Keir Milburn’s “On Social Strikes and Directional Demands”, originally authored as a contribution to ongoing debates within Plan C, has initiated some interesting debates on strategy, tactics and orientation within the libertarian milieu. The original article can be found here. Our friends at the Angry Workers blog have also made a particularly useful contribution, their response can be found here. We, however, felt there were some areas within this discussion that needed to be looked at in greater detail and that also overlapped with our priorities and what we are trying to achieve here through New Syndicalist.
Our response largely covers the idea and strategies behind the notion of a “Social Strike”. Although Keir does look critically at the recent practices of the UK Left, we felt that the original article overlooked changes in the structure of capitalism and class composition in recent decades which have drastically changed the dynamics of both our movements and contemporary organising. We explore this as well as developing further some of the points of contention raised by the Angry Workers piece about the continued usefulness of the “traditional” strike. We felt that these two issues were very much related so thought it necessary to spell out more clearly the connections between potential new and largely unexplored areas for organising and restructuring of the UK workforce. Our central concern, however, was Keir’s description of the social strike and whether this is a practical possibility for us and our movements in the here and now. This led us to question the current infrastructure and capacity that the libertarian left has developed to call, organise and sustain a social strike. If the traditional left, or “Plan B”, can be said to still maintain a grip on the direction of the workers’ movement this is derived from the historic organisations it has built in pursuit of its goals – the Labour party, the TUC, social democratic arts, media, clubs, societies and think tanks. Some of these have taken the forms of mass movements capturing the hopes and aspirations of hundreds of thousands of working people. We pose the question as to what the current libertarian milieu offers as both an alternative and as a practical means of pursuing its own objectives, including the social strike. Although painting a rather more pessimistic picture, we believe this is the basis for a more grounded discussion into strategy, how and where to move forward. We finish by imagining the kind of activities and organisations we believe would form the basis for being able to call a social strike and putting “plan C” as a credible alternative to working people.
Keir’s article begins by talking about a “state of impasse” that the Radical Left in the UK is currently in. We believe this is broadly correct but a little bit more contextualisation of how and why we have gotten to where we are gives a better understanding of what needs to be done to get out of this impasse. The current state of the radical Left is very much a product of recent changes in economic organisation. Over two decades of neoliberal policies has drastically changed the balance of forces in this country and particularly the shape, character and ideas of the working class. It has also forced retreat of the radical Left from traditional working class constituencies. These communities have been eroded by economic changes that have stratified and dislocated working people. Vehicles of working class power – trade unions, independent community centres, tenants associations – have been pushed back by cuts, the erosion of social welfare and vicious (and in some cases particularly high profile, e.g. the miners’ strike) confrontations with the state. The “space” in which the Left traditionally counted on as fertile ground for the growth of its ideas has been swept away. The trade union movement (with some exceptions like the RMT which have managed to maintain a culture of rank-and-file militancy) is animated by skeletal and bureaucracy-driven structures in the place of mass movements. The erosion of these basic social foundations from the culture of the UK Left has had serious and wide-ranging implications.
It is also within this context that recent, and also more politically libertarian, manifestations of anti-capitalist ideas have developed. The anti-roads movement, alter-/anti-globalisation movement, the anti-war movement, climate justice all of these had their roots within communities of activists within this new environment. These were largely activists first, i.e. individuals drawn to the ideas and aspirations of anti-capitalism, and not activists developed within existing communities based on conditions of social struggle. They therefore lacked a connection to a base of social solidarity from which organisations and movements must grow. That is not to say that there weren’t attempts to widen the scope or otherwise connect these movements to the communities they intended to impact, rather what is important to understand is that a persistent feature of protest politics over the last two decades has been its failure to be socially or geographically located anywhere. Undoubtedly there have been grassroots projects, groups and initiatives, often very successful, which have continued to battle away at the fringes. But these are the exception, particularly in the case of the libertarian Left, rather than the rule. Contrast this, for example, with the conditions that gave rise to the formation of our own union – the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – at the beginning of the twentieth century. Here the IWW arose as both the amalgamation and deepening of already existing trends within the US labour movement. Anarchists, socialists, communists and radical trade unionists brought with them into this new initiative sections of the working class movement, in some cases pretty considerable sections such as the thousands strong membership of the Western Federation of Miners, with which they had already won considerable influence. “Big Bill” Haywood may have been guilty of hubris when he declared the founding convention a, “Continental Congress of the working class”, but he wasn’t far off the mark either. Undoubtedly we are in a very different place from that of the working world of the 1910s and in this way such a comparison may be unfair. But have we actually adjusted our thinking and practices to meet this changed environment? The last instance of widespread political mobilisation that could arguably be really said to buck this trend was the student protests and occupations of 2010 (putting aside the difficulty of assigning a political status to the summer riots of 2011). But in many ways this is not really surprising given that university campuses, in contrast to contemporary workplaces and neighbourhoods, are host to relatively vibrant political cultures and have a distinct sense of community. They are also a place where the traditional methods of Left intervention seem to keep many of the forces of the old Left ticking over.
The “surges” and “fire brigade politics” mentioned in Keir’s article should be seen within the above context – of individuals and networked communities who lack a social, economic or geographical base. Tools such as the internet and social media do represent important innovations in social mobilisation and are useful in illuminating the shared values and social solidarities that may exist beyond or under the surface of our everyday experiences. It is important though to not over emphasise the power of these virtual “communities”. Social media activism is low risk, easy and involves varying and intermittent commitment. It does very little to empower us in our daily experiences of exploitation, whether at work, in housing or in social reproduction. That’s unless it is actually being used by real movements that are capable of pushing people on to the streets, into action in their workplaces and closer together in their neighbourhoods. So while we absolutely agree that there is a pressing need for a strategic thinking in these times we also think a more honest and diagnostic approach to our own areas of weakness reveals a clearer understanding of the huge tasks ahead of us at this point in time. Strategy is not just a plan of action. It is also an understanding of where you and your organisation fit within a balance of social forces. “Big Bill” Haywood once argued that the General Strike at its heart was about political power. This is how we should think about it too. In what way do we shift the balance of power away from the bosses in our workplaces, our landlords in our neighbourhood, the state in our society and towards ourselves, our workmates and our class? “Plan B” offers people “political action” in the form of promises of progressive policies at the ballot box, but what does a “Plan C” currently offer? “Big Bill” said he wanted a “working class that can hold an election everyday of the week if they want to” just by putting their hands in their pockets. A class that could change things through the sheer might of their collective action. We think that’s a pretty neat expression of what a “Plan C” working class power might practically look like, but how do we get there?
We agree with Keir that a strategic orientation does not mean having to lay out a detailed step-by-step plan. This is clearly an unrealistic attitude anyway and in the class war, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Strategic thinking does however need to be practical and applied to fit your circumstances. How do we get from where we are now to where we want to be? What are the activities that need to be taken at each step of the process? How does an organisation change as it grows and how do we expect our communities to change alongside it? What resources do we need to sustain the projects we want to launch and how do we make sure they are sustainable? This is the kind of diagnostic thinking we would argue is absolutely necessary to any kind of strategic approach to growing our movements. So while not laying out a step-by-step plan Keir does go some way to answering these questions by outlining strategies that he believes to be less useful now. He claims that in the UK, for example, that “strikes have stopped working so well”. In reality we think this is hard to judge as the TUC rarely supports strikes to a point where they could be effective. Official strikes are overwhelmingly sectoral, short-lived and incredibly unambitious in their aims. Instances of unofficial action (wildcat strikes) have been much rarer in recent years but where they have been used, particularly in pinchpoint industries such as Royal Mail or at the Lindsey oil refineries, they continue to be effective, at least in terms of the amount of disruption that they cause to the wider economy. Likewise, as Angry Workers point out in their article, new areas of employment concentration for the UK workforce are untouched by the trade union movement and are largely untested ground for staging industrial action. We simply don’t know how effective industrial action in these areas might be as no one has really tried it.
There is a similar need to be cautious about claims that a growing precariousness in workers conditions necessarily means the end of the “mass workplace”. It is our experience that precarious and irregular working conditions can quite happily coexist within many of the largest and most centralised places of employment in this country. One of our co-bloggers, Steel City Syndicalist, for example found that across the Yorkshire and Humber region the largest proportion of workers were still employed in “traditional” industries of manufacturing, trades and agriculture. Huge factories, call centres and warehouses dominate the poorest areas of cities across the North and are often comparable in their relationship to local communities as villages were to coal pits and steel factories over the latter half of the twentieth century. Amazon UK is another good example. Its massive 700,000 square feet distribution centre in Rugeley, Staffordshire (so big that it now offers guided tours as a local “tourist attraction”) employs hundreds of workers from the local area the majority of which are on temporary and zero-hour contracts. This is a situation replicated across Amazon sites throughout the UK where trade union organisers have also reported of having to operate as a clandestine organisation due to Amazon’s hostility to workers’ rights. In light of this is it truly the case that strikes have stopped working well or is it that we are no longer fighting for them in the places and points in the economy where they really count? If large and concentrated sections of the UK workforce, often subject to the harshest working conditions, are basically untouched by the radical Left then surely it should be one of our primary aims to reach out to these workers?
So while there may be life yet in well-trod methods of industrial action we also don’t want to dismiss too readily the important dimensions of social struggle that are highlighted in Keir’s description of the “Social Strike”. Keir states the goals of the social strike as, “disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles”. The latter, we think, is an important corrective to certain features of “Plan B” thinking that saw industrial action as prior or necessarily leading to social change in other spheres of life. This is a way of thinking that, in spite of the IWWs strong record on struggles around gender, race, LGBTQ and children, has unfortunately been a feature of the union’s traditional understanding of the characteristics of the revolutionary general strike. As “Big Bill” stated in the speech quoted above, the general strike comes through industry first, then the community and finally on a national scale. Thinking through how our approach to the workplace can be supported, amplified and connected with struggles in the home, in culture, housing and other sites of social reproduction is an important part of any project that wants to offer true and genuine liberation. The writings of our Fellow Worker “Operaista” has some interesting and useful ideas to raise on these questions that we’d particularly recommend . However we believe that Angry Workers are correct to comment on the rather modest and slightly random nature of the examples given to illustrate this process – free shops and a crèche organised by one of our sister branches. These are obviously both positive and worthwhile initiatives but how do they fit within the stated goals above? At the very least they seem rather small and fragmentary expressions of it.
Keir’s examples are not poorly chosen. They express rather honestly the basic lack of infrastructure and social influence on the wider class currently held by the libertarian Left in the UK. A realistic assessment would have to conclude that we are profoundly ill-equipped for the level of intervention required to support independent industrial action let alone realise the full goals of a social strike. Consider, for example, the size and scale of the “Plan B” institutions that, in spite of decades of attack, retreat and capitulation, still strongly define the direction of the workers’ movement and animate the anti-austerity agenda – the Labour Left, the trade unions, the Trotskyist sects, Marxist research clusters and think tanks, media personalities and national newspapers such as the Morning Star. Going back to the example given by “Big Bill”, “Plan B” institutions offer the workers “political action”, what do we offer as an alternative? Our issue here is not necessarily a lack of good ideas but the need to highlight an absence of credibility through a basic lack of infrastructure. We currently have no real mechanism for generating, supporting and amplifying struggles in a libertarian direction both on a day-to-day basis but also in the more complete terms put forward by the idea of the social strike. Any social strike strategy which does not factor in the development of organisations for becoming a stable and positive influence on the lives of working people will be completely lacking in credibility, carried out by isolated minorities (if at all) and illegitimate in the eyes of the majority of the class. Keir’s concern for “visibility” throughout the article, in this sense, is a diversion from the actual goals laid out for the social strike. It is not that we want all forms of social struggle to be visible as such but that we actually want them to be substantive in any of the areas that they take place. We want them to win and to win again and again so they are a source of trust and confidence in what we do, how we operate and our vision for how things have to change. This is, after all, why strikes need to be “social”. So that they are truly transformative, carrying within them the seeds of socialist revolution.
So what kind of infrastructure are we talking about here? We don’t claim to have perfect or complete answers but as an illustration if we were to look at one of the Northern cities that we currently organise within it is possible to imagine, on the basis of some of the activities we are already engaged in, what kind of movements and forces would be necessary to fully mobilise a regional, social strike. We are not trying to lay out perfect blueprints here but to draw on some of our existing experiences to try and speculate how the projects we are already involved in, or hope to initiate, could accelerate into sources of working class power.
Firstly there would have to be a substantial scaling-up of the geographical, neighbourhood-based outreach we are already engaged in. We would want a strong and well-supported network of local organisers who know their areas well, are well connected to social hubs and residential centres and are providing substantive support to localised social struggles. In terms of what these struggles would look like, continued cycles of agitation, education and organisation around issues of land control, rents and social housing could lay the basis for the growth of housing co-operatives, housing associations and tenants unions. Struggles essentially around the right to live and reproduce ourselves free from the constraints of the profit-motive. Ideally the social leaders in these areas will have been drawn into these projects and hopefully be also acting as key organisers to generalise these struggles as well as pushing them further in their aims. At an advanced stage neighbourhood assemblies bringing together these base organisations would be the ideal vehicle for bringing about greater regional co-ordination as well as a democratic organ of the social strike.
Social care, childcare, food distribution and transport co-operatives could form the nucleus of an alternative strike economy based on principles of mutual aid and solidarity. These would not be substantive enough and should not aim to replace the institutions existing in the capitalist economy but would be a necessary safety-net to the economic disruptions caused by industrial action as well as a means of communising relations in the social reproductive sphere. Industrial action in the public sector in the form of “good work strikes”, where social services are provided for free at the expense of the employer, could act as another site of support as well as a method of communising relations within the existing economy.
As a union, and hopefully alongside other grassroots and rank-and-file trade unionists, we’d like to see worker-controlled unions organised across currently unorganised industries, particularly areas of high employment density and pinchpoint parts of the local economy (transport, energy, food distribution and warehousing). These unions should aim to take a leadership role in terms of advancing the aims of the strike further and exercising a wider influence in local disputes irrespective of their size. Meanwhile militants within the existing trade unions would be exercising the influence they have developed over their own branches by seeking to bring together members across trades union divides in multi-union workplaces to take co-ordinated action regardless of official ballots. This would be the basis of regional strike action across the city and its peripheral areas.
All of the above may seem hugely ambitious tasks for what are, often in most places, a fractured radical milieu represented by handfuls of local activists. Although so is, we’d argue, the social strike and if we are going to talk seriously in terms of practice as well as theory (as we think we should) then these are the realities we are facing. How do we get from where we are now to some of the ideas that are sketched above? Well that, we’d argue, is the true purpose of strategy. But in terms of some of our own ideas and approaches we think we need to think primarily in terms of three key and interconnected principles: being as effective as we can be, winning and making it count. This may mean being tactical in terms of the areas of the economy that we choose to organise, it may mean really bedding in and being patient about what we aim to achieve. Social change is not easy and it doesn’t come quickly either. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also try and do as much as we can in the here and now. We also need to show that we can win and that our ideas make people’s lives better, this is a part of a dimension of growth as anything else. There’s a recent article from an IWW organiser that talks about “knowing, hearing and seeing” the union that offers sound advice. Your standard union activist only needs to “know” the union; by whatever means they have already made their journey towards radical ideas and they just need to understand that you both “get” it. The majority of people, however, need to both “hear” and more often than not “see” the union as well. “Hear” in terms of seeing their workmates talking about it and buying into it but also “see” in terms of being given concrete examples of how the union can help them out and change their lives. It’s an unfortunate paradox that if everyone was on board straight away it would, of course, be easier to “see” the union and the union would be more effective. But in the meantime it might mean working hard, punching above your weight and, most importantly, sticking around when the going gets tough.