Defeating the cuts – an anarcho-syndicalist strategy
The following is a draft text which I hope to incorporate into a pamphlet in the near future. The intention is to draw together the different strands of discussion and theory regarding the fight against the cuts and to provide a broader argument for an anarcho-syndicalist strategy in this struggle.
As with every blog I write, what follows is written in a personal capacity and doesn’t necessarily represent the views of any organisation I am a member of.
The most prominent social issue facing the working class in Britain today is “the cuts.” Capitalist governments are imposing austerity measures upon their countries in the wake of the financial crisis, and working class people are paying the price of balancing the books.
Whilst banks thought “too big to fail” are once more paying out million-pound bonuses after being bailed out with taxpayers’ money, schools, hospitals, care homes and other vital services that ordinary people rely on are facing the axe. Hundreds of thousands of people’s’ livelihoods – and with them, their homes and the welfare of their families – are at risk through job losses and benefit cuts. We are literally being made to pay for a crisis created by the financial sector.
All of the above is now well known to most people. Now that the effects of the cuts are becoming apparent, they are provoking opposition across all sectors of society. They have raised class consciousness in the young and brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets. Many for first time.
But where is this new movement heading? Present conditions have incited a lot of anger and waves of protest, but much of it is directionless.
Many people are being duped into thinking that protest is the end game. All they have to do is walk a distance, wave a placard and join in with some chants, and they’ll have done their bit for society. Unfortunately, too many opportunistic politicians and would-be revolutionaries are content to keep up this pretence for their own narrow ends. And the trade unions, whilst talking big, are content to do as little as possible to rock the boat.
The intention in writing this is to argue for a strategy to fight the cuts based upon the principles of revolutionary unionism and working class self-organisation.
Winning the argument?
In the struggle against austerity, one of the main focuses for those concerned is “winning the argument.” That is, on making the case as to why the cuts are not the best way to address the deficit crisis and that there is an alternative – not as a line of reasoning to underpin the actions being taken, but as an action and a strategic point in itself.
The argument itself is sound. The deficit that is now being pointed to as the justification for cuts leapt up considerably in 2009/10, as the government spent £1.5 trillion to keep the banks afloat in the wake of the economic crisis. Far from being the result of a “bloated public sector,” a national debt of £1000.4 billion can be traced back to the financial sector.
The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) makes this case in greater depth in their pamphlet, There is an alternative. As well as pointing out how investing resources in HMRC to close the tax gap is a more viable solution than cuts, they point to the “real waste” – such as the Trident nuclear submarines or the war in Afghanistan – which costs billions of pounds per year as a cut which would benefit rather than hurt ordinary people.
Where ”winning the argument” falls down is not in the case it is making, but in who that case is being made to.
There is considerable benefit in educating the public on this issue. Not only does it provide a counterpoint to government propaganda and the institutional biases of the mass media, but it provides a focal point for discontent and class anger.
Already, the argument for “tax justice” has inspired protest movements such as UK Uncut . That is just the beginning of its potential. By sparking debate, and challenging the consensus that cuts are tough but necessary to sort our finances out, it has brought the realities of our class system into focus once more. As people see services they rely on disappear, their income shrink, and life get harder, the realisation that there is an alternative helps us to bring these people into a broader movement to fight back, rather seeing things get worse and believing that there is nothing to be done about it.
Making the same case as an appeal to authority does not yield such gains. Although those in power will often feign empathy with their electorate, the simple fact is that they have none. They are on the wrong side of the class antagonism that defines capitalist society and so have and serve interests that are oppositional to those of the working class. We cannot defeat the cuts by appealing to the reason of those making them.
The dead-end road of electoralism
There are several positions being advocated at present that put electoral politics and lobbying politicians at the heart of a campaign against the cuts. These differ depending on who you talk to, but can roughly be boiled down to three approaches: straightforward reformism, to vote Labour without illusions, and the approach of the former Militant Tendency.
It is worth looking at each in turn, to see what they offer and why as a strategy they are flawed.
The straightforward reformist approach doesn’t offer any specific political party as the solution to all our ills. It does hold that individual politicians, of whatever party, can be swayed in their actions by political lobbying and sustained pressure from voters.
A good example of this is the PCS Make Your Vote Count (MYVC) campaign. In particular, they pushed candidates and party leaders in each council to sign up to their five public service pledges as a way of raising the profile of their campaign and pushing for politicians to support it.
The most obvious flaw of this approach, which applies equally to those mentioned below, is the sheer amount of time and resources it takes up. Professional lobby groups have vast sums of money to throw around, and are able to peddle their wares in the very corridors of power. They are, after all, funded by large corporations and exist only to pursue a given single-issue cause. Ordinary people, and even larger bodies such as trade unions, cannot claim those advantages.
Whilst the corporate lobbyists do it as a job, we do it on the side. People have the pressures and struggles of everyday life to contend with, and so can hardly take much time out to appeal to their MP or local councillor’s sense of reason. Unions’ resources and funding is spread across numerous areas, from the salaries of full time staff and maintenance of offices to pursuing employment tribunals and legal challenges, and providing training for their reps.
But even if we were able to create a multi-million pound lobby group along the lines of those funded by corporate interests, which is very unlikely, it would still be one amongst many. It would also be a largely wasted venture, as lobbying is only a minor factor in why politicians serve the interests of the ruling class.
Capitalism isn’t just “the economy.” It is a complete system, social and political as well as economic. It defines power relations within society and maintains the domination of a small minority of people who control most of the wealth and capital over everybody else. This doesn’t change with a different party at the head of government, and it becomes the case that the only divide between mainstream parties is a strategic one, reflecting differences of opinion amongst the ruling class.
Labour, in opposition, are on the warpath against “Tory cuts.” But in power all they offered was a different time frame. The Tories blame Labour for making the cuts necessary, but they’re the ones implementing them – and this is not the first Tory government to do so. The Liberal Democrats, viewed by many (particularly students) before the election as the “nice” alternative to both, were always a pro-business, anti-worker party. In 2009, they were the first to argue for a public sector pay freeze. They support even tougher anti-strike laws than those implemented by Thatcher. Their councils are fond of using scab labour to break strikes, and their Welsh Assembly members condemned those who respected civil service picket lines.
Looking across Europe, we can see that even greens and socialists – once in power – defend capitalism as ruthlessly as liberals and conservatives. In Ireland, the Green Party ended up implementing the Corrib gas project they had previously been vocal opponents of. In Germany, too, they have been accused of selling out on every principle they claimed to stand for.
These are just a few examples. If a minority party gets a single member into office, they can be a lone voice of dissent – gaining credibility, but ultimately ineffective. But when a larger contingent enters the trappings of power, it is not long before compromise and “realism” are required. That “power corrupts” may be a cliché, but it is also true.
2. Vote Labour without illusions
Most of the above quickly demolishes the idea that we can achieve anything by “holding our nose and voting Labour,” or “voting Labour without illusions.” The idea that we should vote for a party simply because it is not quite as bad as the alternative betrays a level of cynicism that borders on apathy. On the other hand, those who suggest that we can push the Labour Party away from capitalism by agitating within it for a more militant approach veers between naivety and opportunism.
In relation to the cuts, recent debates have seen Labour councillors argue with a straight face that we should support Labour council cuts because they are not as bad as Tory cuts. They contend that “what is needed in these circumstances is proper engagement with Labour councils over what cuts are being proposed and why, rather than a blanket refusal to engage with any cuts at all.” But this is nothing more than sophistry to help the party save face. And votes.
It may be true that, if Labour councillors refused to make the cuts, then either unelected bureaucrats or central government would step in to do so. But that does not mean we should accept this and lay down whilst a different party implements cuts in a slightly different way. Despite claims by Labour councillors that they are doing all they can to protect the most vulnerable, we are still seeing life-line services cut and people’s jobs being axed. If we “engage” with that, we are accepting working class people being thrown onto the scrap-heap as an acceptable loss.
3. Militant Tendency
As an alternative to accepting Labour council cuts as “nicer” than Tory cuts, some on the left (especially members of the Socialist Party) are advocating the tactics used by Liverpool and Lewisham city councils in the 1980s, when they were controlled by the Militant Tendency.
According to former Militant councillor and current SP activist Tony Mulhearn, this involves “work[ing] out how much is required to fund the existing council services in 2011 and pass[ing] a budget in line with inflation.” When this inevitably results in a shortfall, the exact figure of that shortfall could then be identified and presented as a concrete demand in any campaign for increased funding.
The problem with this strategy is that when put into practice it didn’t work. Those involved in Militant at the time will always boast of how they built 5,000 houses, created 1,000 new jobs, and built sport centres, parks, and nurseries. What they don’t tell you is that their illegal budget didn’t help them win back the funding shortfall from the government. The people of Toxteth won £20 million of extra money in 1981 by rioting against the poverty and deprivation in their area, but in 1985 the council capitulated on its slogan of “Better to Break the Law than Break the Poor.”
For many working class Liverpudlians, the sight of fleets of taxis travelling around the city to deliver redundancy notices typifies the era. Supporters argue that this was just a tactic to buy time, and that the notices did not technically guarantee redundancy, but this glosses over the fact that most council workers felt that their jobs were under threat. It was not accepted by the unions, nor by the public at large, albeit thanks in part to a deliberate propaganda effort by the government and the media.
It transpired afterwards that this foolhardy tactic wasn’t even financially necessary, as the council had negotiated a £30 million loan from Swiss banks months before. As if that wasn’t enough, under the cover of fighting rhetoric, the council had already made cuts, through a partial run-down of services as it ran out of cash.
When the Socialist Party argues for a similar strategy today, we should be wary. Their actions in the 1980s demonstrate the limits of reform and rebellion within official structures, as well as the tendency of working class “leadership” to sell its subjects out for its own gain. Militant didn’t put its own neck on the line, but those of the 30,000 workers issued with notices. They were actually little different than those councillors today who ask people to “engage” with them as they shed jobs and attack services – except that the moderates are more honest about their position than the Militant were.
A direct action strategy
“Direct Action is a notion of such clarity, of such self-evident transparency, that merely to speak the words defines and explains them. It means that the working class, in constant rebellion against the existing state of affairs, expects nothing from outside people, powers or forces, but rather creates its own conditions of struggle and looks to itself for its means of action.” - Emile Pouget
Anarcho-syndicalists start from the position that politics is not based on rational debate but upon power relations in society. When the welfare state was built, the organised working class was far more powerful than it is today. As Tory MP Quintin Hogg put it in 1943, “if you don’t give them reform, they will give you social revolution.” That is why, when Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy and in heavy debt from World War II, the welfare state was born. Now, even though the national debt is much less, the diminished power of the working class leaves the government confident in its ability to carry out cuts.
In order to challenge the cuts agenda, we do not need to “win the argument” or to elect the right people into power. We need to shift the balance of power back in favour of the working class. This can only be done by encouraging people to self-organise and take control of their own struggles, in the community and in the workplace.
1. Rank-and-file control
The point of direct action is that the working class do not put pressure on those in authority to negotiate, nor work in partnership with them to solve common problems. Instead, we identify what we want and either take it or force those in power to concede it to us. As its essence lies in un-mediated class struggle, by definition it cannot be directed from above by any self-styled revolutionary leadership. Direct action has to be initiated, and led, from below by the rank-and-file.
This acts as a safeguard against being demobilised from above by bureaucrats or politicians who will put their own careers ahead of class interests; but it also serves as a demonstration of our own power. By organising in this way, we learn to exercise that power without the need for political leaders or vanguards. This not only allows us to challenge the present rolling back of workers’ rights and defend the status quo, but also to look beyond it and question the way that society is organised as a whole.
2. Workplace struggles
With up to a million job losses muted across the public and private sectors, militancy on the shop floor will be vital to the fight back against austerity. This inevitably means industrial action in its varied forms – such as strikes, go-slows, working-to-rule, occupations and sabotage. But it also means building up ground-level organisation in order that we cannot be demobilised from above by trade union bureaucrats.
For example, decision making should take place locally through mass assembly. These gatherings would include all workers in the workplace, regardless of union membership, with the obvious exception of managers and scabs. Such assemblies can then elect recallable delegates to speak for the dispute as long as they adhere to their given mandate. By rotating such delegates on a regular basis, and the ability to recall those who stray from their mandates, we make our voices heard without singling out any one person as a “ringleader” or as being “in charge.”
The control of strike funds by the workers themselves is another essential point. Full time officials can use strike pay to turn action on and off as they need, whereas locally controlled monies can provide support where it is needed so that workers can carry on fighting. The organising of benefits and fundraisers to keep the fund topped up also serves as a convenient way to muster solidarity from the local community and to maintain the link between the striking workforce and the rest of the public. Such solidarity is vital not only in keeping people’s’ spirits up, but also as a practical weapon. We should never forget that all struggles are connected and that by explicitly linking the fight of different workplaces and communities we can forge a mass movement which is not controlled centrally but organic and spreading according to the needs of real people.
There also needs to be a real effort to challenge the government and employers’ attempts to draft in scabs from elsewhere. In 2009, activists leafleted Job Centres urging people not to take jobs which crossed the picket lines of striking postal workers. At the same time, more militant tactics such as the sabotage and blockading of firms and offices which provide strike breakers can also be extremely effective in defending industrial action.
3. Community organising
In communities, the same principles apply. We seek to build organisations based upon the mass assembly of all who live in a given community, and to reject the control of councillors, religious officials, and other so-called community “leaders.”
Here, too, the working class exercise great economic power. This is important to remember because it is in the community that the unemployed, the retired, and others detached from workplace issues can play their part in the class struggle. If we want an example of the power of community action, we need only look at the Glasgow Rent Strike of 1915. There, faced with increasing rents and heavy penalties for challenging the profiteering of their landlords, people rose up and refused to pay en masse, their action so powerful that it forced the government to intervene and restrict rents. The victories won by the Seattle Solidarity Network are also a potent example of what well-organised community direct action campaigns can achieve.
Economic power outside of the workplace can complement economic power within it. At present, the high percentage of unorganised workers and workplaces reduces the idea of general strike to little more than a slogan. However, economic blockades – mass actions whereby a group of people shut down a given target by stopping people entering and preventing it from doing business – can have the same impact as a strike if implemented properly. One example of this is the impact fuel blockades have had in France recently.
Alongside a wave of industrial action, such blockades could replicate the effect of a general strike. Over time, a running campaign of direct action both industrially and socially would cause severe disruption, not only as an economic attack on capital but as a political event which makes the country ungovernable.
Pushing such a strategy, we would build up the organisational strength of the working class considerably. But we would also lay down an explicit challenge to the state and its mandate to govern us. If we want a chance of actually stopping the cuts, this is the only approach that makes sense. The working class need to make the ruling class fear us and the potential for revolution once again.
 Telegraph: Bank bail-out adds £1.5 trillion to debt, 27/02/2011
 Though Cowards Flinch blog: 10 reasons the Left should support Labour Council Cuts, 21/02/2011
 Liverpool Daily Post: Read Tony Mulhearn’s letter to Joe Anderson, and Joe Anderson’s reply, 21/12/2010
 Several lengthy critiques of the Militant programme explains these points in depth. For example, see: http://archive.workersliberty.org/publications/readings/trots/liverp.htm
 Personnel Today: Government cuts will see half a million private sector job losses, 13/10/2010