On 11th September The Commune hosted a conference ‘From Meltdown to Upheaval’, discussing the effects of the crisis and the existing working-class response. The purpose of the day was not just to rhetorically condemn the cuts and celebrate resistance, but rather to help define our demands and means of organisation.
This website will feature reports based on the discussions at the day’s workshops, starting with the two below on ongoing struggles and community and voluntary organising.
Working group on organising ongoing struggles
Given the low level of class struggle in the UK, the left often rally round disputes wherever they emerge, and a number of campaigns rely on activist support for groups of workers with little workplace power. Therefore we thought it important to discuss how to ensure that supporting struggles does not lead to workers losing control of their actions to ‘outsiders’, and how to build a culture of mutual solidarity which empowers all involved.
An activist from Brighton Solidarity Federation said that we had to get past the idea of being ‘outsiders’, in the classic mode lefties coming down to the struggle ready to ‘intervene’ with their enlightened politics. Rather, it is important to share information and contacts, collectivising problems by drawing others into a common front of struggle.
A former member of the SWP said that his experience taught him that there is no good just turning up on a picket line and selling a newspaper: indeed, it feels embarrassing to do so. When he had worked at Birkbeck College in London and gone with other workers to show support to striking workers at nearby University College Hospital, there was a much more ‘organic’ link.
However, an activist involved in supporting migrant cleaners’ struggles in the City of London said that the ‘worker’/‘outsider’ division was not only a creation of left groups. There is a question of whether migrant cleaners are themselves really in control of their struggles, rather than passively giving consent to experienced and British-born activists’ campaigns. The problem is that during disputes people with a vulnerable immigration status, or who have no access to benefits if they lose their job, cannot take the same risks as other workers, and so the latter should be cautious and respectful of their wishes.
The Commune had recently held a forum in London discussing Big Flame, who were active around the Liverpool Ford car factory in the 1970s. A participant in that meeting described how Big Flame had not just been reactive to flashpoints of struggle but rather had established relationships in workplaces and estates over a long time, building a degree of trust. They were not ‘outsiders’ but already part of a collective problem. They saw their role as sharing information, which people may no longer think necessary due to mobiles and internet, but probably still is.
Solidarity committees in the miners’ strike also drew in supporters such as miners’ partners who had a direct material interest in the struggle. This had led to debates as to whether they should have a say in the direction of the strike; conceding power to left groups would have been questionable, particularly since the SWP and Socialist Party later started up competing solidarity campaigns in some disputes, for their own interests.
The discussion then moved on to a debate about what is a specifically communist practice in the anti-cuts movement as distinguished from a well-run solidarity campaign. There was a consensus in the workshop that public sector trade union militancy is not enough and would not draw in wider layers of support.
At the 11th September assembly a number of people commented that we should not shy away from criticising the bureaucratic running of – for instance – the health and education systems as if this were a precondition for defending jobs. Some on the left argue that it is enough to say we are against everything the Tories plan: any debate as to how to ensure services properly meet our needs should come later. This attitude is basically defeatist and fits into the ruling class narrative that the cuts coalition are ‘reformers’ and the left ‘conservative’ champions of the status quo.
However, we are not yet past the stage of asserting that this kind of debate is necessary. The notion of ‘blueprints’ of communism is much-maligned, but we need to do much more to say what exactly is wrong with the character of state-run public services and what viable alternative models would be.
This is not just a question of formal ‘democratisation’, allowing students or teachers or nurses more say in the everyday running of their institutions. It also means challenging the capitalist understanding of whose demands and needs these services are run for: for example, education as a means of training for work or welfare ‘reform’ as a means of encouraging underemployment and casualisation.
Service users, and private sector workers, will not be drawn into a common fight against the government if the anti-cuts campaigns are solely run on the terms of public sector trade unionism. As in the recent years of cuts in Ireland, the government will be keen to present public sector workers as overpaid, complacent and conservative while others are feeling the pinch. We must fight this by putting forward an alternative vision, promoting a debate about why services exist and how they could better meet our needs.
Working group on community and voluntary organising
We talked mainly about our personal experiences of being community-based teachers, local activists, parents or service users. A common issue for many of us was how can we organise and build something locally without and possibly against the control of the state.
We began with introducing the recurrent dilemma of community self-organising. You often end up either fighting to defend a local facility – often through official channels – or you set up your own community project, run by local volunteers and unfunded. The local government is off the hook and the community group takes the whole burden on themselves. Self-management turns into self-exploitation. We took as a recent example a library in Hackney. How can we break out of this trap, how can we move from a defensive struggle to an offensive one? By what route can either local campaigns or local self-run groups become class based confrontational struggles?
We looked at English for Speakers of Other Languages as an example. Some people in the group had run free English classes, some had run paid classes, some had campaigned against cuts to these classes. Sometimes ESOL teachers, keen on keeping the service alive, become voluntary teachers. Self-exploitation again! However, on the other side this allows a teacher a lot of scope to use the classroom for leading critical discussions with students and between them. A self-organised class is a more ‘liberated’ space. Yes, it is self-exploitation… but all teaching involves some unpaid working hours. State-funded ESOL courses are useful and worth fighting for. They would make the cuts with or without the free classes. We should also see the background meaning of this programme. ESOL, as any teaching, reproduces labour power. Cuts in the provision just mean that the costs of reproduction will be paid more by the workers themselves. They will pay for English classes to improve job prospects.
Both self-exploitation and no service at all are bad alternatives. For example, as a working woman, after a hard day at work you come back home and you are expected to self-organise in your neighbourhood. Do your 40 hours job and run ‘your own’ library and ‘your own’ nursery. So how long is your working week gonna be then?
Some people in the discussion thought the present situation opens new opportunities for the organised left to come back to neighbourhoods after many years and to provide models of coordinated organisation (‘community trade unions’?). They should provide a clear and coherent perspective to disparate community struggles that are going on and will be going on. Starting with defensive and broad struggles and work on the links and the community building – rather than smaller more radical groups.
Some of us questioned this opinion and said that perhaps we do not have to persuade the majority for a political programme. Rather communists in a given community action should focus on building the movement’s cohesion and strength based on common material interests and practices. An example could be trying to turn the self-organised/self-exploiting spaces (such as the community library in Hackney) into radical meeting spaces for other fighting collectives, allowing exchange and generalisation of struggle.
We seemed to agree that the upcoming period is different, that capital is going to try to completely redefine the social contract, the social wage, and all the remaining gains from the ‘70s.
It is very hard to generalise the outcomes of this discussion, as the people spoke openly about different issues they were passionate about. I think we should continue discussing this, especially the links between the crisis and cuts on community level, how we can help the more radical community groups to generalise struggles and link up with the ‘typical’ industrial action, with anti-austerity movements in other countries, etc.
We need to map out how contemporary state has changed since the ‘70s, especially on its community/local services level. In what direction is it developing at the moment? I hope that the Feminist Fightback meeting on 30th October will allow further exchange on this score.