Below is an article I’ve written for the upcoming issue of Imminent Rebellion, published by Rebel Press:
For revolutionary struggle, not activism
“We need more people!” “If only there were more anarchists…”
These phrases and others like them are all too common amongst our anarchist communities across Aotearoa (and no doubt the rest of the world). But in themselves, they betray a fatal mistake in our goals, in how we see our role in moving towards a revolutionary situation.
An anarchist revolution will not come if we simply seek to convert more people to anarchism. Rather, more people adopting anarchist theory will be a by-product of successful anarchist organising and solidarity. There are a few issues we need to examine in order to best understand the role of anarchists in capitalist society.
Who will make a revolution?
An anarchist revolution cannot be made by a vanguard, by an elite group of activists, politicos or anarchists. A truly libertarian revolution, which all anarchists seek, can only be made by the great mass of the working class, in a broad sense of the term. This revolution will not magically appear the day we manage to get 51% of the population to call themselves anarchists, but rather by constantly seeking to expand upon the consciousness and militancy of the working class.
Genuine revolution will not be created by a specialist group of “professional revolutionaries”. While many anarchists have a sound critique of groups such as Greenpeace, SAFE or Amnesty International in that they posit themselves as the experts on activism, who the majority of people can pay to do political work, anarchists frequently fail to see that much of what they are doing is exactly the same, except they’re silly enough to do it for free! A large chunk of activism done by anarchists in Aotearoa in the last few years has been of this bent – we call the marches, we show up (perhaps with a few others, but rarely from outside of the wider activist circles), we hand out leaflets to bemused onlookers (who either ignore us or laugh at us, but certainly wouldn’t join in), then we go home. Ongoing organising be damned, we’re making a stand!
What are we doing?
Almost all anarchist activity in Aotearoa falls into two broad categories – activism (covering protests, single-issue groups etc) and propaganda (infoshops and publishing). It is activism that I will deal with here.
Activism deals primarily with issues far removed from the everyday lives of most people in Aotearoa – NZ troop involvement in overseas invasions, coal mines on the West Coast, a meeting of rich countries on the other side of the planet. In focussing on this type of issue, we ensure that we remain invisible to the vast majority of the working class, and out of touch with the very forces that can create the revolutionary situation we so desire.
In activism, we separate ourselves from the majority of the populace – protesting, marching, direct action etc are activities undertaken by “activists”, a specialist cadre of experts on social change.
Of course, there is no continuity in our activism, no real ongoing organising. Just jumping from protest to protest, deluding ourselves that we are having any effect whatsoever. Even our ongoing campaigns (for instance anti-war, or Save Happy Valley) are generally little more than semi-regular protests, with the odd press release in between. Almost nowhere is there any long term, strategic, grassroots organising taking place. Almost nowhere do we seem to acknowledge that things do take time to come to fruition. Instead, we bang our heads against a brick wall for a while, then move round the corner to the wall made of concrete, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’re making progress.
Our activities are primarily oriented to other radicals, both in Aotearoa and overseas. We go to protests with each other, then head to a computer and post reports and photos on Indymedia, so our activist friends around the country can see what we did. If the demo was especially interesting, we might even all go together to a flat so we can see ourselves on the evening news! We are an insular collection of people, and even when we have the appearance of interacting with the public (for instance, on a march), we still ensure that we are separate from them, the “normals”. We don’t engage in conversation, just hand them a flier then move on, and after a while retreat back to the other radicals, safe behind a line of banners.
Against a subcultural orientation
The anarchist community in Aotearoa is thoroughly mired in subcultural politics. The punk and hippy subcultures between them supply the bulk of self-identified anarchists, with most of the remainder coming through the “alternative” liberal (ie – Green Party, fair trade, organics etc) community. That’s not to say that none of those people are working class, but rather that they are getting involved because of their subcultural identity.
There is a huge difference between a working class movement that is oriented to working class struggles and therefore attracts working class people, and a subcultural community that is oriented to specific subcultures and therefore attracts people from those subcultures. One of the above options could lead to a revolutionary situation. The other keeps us in our self-built ghetto.
For struggles of everyday life
If we are seeking to expand the consciousness and militancy of the working class, we need to stop focussing on battles which for most people appear to have little relevance, and are totally unwinnable for us few anarchists in Aotearoa anyway. We need to move away from the WTO and towards the workplace, away from the coal-mine and towards the community, away from the spectacular summit demo and towards the struggles of everyday life.
We need to stand in solidarity with workplace struggles that are taking place – standing on the picket lines and engaging with the workers taking part. We also need to be agitating with our workmates in our own work places. There are always grievances, it is our task to do all we can to promote collective action to fight for better wages and conditions, of course without any illusions that this will ever be enough in and of itself.
We need to be engaging with our own communities, whether they be geographical, ethnic or otherwise. In our geographical communities, we need to agitate with those around us and build a sense of purposeful connection now, so that when attacks come, we already have a base from which to struggle. When city councils attempt to impose extra charges (such as bin taxes or water metering), destroy community facilities such as libraries or swimming pools, or raise rents on council flats, we need to stand with our communities in opposition and fight.
This type of organising around the struggles of everyday life isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t sexy, but it is vital if we are to build a revolutionary movement against capital and state. The more we struggle, the more we build our bases in our workplaces and communities, the better chance we have of winning, and the broader and more interlinked our struggles will become.
For the broadening and intensification of struggle
“I am an anarchist not because I believe Anarchism is the final goal, but because I believe there is no such thing as a final goal. Freedom will lead us to continually wider and expanding understanding and to new social forms of life.”
Rudolf Rocker, a German anarcho-syndicalist
It is the task of anarchists to always be broadening the terms of any given struggle, and to fight against its recuperation. In workplace struggles, we should be wary of union attempts to sell out workers. In community struggles, we should be wary of NGOs and community groups who may seek a swift resolution without the meeting of all demands.
We must always seek to bring to light the systemic roots of what we are fighting against, and to link our struggles with others happening within our communities and around the world.
We must also realise that the odds are stacked against us, and, for a long time, we will likely lose more than we win. This doesn’t mean that we should stop fighting, or retreat into our activist ghettos. For if we fight, we have a chance at creating a better society, but in giving up or retreating, we lose any chance we ever had.
The Myth Of Passivity by Toby Boraman
The Myth Of Passivity documents the class struggles against the neoliberal policies of the 1980’s, such as the Employment Contracts Act, “Ruthinasia”, and “Rogernomics”. It takes a critical look at the way major Unions opposed these policies as well as looking at resistance from groups such as Maori, the Unemployed and Anarchists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/myth-passivity-class-struggles-neoliberalism-aotearoa-toby-boraman or order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/194
Beyond Resistance: A Revolutionary Manifesto by the Anarchist Federation (UK)
Beyond Resistance is the Anarchist Federation’s analysis of the capitalist world in crisis, suggestions about what the alternative anarchist communist society could be like, and evaluation of social and organisational forces which play a part in the revolutionary process.
Available for order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/357
The Lessons Of The Bin Tax Struggle – Interview with Dermot Sreenan, Workers Solidarity Movement
The opening years of the century saw a mass community based struggle against the shifting of taxation further onto the working class in Dublin, Ireland. Thousands of households were paid up members of the campaign and tens of thousands refused to pay this new tax over a period of years despite prosecutions, media hysteria and the jailing of over 20 activists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/the-lessons-of-the-bin-tax-struggle
Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns
The gripping inside story of the biggest mass movement in British history, which at its peak involved over 17 million people. Using a combination of photos, text, and graphics, and drawing from the voices of activists and non-payers, it describes the everyday organization of local anti-poll tax groups and chronicles the demonstrations and riots leading up to the battle of Trafalgar. It shows how the courts were blocked, the bailiffs resisted, and the Poll Tax destroyed.
Available for order from http://akpress.com/1996/items/polltaxrebellion and see a review at http://libcom.org/library/poll-tax-rebellion-danny-burns-reviewed-wildcat-uk-1993
Also see the history, library and organise sections at http://www.libcom.org
Just flicked this feature up on Aotearoa Indymedia:
Blackball 08 — 100 Years On
This easter weekend Blackball celebrated its rich militant worker’s history with the centennial of the 1908 strike…
A good turnout in the rather isolated Balckball kicked off the weekends events, aimed at celebrating the 11 week strike, which, 100 years earlier, helped strengthen the rights of miners, workers and unionism throughout the country.
[ Read full report ]
Links: Celebration Invitation | The Blackball Museum of
Working Class History | The History of Blackball | “Trouble Makers” – Anarchism and Syndicalism. The early years of the Libertarian Movement in Aotearoa / New Zealand
So, at the moment, I’m alone in the house, and have been for the last couple of days. One of my flatmates is away, at the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the crib-time strike in Blackball (see this and this) which was the start of a wave of militant unionism in Aotearoa (later subsumed into the Labour Party, unfortunately), while the other is at his partner’s house, and the visiting German anarchist who was staying at mine has also moved on to other parts of the country.
Last time I was alone for any length of time was over new years, and at the time, I felt somewhat similar to how I do now – to put it in as few inadequate words as possible – not good.
Of course, I have several reasons to be happy – I’ve just become an uncle for the first time, I’m in a wicked flat with great people (and 3 cats and temporarily 4 chickens), I have a firm plan for the rest of 2008 that I’m quite excited about. I also should be really busy – I have 3 articles (total of around 6000 words) all due this weekend, which I haven’t really even started on (except in my head), and a smattering of other work to do for Katipo Books and for local solidarity organising with the October 15th arrestees.
Instead, I find myself frozen in inaction. Even typing these words is significantly more effort than it should be. Getting my thoughts onto paper (or, more accurately, computer screen) is, while possible, a mammoth task for me at the moment.
This literal aloneness that I am currently experiencing only brings to the surface a deepfelt metaphorical aloneness that seems to be with me almost every day. At the start of the movie Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character describes the experience of insomnia: “Nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” As someone who suffers from insomnia from time to time (usually coinciding with my lowest periods), this really resonated with me the first time I watched the movie. However, it also provides a glimpse into the appearance of life to me during my depressive states, even when I’m sleeping well.
For me, I frequently feel like I’m not in my body, but watching it. I might be having a conversation, but that’s not actually me, not my consciousness. While my body is doing these things, my consciousness is watching on, stuck in my brain racking over a conversation I had a week ago, a month ago, at some point in my childhood – searching for a hidden meaning, thinking of a better comeback, analysing why I said what I said. My consciousness likely won’t experience the conversation I’m taking part in until later in the day, week or month, when it processes it while my body (what would normally be perceived as “me”) has long moved on.
Still with me? Good. Hopefully this is making some semblance of sense, I get the feeling sometimes that the English language simply doesn’t contain the words to explain some things.
This experience I have just described, the turning of my life into a film I’m constantly watching, leads to an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. I think this is at least partially responsible for my seeking of intense experiences – for it is during these times that I feel most in my own body, it is during these intense times that I actually feel emotions, rather than observe myself experiencing them from the outside. It is in this seeking of intensity that I understand those who regularly self-harm (luckily, something I’ve mostly been able to avoid) – the need to actually feel is an indescribably vital part of living.
I seek out these intense moments in a range of ways – I’ve tried drugs, and while they work in the immediate sense, the after-effects are almost never worth it (and so, these days, I more or less entirely stay away from them). Travel and moving to new cities/countries also seems to work for a period – the sheer shock of being so far from everything I know forces me back into myself. This tends to last for a little while, until I’m settled in to my new location, at which point everything goes back to what I sadly consider normalcy. Starting relationships also seems to work – the intensity that comes with a new relationship jolts me into the moment, although, as with travel/moving, this doesn’t last.
The last example I’ll give is something that I’ve only begun to realise in the last few days, and properly only this weekend, as I’ve had plenty of time to stew inside my brain. Anyone who knows me well knows all too well my desire to have kids. I’m now beginning to wonder how much that is connected to what I’ve just been discussing – there is no doubt that, most of the time when I interact with my friend’s children, I am drawn back into myself, back into genuine emotion. Perhaps my desire to have children of my own is tied in with this, as an opportunity (perhaps the only one), to put myself inside my body for the majority of the time. In this, however, I have fears. Who is to say that, as with moving or new relationships, enough time with a child won’t simply see me seperate my consciousness from my body again, lose my connection with my experiences…
And, despite the ever increasing knowledge of my condition, despite the fact that I now feel able to write about it, to talk about it, to begin to describe it, I still am stuck in the same place I started – totally disconnected from my own reality, totally alone.