Oleg Resin asks if we can do more than make defensive arguments against the cuts
One afternoon towards the end of February, a bizarre scene unfolded in Bristol City Council’s main meeting room. While the local councillors were discussing the vote on the cuts of some £20 million, a small group of protesters was shouting at them from the public corner.
The ‘funny’ thing about this was that while dozens of thousands people work in the public services in Bristol, the only people who in an organised way actually stuck their heads out, and were therefore dragged out by the police, were pro-anarchist Industrial Workers of the World and a few ‘non-aligned’ radicals. Anti-state activists beaten up as a ‘vanguard’ of a pro-welfare state protest! (without a mass following)… If curious, this scene nevertheless captures something crucial to our condition in Bristol.
Bristol and Avon District Anti-cuts Alliance (BADACA) is still a very small network. Since its first march and rally in October it has barely grown at all. The second march and rally in February attracted just a few more people, less than 1000 in total. With the exception of mutual contact with the students in occupation, it didn’t manage to connect with the wider student protest wave. Apart from the obligatory presence of the student members of the left groups, I haven’t met any other students in BADACA.
Nigel Varley, an ex-teacher and the founder of BADACA, generally respected as anti-sectarian and open-minded, posted on the anti-cuts web forum the question “Why are most participants in the open meetings old white men?” This is important to ask, since the majority of the public sector workforce is female and/or black or non-white. A partial explanation may be that the majority of activists come from the long established left groups and union executives, which are typically white and male.
BADACA runs on the basis of regular open meetings and a steering committee. It re-structured further in January, dividing itself into working groups based either on a sector or locality. Four local groups have been set up so far. BADACA’s membership is composed of individuals and groups/organisations. After attending the first open meeting in September last year, I had my reservations and I didn’t see much sense in joining BADACA. It seemed to me to be an old-style bureaucratic structure controlled by senior union executives who know each other, talk to each other or fight proxy sectarian wars between each other via the open meeting. I heard rumours that some left groups tried to take BADACA over or set up parallel campaigns, but to no avail.
Within a few months the Steering Committee managed to establish itself as a neutral force openly opposed to bureaucratic procedures and suppressing every sign of sectarian skirmishes. Now everybody seems to respect the balanced triangle of forces between the membership, Steering Committee and the integrity of Nigel Varley. I think this positive culture distinguishes the Bristol campaign from some other local initiatives against the cuts, where the sectarian influence is much more severe.
So here I am… an anti-state communist attending meetings, leafleting and marching to save the state in its welfare form (or rather what’s left of it). That’s not the worst: many anti-cuts activists around me are a thousand times more passionately positive about the state than many non-political working people I have met. The ‘libertarian’ people in the campaign (anarchists and members of IWW) hide their real opinions and don’t speak critically on the content of the campaign (“The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me: the movement is everything!”…)
I sometimes hear these circles express the idea that if they merely provide some minimal organisational tools, a social movement will eventually kick off and we’ll have something like the anti-Poll Tax movement but multiplied by ten… I doubt this is the right approach. If this strategy failed in the past, why should it win now, after years of effective integration of working class communities into the state by New Labour? And doesn’t organising for the anti-cuts resistance based on neighbourhoods actually ignore the enormous potential of an economic struggle, attacking the production and social distribution of wealth itself?
I work in the NHS and my workplace will most probably be scrapped at the end of this year. So acting as a concerned worker in BADACA is a much easier task than acting as a communist. I was leafleting at the major hospital in town’s centre before the recent march. I spoke to people against the cuts with my colleague. I will be attending Unison’s AGM at the end of March and will prepare an intervention with two other (libertarian) nurses I know. I will argue that the union should stand against the transformational plan of Bristol Primary Care Trust and ballot on a strike.
In the BADACA meetings of the health group I try to point out the overlaps between our group and the social care, claimants & welfare group. I encouraged doing a joint picket of the Atos office, where they assess disabled people’s ability to work. I spoke in favour of having one joint public meeting with the social care group instead of two separate ones. I search daily for online reports about health workers strikes and resistance, hoping to motivate positively my fellow workers in the health group. I am reading books about the political economy of health, trying to understand the role of state health provision in the general state management of social reproduction of labour power and capital.
On various BADACA forums I argue for the need to build links with the private sector workers, because they are going to lose along with us from the public sector. Once I talked to a BT worker, who came to BADACA open meeting because he is a Socialist Party member. When I tried to talk him over to the idea of starting a joint public-private sector workers’ group, he looked perplexed and referred me to his union branch chair. Overall I think this activity is much more instinctive than one informed by a communist theory and strategy. I am walking in the dark on my own. Actually I am not alone… we are two comrades of The Commune walking in the dark.
The social weight of the organised left in the ‘hip city’ of Bristol is very small. A lot of nurses and city council workers were sacked recently and the left was unable to force the unions into any action. Despite that, pushing unions’ bureaucracies to defend the public services remains the left’s only anti-cuts strategy. Nobody talks about what we shall do if the TUC march in London fails to stop the government’s plans.
On one occasion I noticed an SP activist discouraging people from doing small scale leafleting and talking to disabled claimants and arguing instead for a big ‘properly organised’ demonstration. The media visibility and ticking a box in his Party’s local diary was more important than self-organisation and building links between claimants and benefit workers. My experience so far is that while the activists who are not members of any Party are in general in favour of self-organised action from below, Party members act as an inhibitor. I hope that with growing numbers their constraining influence will disappear completely. That’s what happened in November during the two weeks of an uncontrollable student movement in the streets of Bristol.
I spoke with a college teacher, who has never been involved in politics, but is proud of her working class identity and in general belongs to the left. She found her involvement in the BADACA subgroup on education very difficult. All members of the group but her are experienced senior union and left activists, and an insider language in the meetings. She struggles with understanding them and getting her point of view across. However, not all subgroups are as strongly dominated by the union/left block as this one. I believe that at this stage, if the dispersed radical (libertarian) minority elements in BADACA get together, we’d be able to effectively oppose the rather limited union/Left strategy. And such a discussion is to be had pretty soon, as a lot of people will get frustrated after the London TUC march fails to change anything. People will be asking questions and looking for more effective methods of struggle.
We have to act in a society marked by decades of the crisis of capitalist profitability, productivity and fiscal budgets. The years of rising job insecurity, flexibility, indebtedness etc. make most people nostalgically recall the good old times of the welfare state. This presents the ultimate horizon for alternatives or ambitions… a general political shift to the right. Since the 1970s the vacuum left behind the Labour Party moving to the right got quickly filled by the previously radical left. Across Europe, they took over the role of defending the crumbs of the previous welfare state. Our whole lives have effectively been shaped by this left culture of defence.
At the beginning of this historic shift, in the late 1970s, a group of British Marxists and radical state workers got together and produced a book called In & Against the State. And they really meant it. They offered an explanation of how important the role of the state workers’ resistance was in shaping the whole state machinery. They warned about falling into the ‘defend our services’ trap and they listed a few case studies of concrete collective struggles ‘in and against’ the state employer (in the times of real cuts!) I am glad that this book has been rediscovered again and some class struggle activists find it useful. Perhaps writing a new chapter of In & Against the State after thirty years may be a valuable task for communists today?