Finding a way forward
This piece has arisen from a discussion – The Future of Working Class Anarchism – that took place at the London Action Resource Centre as part of the Not The Anarchist Bookfair event on Saturday 20th October 2018. It was also inspired by this piece from Lisa Mckenzie: The Future of Working Class Anarchism: It’s about class struggle or it’s about nothing.
One of the themes of the discussion was the perception there’s too much of a middle class influence in anarchism and that working class voices are being drowned out. Another was asking why would any working class person fed up with the way things are going look at the anarchist movement as offering some kind of viable radical alternative. Following on from dealing with the above two themes, there was a discussion about how the working class can find a voice within anarchism.
The kind of anarchism we want is one that looks outwards and draws our class into being involved with it. The question that has to be asked is this – is there anything in the anarchist movement as it stands that will attract an ordinary working class punter from the estates? As things stand at the moment, it has to be said that the way the anarchist movement currently presents itself is not going to have people in our class flocking in their droves to join it. There are a number of factors that could explain this.
One is the kind of language used in a lot of anarchist publications which assumes a certain level of prior understanding of terminology and concepts. It’s not that what is being written or said is wrong – it’s that to all intents and purposes, it appears to be directed at other activists. Again there’s nothing wrong with that – there are conversations we need to have with each other as activists. However, if we want to achieve the radical change we seek, we have to be open and accessible and to be able to explain our concepts and analysis without resorting to complicated jargon.
Another is meetings and discussions. Think of the people from our class that you know and ask yourself – would you seriously want to invite them to an anarchist meeting? It has been said to me that anyone outside of the movement would be nervous about making a contribution at a meeting for fear of inadvertently causing offence or speaking out of turn because they’re not aware of the forms of language and conventions that govern many anarchist meetings. These forms of language and conventions were developed with the good intention of avoiding unnecessary upset and ensuring the more marginalised had their say but they have tended to evolve into an end in themselves as opposed to a means to an end.
Explain your concepts and terminology
Intersectionality, privilege, cis, binary…the list goes on of the terminology that gets used in anarchist circles and publications. There’s nothing wrong with the terms and concepts in and of themselves – it’s just that it feels like anyone entering the movement has to learn a new language and ways of conducting themselves. Operating out on the estates, we’ve never heard anyone use this kind of terminology. If the concepts were actually explained in a comprehensible way, most people on the estates would probably be able to understand and relate to them. That’s simply because quite often, they describe what is actually their experience in living on an estate with issues of deprivation.
Regarding intersectionality, simply talking to working class people on the doorstep brings home the fact that while people obviously experience issues because of their class, other aspects such as sexual discrimination, disability and ethnicity also have an impact as well. It should be a matter of common sense to recognise that these issues overlap with each other and that a bit more nuance is needed when coming up with an analysis of a situation.
An analysis which highlights the levels of discrimination and oppression people endure should be getting used in a way that draws different struggles together. It’s certainly something that can be used to draw attention to the cynical use of divide and rule and to highlight the way that various oppressions overlap each other and why struggles against them should strive to achieve unity while acknowledging the different experiences of the various groups involved. The hope being that it will generate solidarity between a range of groups on the basis of all for one and one for all.
One issue that has to be dealt with in unifying a range of struggles is acknowledging that some people face more in the way of discrimination and oppression than others. What needs to be born in mind is that while recognising that someone is getting screwed over in more ways than you are, is that it’s not done in a patronising way. This is simply because from our experience, people who are having to deal with multiple oppressions can turn out to be the most effective and feisty campaigners going!
This is privilege theory. Which should be the decent and common sense acknowledgement of when someone is more oppressed / discriminated against than you are and acting accordingly to show solidarity and support. One of the problems of privilege theory is that it can come across as a hierarchy of victimhood. When it becomes understood as such, it becomes a real problem as it denies people the agency to fight back against the system that’s oppressing them.
Giving people being screwed over by multiple oppressions a voice shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise – it should be a learning experience for all involved. People who are being oppressed on multiple fronts generally have a pretty sharp perception of what’s wrong with the social, political and economic order as it stands and what needs to be done to change things. Listening to them talk not just about their oppressions but how they fight back against them is a learning experience. In other words, let people more oppressed than you have a voice because more often than not, they have a valid contribution to make to the struggle.
The struggles of cleaners, delivery workers and others across London is a case in point. In London, these sectors are primarily operated by migrant labour who refuse to accept their allotted role of cheap, disposable labour and they’re vigorously fighting back against that with demands for decent pay and to be respected for what they do. Somehow, while they will acknowledge the multiple oppressions they experience, I don’t think they will recognise the hierarchy of victimhood that some proponents of privilege theory describe.
Why we need to get away from liberal, middle class activists
Intersectionality and privilege theory are useful analytical tools that when applied properly, explain the structure of the oppressive systems we’re battling against. They’re like any tool – they have to be used properly to get the right outcome. A hammer in the right hands is an incredibly useful tool – in the wrong hands it can do a heck of a lot of damage! The problems arise when intersectionality and privilege theory are appropriated by liberal elements who have more or less given up on attempting any form of radical systemic change and who implicitly or explicitly accept things as they are and effectively end up asking people to be nicer to each other.
The result of this is that privilege theory ends up creating a hierarchy of oppression where those who are deemed to be less oppressed are expected to allow those who are more oppressed to have more of a say, not because those who are more oppressed might have some useful insights into the power structures that are screwing them but simply in order to be nice to them. This is when intersectionality and privilege theory end up as a self-defeating, patronising form of identity politics that does nothing to bring about change and effectively puts people in a box they can’t move out of.
That is down to the middle class influence in radical and anarchist circles. Sure we understand that a fair number of young middle class people are struggling to get on the property ladder and that their prospects may well not be as good as their parents. However, many still have the advantage of knowing that if the system cannot be overthrown, they will still manage to get by and enjoy a much better life than many working class people who know they’re being thrown under the bus. Without wanting to sound too harsh, you could be forgiven for thinking that for many middle class activists, it’s all a bit of a game. For working class people and communities, it’s increasingly about survival. That’s why we have to have our voice in anarchism.
Prolier than thou?
Just because we’re working class anarchists, it doesn’t mean our concerns are narrowed down to material ones such as housing, employment, pay and community cohesion. If we did adopt such a narrow range of concerns, we could well end up on the road to reformism as opposed to the revolution we desperately need. What we want to do is put our experiences and lives in the broader context of a dysfunctional capitalist system that is destroying the planet.
So, just because we’re working class it doesn’t mean that we’re not concerned about the environment. Living where we do in Thurrock in an area that has one of the highest rates of air pollution in the country, faced with another six lane motorway and river crossing which will only exacerbate the situation, environmental concerns are pretty high up on our agenda. The predominantly working class residents of Canvey Island which at high tide is almost entirely below sea level will obviously be concerned about rising sea levels and climate change induced extreme weather events which could overwhelm their sea defences.
Issues of sexuality and gender identity are also a concern to us. Patriarchal capitalism values the family on the basis of the free labour needed for social reproduction, mainly provided by women. The existence of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans, Queer) people poses a challenge to patriarchal capitalist assumptions about the role of the family and the provision of social reproduction for free. Because LGBTQ people challenge those assumptions, they are seen as a threat to the system. How does the system respond? By divide and rule. LGB people have been finding themselves co-opted by big business with an ever increasing amount of corporate dosh sponsoring Gay Pride events. Meanwhile trans people face ongoing vilification and discrimination. As working class activists, we abhor any attempts at co-option and divide and rule so on that basis, we take an interest in issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity.
Efforts are being made to encourage a working class anarchism that can reach out to its own without the stifling, jargon filled influence of academic anarchism. Those efforts are about maintaining and expanding our own anarchist culture that will attract people from our class. The Rebel City paper has evolved from what was pretty much a paper written by anarchists for other anarchists to a punchier, sharper and visually more attractive publication that can reach out to the wider population. We’re constantly working to evolve this blog and our paper to be one that takes on the concerns of people out in Essex who’ve had enough of the way things are and who are looking for answers and solutions. These are works in progress and we’re constantly revising and tweaking them to ensure that we are relevant to our class.
While we want to overthrow a system that has passed it’s use by date, our class is not going to be impressed by a defiant stance for the sake of it. Our class will be impressed by a politics that empowers them to start fighting back against the system and to build the just, sane and sustainable society that we deserve. Our class will be impressed by results, particularly when it’s their collective autonomous action that has brought them about.
We recognise that our class is far from perfect and contains racist, reactionary elements. Part of that is down to the enduring legacy of empire when the British ruling class threw just enough of their imperial plunder at the working class to buy significant elements of them off. While the project of empire didn’t entirely eliminate revolutionary sentiment in Britain, it certainly did enough to dampen it down so it could be contained. In a period where it feels that significant political, social and economic change is off the agenda, there is a tendency for some sections of the working class to fall for the siren voices of the far right and the myths they spin about British and English identity. Having said that, there are a growing number of working class people who have been thrown under the bus and who can see through the myths the establishment desperately spin in a bid to keep them onside and keep the lid on the situation as the future becomes ever more precarious and volatile.
Our project is built on listening to the concerns of our class and using the ensuing discussion to persuade them that fundamental change is needed. Listening does not mean pandering to any prejudices they express. When some residents on one of the estates we operate on started making comments about the traffic issues arising from the use of one of the community hall as a mosque, we crafted this response that helped them point the finger of blame in the right direction: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls. When Basildon Labour Party cynically decided to play on anti-traveller sentiment in the area in one of their election leaflets, we called them out on it: Basildon Labour s*** stirring over traveller sites.
Building radical change from the grassroots upwards
In an age of rampant neo-liberalism, society is becoming ever more fractured, atomised and polarised. With increasingly precarious employment conditions that are dumping more and more people on zero hours and short term contracts, solidarity in the workplace is under attack. With the housing crisis, an increase in buy to let and homes of multiple occupation, our neighbourhoods are becoming more atomised with community solidarity crumbling as a result of people moving in and out on short term lets and not staying long enough to generate a sense of belonging.
This is exactly what the neo-liberal elite want, fractured workplaces and neighbourhoods where people are focused on just surviving in a dog eat dog world and becoming ever more individualistic in their approach to life. People who take this approach to dealing with what life throws at them are less inclined to favour collective solutions in either the workplace or their neighbourhoods. It’s these people who are unwittingly doing the bidding of the neo-liberal elite.
People on the estates feel they’ve been thrown under the bus and have lost faith in the political system – this is reflected in low voter registration and turn outs at local and national elections. This creates a political vacuum which the far right are only too happy to try and fill. This is why we see having a presence at the grassroots on the estates as one part of the strategy needed to fend off the threat from the far right.
Radical change will not happen without the willing participation of the working class. To build that participation, there has to be a base at the grassroots in our neighbourhoods as well as in our workplaces and colleges. The challenge of re-building solidarity in the workplace is starting to be met by the rise of militant so called ‘fringe unions’ such as the United Voices of the World Union who we offer our unconditional solidarity to. As community activists, our focus of operation in building the base needed for radical change has to be the neighbourhoods we live in.
Working at the level of the neighbourhood, our task is to do whatever is needed to empower people living on the estates. The ultimate aim of this empowerment is to give life to the old Independent Working Class Association slogan: Working Class Rule In Working Class Areas. This is very easy to say – putting it into practice is a hard slog where we’re constantly learning lessons from our experiences and using them to alter and refine our approach. To achieve results in doing what we do, we can’t afford to stick to a rigid dogma – we have to be flexible and pragmatic while at the same time, bearing in mind our ultimate objective of revolution.
Empowering people on the estates and encouraging them to become more ambitious in their demands and aspirations is a step by step process. Being a part of this process means accepting that we’re in this for the long haul. The hope is that what we do on the few estates where we do have a presence a) inspires more people on these estates to get involved and b) inspires people on other estates to start doing the same.
At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. There’s no single, easily defined route to get to that point. It’s a case of nurturing quite a few different strands and over time, gradually bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. Which is why we deploy a variety of tactics to support our overall strategy.
What is heartening is that we’re not alone in understanding the need to work at the grassroots with people as they are and build from there. This extract from the Statements page of the Anarchist Communist Group pretty much chimes with how we operate: Without being part of working class struggles we cannot hope to convince people that a revolution is both desirable and possible. In addition, we need to be explaining to people what anarchism is, giving possible ideas of what a future society might look like as well as give an anarchist analysis of what is going on at the moment. We cannot get anywhere by staying within our own ghettos, relating only to people who agree with us and writing for social media sites that are only read by the already ‘converted’. The tendency towards practices that are inward-looking, destructive, self-referential, etc. is not revolutionary. You need an outward-looking, expansive, genuinely inclusive approach that accepts degrees of difference if you want to change the world – or simply save your local library or support a group of workers in struggle.