Some ideas for future writing projects

In our busy, sometimes hectic schedule, we’re going to set aside some time to do some research in preparation for writing some lengthier pieces, some of which may be produced as pamphlets. It’s working titles only at the moment – as the research progresses, more suitable titles may emerge. Also, please note that we won’t be rushing these projects and they will be spread out over a fair few months. Here are the ideas in no particular order…

Between the Plotlands and the New Town

As some of you may be aware, before the construction of Basildon New Town, there were existing settlements at both Laindon and Pitsea. Some of those settlements were made up of what were called the Plotlands. These were informal settlements formed when farmers in the early part of the 20th century who were struggling to make a living on marginal agricultural land, divided their farms into plots and sold them off to people to build whatever they wanted on. What emerged was a series of informal settlements ranging from cabins through to bungalows but…they weren’t plumbed or wired into the utilities that we all take for granted. Billericay Urban District were reluctant to spend the money needed to connect a scattered collection of cabins and huts to the utilities, let alone pave the roads. So, when it was proposed to build a new town over the existing Plotland settlements, the council were only too happy to roll over and oblige.

There’s already an extensive body of literature on the history of the Plotlands, in Basildon and elsewhere across the country. With the release of the film. New Town Utopia, there’s a lot of focus on the disparity between the original vision for Basildon and the depressing reality we’re only too painfully aware of with our work with Basildon & Southend Housing Action, Brooke House Residents and Vange Hill Community Group. We want to do this research and writing, not because we’re local history geeks but because we want to deal with the tension between top down planning (and it’s casualties) on the one hand and informal bottom up settlement on the other.

Post Brexit food security and supply

The more you read about the food supply chain, the more you realise that it wouldn’t take much to seriously disrupt it. A ‘no deal’ Brexit with the subsequent delays in getting food imports into the country would cause chaos. What is already having an impact is the number of migrant workers in the agricultural sector across the UK who are packing up and going home because the decline in sterling since Brexit is hitting their earnings and they’re concluding there’s no point in staying on.

We’ve already written on The Estuary Alternative about the need for more community food growing projects to not only offset the impacts of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, but also to start giving people more control over how their food is sourced. The aim of this research is to firm up our arguments for a more sustainable, localised form of food production.

The retreat into national and cultural identity

Many years ago, this is where I first came into contact with identity politics…or at least what I thought was identity politics! This was back in the 1990s when it was felt that with the decline in the project of achieving material advancement for the working class, there were clear signs of a compensatory retreat into national and cultural identity. With the further demise of any notion that the prospect of stability and a decent standard of living for the working class is achievable, the retreat into national and cultural identity has accelerated and is manifest in the waves of populism that we’re currently witnessing.

We feel that it’s time to address this and start working out ways of de-bunking this kind of identity while developing an inspiring, progressive political alternative that will capture people’s imaginations. Failure to achieve this will come at a heavy cost…

Dave (the editor)

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Why we think radical papers are still relevant

Rebel City is a paper produced by a coalition of London based anarchists and it’s a publication we offer our full support to, up to and including helping out with the re-design and layout! Here’s a downloadable PDF of the latest edition of the paper.

Why, as fairly prolific bloggers, do we think that printed radical papers such as Rebel City, the South Essex Stirrer and others are still important? It’s simply because that with the best will in the world, the readers of most political blogs tend to be a self selecting audience. People are only going to seek out our blogs if they already have an interest in the kind of radical politics we engage in. While it may sound harsh, all too often we may be preaching to the converted. The whole point of what we’re trying to achieve is to change the world and we’re not going to do that by remaining in a self referential bubble in a corner of the Internet!

If you get the distribution right, radical papers are a way of reaching out to a new audience. That’s not just handing them out on the bigger protests but also in the town centres and going door-to-door. Back in our Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) days, we did a lot of door-to-door paper distribution, not just in Thurrock but also helping out other branches in Blackbird Leys and London during the local elections. The IWCA saw papers as an important way of reaching out to the communities they operated in and they were a proven success in building a new audience for their politics.

Not only that, we shouldn’t assume that everyone has access to the Internet. There’s a digital divide and in an age of austerity and stagnating pay, there’s a growing number of people who simply cannot afford to stay connected and drop off the Internet. They’re precisely the audience we need to be communicating with if we’re going to build a movement for radical change.

Also, there’s the discipline of the work involved in producing and distributing a paper. Now we know writing for a blog can be hard work and we’re not dismissing that in any way. What we’re saying is that the work involved in designing, artworking, organising the printing, planning and implementing the physical distribution of a paper gives a group a useful set of skills and when the finished product is well received by the punters, a welcome boost to morale.

The good news is that we’re detecting a revival of interest in producing physical, printed publications. Okay, the younger folk producing them call them ‘zines and they don’t bear a lot of resemblance to printed copies of the Stirrer but the point is that they’re physical manifestations of peoples’ politics. It’s an indication that an individual or a group cares enough about their beliefs to put in the work of writing, laying out, printing and distributing a publication. As distribution involves face to face encounters with potential readers, it’s bringing back the kind of engagement we used to have with people before the emergence of the Internet. After a dip, we think that radical papers and ‘zines are slowly but surely on their way back and that can only be a good thing.

Don’t believe the weasel words of the developers!

We’re re-blogging this piece from our sister blog because it raises a number of issues that deserve further exploration, discussion and debate. The first is how do we take the instinctive distrust many residents have of unaccountable planning processes and the system of local governance that foists them upon us in a progressive direction? If we can’t come up with an answer to this, reactionary elements are lurking in the wings to exploit the discontent of residents who feel that planning is something that’s done to them rather than something they have a genuine stake in. The second is more specific to the history of the development of Basildon New Town and the airbrushing from history of what was destroyed to build it. Before the new town was built, there was a lot of informal housing known as the plotlands. Rather than spend money on connecting many of these informally built homes to utilities and improving the roads in these settlements, Billercay Urban District Council chose to sacrifice them to the development of Basildon New Town instead. As part of the process of building the new town, the existing High Road in Laindon was pretty much murdered as a new shopping centre was constructed in Basildon. For anarchists, the history of Basildon New Town raises a lot of interesting questions about central, unaccountable planning versus bottom up, informal development. It has to be said that it’s not as black and white as it seems and there are a range of nuanced solutions in between that can be designed to ensure power remains at the grassroots with residents. This something that we would love to find the time to explore and write about…

The letter to the Echo reproduced above concerns the ongoing re-development of the Laindon Centre – a shopping precinct that opened in 1969 and has been plagued by problems pretty much ever since. It’s instructive to read this piece from the Laindon & District Community ArchiveLaindon Shopping Centre – The Decline  – which not only discusses the decline of the centre but also offers a history of what the High Road was like before Basildon New Town was built. Spoiler alert – it was thriving! What is clear from this piece is that back in the late 1960s, the Laindon Centre was imposed upon the community with no consultation as part of the grand plan for the new town.

Well, when it comes to taking into consideration the views of the community, it would appear that Swan, the developers responsible for replacing the Laindon Centre, haven’t learned…

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Downloadable publications

We’ve created a publications page on all three of our blogs where you can download printable PDFs of what we think are our more important pamphlets and documents.

Publications – South Essex Stirrer
Publications – On Uncertain Ground
Publications – The Estuary Alternative

Below are details of the three publications that we have put up so far on this blog. Obviously as this project develops, what pamphlets and documents go up depends on the purpose of and audience for each of the blogs we run. Eventually there will be a divergence as what may be of interest to readers of On Uncertain Ground will not be relevant to readers of The Estuary Alternative and vice versa.

A better future for the 3/4 estate in Vange
This was the final presentation we produced at the end of the Creating A Positive Revolution In Southend course facilitated by Graham Burnett and Sherry Fuller. The presentation is a long term vision for the future of the 3/4 estate in Vange which is on the southern fringes of Basildon in Essex. Along with Basildon & Southend Housing Action, we’ve been facilitating the work of the Vange Hill Community Group in empowering residents to start making their estate a better place to live.

Building the base for radical change
This is an explanation our strategy of building a movement for change from the grassroots upwards in our neighbourhoods. While it refrains from any criticism of other strategies and tactics to achieve radical change, it argues the case that there has to be a strong base in our communities. This piece draws on our experiences of working alongside Basildon & Southend Housing Action and facilitating the work of the Vange Hill Community Group.

Is cultural identity fixed or does it change? | Intersectionality – some tentative thoughts
These two pieces are basically me thinking out loud on the issues of cultural identity and intersectionality. Constructive criticism and civilised debate on what I’ve written are more than welcome.

Building the base for radical change

Our long term aim is to achieve a revolution that will bring about an equitable, sane and sustainable society free from hierarchies and oppression. The question is – how do we get to that point? What this piece will attempt to do is explain the grassroots, community based approach to achieving this we take out here on the ground in southern Essex. This isn’t intended to be a definitive guide let alone a grandiose statement that our way is the best – all we’re trying to do is put some ideas and experiences into the mix and see what people think of them.

Fractured communities

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.

Where we operate, we’re dealing with the consequences of forty years of neo-liberal doctrine which has led to a growing number of estates becoming marginalised, fractured and all too often, fearful places to live. We’re dealing with an unprecedented level of demoralisation on the estates that has led to many people giving up hope for a better life as they struggle to get by from day to day.

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, when they periodically manage to get their act together, 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 has to have a base

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.

The people we work with on the estates

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. 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, influences 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’ve been working for a while with Basildon & Southend Housing Action (BASHA) and more recently, the Vange Hill Community Group (VHCG) on ways to encourage residents on the Vange Hill estate to get involved in making their neighbourhood a better place to live. VHCG was set up last year, partly as a result of a meet up and estate walkabout involving local residents, BASHA and a rare appearance from the two ward councillors. VHCG have quite a lively Facebook group.

The VHCG Facebook group can best be described as a broad church that reflects the range of opinions that will be found on any estate. Which means that sometimes opinions will be aired that we will not agree with. Opinions that some people in the activist circles we know will deem to be beyond the pale. Opinions that may well prompt some activists to ask what on earth are we doing working with VHCG in the first place. A caveat – it has to be noted that the few people who do express opinions that some will regard as dodgy have never, ever been seen on any of our community clean ups. The people from VHCG whose work we do facilitate such as the clean ups and lobbying are pretty sound as far as we’re concerned.

The VHCG Facebook group gives us an insight into what people’s concerns (and occasionally, prejudices) are. Which means we can intervene by whatever means necessary to offer our viewpoint on a contentious issue and work to change people’s opinions. It’s a continuous process that won’t get instant results but if we stick at it for long enough, we gain people’s respect and that’s when we can start to change minds and win people over. It’s pretty much what we did way back in the 2000’s when we were involved with the Independent Working Class Association – direct engagement with working class people.

What we do on the estates

Our ultimate aim is an empowered, progressive working class who want to see radical change. Empowerment means starting off with relatively easy goals to attain and moving onwards and upwards from there. The process involves a range of tactics from facilitating residents in lobbying the council to practical actions aimed at improving conditions on the estates.

With regard to 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. 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 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 at the moment in the case of the Vange Hill estate, 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.

Our longer term goals on the direct action front are best described in this piece we wrote about our vision for the Vange Hill estate: A different way of thinking about community activism. It’s a step by step process that involves increasingly empowered residents taking on more responsibility for their estate and in so doing, starting to take what power they can down to the grassroots. Obviously, there will come a point when barriers will be hit as the council refuses to relinquish any more power. The hope is that when this point is reached, people are politicised enough to push things forward in taking on the powers that be and start fighting for real change.

Conclusion

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.

To conclude, this is the gritty, messy and complicated reality of what we deal with out here along the Essex shore of the Thames estuary. It’s not easy and there are times when we’re tearing our hair out in frustration – however, it has to be done. We’re not asking for plaudits or kudos for the way we work. All we’re asking for is an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of engaging with and winning over working class estates to a broader vision of change.

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.

Just imagine what could happen when Trump visits the UK

The working visit of Trump to the UK on 13-14th July has predictably generated a lot of excitement in many sections of the left and also in a fair few sections of the anarchist movement as well. There’s already discussion and debate about what form the protests against Trump’s visit should take. Suffice to say, it looks as though there will be a variety of actions and protests to mark the occasion. It’s also a reasonable assumption that whatever takes place on the streets in central London will be met with a heavy police presence. One that could well drain police resources away from other areas of the capital and from surrounding counties.

Let’s play a game of imagining what could happen with a mass of cops in central London and the rest of the capital somewhat short of cops on the streets. What if there were enough motivated class struggle activists across the capital who could see the opportunity provided by the distraction of the protests against Trump, and the cops diverted to police them, to use the 13-14th July to undertake actions that will aid our class? It’s not hard to draw up a list of issues that could be highlighted by a series of nimble, well planned, creative actions if you want a bit of a thought experiment.

Purely as an exercise, these are these are the ones we’ve thought of. Abandoned council estates awaiting the right offer from a developer that could be re-occupied. High end estate agents complicit in the agenda of making London a welcome home for the super rich while ordinary people are socially cleansed from the capital – could it be that they may experience some creative ‘inconvenience’? Housing associations actively complicit in socially cleansing people from London being paid a visit by people who refuse to be moved away from friends, family and support networks? Exploitative outsourcing companies who treat their precarious workforce like dirt perhaps being given a lesson in manners? The list could go on if you really want it to…

The point we’re trying to make, without getting done for incitement, is that a) in situations like this, the left and a fair number of anarchists could do with being a lot less predictable and knee jerk reflexive and b) we need actions that advance our class interests rather than those that make the participants feel good about themselves but have no impact on the real world.

We really don’t want to be the only radical media outfit in Essex

When we were involved in the initial stages of setting up the Southend Radical Fair last year, one of our aims was to encourage other groups and people to set up radical blogs and papers. While the fair certainly did help in the process of bringing a variety of groups together, as yet, no new radical blogs or papers have emerged.

Since the fair, we have re-configured our blogs (see the links in the side bar) so each one has a fairly specific purpose. The South Essex Stirrer does what it says on the tin – it stirs things up from a class struggle / community activist perspective. The Estuary Alternative also does what it says on the tin – it promotes grassroots projects aimed at building a new world in the decaying shell of the one we currently endure. Then there’s this blog, On Uncertain Ground which as the title suggests, is us thinking out loud on a range of issues. Sometimes, as was the case with a few posts we put up on gender identity, we stray from uncertain ground into a minefield and have to beat a retreat back to a place where we’re a bit surer of what we’re dealing with!

While some observers may see these three blogs and the associated papers covering all possible angles when it comes to radicalism in Essex, we don’t see it that way at all. We’re not empire builders and we would be more than happy to see other blogs (and even papers) springing up across the region we cover. In fact, the ultimate aim is to make our blogs redundant as they’re replaced with a range of more localised and specialised ones carrying a radical and progressive message. The blogs and papers we produce are not an end in themselves – they’re a means to an end which is building a movement for radical change.

As we’ve stated before, our politics are class struggle politics underpinned by a base in community activism with some green and animal rights issues thrown in for good measure. That’s more than enough to be getting on with! At the moment, there are issues we do not cover. One is gender identity which is generating rows that in our view are having a toxic and divisive impact on our movement. Our brief foray into attempting to cover the issues caused by these divisions led to our fingers getting burnt, hence our withdrawal from the fray. However, if anyone in Essex feels that they want to blog about the politics of gender identity (to add to what Transpire are already doing with their blog), please feel free to do so…

To conclude, our blogs and papers coming under the collective umbrella of South Essex Media are a means to an end and a stop gap. If we’re still blogging on the same three platforms and bringing out the same two papers in five years time, we’ll have failed in our aim of encouraging other radical blogs and papers to spring up across the county. If you want to set up a blog and possibly a paper promoting your vision, feel free to get on with it. As far as we’re concerned, the more there are, the merrier it will be!