Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lights in the dark: CNT and CGT members on indefinite strike against redundancies in Catalunya

The following is a repost from libcom.org:

Members of the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union and CGT union have gone on indefinite strike and occupied their workplace at the IMESAPI lighting plant in Granollers, Catalunya, Spain, demanding an end to the redundancy plans which would see four of the 21 workers let go.

The workers – now 23 days into their strike – are responsible for maintaining the street lights throughout the small Catalan town, and therefore are of critical importance to the town council. IMESAPI itself is a part of the huge ACS conglomerate owned by Florentino Pérez, the multibillionaire engineering tycoon known internationally as the owner of Real Madrid FC.

Crucially, all of the workers at the Granollers plant belong to either the CNT or CGT unions, who have vowed to back the strike as long as it continues, unlike the mainstream Comisiones Obreras union,who signed off on similar redundancy packages at IMESAPI plants in Barcelona (which saw a failed strike) and Tenerife.

Despite now finding themselves alone in their struggle, the IMESAPI strikers have been industrious: holding twice-weekly family demonstrations marching through the town to the town hall. The strikers' march through the town centre on 22 December was a cold bucket of water for shoppers on possibly the most important commercial day of the year. As their children - at the demonstration's head with a banner that said: “FLORENTINO PEREZ, WHAT ABOUT OUR TOYS?” - filed past over the umpteen Nativity scenes and kitsch Christmas decorations, one could sense an evident contrast between the absurd myth of Christmas plenitude perpetuated by town councils and retail, and the real sense of festive lack being endured by many in crisis-hit Spain.

Indeed, workers on the demonstration spoke of a lean Christmas, while many were worrying about their next mortgage payment. A further blow has been the cynicism of IMEPASI, who still haven't paid their workers their annual Christmas bonus, despite repeatedly promising to do so. They have also refused to open their books to the unions, who suspect financial irregularities on the part of their employers and claim that the new redundancy measures would make the remaining workers' jobs impossible.

The strike and occupation continues and you can keep track of it on Facebook (in Catalan/Spanish): http://www.facebook.com/ImesapiGranollersEnHuelga

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fighting For Ourselves

Solidarity Federation

This new Solidarity Federation pamphlet is a thorough, fascinating and inspirational introduction to the anarcho-syndicalist group's perspective - taking in the past, present and projected future of workers' struggles in the UK, Europe and the world. But while it presents a compelling argument for the necessity of SolFed's tactical approach, Fighting For Ourselves does not make a strong case for SolFed itself being the primary locus of that fightback.

Perhaps the single most impressive thing about the work is the seriousness of the approach taken. Clearly a lot of thought, preparation and debate have gone into it. What's more - the writers clearly perceive that: a) the current economic crisis presents both challenge and opportunity, and b) mass rank-and-file organisation is now self-evidently the most 'realistic' way forward.

Chapter one analyses "the mainstream workers' movement", charting from the full-blooded origins of trade unionism to today's hollowed-out bureaucratic structures. In contemporary times, "The energy it would take to reform or dislodge such bureaucracies, not just the elected officials but the structures themselves, is many times that required to simply bypass the bureaucracy and take action outside it." This history of this development is far from exhaustive, but does point out major milestones along the way. Particularly important is the shift from what is termed "associational" to "representative" models, with the latter meaning a paid bureaucracy has to kept in place, and therefore most have distinct material interests to those it is supposedly representing. The case study of early 20th century bureaucrat John Turner is particularly instructive in this regard - he considered himself an anarchist, but "By 1909 Turner was accused from one quarter of playing the 'role of one of the most blatant reactionaries with which the Trades Union movement was ever cursed'".

It then moves on to self-styled 'revolutionary' and 'Marxist' parties, and using the phrase 'dictatorship of the proletariat' tars all Marxists with the brush of seeking state power over the working class. This is an error, which is even hinted at in the brief reference to Marx's opinion of the 1871 Paris Commune. I hope it is an honest error, especially because the rest of the critique stands up to scrutiny, and is well aimed in its breakdown of the Bolsheviks, their immediate descendants, and those who falsely claim their mantle in the 21st century (the observation that "Revolutionary rhetoric serves as a mask for reformist practice" in modern fake left organisations is particularly pertinent).

All of which leads us inevitably to the Labour Party, and a superb blow by blow takedown of its reactionary record as defenders of ruling class privilege. Whereas left apologists often cite the achievements of the post-war Atlee government, SolFed correctly describe this is a response largely agreed on by all three bourgeois parties, including the Conservatives. As Tory MP Quintin Hogg surmised in 1943, the prevailing attitude was that "we must give them reform or they will give us revolution." The social democratic settlement was therefore largely taken rather than merely given, because "without the tangible threat of working class unrest, that [elite] consensus would never have been acted on".

With reformist unions, top-down "Marxist" groupings and the Labour Party dispatched, the next two chapters take in all shades of anarchists, syndicalists, and "dissident Marxist" currents which have attempted to organise amongst the working class down the years. There's plenty to learn here, and the logic flows neatly from one idea to another, with each group apparently having learned from the failures of its predecessors.

It's easy to see why this is a convenient device for the writers, because the reader quickly begins to suspect that SolFed will emerge as the perfect outcome and synthesis of all these different ideas! But history doesn't work quite as simply as that. Certainly we should aim to learn from the past, but primarily it is material circumstances which shape ideas, which then drive people into action. This may seem a trivial - almost drily philosophical - point to make, but it does have real world repercussions, as evidenced in the concluding chapter.

Before we get there though, there is an excellent section on post-war class struggle. This draws quite heavily on macroeconomics, although you certainly don't need a degree in it to get your head round the main thrust of the argument. SolFed contend - again rightly - that the post-war settlement meant "the institutionalisation of the working class as a collective entity", which was managed in the interests of the ruling class in line with the Keynesian doctrine fashionable in elite circles at the time. In the late 60s and early 70s, this model was ruptured by economic crisis, and working people reached a major limitation in terms of what they could wring from the capitalist class without pushing on to revolution. SolFed admit that - from a capitalist perspective - there really was "no alternative" - as Thatcher put it - to the neoliberal counter-revolution launched more than three decades ago.

So following the imposition of this agenda by many successive prime ministers - and in the midst of widespread capitalist breakdown - the financial elite's refusal to give an inch leaves no space for the bureaucracy to operate, and this means there really is no alternative to rank and file organisation of working class fightback.

It is at this point that Fighting For Ourselves presents its prescription: for workers to organise themselves in an anarcho-syndicalist union - i.e. SolFed, organise direct action for themselves based on the resources at their disposal, and by the power of example draw ever more people into the organisation. Eventually this will lead to mass insurrectionary general strikes around the world, which could quickly abolish the wage relation, and create a world of free access - full communism.

This is spelled out with luminous liveliness and self-belief, and this is the most emotionally powerful section of the pamphlet. I might quibble about some terms here and there, and I might predict that certain phases might take longer than SolFed envisage, but I agree about the fundamentals. At this stage of the battle - before mass non-hierarchical struggles against austerity have begun over much of the world - this should almost be enough.

Yet it is not quite. Despite a few caveats about SolFed not being the be all and end all, this is a SolFed-centric vision. This is maybe most evident in the passage about the SolFed Local:
"At the heart of the anarcho-syndicalist union is the Local, which aims to be at the centre of community and workplace struggle in the surrounding area. But the role of the Local goes beyond that. It provides the physical space where a diverse range of groups, such as oppressed, cultural, and education groups can organise. The Local acts as the social, political, and economic centre for working class struggle in a given area. It is the physical embodiment of our beliefs and methods, the means by which workers become anarcho-syndicalist not just on the basis of ideas but activity."
Such bodies will need to exist. But if there is a particular reason why they should be part of - or mainly facilitated by - SolFed, it is not described within these pages. Thinking of Liverpool radical politics right now, I would love to be in such a group with the SolFed comrades, but I'd want AFed comrades there too, as well as the many unaligned comrades who make up the overwhelming majority of radical class struggle activists.

The hypothetical SolFed organisation of the future as painted so vividly at the end of Fighting For Ourselves is just that - a theoretical abstraction based on lessons learned from all the defeated mass struggles of the past. If - as seems likely - mass struggles break out worldwide in 2013, workers may well make use of SolFed. But why not AFed? Why not the IWW? Why not the platformist groups? But come to that, why won't they forge their own tools with which to beat the boss class, based on their own lived experiences in their own class struggle classrooms? Surely, in this hyper-globalised, hyper-linked world, what works will spread memetically, in a way prefigured by the Occupy movement of 2011.

For all this pamphlet's attacks on 'vanguards', its focus on building a specific organisation - i.e. by SolFed - when "we reject the idea that the conditions created by capitalism will spontaneously lead to workers’ resistance", still leaves us with a tiny minority trying to lead the immense global proletariat by example. I wish them all the best with that task.

You can buy hard copies of Fighting for ourselves for £6 (including p&p) from Freedom Press (UK - £5 in the shop), and for $10+p&p from Thoughtcrime Ink Books (North America). It can also be viewed or downloaded for free from the 'Selfed' website.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Mother

Maxim Gorky

"What queer people you are!" said the mother to the Ukrainian one day. "All are your comrades--the Armenians and the Jews and the Austrians. You speak about all as of your friends; you grieve for all, and you rejoice for all!" 

"For all, mother dear, for all! The world is ours! The world is for the workers! For us there is no nation, no race. For us there are only comrades and foes..."

When I was searching a cover image to go with this review, I stumbled across another one on the LibCom website, which was published just three weeks ago. Though I'm reluctant to say it proves anything much, it's an extraordinary coincidence that both me and the writer of that piece were both drawn to this novel this autumn. Speaking for myself, I found I drew enormous strength to persevere in what Gorky called "treading the path of truth and reason", in the teeth of what has been an extremely bleak year for 'the left'. But it was no mere comfort blanket; I was everywhere confronted with the brutal reality of the system here and now in the descriptions of the system there and then, and challenged in my own assumptions on every page.

Gorky was born into something quite far removed from the privilege which nurtured Leo Tolstoy. Orphaned at nine, he ran away from home at twelve to find his grandmother, who raised him until she herself died. Gorky attempted suicide, before taking a series of itinerant jobs across Russia, which gave him a sharp insight into the struggles of life on the margins. It was these people he wrote about in his early years as a journalist, essayist and novelist.

The intensification of mass struggles in the earliest years of the twentieth century sharpened his focus even further, and he was drawn to the emerging workers' movement. The abortive 1905 revolution against the Tsar provided the inspiration for The Mother - a staggering work which pulls no punches in describing the abject lives of the dispossessed, yet never employs condescending pity in the way that petit bourgeois-raised Charles Dickens did, for example. For Gorky, the working class were full of fight, and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves given half a chance.

The writer showed great skill in painting a picture of a scene in a few lines, with each holding a huge weight of rich social significance. One awesome illustration of this comes early on, when Gorky describes how the main female protagonist watched over her young adult son Pavel after he'd been out drinking for the first time:
"But when she returned he was already asleep. She stood over him for a minute, trying to breathe lightly. The cup in her hand trembled, and the ice knocked against the tin. Then, setting the cup on the table, she knelt before the sacred image upon the wall, and began to pray in silence. The sounds of dark, drunken life beat against the window panes; an accordion screeched in the misty darkness of the autumn night; someone sang a loud song; someone was swearing with ugly, vile oaths, and the excited sounds of women's irritated, weary voices cut the air."
The mother begins the novel as a battered wife, surviving day to day on the urge to protect Pavel from his father's blows, and drawing vague comfort from prayers before Christian icons. Gradually she is drawn into the small revolutionary circle of Pavel's friends, and by the end she faces something like martyrdom at the centre of a rapidly growing network of comrades spanning from town to town and deep into the countryside. Through her, we know her people.

In the wrong hands, this kind of work could seem preachy and didactic. But even though obviously intended to draw people into the cause, Gorky had lived the life he was describing, and it was clearly everything to him. The many female characters are determined and strong-willed - an extreme rarity in its day, and not much more common today. But this is never forced or tokenistic - it is realistic. Some scenes - particularly those around the May Day parade - left me hardly believing that a mortal had written them, such was the brilliance of Gorky's ability to portray conflicting forces and warring emotions in just a few words.

As the LibCom reviewer put it:
"The situation is bleak and promises no immediate change; only through a long uphill struggle will oppression be overcome. But a faith, one not unlike that of primitive christianity, is what ushers the characters in this novel, the mother especially, to go onwards and fight and believe, and pour nearly every ounce of hope and joy into the struggle as it persists from day to day. The beauty of the future society, a society based on the sharing of the world's wealth in common, brightens the revolutionary mission the characters have taken upon themselves, at a great amount of risk."
Or in Gorky's glowing language: "Who can extinguish this love? Who? What force can destroy it? What force can opposite it? The earth has given it birth, and life itself longs for its victory. Life itself!”

Amen to that.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Liverpool Starbucks and Poundland Targeted on Day of Action

The scene at the front of Bold Street Starbucks at Saturday lunchtime...
A large group of activists wreaked a little bit of havoc with pre-Christmas capitalist business as usual on Saturday afternoon, as they joined in with a nationwide UK Uncut action, and also targeted workfare exploiters Poundland.

The five hours of fun began at noon, with a static rally organised by Liverpool Against The Cuts, who also played a co-ordinating and publicising role in the run-up to Saturday. It took place next to the Co-operative bank on the corner of Bold Street, and like other recent demos, it seemed quite isolated from the general public milling by. A handful of speakers decried the government's austerity agenda through a megaphone, but it appeared to make little impact on busy shoppers.

After a few minutes, a group led by the Socialist Singers and the Angry Women of Liverpool made their move on the local branch of Starbucks - the multi-billion pound company which has recently been making the headlines for its ability to avoid paying tax. Police were monitoring the front Bold Street entrance, and the back door had been locked, but a small number of us managed to get inside by simply posing as customers and strolling past the cops. Once inside, the AWOL banner was unfurled. This inevitably provoked the anger of the manager and a plainclothes cop/security guard, who claimed he "didn't want to hurt" one demonstrator, but twisted her hand and wrist in opposite directions as she and comrades were bundled out of the building.

But by this time, the Socialist Singers had massed outside the front entrance, effectively blocking it, and scores more had moved from the static demo to hear them/join in, creating a 'wall of sound'. The front door was also locked, and only opened when the customers already inside wanted to leave.

The shop was closed for at least a couple of hours over the busy lunchtime period, and many caffeine seekers were turned away. Most left with no complaint once they were informed we'd closed the branch due to Starbucks' refusal to pay taxes, and the link with the austerity bearing down on us all was constantly reinforced by the many placards and banners. But one American appeared to be in denial, claiming it was "an objective fact I can get coffee in this shop", while another man announced he supported the cuts to "bad nurses and bad teachers", for which he was roundly booed and denounced as "Tory scum".

Eventually, a breakaway group moved away in knots of twos and threes, in order to hit the Liverpool One Starbucks branch half a mile down the road. There we encountered more hostility from the manager and one cop in particular, but this time the element of surprise meant that we'd got more bodies into the shop itself, therefore making it more difficult to evict us all without arrests. After much shouting, a lengthy standoff ensued, while passers-by took photos through the windows, many of which were uploaded on social networking websites.

...and the back!
Finally, the police ran out of patience, and 'good cop' was sent over to couch a threat of arrest under aggressive trespass legislation in "respect for your right to demonstrate" and acknowledgement that "you've had a really successful protest". At this point we decided to walk out together, with large numbers maintaining a picket outside, whilst others of us swapped UK Uncut for Boycott Workfare, and descended on the Williamson Square Poundland.

We have held many pickets there over the past few months, and normally the security guard merely asks us to make sure we are not blocking access as we hand out leaflets and talk to people about the workfare scheme. This time however - perhaps because his patience had run out or perhaps due to Christmas pressure - he threatened to call the police, before actually calling three other 'security' men, one of whom was a massive tracksuited guy. This individual proceeded to push one protester, throw balled-up pieces of paper at me, and make gang signs. Another threatened to meet demonstrators "down a dark alley".

The law did arrive about twenty minutes later, and as is usual they marched straight inside to consult with the store security. When they emerged, they were deaf to our complaints about the criminal acts committed by 'security', but the senior cop clearly didn't want to make any arrests either, so he merely repeated the normal security mantra of "make sure you don't block the door", having warned his junior colleague to back off and calm down. Many potential customers took our literature, and stopped for a chat.

As the clock ticked round to five, we decided to call it a day, satisfied that we had put in hours of excellent work. The afternoon had been a massive success - costing Starbucks significant amounts of money, and generating great publicity for our causes. These victories were only possible due to the coming together of many different groups and unaligned people on the radical left, which gave us the numbers necessary to make a big physical impact, and made for a fantastic atmosphere. However, we need to make more effort to communicate with the workers in the shops. In the case of Poundland and other workfare profiteers, real jobs and wages are being undermined by the scheme. And Starbucks declared war on its staff this week, as it refused to accept any cut in profits if and when it decides to pay some corporation tax.

Saturday's events provided a brief, tantalising hint of working class power, but real change will have to be based on workplace organisation.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Liverpool Students Prepare For Anti-Cuts Day Of Action

As George Osborne was waging relentless class war from the House of Commons dispatch box this afternoon, Liverpool students and supporters held a small demo with a massive banner outside the University of Liverpool Guild of Students building.

The group handed out leaflets promoting the big anti-cuts day of action, which will take place in the city this coming Saturday. The event will see activists from anti-cuts, anti-workfare and anti-tax dodging campaigns link up to cause disruption to capitalist business as usual in the run-up to Christmas.

People who wish to take part should assemble at noon by the Co-operative bank on Bold Street.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pret a Manger Communications Blockade in Support of Victimised Union Activist

The following is a repost from the Pret A Manger Staff Union (PAMSU) website. PAMSU is a new rank-and-file controlled organisation for Pret A Manger workers:

Since forming Pret a Manger Staff Union earlier this year, Andrej and a number of other workplace activists have faced a campaign of harassment and victimisation from management.  For Andrej, this has reached a point where he has been sacked on trumped-up disciplinary charges.  His final appeal hearing against the decision will occur on Thursday the 29th of November at 2:00pm.

PAMSU together with the North London Solidarity Federation, the Alliance for Workers Liberty and Radical Islington call for the Communications Blockade on Wednesday 28th November 2012.
In an effort to show solidarity with Andrej and PAMSU, we are asking the supporters:
Bombard Pret’s Facebook page with messages in support of Andrej: http://www.facebook.com/pretamanger

Feel free to post up this YouTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey2PAGB29B8
If you’re on Twitter, please tweet and re-tweet the following message throughout the day:
“@Pret Reinstate Andrej!  Stop Union-Busting at Pret a Manger!  More information: www.pamsu.org  Please re-tweet!!! #PAMSU”

Many thanks! No pasarán!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Anatomy of Two Liverpool Demonstrations

Recent Liverpool demos have been quite surreal (photo: Chris McCleary)
Something has stayed with me from what Johnny Void wrote about the NUS demonstration in the week. As I quoted in my own report on the event, he stated that:
"A demonstration is exactly what it says. At best this means a demonstration of power as people organise together to take direct action, strike, riot or generally fuck shit up. At worst it can be a demonstration of passivity – a signal to the state that should they continue along the same path then actually no-one will bother to do much about it."
Now I do not believe that a demonstration on its own could ever force a policy change from a government - let alone overthrow a government or a political system. Direct action and mass grassroots organisation have always been the tools which have got the goods. But demos can contribute positively to the building of a movement, by being a 'show of strength' to comrades and enemies, as well as reaching out to others who might want to get involved.

The midweek march NUS singularly failed to do these things. It presented to the government the supplicant face of a long disempowered, demobilised and dejected student movement. The NUS leadership bears a large measure of responsibility for this, especially for refusing to call any kind of demonstration in 2011, and for co-operating with the state to manage student anger at every turn.

But two Liverpool demonstrations a week or so ago were almost surreal in the epicness of their failure. They existed as if their entire purpose was to comfort the participants with a belief that they were doing 'something'. I believe this says a lot about the current state of social movements, at a time of mass crisis but minimal UK fightback.

The first one took place on the 14th, and was billed as an expression of solidarity with the European general strike against austerity day, which was predominantly taking place in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Called by the local trades council, the Liverpool event was located in the city's bustling Church Street, at 6 pm on a busy weekday. Shoppers were going home, while others were emerging from workplaces to look for pubs or transport.

The assembled group of around seventy-five gathered about a set of street furniture across from a bank, and maybe ten speakers gave speeches detailing both the pain coming from the coalition's cuts, and the aching need to organise a general strike in this country, with the aim of bringing down the government. There was a lot of passion in these orations, and many of the opinions expressed were clearly very deeply held. The socialist singers sang revolutionary songs of past eras. But despite all this, there was an almost sombre atmosphere.

What was slightly embarrassing and almost tragic about the whole thing was that it existed in something like a bubble. Though many hundreds of people were passing, the participants seemed to be separated from them by a wall of their own inwardly-facing bodies. Little to no attempt was made to engage the general public in what was being discussed, and no proposal for action was voiced, beyond returning to various union branches and putting forward motions, something which many of the speakers had likely been doing to no avail for months if not years. So rather than reaching out to the potential allies for victory who were all around us, it was almost as if we were there to console each other in our ongoing defeat.

Although I believe I was one of maybe only a couple to attend both, the Gaza solidarity demo of the 18th was similar in key ways. With Israel a couple of days into its latest massacre, Liverpool Friends of Palestine had organised a rally outside the BBC Radio Merseyside building on Hanover Street, again in the early evening. Despite the fact we were on quite a narrow pavement, and Hanover Street being much quieter than Church Street in terms of pedestrian traffic, many people still walked past. There was only interaction with passers-by on two occasions. On the first, a woman had been answered after asking "What's a Palestine?", and on the second, a man drove past and shouted "pakis" out of his window, for which he was chased down and received a tongue-lashing from several of us.

At the start, BBC security staff locked the automatic doors which led into the reception area. But after maybe ten minutes, a man came out to accept a letter from those who appeared to be leading the demo from their position relative to the crowd of maybe one hundred. He thanked them, and commented that they get lots of feedback from both sides, so hopefully that helps them find the truth somewhere in the middle. I yelled "Apart from the fact that they lie", but otherwise he - and the entire BBC - went unchallenged.

There was a succession of speeches - generally from white, middle-aged men - which preached to the choir about the history of Zionism, the inequality of arms, and the cruelty of Netanyahu, Obama and Cameron. Once this was over, absolutely no practical suggestions for further action were made whatsoever. The group drifted off, and the BBC unlocked their doors.

The government's austerity measures are only going to intensify, and unfortunately, with Syrian and Iranian targets being lined up, so is Israeli militarism. Expressions of regret and pity will not be able to stop these attacks. Only a strong working class movement armed with an anti-imperialist perspective has this potential power. But right now, for a variety of reasons I have discussed in these pages many times, this seems very far off, and 2012 has been a demoralising year for what we laughingly call 'the left'. This context is the only way that these strangely ritualistic demonstrations of caring but powerlessness can be accounted for.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Anger as NUS Lead Students on Road to Nowhere

Angry demonstrators forced their way onto the stage at the rally
National Union of Students President Liam Burns was booed, egged, and then forced to run for cover by a stage invasion at the end of the union's London march against tuition fees and education cuts.

Labour Party supporter Burns was addressing students who had followed the NUS route from Victoria Embankment to Kennington - far from where politicians were debating. As the crowd made its way through cold November rain, frustrations had become apparent from increasingly angry posts on Twitter.

When Burns took to the stage in Kennington Park to chants of "Liam Burns, shame on you, where the fuck you lead us to?", he was pelted with eggs and a satsuma, before twenty forced their way through barriers and onto the stage, at which point the mic was cut. After all the NUS talk of students ensuring "our voices will be heard", this was the ultimate irony.

The march route had been negotiated between the NUS and Metropolitan Police, both of whom were anxious to avoid a repeat of December 2010, when the police lost control of the streets, and the Conservative Party HQ was overrun. As the demonstration snaked its way through London streets this afternoon, there were complaints that NUS stewards were acting in a way that was indistinguishable from the police.

Metropolitan Police - brought to you by the National Union of Students
Activists from the more militant National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) had hoped to break through into Parliament Square, but after a brief stand-off it was clear that the balance of forces lay with the forces of reaction. There also a brief sit-down protest on Westminster Bridge - the very point where Burns wanted to lead the demonstrators away from the seat of power.

As Johnny Void wrote in his excellent write-up:
"A demonstration is exactly what it says. At best this means a demonstration of power as people organise together to take direct action, strike, riot or generally fuck shit up. At worst it can be a demonstration of passivity – a signal to the state that should they continue along the same path then actually no-one will bother to do much about it."
The ruling class was taken aback by the explosion of student anger in winter 2010. It has since taken measures to reinforce its repression - witness the 'total policing' of the 2011 demo - especially at the point it met up with militant electricians in struggle - and the highly restrictive routing of today's march. At this stage, an effective fightback must necessarily up the ante.

NCAFC have declared December 5th a day of action, coinciding with Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement to the House of Commons.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

IWW Victory! John Lewis Cleaners Win Pay Rise

The following is reposted from the Industrial Workers of the World UK page:

The Industrial Workers of the World are proud to announce their victory in their latest John Lewis cleaners' campaign. On Friday 16 November, the IWW-unionised John Lewis cleaning staff employed by contractor Integrated Cleaning Management won a 9% pay rise as a result of their campaign.
 
The outsourced cleaners work at four different John Lewis sites in London and are employed by cleaning contractor Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM). This announcement follows a previous press release on Monday 12 November, in which IWW lodged a fresh pay dispute on behalf the IWW unionised cleaners at John Lewis, and a further press release on Wednesday 14 November, in which the IWW announced our intention to ballot the John Lewis cleaning staff for industrial action.

Outsourced John Lewis cleaners have won an immediate and backdated 9% pay rise following their pledge of industrial action. The increase, backdated 5 months, takes their pay to £6.72 per hour at three central London sites, and £6.50 at one outer London site. Supervisors will now get £8.00 per hour and £7.84 respectively.
 
United in the IWW trade union, the cleaners notified their employer, ICM, last week of the trade dispute and impending ballot for industrial action. This ballot could have seen visible and noisy industrial action by cleaners at four John Lewis sites in London in the run up to Christmas.
John Lewis has seen pre-Christmas profits increase on last year already. The company are proud of their partnership structure, where all staff are ‘partners’ who share in the company’s profits.
But John Lewis’ cleaning contract is outsourced to MML, who outsource it again to ICM. The cleaners have seen their hours reduce and workload increase, while they were paid minimum wage of £6.19 – and they don’t share in the profits.
This increase, including a backdated lump sum just before Christmas, will make a real difference to our members’ lives. ICM further pledged to look at the potential to pay a Living Wage of £8.55 as they enter contract talks early in 2013.
IWW National Secretary Frank Syratt said:
It is our members’ unity, solidarity and courageous stance that has won this increase. They are an inspiration and a lesson to other workers”
There is still work to do. John Lewis needs to ensure all their workers – whether partners or outsourced - take home a Living Wage of £8.55 and receive full sick pay, lifting them out of poverty and insecurity. IWW pledges to continue organising and campaigning to make this happen”.
Contact: south[at]iww.org.uk for more information.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fire and Flames - A History of the German Autonomist Movement

Geronimo
Translated by Gabriel Kuhn
PM Press, paperback

This English language translation of a book long-considered a classic of autonomism provides a good introductory history of the German scene from the tumultuous year of 1968 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But despite its strictly chronological style, it manages to feel weirdly disjointed and dispassionate, and so fails to provide much of a guide for those of us seeking to organise non-hierarchically in the twenty-first century.

As ever for books on the left, there is a blizzard of acronyms, and if you are a non-German reader then almost all will be entirely new. A glossary is provided however, and if you keep referring back to it, this isn't too much of a barrier.

Another common left problem encountered here is the slipperiness of label definitions. This even applies to the term 'autonomism' itself, with wildly different ideologies and forms of activity all coming under the same umbrella term. For some this is a strength of 'autonomism', for others a weakness, but when trying to read a book on the subject, it sometimes feels like particular activities have been shoehorned into the 'autonomist' definition simply because they are in some way anti-mainstream politics, and not 'K-groups' (of which more later).

Geronimo adopts the eight part definition adopted in Italy during 1981: "we fight for ourselves", "we do not engage in dialogue with those in power", "we have not found each other at the workplace", "we all embrace a vague anarchism", "no power to no one", difference from the "alternative movement", "we are uncertain whether we want a revolt or a revolution", "we have no organisation per se".

So vagueness and lifestylist individualism appears to be all, and yet the 'autonomists' as identified by Geronimo did organise huge events, and they did experiment with workplace organising. Focuses changed as history marched on and changes in economics drove changes in society. This mechanism lies almost entirely unexamined, accounting for much of the 'this happened, then this happened' style.

This difficulty is evident from the very beginning when Geronimo deals the year when workers and students rose in Paris, there was upheaval in Czechoslovakia, the Black Panthers battled cops in America, and 'The Troubles' began in the north of Ireland. All this took place as the post-war settlements around the world were breaking down at their first major recessionary test. Instead of looking at this, Geronimo tries to explain nearly everything in terms of US imperialism's carnage in Vietnam. Beyond the immediate trigger for action, the deeper motivations are not considered, and so any thorough analysis of autonomism - or any movement - is impossible. Still, Geronimo notes that a sizeable layer of students broke from the liberalism of the social democratic centre-left.

The next section - and in my opinion by far the most impressive part of the whole book - is actually dedicated to a very decent study of Italian autonomism. It looks at the organic composition of Italian industry, before tracing the shift from Stalinism to operaismo  ('workerism') which - in contrast to a left which now sought to integrate "the working class into capitalist development" - again sought "the complete negation of the existing system". As employers fought back by shipping out of operaist strongholds, the focus shifted to the "social field" - i.e. riots, "proletarian shopping" (organised mass looting), and the creation of a 'scene'.

And - aside from a few abortive attempts to organise factory workers - the "social field" is the only one on which Geronimo describes the various and diverse German autonome as playing on, following their formation in reaction to their own Stalinist 'Communist parties' (those K-groups again).

We are therefore given brief sketches of the rise and fall of the 'spontis' (anti-organisational individuals emphasising the 'spontaneous'), the insurrectionist Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) and Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells) in the 1970s. And then through to anti-Reagan, anti-nuclear and mass squatting actions in the decade which was to catch the autonomen by surprise at its dramatic conclusion - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When I put down the book for the final time, I was left with a sense that the sometimes massive numbers the autonomen pulled to their events, and the often ferocious intensity of their battles with state forces, very little had been achieved in the way of concrete gains. And this is the case whether you prefer - as I do - to talk in terms of gains or losses for contending social classes, or about individuals extending the reach of their own freedom (as do the autonomists in the 1981 Italian theses).

One prominent exception is the mass squatting of Hamburg's Hafenstrasse, which eventually led to the regional senate granting the squatters the right to stay in the buildings they had brought into use. These then became a prominent base for both a thriving counter-culture - including support of the world-famous FC St. Pauli with its unique supporter comradeship - and the autonomen's political struggles.

But apart from that - and the odd delay to this or that project of the capitalist class - it's difficult to point to much in the way of success. Of course, participants may well argue that I am being far too materialist, and the success was the emotional 'freedom' gained from taking part. Of course, that would be entirely their call. But perhaps that's almost the exact problem with the type of autonomism espoused within these one hundred and eighty five pages - it can be reduced to 'Did the individual have a good time while the world continued to burn?'

So if Geronimo wanted to show the German brand of autonomism as being a way forward for oppressed groups in the wider world - and I think he did - then Fire and Flames utterly fails to convincingly make that case. That's certainly not to say it's without merit - and as a bit of a politics geek I loved the many demonstration photos and posters included - but perhaps there is an even better book on the history of German autonomen just waiting to be written.

Monday, November 12, 2012

December 2012 Issue of The Commune

Below is the editorial I wrote for this month's Commune issue (click here for PDF).

There's no easy time to be a communist in a capitalist society of course, but 2012 has been extremely tough going.

2011 started with the popular overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the near-general strike in Wisconsin, and continued with Occupy, big student demos and occupations, the Sparks electricians, a growing public sector struggle, and even the spontaneous elements of anti-state and anti-rich mobilisations in the summer riots. While all of these had important limitations, on what might be called the left there was a feeling that momentum was building, and a global reckoning with the bankers at their governments might be in the making.

This year, all that impetus has dissipated - or rather, it has been repressed in some cases, and misdirected in others. The new bosses in Tunisia and Egypt might not be exactly the same as the old bosses, but they have very similar material interests, and they are backed by the same imperial power. Liberals in Wisconsin were able to channel the anger at state Governor Walker in an attempt to replace him with a right wing Democrat - and even this eventually failed due to an understandable lack of enthusiasm. Occupy eventually collapsed under the weight of weather, police brutality and its general orientation away from the wider class. The student struggle also fizzled out due to its isolation in the face of government intransigence, and union tops sold out public sector pensions - largely contributing to a much-reduced London demo in October. The Sparks actually won - but that was back in February, and feels like a long time ago.

That's not to say there haven't been other promising struggles - the growing resistance in Greece, Spain and South Africa looks very positive. But by and large, 2012 has felt like banging our collective head against a brick wall.

In this context, it's no surprise that: a) The Commune have gone through a bit of a shakeup, and b) our first issue in a few months has a slightly inward-looking feel - looking at different forms of working class organisation. Some times it is useful to pause and take stock, and many of give huge amounts of our time and energy to various struggles, and putting so much in with little success can quickly lead to burnout.

So Simon Hardy of the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative argues that it is time for unity to be built on the left, and he has the model of SYRIZA - Greece's main opposition party - in mind. An interview with Michael Albert sets-out the perspective of his group - the International Organisation for a Participatory Society - based on self-management, equity/justice, solidarity, diversity, ecological stewardship and internationalism - all aims that communists would share. But also John Keeley examines the problems he sees in Albert's vision - particularly its throwing "the Marxist bath out with the Leninist bath water", and losing its "materialist foundations".

The Marx-Bakunin conflict is recalled by David Adam, who reveals that it wasn't the straight battle between "absolute liberty and authoritarianism" that is often painted.  An understanding of this can have a bearing on the struggles of today if self-identifying Marxists and anarchists can find common ground.

Finally, Roy Ratcliffe offers his thoughts on the organisation question, arguing that we should not to attempt to substitute ourselves for the working class, and offer some kind of idealist blueprint or perfect example for others to follow, but to organise where we are, and:
"To my mind the task of revolutionary anti-capitalists is to work alongside such workers [in struggle] and convince them by discussion and by the results of their defensive and reformist struggles that the capitalist system holds no future well-being for themselves, their neighbours, their offspring or the planet."
As I wrote in a recent blog article titled 'Why Isn't There A Working Class Movement in the UK?':
"Amidst the bankers' crisis, things will continue to get worse for our class in the UK, in Greece, Egypt, South Africa and around the planet. Working class people will increasingly feel they have little to lose from fighting, and everything to gain. Despite the machinations of the union hierarchies and fake left parties, a new working class movement must come, and sooner rather than later. What should it look like? Well that's a subject for another time... "
That time will come in the next edition of The Commune. In the mean time, keep fighting. Our time is coming.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pitiful Infidels Humbled in Liverpool

image courtesy of http://liverpoolirishblog.wordpress.com
The following is a repost from the Liverpool Antifascists blog. Other reports on the event can be read here, here, here and here.

I’ve seen few more pitiful sights than the North West Infidels and their ragtag band of allies outside Liverpool town hall last night. A mere twenty of the oxygen thieves made it to the “national demonstration”, and as they huddled around their ridiculous banner, jabbering incoherently about “paedos” and “terrorist supporters”, they demonstrated nothing except the utter bankruptcy of the ‘master race’.
Earlier in the evening, three fascists made what they probably considered a ‘raid’ on local radical bookshop News From Nowhere. While one obviously intoxicated man waited outside and shook his head at a sign for children’s books, another two examined the noticeboard a couple of feet inside, before leaving and muttering about how the place was “disgusting”.
One of this group – who is associated with Combined Ex-Forces – was spotted wandering past and taking photos as a large group of anti-fascists, socialists and Irish assembled on Castle Street, opposite the council HQ, where Labour mayor Joe Anderson and assorted anti-working class suits were gathering for a gala dinner.
The fascists had called their protest against Anderson’s upholding of liberal democratic norms – specifically in this case the right of Irish flute bands to gather and march through the city. Local fash have been trying to link the Irish republicans to the long-disbanded IRA all year, and this reached a high watermark in July, when they managed to mobilise a couple of hundred to demonstrate against a march organised by the James Larkin Society. The anti-Irish racist term ‘potato’ has been bandied about with sickening regularity online.
But despite some big talk on Facebook in the lead-up to yesterday’s event, the far right could only muster a score, who disappeared in taxis to train stations after being vastly outnumbered and outshouted for an hour. And according to reports, high profile local fash Liam Pinkham got a taste of his own medicine, and therefore missed his first demo since doing time for assault. The chant “police protect the fascists” seemed particularly appropriate, because without the cops the balance of forces would have been far in the anti-fascists’ favour.
Without significant support from the Orange Lodge – which they had enjoyed in the summer – the NWI were shown up for what they are – a street gang with no political focus, no strategy, and no future beyond mere thuggery. But as the economic and social crisis deepens – in no small measure due to the cuts that councils like Anderson’s are enforcing – there will be no shortage of disaffected youths looking for scapegoats. We can outnumber the NWI and friends on the streets, but the only long term solution to the problem of fascism is a strong working class movement, fighting for people’s livelihoods.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Class Struggle Analysis of Privilege

The following is a repost from the Anarchist Federation women's caucus, and was the product of many months' debate. I think it is a must read for all class struggle activists.

Aims and definitions
The purpose of this paper is to outline a class struggle anarchist analysis of Privilege Theory. Many of us feel “privilege” is a useful term for discussing oppressions that go beyond economic class. It can help us to understand how these oppressions affect our social relations and the intersections of our struggles within the economic working class. It is written by members of the women’s caucus of the Anarchist Federation. It does not represent all our views and is part of an ongoing discussion within the federation.
What do we mean – and what do we not mean – by privilege? Privilege implies that wherever there is a system of oppression (such as capitalismpatriarchywhite supremacyheteronormativity) there is an oppressed group and also a privileged group, who benefit from the oppressions that this system puts in place1. The privileged group do not have to be active supporters of the system of oppression, or even aware of it, in order to benefit from it. They benefit from being viewed as the norm, and providing for their needs being seen as what is naturally done, while the oppressed group is considered the “other”, and their needs are “special considerations”. Sometimes the privileged group benefits from the system in obvious, material ways, such as when women are expected to do most or all of the housework, and male partners benefit from their unpaid labour. At other times the benefits are more subtle and invisible, and involve certain pressures being taken off a privileged group and focused on others, for example black and Asian youths being 28% more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white youths2. The point here is not that police harassment doesn’t happen to white youths, or that being working class or a white European immigrant doesn’t also mean you’re more likely to face harassment; the point is that a disproportionate number of black and Asian people are targeted in comparison to white people, and the result of this is that, if you are carrying drugs, and you are white, then all other things being equal you are much more likely to get away with it than if you were black. In the UK, white people are also less likely to be arrested or jailed, or to be the victim of a personal crime3. Black people currently face even greater unemployment in the UK than they do in the USA4. The point of quoting this is not to suggest we want a society in which people of all races and ethnicities face equal disadvantage – we want to create a society in which nobody faces these disadvantages. But part of getting there is acknowledging how systems of oppression work, which means recognising that, if black and ethnic minority groups are more likely to face these disadvantages, then by simple maths white people are less likely to face them, and that means they have an advantage, a privilege, including the privilege of not needing to be aware of the extent of the problem.
A privileged group may also, in some ways, be oppressed by the expectations of the system that privileges them, for example men under patriarchy are expected to not show weakness or emotion, and are mistrusted as carers. However, men are not oppressed by patriarchy for being men, they are oppressed in these ways because it is necessary in order to maintain women’s oppression. For women to see themselves as weak, irrational and suited only to caring roles, they must believe that men are stronger, less emotional and incapable of caring for those who need it; for these reasons, men showing weakness, emotion and a capacity for caring labour are punished by patriarchy for letting the side down and giving women the opportunity to challenge their oppression.
It makes sense that where there is an oppressed group, there is a privileged group, because systems of oppression wouldn’t last long if nobody benefited from them. It is crucial to understand that members of the privileged group of any of these systems may also be oppressed by any of the others, and this is what allows struggles to be divided and revolutionary activity crushed. We are divided, socially and politically, by a lack of awareness of our privileges, and how they are used to set our interests against each other and break our solidarity.
The term “privilege” has a complex relationship with class struggle, and to understand why, we need to look at some of the differences and confusions between economic and social class. Social class describes the cultural identities of working class, middle class and upper class. These identities, much like those built on gender or race, are socially constructed, created by a society based on its prejudices and expectations of people in those categories. Economic class is different. It describes the economic working and ruling classes, as defined by Marx. It functions through capitalism, and is based on the ownership of material resources, regardless of your personal identity or social status. This is why a wealthy, knighted capitalist like Alan Sugar can describe himself as a “working class boy made good”. He is clearly not working class if we look at it economically, but he clings to that social identity in the belief that it in some way justifies or excuses the exploitation within his business empire. He confuses social and economic class in order to identify himself with an oppressed group (the social working class) and so deny his own significant privilege (as part of the economic ruling class). Being part of the ruling class of capitalism makes it impossible to support struggles against that system. This is because, unlike any other privileged group, the ruling class are directly responsible for the very exploitation they would be claiming to oppose.
This doesn't make economic class a "primary" oppression, or the others "secondary", but it does mean that resistance in economic class struggle takes different forms and has slightly different aims to struggles based on cultural identities. For example, we aim to end capitalism through a revolution in which the working class seize the means of production from the ruling class, and create an anarchist communist society in which there is no ruling class. For the other struggles mentioned, this doesn't quite work the same way - we can't force men to give up their maleness, or white people to give up their whiteness, or send them all to the guillotine and reclaim their power and privilege as if it were a resource that they were hoarding. Instead we need to take apart and understand the systems that tend to concentrate power and resources in the hands of the culturally privileged and question the very concepts of gender, sexuality, race etc. that are used to build the identities that divide us.
A large part of the resentment of the term "privilege" within class struggle movements comes from trying to make a direct comparison with ruling class privilege, when this doesn't quite work. Somebody born into a family who owns a chain of supermarkets or factories can, when they inherit their fortune, forgo it. They can collectivise their empire and give it to the workers, go and work in it themselves for the same share of the profits as everybody else. Capitalists can, if they choose, give up their privilege. This makes it OK for us to think of them as bad people if they don't, and justified in taking it from them by force in a revolutionary situation. Men, white people, straight people, cisgendered people etc., can't give up their privilege - no matter how much they may want to. It is forced on them by a system they cannot opt out of, or choose to stop benefiting from. This comparison with ruling class privilege makes many feel as if they're being accused of hoarding something they're not entitled to, and that they're being blamed for this, or asked to feel guilty or undergo some kind of endless penance to be given absolution for their privilege. This is not the case. Guilt isn't useful; awareness and thoughtful action are. If you take nothing else away from this document, take this: You are not responsible for the system that gives you your privilege, only for how you respond to it. The privileged (apart from the ruling class) have a vital role to play in the struggle against the systems that privilege them - it's just not a leadership role.
Answering objections to privilege
So if they didn’t choose it and there’s nothing they can do about it, why describe people as “Privileged”? Isn’t it enough to talk about racism, sexism, homophobia etc. without having to call white, male and straight people something that offends them? If it’s just the terminology you object to, be aware that radical black activists, feminists, queer activists and disabled activists widely use the term privilege. Oppressed groups need to lead the struggles to end their oppressions, and that means these oppressed groups get to define the struggle and the terms we use to talk about it. It is, on one level, simply not up to class struggle groups made up of a majority of white males to tell people of colour and women what words are useful in the struggles against white supremacy and patriarchy. If you dislike the term but agree with the concept, then it would show practical solidarity to leave your personal discomfort out of the argument, accept that the terminology has been chosen, and start using the same term as those at the forefront of these struggles.
Another common objection to the concept of privilege is that it makes a cultural status out of the lack of an oppression. You could say that not facing systematic prejudice for your skin colour isn’t a privilege, it’s how things should be for everyone. To face racism is the aberration. To not face it should be the default experience. The problem is, if not experiencing oppression is the default experience, then experiencing the oppression puts you outside the default experience, in a special category, which in turn makes a lot of the oppression invisible. To talk about privilege reveals what is normal to those without the oppression, yet cannot be taken for granted by those with it. To talk about homophobia alone may reveal the existence of prejudices – stereotypes about how gay men and lesbian women behave, perhaps, or violence targeted against people for their sexuality. It’s unusual to find an anarchist who won’t condemn these things. To talk about straight privilege, however, shows the other side of the system, the invisible side: what behaviour is considered “typical” for straight people? There isn’t one – straight isn’t treated like a sexual category, it is treated like the absence of “gay”. You don’t have to worry about whether you come across as “too straight” when you’re going to a job interview, or whether your straight friends will think you’re denying your straightness if you don’t dress or talk straight enough, or whether your gay friends will be uncomfortable if you take them to a straight club, or if they’ll embarrass you by saying something ignorant about getting hit on by somebody of the opposite sex. This analysis goes beyond worries about discrimination or prejudice to the very heart of what we consider normal and neutral, what we consider different and other, what needs explaining, what’s taken as read – the prejudices in favour of being straight aren’t recognisable as prejudices, because they’re built into our very perceptions of what is the default way to be.
It’s useful to see this, because when we look at oppressions in isolation, we tend to attribute them to personal or societal prejudice, a homophobic law that can be repealed, a racial discrimination that can be legislated against. Alone, terms like “racism”, “sexism”, “ablism” don’t describe how oppression is woven into the fabric of a society and a normal part of life rather than an easily isolated stain on society that can be removed without trace, leaving the fabric intact.5
Privilege theory is systematic. It explains why removing prejudice and discrimination isn’t enough to remove oppression. It shows how society itself needs to be ordered differently. When people talk about being “colour-blind” in relation to race, they think it means they’re not racist, but it usually means that they think they can safely ignore differences of background and life experience due to race, and expect that the priorities and world views of everybody should be the same as those of white people, which they consider to be “normal”. It means they think they don’t have to listen to people who are trying to explain why a situation is different for them. They want difference to go away, so that everybody can be equal, yet by trying to ignore difference they are reinforcing it. Recognising privilege means recognising that differences of experience exist which we may not be aware of. It means being willing to listen when people tell us about how their experience differs from ours. It means trying to conceive of a new “normal” that we can bring about through a differently structured society, instead of erasing experiences that don’t fit into our privileged concept of “normal”.
Intersectionality and Kyriarchy
Kyriarchy is the concept of combined systems of oppression, the idea that capitalismpatriarchywhite supremacyheteronormativity,cisnormativitytheocracy and other systems that we don’t necessarily have names for, are all connected, influencing and supporting each other. The word “kyriarchy” is also a handy verbal shortcut that saves having to list all the systems of oppression every time you want to explain this concept. It means everybody who’s fighting oppression of any kind is fighting the same war, we just fight it on a myriad of different fronts.
Intersectionality is the idea that we are all privileged by some of these systems and oppressed by others, and that, because those systems affect one another, our oppressions and privileges intersect. This means that we each experience oppression in ways specific to our particular combinations of class, gender, race, sexuality, disability, age etc. 6 7
Class struggle analyses tend to mark out capitalism as separate from the other systems in kyriarchy. As explained above, capitalism operates differently from systems of oppression based on identity or culture, but it would be too simplistic to dismiss these oppressions as secondary or as mere aspects of capitalism. Patriarchy, in particular, existed long before modern industrial capitalism and, there’s evidence to suggest, before the invention of money itself8, and it’s not difficult to imagine a post-capitalist society in which oppressive gender roles still hold true9. As anarchists are opposed to all systems of oppression, we recognise that fighting capitalism alone is not enough, and that other oppressions won’t melt away “after the revolution”. If we want a post-revolutionary society free of all oppression, we need all the oppressed to have an equal role in creating it, and that means listening to experiences of oppression that we don’t share and working to understand how each system operates: in isolation, in relation to capitalism and other systems of oppression and as part of kyriarchy.10
We're used to talking about sexism or racism as divisive of the working class. Kyriarchy allows us to get away from the primacy of class while keeping it very much in the picture. Just as sexism and racism divide class struggle, capitalism and racism divide gender struggles, and sexism and capitalism divide race struggles. All systems of oppression divide the struggles against all the other systems that they intersect with. This is because we find our loyalties divided by our own particular combinations of privilege and oppression, and we prioritise the struggles we see as primary to the detriment of others, and to the detriment of solidarity. This is why the Anarchist Federation's 3rd Aim & Principle11 cautions against cross-class alliances, but we should be avoiding campaigns that forward the cause of any oppressed group against the interests of any other - not just class. That doesn't mean that every campaign has to forward the cause of every single struggle equally, but it does mean that we need to be aware of how our privileges can blind us to the oppressions we could be ignorantly walking all over in our campaigns. We have to consider a whole lot more than class struggle when we think about whether a campaign is moving us forwards or backwards as anarchists. Being able to analyse and point out how systems of oppression intersect is vital, as hitting these systems of oppression at their intersections can be our most effective way of uniting struggles and building solidarity across a number of ideological fronts.
Some examples:
In the early 1800s, there were several strikes of male textile workers against women being employed at their factories because their poorer pay allowed them to undercut male workers12. The intersection of capitalism and patriarchy meant that women were oppressed by capitalists as both workers and women (being exploited for lower pay than men), and by men as both women and workers (kept in the domestic sphere, doing even lower paid work). When changing conditions (mechanisation) made it too difficult to restrict women to their traditional work roles, unions finally saw reason and campaigned across the intersection, allowing women to join the unions and campaigning for their pay to be raised.
From the 70s to the present day, certain strands of radical feminism have refused to accept the validity of trans* struggles, keeping trans women out of women’s spaces (see the controversies over Radfem 2012 and some of the workshops at Women Up North 2012 over their “women born women” policies). The outcome of this is as above: the most oppressed get the shitty end of both sticks (in this case cisnormativity and patriarchy), with feminism, the movement that is supposed to be at the forefront of fighting the oppression that affects both parties (patriarchy) failing at one of its sharpest intersections. This also led to the fracturing of the feminist movement and stagnation of theory through failure to communicate with trans* activists, whose priorities and struggles have such a massive crossover with feminism. One positive that’s come out of these recent examples is the joining together of feminist and trans* activist groups to challenge the entry policy of Radfem 2012. This is leading to more communication, solidarity and the possibility of joint actions between these groups.
The above examples mean that thinking about our privileges and oppressions is essential for organising together, for recognising where other struggles intersect with our own and what our role should be in those situations, where our experiences will be useful and where they will be disruptive, where we should be listening carefully and where we can contribute constructively. Acknowledging privilege in this situation means acknowledging that it’s not just the responsibility of the oppressed group to challenge the system that oppresses them, it’s everybody’s responsibility, because being part of a privileged group doesn’t make you neutral, it means you’re facing an advantage. That said, when we join the struggle against our own advantages we need to remember that it isn’t about duty or guilt or altruism, because all our struggles are all connected. The more we can make alliances over the oppressions that have been used to divide us, the more we can unite against the forces that exploit us all. None of us can do it alone.
The myth of the “Oppression Olympics”
The parallels that are drawn between the Black and women's movements can always turn into an 11-plus: who is more exploited? Our purpose here is not parallels. We are seeking to describe that complex interweaving of forces which is the working class; we are seeking to break down the power relations among us on which is based the hierarchical rule of international capital. For no man can represent us as women any more than whites can speak about and themselves end the Black experience. Nor do we seek to convince men of our feminism. Ultimately they will be "convinced" by our power. We offer them what we offer the most privileged women: power over their enemies. The price is an end to their privilege over us.13
To say that somebody has white privilege isn’t to suggest that they can’t also have a whole host of other oppressions. To say that somebody suffers oppression by patriarchy doesn’t mean they can’t also have a lot of other privileges. There is no points system for working out how privileged or oppressed you are in relation to somebody else, and no point in trying to do so. The only way that privilege or oppression makes your contributions to a struggle more or less valid is through that struggle's relevance to your lived experience.
A black, disabled working class lesbian may not necessarily have had a harder life than a white, able-bodied working class straight cis-man, but she will have a much greater understanding of the intersections between class, race, disability, gender and sexuality. The point isn’t that, as the most oppressed in the room, she should lead the discussion, it’s that her experience gives her insights he won’t have on the relevant points of struggle, the demands that will be most effective, the bosses who represent the biggest problem, the best places and times to hold meetings or how to phrase a callout for a mass meeting so that it will appeal to a wider range of people, ways of dealing with issues that will very probably not occur to anybody whose oppression is along fewer intersections. He should be listening to her, not because she is more oppressed than him (though she may well be), but because it is vital to the struggle that she is heard, and because the prejudices that society has conditioned into us, and that still affect the most socially aware of us, continue to make it more difficult for her to be heard, for us to hear her.
Some would argue that governments, public bodies and corporations have been known to use arguments like these to put forward or promote particular people into positions of power or responsibility, either as a well-meaning attempt to ensure that oppressed groups are represented or as a cynical exercise in tokenism to improve their public image. This serves the state and capital by encouraging people to believe that they are represented, and that their most effective opportunities for change will come through supporting or petitioning these representatives. This is what we mean by cross-class alliances in the 3rd A&P, and obviously we oppose the idea that, for instance, a woman Prime Minister, will be likely to do anything more for working class women than a male Prime Minister will do for working class men. It should be remembered that privilege theory is not a movement in itself but an analysis used by a diverse range of movements, liberal and radical, reformist and revolutionary. By the same token, the rhetoric of solidarity and class unity is used by leftists to gain power for themselves, even as we use those same concepts to fight the power structures they use. The fact that some people will use the idea of privilege to promote themselves as community leaders and reformist electoral candidates doesn't mean that that's the core reasoning or inevitable outcome of privilege theory. For us, as class struggle anarchists, the identities imposed on us by kyriarchy and the politics that go with them are about uniting in struggle against all oppression, not entrenching social constructs, congratulating ourselves on how aware we are, claiming special rights according to our background or biology, and certainly not creating ranked hierarchies of the most oppressed to put forward for tokenistic positions of power.
In the AF, we already acknowledge in our Aims and Principles the necessity of autonomous struggle for people in oppressed groups; but rather than analyse why this is necessary, we only warn against cross-class alliances within their struggles. The unspoken reason why it is necessary for them to organise independently is privilege. Any reason you can think of why it might be necessary, is down to privilege: the possible presence of abusers, the potential of experiences of oppression being misunderstood, mistrusted, dismissed, or requiring a huge amount of explanation before they are accepted and the meeting can move onto actions around them, even internalised feelings of inferiority are triggered by our own awareness of the presence of members of the privileged group. This may not be their fault, but it is due to the existence of systems that privilege them. The reason we need to organise autonomously is that we need to be free of the presence of privilege to speak freely. After speaking freely, we can identify and work to change the conditions that prevented us from doing so before – breaking down the influence of those systems on ourselves and lessening the privilege of others in their relations with us – but the speaking freely has to come first.
To equate talk of “privilege” with liberalism, electoralism and cross-class struggles is to deny oppressed groups the space and the language to identify their experiences of oppression and so effectively organise against the systems that oppress them. If we acknowledge that these organising spaces are necessary, and that it is possible for them to function without engaging in liberalism and cross-class struggles, then we must acknowledge that privilege theory does not, of necessity, lead to liberalism and cross-class struggles. It may do so when it is used by liberals and reformists, but not when used by revolutionary class struggle anarchists. Privilege theory doesn't come with compulsory liberalism any more than the idea of class struggle comes with compulsory Leninism.
The class struggle analysis of privilege
This may all seem, at first, to make class struggle just one struggle among many, but the unique way in which ruling class privilege operates provides an overarching context for all the other systems. While any system can be used as a “context” for any other, depending on which intersections we’re looking at, capitalism is particularly important because those privileged within it have overt control over resources rather than just a default cultural status of normalcy. They are necessarily active oppressors, and cannot be passive or unwilling recipients of the benefits of others’ oppression. The ruling class and the working class have opposing interests, while the privileged and oppressed groups of other systems only have differing interests, which differ less as the influence of those systems is reduced.
This doesn’t make economic class a primary oppression, or the others secondary, because our oppressions and privileges intersect. If women’s issues were considered secondary to class issues, this would imply that working class men's issues were more important than those of working class women. Economic class is not so much the primary struggle as the all-encompassing struggle. Issues that only face queer people in the ruling class (such as a member of an aristocratic family having to remain in the closet and marry for the sake of the family line) are not secondary to our concerns, but completely irrelevant, because they are among the few oppressions that truly will melt away after the revolution, when there is no ruling class to enforce them on itself. We may condemn racism, sexism, homophobia and general snobbery shown by members of the ruling class to one another, but we don’t have common cause in struggle with those suffering these, even those with whom we share a cultural identity, because they remain our direct and active oppressors.
When we try to apply this across other intersections than economic class, we don’t see concerns that are irrelevant to all but the privileged group, but we do find that the limited perspective of privileged activists gives campaigns an overly narrow focus. For instance, overwhelmingly white, middle class feminist organisations of the 60s and 70s have been criticised by women of colour and disabled women for focusing solely on the legalisation of abortion at a time when Puerto-Rican women and disabled women faced forced sterilisation, and many women lacked access to essential services during pregnancy and childbirth. Although the availability of abortion certainly wasn’t irrelevant to these women, the campaigns failed to also consider the affordability of abortion, and completely ignored the concerns of women being denied the right to have a child. Most feminist groups now tend to talk about “reproductive rights” rather than “abortion rights”, and demand free or affordable family planning services that include abortion, contraception, sexual health screening, antenatal and post-natal care, issues relevant to women of all backgrounds.14
We have to challenge ourselves to look out for campaigns that, due to the privilege of those who initiate them, lack awareness of how an issue differs across intersections. We need to broaden out our own campaigns to include the perspectives of all those affected by the issues we cover. This will allow us to bring more issues together, gather greater solidarity, fight more oppressions and build a movement that can challenge the whole of kyriarchy, which is the only way to ever defeat any part of it, including capitalism.
1 A common form of blindness to privilege is that women and people of color are often described as being treated unequally, but men and whites are not. This…is logically impossible. Unequal simply means ‘not equal,’ which describes both those who receive less than their fair share and those who receive more. But there can’t be a short end of the stick without a long end, because it’s the longness of the long end that makes the short end short. To pretend otherwise makes privilege and those who receive it invisible.” Allan G. Johnson, Privilege, Power and Difference (2006).
5 While it is important that individuals work to transform their consciousness, striving to be anti-racist, it is important for us to remember that the struggle to end white supremacy is a struggle to change a system, a structure…For our efforts to end white supremacy to be truly effective, individual struggle to change consciousness must be fundamentally linked to collective effort to transform those structures that reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy.” bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, 1995
7 Intersectionality as a term and an idea has been developed by, among others: Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Leslie McCall, if you are interested in further reading.
8 Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ suggests that young women were used in some pre-money societies as an early form of currency or debt tally.
9 See the chapter with all the beautiful and sexually available house-keeping-cleaning-serving women in William Morris’ utopia News from Nowhere.
10 One anarchist analysis of intersectionality: http://libcom.org/library/refusing-waitanarchism- intersectionality.
11 “We believe that fighting systems of oppression that divide the working class, such as racism and sexism, is essential to class struggle. Anarchist-Communism cannot be achieved while these inequalities still exist. In order to be effective in our various struggles against oppression, both within society and within the working class, we at times need to organise independently as people who are oppressed according to gender, sexuality, ethnicity or ability. We do this as working class people, as cross-class movements hide real class differences and achieve little for us. Full emancipation cannot be achieved without the abolition of capitalism.” http://www.afed.org.uk/organisation/aims-and-principles.html
12 See Chapter 7 of The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class by Anna Clark.
13 Selma James, ‘Sex, Race and Class’ 1975

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