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 couple of years have seen a series of political events that have caught most commentators off guard and there’s a feeling that the world is becoming more unpredictable and volatile by the day. To any rational observer of a radical persuasion, it’s clear that the political, economic and social system we live under is in crisis. Just one symptom of this are the divisions among our so called rulers over Brexit – these are not just about the arguments for and against but also what it actually means and how to implement it. They’re giving every appearance of not having a clue and are basically winging it from day to day.
We’re in a situation where a reasonably united radical 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 reaching its use by date. There are groups and people out there fighting the fight but the ones we’ve worked with and stood alongside in solidarity tend to come from outside of anarchism. Focus E15 and Movement For Justice are two we’ve stood with this year in various forms, mainly because they get on with the job and aren’t prone to endless pontificating – more on this later…
What follows is a subjective piece based on our experiences. We hope people will recognise that we’re using these experiences as our contribution to what needs to be a constructive discussion on moving the various currents of opposition that are around forwards in a way that brings about a badly needed element of unity.
Building from the grassroots upwards
When it comes to ways of building a movement that’ll bring about fundamental change, there has to be a base at the grassroots on our estates and in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces and our colleges. As to how building from the grassroots happens, sorry folks, there’s no definitive template you can apply. From our experience in working with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) every estate is different and has it’s own issues and characters. It’s a case of learning from the experiences of others and then working out how to apply them to the situation you’re facing while always bearing in mind the ultimate aim of what you want to achieve. What follows are our experiences of working at the level of the estate and neighbourhood…
There was one very important lesson we learnt from our Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) days, particularly when we stood in the local elections in the Stanford East & Corringham Town ward in 2007 and 2008. The lesson was that 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 – bear in mind that when it comes to local elections in our area, the participation rate tends to hover round the 30% mark. Another lesson is that when you start talking to people on the doorstep, pinning them down to a particular part of the political spectrum is not 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.
Doorstepping isn’t the time or place to start adopting a holier than thou attitude with the person you’re talking to. We found that listening to someone in order to understand where they’re coming from without interrupting or hectoring them generally earned us enough respect to start a dialogue or debate. Sure, we did come across a few hardened racists and bigots and it soon became clear we’d be wasting our time pursing the argument with them as well as potentially compromising our own security. In those situations, we found it best to politely terminate the exchange and move on while making a mental note of where the bigots lived.
When it comes to gaining respect, one thing we have found from our experience 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…
To reiterate, 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 and solutions we deal with and offer are going to be very much different from those facing activists in a London borough such as Newham. Having said that, the experiences of activists operating in all areas regardless of the different circumstances they may be encountering need to be shared to put all of our struggles into a broader, unifying context.
Getting the propaganda right
From our experiences with the IWCA and subsequently working with BASHA, we’ve realised that writing propaganda that appeals to ordinary working class people is a tough call. With the Stirrer and it’s predecessor the Heckler, we still feel that we’re on a learning curve and that we’ve still got a fair way to go before we really crack this one. We’re trying to do a number of different things with our blogs and papers…
Firstly, we’re trying to put our anarchist / radical spin on events happening across the area we cover and using that to point out that the system we have is no longer fit for purpose. We’re trying to do this in a way that’s not preachy or hectoring and acknowledges that there are a fair number of people who have been at the wrong end of the system and are sceptical about what (if anything) it has to offer. If we’re writing about the situation on some of the more troubled estates such as the ¾ in Vange, we’re acutely aware residents there know what’s wrong and what they want are some pointers or support that will start to bring about change.
Secondly, we’re doing our level best to inspire people to start changing things on their estates and in their neighbourhoods. Along with our partners at BASHA, we can’t be and don’t want to be everywhere leading the fight for change. We actively want people and groups to start agitating and organising for change on their own account with our role being to nudge them in the right direction when it comes to their politics and analysis and to offer practical support as and when we can.
With facilitating grassroots action there really is no blueprint for how to do this – it’s entirely dependent on the individuals making up the group who want your assistance. Sometimes you have to accept that there’s going to have to be a bit of a political journey, at others times you may be pleasantly surprised at how much people actually ‘get it’. We have to start with where people actually are and work from that point because a perfectly formed group with just the right politics just isn’t going to pop up in your neighbourhood in the current political and social climate. Which means that we cannot afford to sit back when it comes to our propaganda – it’s something we constantly review and if it’s not working, it gets changed and will keep on being changed until it does bloody work!
The point we’re trying to convey is that all of us need to think about the audiences our propaganda is aimed at and what results we want from disseminating it. This is as much a reminder to ourselves as it is pointing out that a lot of material produced by radical and anarchist groups could be a lot better. We’ve probably been as guilty as everyone else of turning out papers and blog posts for the sake of it rather than thinking what we want to get from each one. It’s relatively easy to write material for people who are already engaged in politics and activism – it’s a lot harder coming up with something that will appeal to and engage people who are pissed off with the way things are going but have had no prior involvement with political or campaigning activity.
When it comes to alliances, out here in southern Essex, we take a pragmatic attitude. We cannot afford to be political purists – if we were, we would be very lonely… So yes, despite the bashing of Labour’s shameful record on social cleansing in London in the name of ‘re-generation’, if our friends at BASHA find a Labour councillor who can work the system and get things done for them on the estates, we’re happy to use them to secure our aims – the emphasis being on ‘use’… Resident and neighbourhood action groups come in all shapes and sizes – while we always undertake a process of due diligence on them, on the basis that we start with where people are, more often than not, we’ll work with them.
When it comes to working with political groups anarchist or otherwise, it can prove to be a little bit problematical… We work with Class War on housing and other issues as well but as for the other anarchists in London, sadly we’re wondering where they are a lot of the time… As stated earlier, we’re pragmatists and if a group is heading in the same broad direction of travel that we are on an issue such as housing, we’ll work and stand in solidarity with them.
Which is why we’ve stood in solidarity with Focus E15 a fair few times over the last couple of years, not least because social cleansing from Newham has a direct impact on the housing situation out here in Essex. Yes, we’re well aware that the work of Focus E15 is facilitated by the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) and as anarchists, we shouldn’t have anything to do with them. Sure we don’t see eye to eye with the RCG on everything but where it counts for us on issues such as housing we do. They stepped up to the plate a few years back to facilitate Focus E15 and for us as housing activists, to not work with them because of differences over what happened a hundred years ago during the Russian Revolution would be a gross dereliction of our duty.
Given the way things are going and the threats we face, we need allies. It doesn’t have to be any formal alliance – just a tacit understanding that on certain issues we have a common aim and that it makes sense to work together on those issues. We see this as a fluid, flexible way of working where we work together with groups as and when the need arises and not get too hung up about differences while we’re trying to get a result. Taking this stance means we tend to work alongside groups who are at the sharp end of things and who generally are happy to work in flexible alliances as and when required. Just imagine what could be achieved if people just eased off the dogma pedal a bit and took a more open approach to who they worked with…
Identity politics has to recognise the need for unity
On the issue of the dogma pedal, there’s a worrying tendency where certain strands of thinking on identity politics allied with an unhelpful and often toxic call out culture are getting a stranglehold on radicalism with activists being driven away. We have written about this here: The perils of ‘call out’ culture – https://onuncertainground.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-perils-of-call-out-culture/ For the record, this is what we’ve had to say about the issue of identity: Is identity fixed or does it change? – https://onuncertainground.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/is-identity-fixed-or-does-it-change/ While we have some very strong reservations about identity politics and the call out culture that accompanies it, there are certain strands of thinking on intersectionalism that make some useful and salient points: Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts – https://onuncertainground.wordpress.com/2017/03/09/intersectionality-some-tentative-thoughts/ We’re giving you these links rather than re-hashing all of the arguments here in this piece which would make it unwieldy to say the least…
We understand that identity politics had its origins with particular oppressed groups justifiably fighting for their rights. What concerns us is the way that some people have twisted the meaning of identity politics so that it becomes a parade of competing victimhoods as opposed to a fight against oppression. Which is why we see hope in some currents of intersectionalism which while they draw attention to the varying and sometimes shifting oppressions people experience, they’re placed in a broader structural context and seek to aggregate the different struggles people are pursuing. This may well be over-simplifying things but while we have no issue with people’s different experiences and cultural backgrounds being respected, we want to see unity when it come to the fight for justice. As a matter of urgency, we have to work out what unites us so we can build the movement we need, sooner rather than later.
We’ll say it again – we’re in a period of great uncertainty and potential volatility… If the various strands of radicalism and anarchism could bury their differences and work together, the current situation could be the best opportunity we’ve had in a generation or more to seriously start to bring about radical change. However, if the current level of toxic fractiousness that’s all too prevalent in radicalism continues unchecked and we remain divided and fighting among our selves, we’re facing the direst threat there’s been for many generations.
We’re not just talking about the threat to us as activists which potentially is dire enough but to the working class, regardless of ethnicity, race 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 fair 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. In these circumstances, can we really afford to continue to squabble among ourselves?
It has to be said it’s given us no pleasure to have to write it. We want to find ways of moving things forward in what is 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. We’re aware that many of you will not agree with this piece. For the record, we’re more than happy to receive constructive criticism and engage in a reasoned debate about the points we’ve raised.