Setting out our stall


Our stall at the London Anarchist Bookfair last October

Anarchism is a broad church stretching from those of us focusing on community activism and class struggle politics all the way over to those who focus on various aspects of identity politics. Anarchist bookfairs are one of the occasions where the various strands of anarchism are together under one roof for a day. Which is good for anyone new to anarchism and who wants to find a form of activism that suits their outlook and temperament. They’re also a good opportunity for the varying strands of anarchism to discuss and debate with each other about their differing approaches and outlooks. We would hope that after a few recent blips, that tradition of open and honest debate can continue in 2018.

In the absence of the London Anarchist Bookfair this year, we’re doing our level best to get out and about to other bookfairs. We have got stalls booked at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday May 12th and also at the Dorset Radical Bookfair on Saturday 4th August. In addition to this, we’ll also be at the London Radical Bookfair on Saturday 2nd June handing out our papers. Obviously we’d like to be doing more than this but the costs of travelling and other commitments put constraints on what we can do.

The papers, flyers and mini display we’ll be having on our stall are very much focused on the community activism we do under the banner of the Essex Social Strategic Alliance which is us, Basildon & Southend Housing Action and a number of local, resident led community groups. It’s our belief that if a successful movement for radical change is going to be built, there has to be a base at the grassroots in our neighbourhoods. Our community activism is focused on facilitating residents to improves conditions on their estates and in their neighbourhoods and in the process of doing so, empower and slowly radicalise them so they become more ambitious in their demands. It also has to be said that once we hit a certain level of activity and recognition on an estate, it makes it a lot harder for elements of the far right to muscle in and try to get a foothold.

We’re not going to these bookfairs saying that our approach is the only way and that everyone else is wrong – that would be an arrogant and counter-productive approach leading to unnecessary rows and divisions. All we’re saying is that there needs to be a base on the estates and in the neighbourhoods to support all the other forms of activity and action that make up anarchist practice. We recognise the need for a creative diversity of tactics taking into account the circumstances prevailing at the time to get the message across. However, there should be an ongoing discussion about which tactics are effective and which need some serious re-thinking.

We admit that we have in the past expressed views about certain strands of identity politics and that we have ruffled a few feathers in the process. We would like to remind people that for the moment, we’ve withdrawn from what in our view was becoming a toxic and divisive row to focus on what we do with our community activism and class struggle politics: There have been some changes on this blog. It’s not our intention to get dragged back into that row when we’re out and about at the bookfairs this year – life’s too short for that! Having said this, there is room for a respectful, nuanced debate within anarchism about the balance between class struggle politics on the one hand and identity politics on the other.

So that’s it, we’ve set out our stall for how we intend to approach our presence at various bookfairs this year. We’re looking forward to talking to people about our approach and an interesting cross fertilisation of ideas with those taking a different approach.

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It’s that time of year…

On May 3rd, local authority elections will be taking place. You may well have noticed the flyers coming through your door. You may even have been doorstepped by enthusiastic candidates promising to do all they can for you while somehow forgetting the constraints they’ll be operating under. If your local councillor is up for re-election, you may have noticed they’re being more solicitous and efficient than is normally the case. Your local news websites and papers will be featuring ward by ward analysis of the state of play between the contestants and how that will affect the balance of power on the council.

Here are some hard truths. The role of local authorities in an age of seemingly permanent austerity is to implement the government’s agenda by making painful decisions about which services to cut or scrap. No matter how enthusiastic and committed your local councillor is, even if they belong to the party that’s in power on the council, they’re obliged to deliver the government’s austerity agenda. There’s no getting away from it – your local councillor is the one who has a role in deciding where the axe is going to fall.

If you recognise the constraints your local councillor operates under but still want to vote, that’s fine. As anarchists, we’re supposed to hold a strict line on voting not changing anything. Voting under the system we have will never deliver the radical change we desire. However, we recognise that there are merits in voting for the least worst option or for a councillor who is acutely aware of the constraints they’ll be working under but who will still pull out the stops for you. Obviously, if there’s a candidate from the far right standing in your ward, then getting out to vote to stop them making gains is imperative. Supporters of reactionary and far right parties tend to be more motivated when it comes to voting so that has to be countered.

Whether you vote or not, bear in mind that real change will only come from grassroots community action by residents committed to making a difference in their neighbourhoods. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, that change has come from work by the Vange Hill Community Group facilitated by Basildon & Southend Housing Action. This has involved community clean ups, guerilla gardening and constant lobbying of the council officers involved in providing the services the estate relies upon. The two ward councillors have proved themselves to be less than effective and they’re simply bypassed.

In the case of Brooke House Residents (Brooke House is the iconic block in the middle of Basildon town centre) they do have a ward councillor who is pro-active and fully in support of their efforts. He’ll do what he can to lobby for improvements in the block but is also acutely aware of the constraints he faces. One being the long term aim of the council using a policy of managed decline to force residents to seek alternative accommodation so the block can be flogged off to a developer.

Vote if you want to but bear in mind that bringing about real, radical change doesn’t come from putting a voting slip in a ballot box every now and again. It comes from residents recognising that it’s only through their collective efforts that things will start to change and then getting together to start to bring that about. We at South Essex Working Class Action (the Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) are there to help facilitate the work of any residents who want to bring about change at the grassroots in their neighbourhoods.

A diversity of tactics

The way we (South Essex Stirrer and Basildon & Southend Housing Action) operate depends very much on the circumstances prevailing at the time and the task in hand. In the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, those tactics are a mixture of lobbying, propaganda, education and direct action. Our ultimate aim is the empowerment of people on a working class estate so they reach a point where they will embrace our project of radical political, social and economic change. Obviously, we’re a long way from that point and have to work from where we are.

An immediate aim is the improvement of conditions on the estate. That involves a mixture of facilitating residents in lobbying Basildon Council, Essex County Council and the various housing associations to do their job properly on the one hand and community clean ups and guerilla gardening on the other. These activities are supported with propaganda in the form of posts on the South Essex Stirrer. We also produce the occasional leaflet and flyer and have plans for a newsletter in the long term.

Our long term aim is empowerment of the residents and we work very closely with the Vange Hill Community Group in achieving this. The aspirations for the estate are expressed here: A better future for the ¾ estate in Vange. Essentially what we are trying to achieve is starting to build a new world in the shell of the decaying, dysfunctional and dystopian one we currently endure. That can only be done from the grassroots upwards.

Working at the grassroots with people who in the main are fairly apolitical but also cynical about what politicians at local and national level can offer presents an interesting mix of challenges and opportunities. The challenges are that with people being apolitical, their views are formed by a combination of life experiences, how they discuss issues with friends, family and neighbours and to a certain extent, from the media. Which often means it’s hard to pin people down on any particular part of the political spectrum. One person can be pretty progressive on some issues but on others, may have a bit of a reactionary take.

We could through our toys out of the pram and walk away in a huff on encountering reactionary sentiments but as we’ve already written before, that won’t achieve anything: A few words on how we work. On the propaganda front, this is how we try to resolve contentious issues: A few thoughts on neighbourhood community halls. Regarding the issue dealt with in this piece, negotiations are underway between the parties concerned with the aim of coming to a resolution.

As for facilitating the lobbying of councils, we realise that the more purist anarchists will see us as little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the use of the word facilitating. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group in lobbying by offering support, advice and logistical backing as and when necessary. Regarding the lobbying, it’s generally aimed at the council officers responsible for a particular service on the estate with the two wards councillors (both Labour) being copied in. There have been occasional sightings of the two ward councillors but efforts to constructively engage with them have rarely been successful.

When lobbying pays off with a result, it empowers those involved in it to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands. As this lobbying proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity. It’s a combination of empowerment and political education that we’re doing our level best to implement.

Then there’s the direct action. Which in the case of the ¾ estate in Vange, is a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there is some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done and generally that’s what they do. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

At all times we bear in mind our ultimate aim of radical political, social and economic change. We realise that getting to the point where that can start to happen is a long journey – we’re in this for the long haul. 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.

Getting to where we want to be is a learning curve and there’s a lot of trial and error and subsequent reassessment of strategy and tactics along the way. We’re happy for what we do to be open for constructive criticism and discussion.

There have been some changes on this blog

Regular readers of this blog will notice some fairly significant changes on here. Changes that come in the form of absences. These absences are of posts relating to the complex, sensitive and increasingly divisive issue of gender identity plus those on how this issue has divided our movement. Also missing are the readings on gender identity we had put in our identity politics reading list. There are valid reasons why we’ve made these changes which we’ll endeavour to explain.

We’ve been trying to get our heads round the issue of gender identity ever since the ‘events’ at the London Anarchist Bookfair last October. One major motive in doing this is trying to understand why this issue is dividing our movement and to see if there’s any chance of reconciliation between the factions. We’ve read a lot of material from all sides of the debate and to be honest, we’re still trying to work out why this issue has been allowed to split our movement in the way it has. Researching gender identity and trying to understand why it’s taken such a hold on the movement has been a time consuming, frustrating and painful experience. We’ve fallen out with long standing comrades because they’ve allowed themselves to get sucked into the vortex of gender identity politics.

What we want to do is draw a line under it and move on. First and foremost, we’re class struggle anarchists and grassroots community activists with more than a pinch of green and animal rights politics thrown in for good measure. This is what we want to get on with. We’re happy to work with groups and people as and when our agendas match each other. We no longer have the time, energy and inclination to get involved in the toxic rows over gender identity that are dividing our movement.

This is why we’ve stripped the content about gender identity and the effects the divisions over it are having on the movement out of this blog. We have kept the identity politics section but that’s mainly about cultural identity where we feel we’re on surer ground. From this point onwards, this blog will focus on taking a more in depth look at the issues we encounter in our work on the estates and which feature in our sister blog, the South Essex Stirrer. Hopefully, it’s onwards and upwards from this point…

No sense of what community means…

This piece has been published on our sister blog, the South Essex Stirrer. We posting it here as well because it raises some serious questions about social atomisation and the decline of community spirit and pride that need to be discussed.

The above image from the Basildon Memories Facebook page is of the car park next to the Range store in Pitsea. As you can see, it’s being treated as a tip by an anti-social minority. As usual with these situations in land that’s not public space, no-one knows who’s responsible for clearing away the litter, so nothing happens. When nothing happens to clear the trash away, it sends out a signal that anti-social behaviour is implicitly tolerated in this location and the situation continues to deteriorate. As we’ve written more times than we care to remember, it only takes a few anti-social people to drag a neighbourhood down, particularly if their behaviour isn’t challenged or dealt with.

Reading through the comments on the thread about this image on the Basildon Memories Facebook page was an interesting exercise. A lot of them acknowledge that the solution to this kind of anti-social behaviour will only come from a change in people’s mindsets and a sense they have a community they belong to and have a responsibility towards. Before anyone else mentions it, we realise that some of those comments may have a narrow, somewhat reactionary sense of what makes for a successful community. When we encounter people like this, we do our level best to educate them about our progressive vision of what a community should be. What’s important is the desire of people to feel they’re part of neighbourhood where there’s mutual respect and people care for each other and the environment they live in. That’s something that we at South Essex Working Class Action are striving to achieve with our work on the estates.

Understandably, people get angry at the minority who are responsible for treating their neighbourhoods and town centre as a tip with no regard for the consequences. While it’s not a long term workable solution, we can understand why people are so fed up they’re calling for the culprits to be caught and punished in a way that will humiliate them. Placing hope in a proactive councillor who will react as soon as instances like this are reported is also understandable but they’re at the mercy of the council officers who if it’s not council land, will say it’s not their problem and bat it over to someone else to deal with or ignore. It has been said that locals fed up with such littering could band together and organise a community clean up – we did the same for a car park in Stanford-le-Hope a few years back. Three weeks later, the litter was back and no one would have known there had been a clean up. While we understand these solutions can seem attractive, they merely tackle the symptoms of the problem while leaving the root cause of it untouched.

Why are we getting exercised by litter when there’s a world out there to change? Good question. We get exercised by this because it’s about individual and collective responsibility to a neighbourhood – or in this instance, the complete lack of it from a minority of people. This littering is symptomatic of an atomised society where a growing number of people look after number one and refuse to acknowledge they’re part of a community, let alone that they have any responsibility towards it. It can also be argued it’s a sign that the culprits have little in the way of self respect. This selfish individualistic attitude from a minority and a sense they don’t have any real attachment to their neighbourhood is one of the major barriers we face in trying to build a sense of community pride, spirit and solidarity. Without this, there’s no base that can be built on in the quest for more sustainable, fundamental change.

The heart of what South Essex Working Class Action does is facilitating the efforts of residents on the estates to build a sense of community pride, spirit and solidarity. A strong community will do what it can to look after its neighbourhood. Looking at the state of this car park and also of too many estates in the region, it’s all too clear we have a massive task in front of us.

A different way of thinking about community activism

We’ve just completed a six week course facilitated by Graham Burnett and Sherry Fuller – Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend (CAPRIS). It was an incredibly useful course that made us question a lot of our assumptions about community organising. As community activists, it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut of operating in a certain way and constantly wondering why your efforts aren’t making the impact you want them to make. For some activists it can be hard to have to question set patterns of working – we’re fortunate in that we welcome the opportunity to have our assumptions questioned and to start thinking about different ways to deal with the issues we encounter on the estates.

As part of our final presentation which was based around enhancing the work we’re already undertaking with the Vange Hill Community Group and Basildon & Southend Housing Action on an estate in Vange, we came up with the outcome tree shown above. It works in a very simple way. In red in the middle is the ultimate outcome we want to achieve. Above in blue are aspects of the vision we have for the estate. Below in green are the actions that need to be undertaken in order to realise that vision.

The outcome tree was just one tool we discussed on the course. There were others that were useful in making us think about how we work towards our desired outcome. One of these was a timeline that in our case stretched out to eight years. It starts off with one small undertaking which in our case will be encouraging residents to work on converting a patch of land recently cleared of flytipping and turn it into a pocket garden. As residents achieve more, learn more, become more confident and empowered, the vision for the development of the estate becomes more ambitious until the aim shown in the outcome tree above is realised.

This may seem like pie in the sky thinking but if you really want to change the world, you have to have a vision. Obviously, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in our way and we had a frank and useful discussion about those at the last session of CAPRIS. The point is that we want to move from a situation where we’re just fire fighting the whole time and dealing with the same issues over and over again to one where we’re moving forwards and making genuine progress. CAPRIS has hopefully given us the ideas and inspiration to achieve that.

Stirrer special edition back from the printer

For a while we’ve needed something we can hand out at anarchist/radical bookfairs, on protests and to any people interested in what we’re doing to explain what we’re about. Sure we can give them a printed copy of the Stirrer but that’s generally us commenting on local issues from our political perspective rather than explaining where we’re coming from as activists. To resolve this, we’ve produced a special edition of the Stirrer on two sides of a sheet of A4 which explains our roots in class struggle and community activism, arguing that to achieve real change, you have to build from the grassroots upwards. It’s fairly generic in its content so it’s a resource we can use for the rest of this year – or until we run out:) All things being equal, we hope to be at the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday May 12th and we’ll be handing them out then. Hopefully our message about building from the grassroots will get a positive reception and we’ll take it from there…

As ever, we don’t have a massive budget and can’t afford long print runs so we’re making the paper available as a downloadable PDF from here.

This is the full text of the paper…

Class struggle from the grassroots

WHERE WE ARE

Surveying the political, economic and social landscape, the curse ‘may you live in interesting times’ has never seemed more apt. The last few years have seen a series of events that have caught most commentators off guard as the world becomes more unpredictable and volatile by the day. The political, economic and social system we live under is in crisis. We’re in a situation where a united anarchist movement should be putting a fractured, divided ruling class on the ropes while pressing the case for fundamental change and the overthrow of a system that’s reached its use by date. It has to be said there’s some work to do before this can be realised…

BUILDING OUTWARDS AND UPWARDS

Real change will only come from the grassroots upwards. If you don’t build and facilitate a movement for change from the level of the neighbourhood and also the workplace and college upwards, nothing is going to change. Taking to the streets for militant, angry protests (yes…there was a time before the People’s Assembly!) has a role to play but if there isn’t a firm base at the level of the estate and the neighbourhood, there’s not going to be a meaningful movement for change. This is what the South Essex Stirrer and our partners at Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) strive to achieve – building a base for change in our neighbourhoods and working outwards and upwards from there.

Lessons learned on the estates

As to how building from the grassroots happens, sorry folks, there’s no definitive template you can apply. From our experience in working with BASHA, every estate is different and has it’s own issues and characters. It’s a case of getting out on the doorstep in your neighbourhood and talking to people to find out what they want. It’s also a case of learning from the experiences of others and applying them to the situation you’re facing while bearing in mind the ultimate aim of what you want to achieve.

The vast majority of people are apolitical and generally don’t think about politics until it’s coming close to voting day. That’s if they’re intending to vote – when it comes to local elections, the participation rate tends to hover round the 30% mark. Also, when you start talking to people on the doorstep, pinning them down to a particular part of the political spectrum isn’t easy. Someone may be quite radical on some issues but reactionary on others – you just have to use your own political nous to decide if there’s a basis for a dialogue in these situations.

We found that doorstepping isn’t the time or place to adopt a holier than thou attitude with people. Listening to someone in order to understand where they’re coming from without interrupting or hectoring them earned us enough respect to start a dialogue. Sure, we come across a few hardened racists and it soon became clear we’d be wasting our time pursing the argument as well as compromising our own security. In those situations, we terminated the exchange and moved on while making a mental note of where the bigots lived!

Get stuck in!

When it comes to gaining respect, one thing that works is getting your hands dirty by getting stuck in on activities such as a neighbourhood clean up or building a community garden. Whether it’s organising it, facilitating the residents in running it or going along and learning some lessons from well organised residents who know what they’re doing will depend on the situation you face on the ground. The thing is getting stuck in and being seen to do so…

It’s a case of what needs to be done and what works given the circumstances and the resources to hand. Our experiences are determined by the demographic we’re dealing with and the political colour of the local authority area we’re working in. The issues we deal with and the solutions we offer are going to differ from those facing activists in a London borough such as Newham. However, the experiences of activists operating in all areas, regardless of the different circumstances they encounter, need to be shared to put all of our struggles into a broader, unifying context.

RESPECT THE DIFFERENCE AND GET ON WITH IT!

We’re living through some pretty unpredictable and potentially volatile times and the anarchist movement can’t afford to indulge in navel gazing. One example of this is the obsessive focus on various aspects of identity politics and the call out culture that accompanies it. We recognise that identity politics originated as a necessary response to oppressions experienced by certain groups – for the record we’re fully behind any group fighting for justice.

Where identity politics has been going wrong in our view is rather than aggregating those experiences of oppression into an all encompassing movement to achieve justice, there’s been a tendency for too much of it to slip into divisive, competing victimhoods. Thankfully, there are some strands of thinking on intersectionality that encourage linking together to fight oppression – these tendencies will get our backing without reservation. Basically, respect the difference and unite to fight the oppression!

MOVING FORWARDS

The current situation could be the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation to start bringing about radical change. If we don’t get our act together, we’re facing the direst threat there’s been for many generations. We’re not just talking about the threat to us as activists but also to our class, regardless of ethnicity, creed or gender, who as we’ve already seen with social cleansing from London and the Grenfell Tower disaster, face a direct threat to their existence. A number of middle class activists may not see this threat – those at the sharp end being forced out of the capital or having to constantly look over their shoulder in fear of the immigration squads or a racist attack live with it every moment of their lives. We want to find ways of moving things forward in what’s a challenging and difficult period so we can all realise our aim of overthrowing the crap we have to put up with and bring in a saner, just, equitable and sustainable society.