Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Direct action Vs Mass action

There's a bit of a flurry of comments on internet lists about the fringe actions at the enormous UK union march against the Conservative government's cuts. I'm really too busy to be writing this (hence why my blog is rather quiet lately) but I couldn't help myself.

After the huge March 26 march in London, there was a lot of news coverage of "riots". A witty comment that circulated parodied the coverage, with an allusion to Egypt, saying "Forces loyal to Cameron are reported to be clashing with demonstrators in Trafalgar Square."

As a survey of some of the attitudes, with links to the full articles if you have time to read them, here are some of the wildly contrasting assessments:

  • Christopher Phelps is published in the Guardian under the headline "Black bloc 'anarchists' undermined the march." He writes: "The anarchists, calling themselves the black bloc, stole the headlines from the 500,000 other protesters who'd travelled from all over the UK." Phelps continues by likening the "Black Bloc" to the IWW cartoon character "Mr Block" - a very badly thought out analogy, which only works on the level of rhyme, I'm afraid.

  • Meanwhile over at the New Statesman, Laurie Penny writes "Neither mindless nor violent, young protesters were forced into a stand-off with police." Penny describes the "fringe" protests in detail, having been among them. "A large number of young people in Britain have become radicalised in a hurry, and not all of their energies are properly directed, explaining in part the confusion on the streets yesterday. Among their number, however, are many principled, determined and peaceful groups working to affect change and build resistance in any way they can."

  • Marxmail discussion list owner Louis Proyect summed up his attitude by posting to his list a link to Penny's article, with just the dismissive comment "Laurie Penny's ultraleftist stupidity" - provoking some rather more thoughtful discussion, fortunately. Proyect ended up confessing "I finally found some time to read Richard Seymour's writeup on this. They were *not* black block people but something much more like the white block (I think they call it). In other words, a less provocative manifestation. It is still not what I think is needed but relatively harmless."

  • SchNEWS, a 'zine of the direct-action and anarchist/autonomist left, wrote "The TUC's glad-hand fest was never going to change the ConDEMS course by even one degree. It was hijacked by anarchists and it deserved to be. The TUC mobilised its masses and did everything they could to make sure that genuine dissent didn't rear its ugly head. The emphasis was to be on a family-friendly day out without frightening the horses. Quite who they think is going to hand out prizes for niceness in the shark tank that is global capitalism remains a mystery." 

  • Richard Seymour writes probably the most balanced account, in my view. Of the march, he says "It was something that I haven't really seen en masse before... It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight." But Seymour didn't claim ultraleftists had hijacked it. He called on commentators to "stop repeating the idiotic journalistic cliche that a minority of 'hardliners' (or worse, 'violent extremists') spoiled things for everyone else. So much work, you hear them say, so much time spent building up a great day, and these wreckers - yes, wreckers! - have to come and ruin it. Certainly, if all that matters is having a fun day out, giving a good impression in front of the media, the police and the politicians, and 'raising awareness', then I can see the logic."

A false dichotomy created by reductio ad absurdum characterisations

That's where I want to leave off to make my own comment. Some, mainly from the socialist hard left like to dismiss any "direct action" as ultraleftism (reductio ad absurdum, in this case, in some of Louis Proyect's off-the-cuff remarks on his email list). On the other hand, the more anarchist-influenced end of the far left have a tendency to focus exclusively on what they call "direct action" (reductio ad absurdum in the "Black Bloc" that were around in a big way about 8-10 years ago in some countries).

The problem I have with either side is that they are sterile abstractions. Most certainly, I would agree that the infantile stunts of Black Blockers (as I've seen them) are pointless adventures that facilitate police provocation. But there's a lot of very thoughtful direct actionists who take well thought-out symbolic protest action that amounts to civil disobedience. They lock on somewhere, peacefully, and get arrested to make their point. It's potentially quite a powerful statement.

On the other hand, those who only want to call mass rallies are often like a stuck record in an empty room. I love to see a real mass rally, but busting a gut to get a few hundreds on a street corner every few months (as certain left organisations I've been a member of have done, at times) can be a real waste of activist time. And when real mass rallies happen they are often controlled by big liberal organisations who always seem to channel them into the harmless (and useless) strategy of re-electing Labor (like the protests against the Iraq war, or the protests against WorkChoices that were probably the recent Australian equivalent of this TUC march, or the Walks Against Warming).


How direct is "direct action" anyway?

For me, the best direct actions are mass direct actions. Union picket lines - illegal and demonised in the press if they move beyond a symbolic witnessing and actually block scabs - are a form of direct action I have a lot of experience in. The best picket I ever was on had 3000+ people and faced off a similar number of police all night, until thousands more workers arrived next morning, encircled the police and escorted them out of the area. That night on the docks in 1998 made union history in Australia, staved off the attempt to destroy the Maritime Union, and inspired more protests that used a similar format (mass picketing) - the S11 anti-corporate protests in 2000, where up to 10,000 peaceful blockaders encircled the World Economic Forum's meeting in Melbourne.

Mass picket: Dawn at East Swanston Dock, April 18 1998

The key with these protests is that they had a buildup which drew the attention of thousands, made them believe it was their struggle and carry it through to a victory. The WorkChoices protests also had many of the same strengths, despite their leadership ultimately channeling them into simply re-electing Labour with no serious demands on the conservative, Rudd - and despite not in themselves involving the confrontation of "direct action".  

While many small direct action events do include real conviction and passion on the part of the protesters, this kind of symbolic civil disobedience almost never achieves anything more than a media stunt. It's not "direct" - it is indirect, using the medium of the mainstream media to communicate it's message. As such, those who criticise the protesters at Trafalgar Square for giving bad PR are just as hopelessly tied to the press of Murdoch and co.


The circuit breaker we need

A serious strategy for change has to unite those who are more interested in peaceful mass protest with those who are interested in being more confrontational. We shouldn't answer media provocations that seek to split us by calling peaceful civil disobedience "ultraleftist stupidity" any more than the mass of union protesters were mindless Labor Party sheep.

The problem is that at the end of the day, civil disobedience media stunts are only exciting for a few, and are no more effective than peaceful protests that re-elect Labor when in Laurie Penny's words "almost every form of political dissent apart from shuffling in an orderly queue from one march point to the other is now a crime."

The circuit breaker is that we need to build a political centre, or current, or instrument, that has organisation and information dissemination among its followers like the militant unions that in 1998 organised the powerful defence of the Maritime Union. In all the protest activity, building a mass current that can keep going is the main criterion. Media stunts and civil disobedience, and mass street rallies, are all legitimate tactics in the right circumstances, but without such a strategy none of them will work - and we will never build up to that history-making mass direct action that can change the balance of forces.

I can't judge from this distance whether the TUC march or UK Uncut's peaceful occupation were pushing in this direction or oblivious to it, but it is better to keep the evaluation and criticism constructive and between the movement actors, not to back up the mainstream media's sanctimonious public hanging, as Christopher Phelps appears to have done.

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