2017: what it holds, and what all anarchists can do about it
2016 was a really frightening year, and 2017 will see the awful realisation of much of what it set in motion. The political culture of Europe, not least the UK within it, and of the US, involved the open embracing of racism on a scale we have not seen for decades; the open refusal to extend even the most basic compassion towards people fleeing parts of the world which our nations have over-exploited and destabilised; the normalisation by all parties of the idea that immigration is a ‘problem’ and that the ‘British nation’ is damaged by it; the associated racist abuse and assault; and an apparent shoot-to-kill police policy against People of Colour. Repressive religious forces are created and thrive in response to this racism, as well as to twisted ideologies concerning how we should all live, and justify the mass murder of civilians. We are losing more freedoms to surveillance, social control and militarisation under the pretext of protecting us from such ‘religious extremism’. The emerging realignment of global powers with the desire and capability for mass destruction, beyond even the horrors of Syria, now actually seem to desire nuclear war. The over-arching structures on which we are supposed to rely for ultimate justice – the European courts, the United Nations etc. – have become increasingly powerless as dictators do as they like. Patriarchy, ‘family values’ and the oppression of gender and sexual diversity thrive as parallel reactionary processes, and violence against women becomes normal where our leaders encourage it. The health and social care system is about to finally collapse, which is apparently our own fault for living longer. The fate of the planet at this crucial ecological tipping point is in the hands of climate change deniers and short-sighted profiteers.
Over all, we have witnessed both the normalisation of horror, and the normalisation of bare-faced lying about it. It has been the active strategy of capitalism not only to shape the world in its image, but to make it impossible to change direction and take another path, because it controls and restricts education, media, freedom of speech and political reform. It doesn’t matter how many scandals are exposed, ‘legal’ and ‘democratic’ channels do nothing to stop it. This too has changed in very recent history; no one likes the world as it is, or the way that those running it act, but we have come to think it is a waste of time trying to change it. The case against global Capitalism, for example, has been won over and over again by the various international and interconnected protest movements that have arisen since 2008. The vast majority of people affected by its excesses accept that at best it does human society and social economy more harm than good. But the state pro-actively and increasingly bails it out and props it up where it fails even on its own terms, and passes meaningless legislation against things like tax evasion which the internationally-greedy and their lawyers simply laugh at. Everyone shares this knowledge and few people disagree with the analysis. But far from being united by anger, it feels as though everyone is responding by looking out for themselves. We seem further from collective and sustainable class working class self-activity and revolutionary action than ever.
This despondency is understandable, but it is a mistake. True, whatever our rhetoric, we are very far indeed from a social revolution. So how do we change things? It is not unreasonable for anarchists to point out that we wouldn’t start from here! All other political systems have had their chance, and all of them have actively driven our ideology underground because of the threat posed to them by the possibility of a society which consists of BOTH maximum individual freedom AND social and economic equality. No other political system can offer this, but very few people have even encountered the notion. We have to continue to use whatever avenues we can to spread the message that it is both possible and realistic and take action to make our way of thinking more influential. So here are a few thoughts about how anarchists can improve the possibility of more significant change.
- First, remember that there have been successes. It is vital that we recall and understand these, use what we have learned, generalise from them, and respond to and support new resistance when it occurs. The international working class and all the various people who are oppressed globally can’t all be kept down at the same time. Where resistance emerges there is greater potential than ever to spread it globally; witness the Arab Spring, Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter. We have a great deal to offer such movements because they naturally tend towards horizontal organisation, at which we excel. We can also protect them from the emergence of regressive hierarchies because we understand the basis for these arising and how to stop them. We can suggest structures within which everyone is accountable and has responsibilities, and can express and realise their own needs and desires as well.
- We perhaps need to concentrate most urgently on succeeding where we have failed most seriously, which is in responding to the reasons why Brexit and Trump have happened. There is a vast proportion of the population that is sick of feeling exploited and having no control over our lives, whilst a privileged minority dominate and rip us off. But this is the same demography that anarchists traditionally come from and identify with! To us, that demography is where the revolutionary potential lies. We are still trying to understand how and why this has changed. Why did so many people apparently become racist, nationalist and isolationist at the ballot box? It is no use reinterpreting statistics either; enough people voted for Brexit and for Trump that it is certain that a dramatic shift to the right has taken place. But we don’t believe that the (largely) white working class is ‘naturally’ racist, nationalist and isolationist. It has been made that way by the people who run the world. So this is where we can intervene. Anarchists have to expose the voices that divert social anger and the desire for change towards the acceptance of systematic racism, patriarchy, transphobia and homophobia, and the rejection of basic human compassion. We have to revive the most effective anarchist weapon – propaganda, and use it to demonstrate the most basic anarchist truth – that we all have more in common than we are led to believe, and that dividing us is an explicit function and policy of the state. Our counter-media has never been more important than now. But whereas anarchists and other radicals were amongst the first to set up our own electronic media – Indymedia and various forums, well before even social media as we know it – now that this media is used so widely, we have to find ways to compete to show that we make the most sense.
- In fact anarchists are pretty much obliged to expose and counter reactionary ideas as individuals too. We must declare zero tolerance on racism, sexism and any other ideas and actions which denigrate and oppress, wherever we encounter them. We should actively call out even ‘casual racism’ in the working class as well as in the elite; and similarly the notion that feminism has ‘made its point’ and is less important than class struggle (as though they are different); and that it is normal to put ‘our’ nation first. We have to be ready with arguments to counter it not just in our publications but as individuals. This is the case however much it isolates us at work, in our social group, at home, or even in political parties, because these positions are more and more evident on the ‘Left’ too.
- Anarchists spend a lot of time discussing whether and how to engage in reformist struggles, which we know will improve immediate conditions for some people but not necessarily contribute much in terms of lasting social change. We will now encounter plenty of people in them who have moved to the Right. By definition, quite a few of them are people moved to ‘stand up’ for something and are often also involved in reformist campaigns over services, education, in the workplace etc. and we will encounter them there. We can’t simply shun these people or denounce en masse everyone who voted Leave as ignorant bigots. The point is that we have something in common with them. If we are not there when they realise that the people they voted for don’t in fact have their interests at heart, and that they have been played, there is no reason that they will come towards our position naturally. In fact, history shows that a further move to the right is likely.
- Acting in these principled ways, we can engage better as anarchists at those intersections between the economic struggles of working class people (at the point of production and exploitation, in receipt of benefits, or on exploitative contracts), and working class people as people fighting gender or sexual oppression, as People of Colour or non-nationals, as people with disabilities, and increasingly as others who have traditionally fared better in our own society than they now do, i.e. people who are sick, old, isolated and otherwise dependent on rapidly collapsing forms of social provision, and also all school children who are being failed. It will become increasingly impossible for any one section to fight effectively in its own interests in isolation. If we come to understand ourselves as individuals fighting on numerous levels and against the various forms of oppression that we each face, we will increase the possibility of these struggles being successful.
- The need for long-term specifically conscious anarchist organisation and, in our view, anarchist organisations like the AF is crucial. Within them we come to useful analysis through systematic and serious study and engagement. We develop our ideas and practice symbiotically. We learn from each other as anarchists, not just as friends or people we share some other rebellious affinity with. We have a way of analysing the past and present that is materially instructive and useful. By organising together in structures which don’t fizzle out once a struggle is won or lost, we build a greater presence for our ideas in society. It is also important how we represent anarchist organisation and organisations. At present, we are portrayed as sinister, especially when we organise together, and being a ‘subversive’ only has negative connotations. Many people we need to work with will consider us extreme and even threatening at first, but they will also have got to know us personally, as people also involved struggle. So, on the one hand, we are serious and principled individuals, and on the other we are part of what the rest of the working class is taught to fear. But by being the former, we are ambassadors for the latter. This is the sort of way in which we can act as individuals to make the case that the destruction of the state and capital is a positive and constructive We can point out what we have in common with other marginalised people locally and globally who are involved in better thought-out ways of opposing the ‘elite’, ways which actually empower the working class rather than drain it of its potential
- Finally, by being honest and assertive about our politics in the ways above, even if we don’t see revolution in our lifetime, we can significantly shift the political middle ground away from the right. Here is an apparent paradox for anarchists. We are not trying to return to a more ‘liberal’ society where ‘moderate’ values dominate. But we are recognising that in the here and now, even reformist action is needed to put the brakes on what could be a shift towards the most extreme right-wing politics since the 1940s. By being radical, ever-present and vocal at one political extreme (libertarian communist), that is to say, making our ideas more commonplace, we can shift the most commonly encountered social discourses away from the right. Remember that anarchism has redrawn the lines in many historical situations. We reject the sort of approach taken by the authoritarian left, which is that the present polarisation within the working class makes it more likely that Capitalism can be overthrown, i.e. when Brexit kicks in economically, the class will revolt. This is many ‘socialists’ actually voted for it. But not only is it just as likely to produce a rightward shift as it did in the 1930s, in this approach to revolution, People of Colour, gender oppressed people and others become collateral damage. Instead, we need to create hostility to Capitalism and the Right at the same time as fighting where our own oppressions overlap. This gives power to otherwise vulnerable groups. It does not take place at the point where we are about to descend into fascism, but instead at points where ALL oppressed people are at their strongest.
2016 was very demoralising, and 2017 is looking worse. Anarchists have tended to be enduringly optimistic about the revolutionary potential of the working class. Now it seems to be at an all-time low. But this only makes revolutionary analysis and social activism more important than ever. It is time to work out what to do for the best in the new political environment, and to do it.