the streets is to DO SOMETHING. To get creative and to promote the cause, to refuse to be governed and constrained, so we can get the necessary experience and mindset to act, or to physically disrupt the normal circulation of commodities to subvert normal governance and provide a glimpse of another kind of society.

The TUC could have done all these things, even within it’s strictly reformist, non-violent (even its strictly legalistic) frame, but it didn’t. It was content to encourage its hundreds of thousands of supporters to be as passive as possible.

They could have at least done some street theatre, or held a policy discussion for fuck’s sake.
16.33
Police are convering on Oxford Circus/Regent Street Area. The Trojan Horse has been set on fire at Oxford Circus.

16.30
UKuncut claim that Fortnum and Mason dodge £10 million tax every year. They may have chosen Fortnums as a target as it is not a chain of shops, so presumably ALL the profit it makes is UK-based profit, so the argument about tax evasion is far easier to make. However, I’m sure F&M was chosen in a Class War-esque move to disrupt the playground of the rich.
16.23
Blogging about this demo has allowed me a bit of insight into the psychology of journalists – I find myself reporting far more closely on the ‘minority of trouble makers’ than on the mass of the march, simply because there is NOTHING to report about the main march. The speeches were shit and cliched, there was so little creative action along the main march. There was no chance to discuss or discover new possibilities. My problem with the TUC is not that they are reformist, rather, it’s that they absolutely refuse to allow the energy and creativity of their supporters to discover new possibilities for action, policy, politics, or anything.

Also – crowd inside Fortnum and Mason has swelled to hundreds.

16.19
Keep up with UKuncut’s twitter feed, they seem to have discovered thet Fortnum’s dodge millions of pounds of tax. Don’t forget – some of these people are ex-climate camp, so they’re good at media. Let’s hope they can explain why they’re occupying a tea shop. BBC showing very large number of people outside Fortnum’s.

16.18
Apparently actors are performing Shakespeare with 30% cuts on Oxford Street.

Watch out! Rumour of a kettle at Picadilly!

16.12
The BBC reporter on the ground at Oxford Circus is totally cluless – he claims there’s a crowd of anarchists, ‘Socialist Worker Party’ (no, their big event is at Traflgar Square, called by their NUS candidate’ and ‘Uncut’ (at least get the name right you clown.) Don’t even get me started on the rumour (repated fiathfully by the BBC) that ‘lightbulbs filled with amonia’ have been thrown at police – surely the Met can at least think of a believable weapon to lie about.

Unconfirmed reports that the Ritz has been occupied as well – anyone want to tweet me (@PatRolfe) with info?

16.08
UKuncut activists have occupied Fortnum and Masons (the posh hotel/resturant). Apparently 75 people have got inside, and there are a few thousand outside trying to get in, with smoke flares and such.

There seem to still be hundreds of people sitting down at Oxford circus, but the TSG (riot police) are moving in.

The situation at Trafalgar Square is unclear – some people seem to be congregating there.

15.09
LastHours report that the black bloc has joined the main demo again – that’s more like it – stay moving, stay fluid, but don’t be entirely seperate from the main demo.

15.04
Oxford Street is occupied apparently – with music and a party. Is it occupied, or is it kettled? From the look of the BBC TV news, it’s not kettled – there’s a rowdy crew at Oxford circus. With a soundsystem.

Correction – the trojan horse hasn’t been burned, it’s reached Oxford Circus.

14.59
A few sources, including Sukey say the Ritz has ben occupied. HSBC by Charing Cross apparently has smashed windows. It seems like there are a small minority of very fast moving, (and fairly numerous – perhaps in their thousands) militant group, but they havn’t engaged or communicated with the main body of the march.

Meanwhile, the BBC TV news still refuse to give an estimate of numbers, they say ‘thousands’ or occasionally ‘tens of thousands’ – is this bias or just normal BBC caution to not report until the facts are in.

14.52
Black Bloc throwing paint and ‘missiles’ (sticks and that) at the Ritz. The BBC reporter sounds genuinely scared, she says ‘members of the public’ may be in there. I refer her to Isiah Berlin’s critique of unbridled capitalism – we all may have the negative freedom to go for dinner at the ritz, but we lack the capability, the positive freedom. Under fre-market capitalism, our capabilities are eroded, whilst the ruling class lie to us, pretending everyone has the same rights and capabilities.

14.49
The occupation of Trafalgar Square has just been called (by a prominent student SWP member) for 5.30 pm.

14.45
The BBC is still showing people passing Parliament Square – this is a big, big demo. However, the narrative has split very neatly into ‘good’ protesters sticking to the route and listening to speeches, and ‘anarchists’ taking direct action in relatively small groups. Was it over-optimistic of me to imagine that UKuncut could link the narratives, and provide possibilities for large numbers of people to engage in direct action? Maybe.

14.41
Apparently there’s a party atmosphere at Trafalgar Square. The Trojan Horse has been set on fire.

14.39
Superb reporting from the BBC – ‘this group does just seem to be marching forward, along the street … not a lot of police presence now…’ ad infinitum. The media do seem terrified of these ungoverned bodies moving around the city. Interesting

14.28
Reports of a kettle on Oxford Street and Regent Stret. Keep clear. Stay mobile. Apparently Police are using batons and Cabmridge Circus, and the Black Bloc are hitting police vans on Shaftsbury Avenue.

Looks to me like the black bloc tactic has done what it does best – isolate the militants in a sub-cultre, leave them vulnerable to arrest and incapable of galvanising mass action. Let’s hope that someone has something up their sleeve to persuade the masses at Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square to talke more militant action.

14.11 Two reports say Lloyds TSB on Oxford Street has been occupied, and apparently anarchists are building barricades with bins on Oxford Street. BHS has also been occupied apparently, presumably on Oxford Street.

The BBC is focusing on the scuffle at Oxford street, repating the same footege of a short ruck over and over again. Why do the mainstream media do this? Contrary to popular theories, I don’t think it’s about instilling fear (of the black-clad other), I think it’s partially because TV viewers love to see things kick off, they love to see someone (anyone) challenging anything – it’s just far more interesting than the sub-6th form debating club speechifying of Ed Miliband.

14.01
Boots in Picdilly Circus shut down:
Boots Picadilly Circus

Black Bloc apparently heading up Great Portland Street. From the BBC tv reports, it looks like the bloc is fragmenting.

13.54
Twitterverse has gone quiet – because things are happening. Scuffles outside Topshop on Oxford street, flares and pain getting thown at the shop.

13.52
Miliband is going on – get your eggs ready!

13.49
For those of you with a portable radio – get x26 radio on 102.8 FM. Live reports from today.

13.42
Targets on Oxford Street are closing down already. Large groups of Police outside Topshop, and at the bottom of Regent Street. Will Oxford Street actions be shut down before they’ve begun?

13.37
UK Uncut are heading tro Oxford Street – avoif regent street as police are apparently blocking it. Black Bloc are around Regent Street.

Something is clear so far about this event – groups of activists are doing their own thing, whilst the vast majority head over to the TUC rallly – have groups like UKuncut been able to pick up more people willing to engage in civil disobedience, or will this be a split between Labour’s ‘mainstream’ and small activist groups. The occupations of Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square may provide the link between the vast numbers and more radical action. We’ll see.

13.31
London South Bank Students report a ‘radical student bloc’ meeting outside Boots in Picadilly – that’s very near to the route of the March. Lasthours report people from all directions heading to Picadilly Circus.

13.28
Sukey Reports a kettle forming at Downing street – presumably around the Trojan Horse – this could go one of two ways – either it blocks or slows the March, imprisons lots of people and kicks off, or it only imprisons the ‘usual suspect’ activists and the horse, in which case I imagine many people might move on without seeking to help the kettled people.

13.25
TUC tweet that it’s too crowded to get onto Embankment by any way but Blackfriars. Others report huge crowds moving across Westminster Bridge from South Bank to join the march. Black bloc moving away from the march in many directions.

Keep it fluid people! Resist the temptation to join the biggest crowd – stay mobile, stay ungovernable, just like the students did on November 30th.

13.18
The BBC reports ‘black clad protestors’ breaking away. Lasthours tweets black bloc breaking away down Northuberland Ave. London IMC reports smoke flares by the Trojan Horse at Downing Street. The Trojan Horse and Resit26 look like a ‘Democracy Village’-esque action to me – adventurism even by my ultra-left standards. At best it should act as some galvanising political theatre for the hundred thousand still to pass Downing Street. The real action, however, will likely happen elsewhere.

13.17
Sukey tweets that the Trojan Horse is ‘sat down’ outside Downing St. TUC tweets that the march is moving again. Has the horse bloc been isolated outside downing street?

13.13
Huge anarchist flag draped on Leicester Square Odeon. The Trojan Horse (that came from Kennington with resit26) is surrounded by Police on Whitehall – could this be the ‘incident’ at downing st?

13.11
The TUC tweets – ‘March held up due to incident at Downing Street’ – a Downing Street sit down sparked the Poll Tax riots – I’m just saying.

13.06
So far, everything (except the size of the march) is very normal. Reports (from the BBC and the TUC) say that the front of the march has arrived at Hyde Park, whilst the back is stil at Blackfriars, along this route.

The BBC TV news is interviewing participants, and I’ve heard nothing so far but standard left(neo?)-keynesian banter – the TUC (and increasingly the Labour Party) seem to have a very strong influence on the politics of the march – someone just mentioned petrol prices as their main concern (this is the issue with which Labour wer bashing the Tories last week). The twitterverse shows loads of Labour party members, clearly briefed on the party line, are publicising the march.

11.08
Crowds at Malet St. (ULU)

Loks like the crowds are growing at the feeder march at, Malet St and the tweetiverse says many buses are packed on the way to the feeder march at Kennington. I can’t put my finger on why, but I get the feeling that the feeder marches will instil the kind of close cameraderie needed to take action. The main march may be simply too crowded, slow, and diluted by people who oppose civil trespass.

11.00
The Guradian reports that Labour is calling this ‘the march of the mainstream’. Way to take the fun out of it, guys.

10.56
The TUC reports people stretching from Embankment to St. Paul’s Cathederal – now that’s a shit load of people. UCL contingent about to set off for ULU at Malet St.
Transport – Embankment Station has been closed, presumably it got too crowded. Westminster station is also closed.

10.49
Indications of Numbers – 500 at ULU (the education block), occupiers leaving Goldsmith’s Uni occupation, and the crowds on embankment stretch back past Blackfriar’s Bridge. This indicates very large numbers – at the ‘Put People First’ Demo in 2009 (attended my around 40,000), crowds did not stretch even half the way down the embankment to blackfriars. Three full trains just arrived at Euston, people also gathering at Soho Square for the ‘Pink and Black block’ – they have a soundsystem.

09.28
A convergence centre for those marching today has been established at 61 Curzon Street, Mayfair.

09.12
To get radio updates on events today, tune into x26 radio, which starts broadcasting LIVE at 10am.

Intro – 9am
‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’
- Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

‘Seeking to emulate previous, tired forms of politics (be that isolated direct action or trade union marches) is a certain failure, new forms of doing – those which escape our current understanding or familiarity – might be the key to gaining traction in the here and now. The old doesn’t work and so we shouldn’t be afraid to move towards new forms of politics, however uncertain their effects may be.’
- Ben Lear @ Shift Magazine (2011)

Today the Great Unrest will be reporting events LIVE from the streets of London. Today is the TUC-called demonstration ‘March for the Alternative’, billed as the biggest protest march in the UK since the anti-war movement in 2003.

Sice the TUC have planned for a dull, rather short (and slow) walk from Embankment to Hyde Park (with Ed Miliband speaking at the final rally), dozens of groups are planning to take action that may be more creative, fun or militant than the standard A to B march.

Feeder marches will be heading to the demo from ULU on Malet Street (and here), Kennington Park (and here), Soho Square, and Cable Street, no doubt amongst others.

Student activists have called for an occupation of trafalgar square, whilst others have called for a camp in Hyde Park to act as a base for actions in the 24 hours after the march. UK Uncut will be taking action all along Oxford street from 2pm. If you want to take part – meet before 2 at Soho Square, or at 3pm at Oxford Circus. Numerous groups of multi-colored radicals have other plans for the day – the best map of actions and marches is here.

So why, are we publishing this? On a day when loads of news outlets will be reporting on the demo, why should you read the Great Unrest? Because we’re going to seek to critically analyse events as they happen. We will avoid the simplistic condemnations of ‘violence’ doled out by the police and trade union leaders, we will avoid the triumphalism spoted by organised left groups, we will try to look at events, and ask the questions ‘has anything actually changed today? have people found new strategies and directions of struggle? does this event embody a social movement or does it merely manifest as a political campaign?

Today we need to see more than huge numbers of people on the streets, more than well-planned symbolic actions, more than militant speeches backed up by little action. If the day is to be a sucess, new relationships must be formed on the streets, new tactics must be discovered, and new people must discover that our massive armoury of social struggle goes way beyond boring A to B marches. Of course it will be difficult to find out if these things are happening, that’s why we’re publishing this live feed, so readers can watch new events, tactics and narratives emerge in real time, as they become clear to those taking part.

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Something for budget day

1 Comment

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Which Straw Broke the Camel’s Back?

by Anne Archist

With a title like that, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a philosophical thesis on overdetermination or something of the sort. Actually, I’m just wondering what it was that made the tories finally go absolutely batshit insane. As many of you will know by now, Westminster Council are trying to pass a local bye-law that would ban rough sleeping and the distribution of free food. You might have naively hoped that was as insane as the story got, but you’d be wrong. The story gets that little bit more insane when you realise this is the second time in several years that moves like this have been made. It gets a lot more insane when you realise that the government department responsible (Communities and Local Government, CLG) is backing the policy.

It leaves this dimension of sanity altogether when you read the following quote, from an actual real-life spokesperson for the department: “Local homeless charities and Westminster Council believe that food handouts actually encourage people to sleep rough in central London.” Yes, apparently people are so excited about a polystyrene cup of tomato soup and a ham and cheese sandwich that they’re swapping home comforts for the cold cobbles of our capital. (See that alliteration? Don’t let anyone tell you I can’t write) Of course, there’s only one problem with this theory, which is… OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK, ARE THEY ACTUALLY SERIOUS!?

So with that in mind I’m going to invite great unrest readers to join me in a public campaign. Eric Pickles is the secretary of state for CLG; I therefore promise him as much soup as he can slurp (tories slurp their soup, right?) and as many sandwhiches as he can fit in his right honourable face every night that he sleeps rough in Westminster.

A few ground rules: I will provide the soup and sandwiches, and they will be of my choosing (but I promise they will be tasty); sleeping rough means actually sleeping out all night, not just knocking around until the food arrives then scarpering; sleeping rough also means on the street or a park bench – second homes and travel lodges don’t count; I’m so serious it hurts about this offer, I really will do it if he takes up the challenge and provides proof (I’m sure the news media will be willing to record the event for posterity). Let the games commence.

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On Balance

by Liam McNulty

Recently a friend received this email in response to an article he had written on the current political situation:

I am terribly sorry, but unfortunately I am not able to include your article in the next issue of [Publication]. The President (who chairs the Publications and Public Relations Committee) is concerned that we are not presenting a balanced view and that it may upset some [readers], and for this reason I am not able to include it.

The other morning I helped to run a stall outside a lecture block for a few hours publicising the national demonstration on the 26th March.  In response to some anti-Tory rhetoric on the part of my colleague, a passing student commented sarcastically, ‘That’s balanced…’ before presumably walking on feeling smug and self-important on account of this completely senseless intervention.  I’m not sure what he expected.  Were we to invite him to pull up a chair and engage in a fireside chat?  The whole point is that it is not balanced; our role is not to accord the right-wing Tory perspective the same coverage as our own agitation but to propagandise against it in the interests of the class struggle.  Anything else is to treat politics as an essentially harmless parlour game after which we all go home and play nicely.

These two incidents are related because of their mutual embrace of a particularly insidious notion of ‘balance’.  In both cases, the implication is not that my friend’s article or my comrade’s pronouncements should be countered by equal and opposing positions from another protagonist but that in both instance the political position should, in itself, contain some mythical ‘balance’.  Now, presumably one holds a political position because they have undergone a process of self-criticism and have reached their political perspective, provisionally of course, because they believe it to be the most correct.  The political conclusion reached, thus, is seen as the strongest and in so far as opposing political positions are dealt with during the course of the argument they are rebutted by some form of logical process.  They are not, however, given credence as equally valid positions otherwise there would be no basis for holding one’s political conclusion in the first place.  The complaint that a perspective is ‘unbalanced’ amounts to no less than ‘That’s just your opinion,’ to which the rational response is, ‘Well, counter it with your own’ rather than a mutual embrace of a feeble relativism involving setting various opposed opinions on an equal footing.

If we delve beneath the surface, however, the political import of this notion becomes important.  When we speak of balance in the sense of pretending to hold a political position containing opposite and equal viewpoints we soon reach the following conclusion: balance goes nowhere.  That is to say, counterposing two opposite and equal perspectives in a misplaced spirit of intellectual relativism leads to their mutual cancelling out, and a return to the very beginning.  This is not a neutral outcome- far from it.  In so far as arguments exist, they exist not on the plain of a disembodied discourse set aside from social conditions.  They must be contextualised in terms of a particular society and a particular set of social relations.  In a world of glaring structural inequalities, arguing for ‘balance’ and the prolongation of existing conditions is not a neutral perspective but a reactionary one given that it involves the essential negation of progress.  Drawing false equivalence between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited, is far from a harmless and apolitical activity when it inevitably involves the continuance of exploitative relations.

Let’s close with Lenin’s Theses on the National and Colonial Question, as presented at the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1921:

‘An abstract or formal posing of the problem of equality in general and national equality in particular is in the very nature of bourgeois democracy. Under the guise of the equality of the individual in general, bourgeois democracy proclaims the formal or legal equality of the property-owner and the proletarian, the exploiter and the exploited, thereby grossly deceiving the oppressed classes. On the plea that all men are absolutely equal, the bourgeoisie is transforming the idea of equality, which is itself a reflection of relations in commodity production, into a weapon in its struggle against the abolition of classes. The real meaning of the demand for equality consists in its being a demand for the abolition of classes.’

We should stop pretending that political argument is a mere game in which we should all be ‘reasonable’ and ‘balanced’ and treat it as it  is in the context of capitalist society.  Calls for ‘balance’ are in effect calls to moderate  political positions hostile to the status quo.  This is not to say we should be unreasonable and fail to counter the arguments of the mouthpieces of the ruling class.  Rather, we should wage intellectual struggle against those arguments from an unashamed position of outright hostility to their premises and the structures which they aim to uphold.

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Anarchism and Marxism: A discussion

by Anne Archist

The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.

Anarchism

The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.

I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.

Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.

Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.

I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.

Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.

Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”

Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).

Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.

Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.

Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.

As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.

Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).

The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle.  It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.

This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.

Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers…  Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”

Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.

So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.

It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”

So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.

Marxism

Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?

The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.

How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.

It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?

The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.

Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.

[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]

Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.

Discussion.

T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?

D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.

D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.

L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.

D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle.  People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.

D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.

T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…

X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.

H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.

X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.

H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.

D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.

D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.

M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.

Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?

A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.

Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?

T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.

A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.

Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.

L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.

D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.

L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.

T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.

D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.

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