by libcom.org: http://libcom.org/library/solidarity-networks-means-building-resistance-austerity
A look at the uses of solidarity network-style
organizing as a means to resist the effects of austerity measures and an
overview of the usefulness of different tactical approaches.
“It isn't just a bunch of starving
people that are going to make a revolution. It's gonna be a people that
have been asserting themselves …”
- Fred Thompson
We are living in interesting times.
Taking a look back at the last few
decades, with a particular focus on the English-speaking world, the
strike waves and crises of the 70s gave way to the 80s market confidence
of the yuppies, and the assault on unions by Thatcher and Reagan.
the 90s, the slow decline of the left continued and prospects for some
kind of fundamental change in society seemed to recede into the past.
There was no alternative.
With the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the end of
history was proclaimed. Instead of a battle between rival ways of
dominating the world, we see the expansion of capitalism into new
markets and the removal of any obstacles to this growth: neoliberalism.
The late 90s and early 2000s saw some spectacular resistance to what is
now known as globalization, but it was ephemeral, never seeming to
produce any lasting opposition. Finally, in 2011, things seemed to start
boiling over in different corners of the world: Tunisia, Egypt, Greece,
and even Wall Street. The mood has changed.
The long term reasons for the economic crisis that started in 2007
are up for debate - has capitalism been undergoing agonizingly slow
death-throes for the past half century or more? Is this the inevitable
result of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall?
case, its immediate cause is agreed by most analysts to be the collapse
of the US housing market bubble (see chapters in this book by Glasberg,
et al. and Burley), setting off a chain reaction through the absurdly
complex and fragile international financial system.
The capitalist press has repeatedly proclaimed that we are well on
the way to recovery over the past few years, only for markets to slump
again. The US does seem to be entering a period of at least temporary
recovery (as of the writing of this chapter, in May of 2013), but the
same can’t be said of much of the rest of the world.
It remains to be
seen whether the crisis is over or whether the recovery being observed
in some countries is only a temporary relief.
In any case, the crisis is
continuing to severely affect people’s lives in many ways - foreclosures
and layoffs continue; city, state, and federal budgets are still being
cut; in fact major austerity measures are only beginning to be
implemented in parts of the US.
In Washington state for example, despite
already having made $6 billion of cuts in 2011, the state government is
planning more. The federal government intends to continue with several
more years of budget-balancing cuts.
The effects of the crisis in our
daily lives are unemployment for some, more work for less pay for
others, foreclosure, homelessness, restricted access to healthcare,
bigger class sizes, higher tuition costs, lack of public transport, and
Even in the unlikely case that an extended period of recovery and
prosperity is around the corner, capitalism will run up against severe
limits within two or three decades - the coming climate and energy crises
will result in much worse attacks by the state and the employing class.
So for those of us who are interested not only in our basic survival
but in ending a social system of extreme inequality, drudgery, wasted
lives and planetary destruction, for we who seek to destroy this social
order and replace it with a world of freedom, the question is what can
we do to build movements to not only defend ourselves from the worst
effects of the crisis, but which we can build on to increase our
collective power and bring about a final break with capitalism?
In an attempt to partially answer that question, this chapter will
examine a few of the movements that have sprung up in response to the
crisis in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.
I’ll talk about the
kind of organizing I’m most familiar with: small-scale but effective
direct action to win back things like unpaid wages and stolen deposits
as practiced by the Seattle Solidarity Network (SeaSol).
I’ll look at
various examples of organizing against austerity that have SeaSol-like
features. Then I’ll attempt to analyze what qualities in this kind of
organizing are advantageous for anti-austerity resistance, how to move
from small scale fights to bigger ones, and beyond that, what features
are needed (and which should be avoided or minimized) for successful
revolutionary movements to end the boom-bust cycle and generalized
misery that capitalism creates once and for all.
One of the first large popular explosions in the US in reaction to the
economic crisis was in Madison, Wisconsin in February 2011. This was in
reaction to the “budget repair bill” being introduced by the Republican
Governor Walker, whose main purpose was to greatly restrict or remove
280,000 public employees’ bargaining rights.
In response, crowds of tens
then hundreds of thousands demonstrated and occupied the capitol
building for three weeks, before peacefully leaving when ordered to do
so by a judge. Predictably, the unions wasted all their energy in their
failed electoral strategy to get the governor recalled, and that was
that. The movement to resist the bill had been defeated by its own
Only direct action disrupting the state’s economy and functioning
could have stood the chance of preventing the passing of the bill.
of the few actions that had any potential in this respect was when large
numbers of teachers called in sick - 40% of teachers in Madison
alone - causing classes to be cancelled across the whole school district,
with many students joining the demonstrations. Threatened with losing
their jobs, they were supported by doctors who wrote them sick notes.
Any independent initiative by workers in other sectors to move beyond
harmless symbolic protest was strongly discouraged by union
officialdom’s insistence that it had the situation under control, and
that the only valid way to oppose the bill was through legal and
electoral channels, as expressed by Jesse Jackson’s delusional cry,
“When we vote we win!”
Although the local Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) branch
agitated energetically for a general strike, which was widely taken up
by protesters and endorsed by the South Central Labor Federation, this
could only manifest with the consent of the SCLF’s affiliated unions.
is illegal for public sector workers to strike in Wisconsin, so despite
the vast numbers and widespread anger, this was certainly not going to
happen without a much more militant and confident union membership, able
to either force their will through the bureaucracy or take independent
In the opinion of one IWW member present during the events, a general
strike was not on the cards for the following reasons: inexperience and
fear of illegal tactics; seeing a general strike as something that
would just happen; lack of clarity on the relationship to formal union
structures; faith in an electoral solution; and inability to involve
broader strata of the population who were also affected by Walker’s
agenda, beyond the public sector workers.
Despite the defeat there were
positive signs: “both the protests and the endorsement of the idea of a
general strike are significant developments.” The occupations and
wildcat strikes were the widest ranging in the US in years, and the
occupation of the Capitol building was soon to inspire many more
takeovers of public space.
The situation in Wisconsin illustrates universal problems that
movements against austerity are likely to face.
In most parts of the US,
there is much less in the way of working class organization or
militancy. The only organizations big enough to challenge austerity in
Wisconsin were the unions, but they are committed only to retaining the
ability to represent their members and will typically not stray from the
They are adept at deploying vast numbers of staff to
make sure things go the way the leadership wants, with little regard to
the wishes of the workers the union supposedly belongs to.
We find ourselves in a situation where few workers in the US have any
experience of, or will for, workplace struggle. The few remaining who
possess the skills to organize effectively are often isolated and unable
to share their knowledge. We operate in an environment of
demobilization, defeat and demoralization.
In previous eras, large
numbers of workers enthusiastically took up the fight to build a new
world, but as the old Wobbly, Fred Thompson said in the 70s, “today
there is a sense of powerlessness, of fatalism, that has been growing
from the 30s. Then, we just felt we didn't have the power, the
organization. We never felt we were inherently incapable of achieving
This fatalism, this apathy, could be described as “ideological
fatigue” - a justified cynicism given the oversaturation of spectacular
and exaggerated claims, the decades of failures and betrayals of every
working class movement, the irrelevance of disembodied ideologies to our
And yet, we seem to have passed through the darkest years
of apathy and submission - strikes, occupations, sabotage, uprisings and
resistance of every form worldwide are on the up.
The Seattle Solidarity Network
SeaSol was started in 2007 by five members of the Seattle IWW. The
situation on the activist left that year was one of low activity. Many
anarchists had left the city and a large portion of those remaining
retreated into inward-focused cooperative housing projects.
had passed since the famous WTO riots - protests which had generated an
initial flurry of organizing in the city - for example, campaigns against
CitiBank, supporting locked out steelworkers at Kaiser, the development
of Indymedia, and more.
The early 2000s generated short-lived attempts
to form anarchist collectives or federations, initially energetic but
increasingly anemic anti-war organizing, and projects associated with
food justice or ethical consumption in one way or another.
In the Seattle IWW itself, there had been a burst of organizing
efforts in the early 2000s within ACORN, a gas station, and a
cooperative market (which was the only permanent organizational
Unfortunately the IWW suffered from similar problems to the
broader scene - most of the key organizers of those previous efforts had
moved on to other places, or became involved in ILWU officialdom and
were either unable or unwilling to pass on their skills and knowledge to
current IWW members.
The currently active members had varying degrees
of experience in the anti-war and anti-globalization movements, attempts
at union organizing by salting Starbucks, through employment as union
organizers, and participation in formal anarchist federations (producing
newspapers and propaganda).
SeaSol was created in reaction to many of the perceived deficiencies
of the anarchist movement and activist left that we had participated in
during the “anti-globalization era” of the late 90s to mid-2000s,
deficiencies I shall return to later: excessive preoccupation with
symbolic protest against war or capitalism and lacking in clearly
defined targets, ritualized a-to-b marches, and a preoccupation with
personal behavior (diet, ethical consumption, cooperative living)
resulting in an inward-looking scene that did not have any motivation to
interact with the population at large, or ability to communicate to
As an attempt to avoid these problems, we discussed more promising
movements: the “direct action casework” of the Ontario Coalition Against
Poverty and Canadian inter-union solidarity “flying squads” seemed to
be appealing forms to imitate. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a great
amount of detail on how those groups operated, so we looked at our own
A friend in Chicago had worked at a restaurant for one day,
only to be told it was a “training day” and she wouldn’t be paid. She
resolved this problem by walking into the restaurant with a large group
of friends and refusing to leave until the issue was settled.
looking to create something with the opposite characteristics to the
flaws we perceived in the movements we had emerged from - a focus on the
immediate issues caused by capitalism in daily life as experienced by
the general population of Seattle and ourselves, not as
activists - specialists in social change - but workers in precarious
employment or living conditions; a focus on effective strategy rather
than moral force; realistic opposition to targets we could actually
overcome; and an approach that placed us in direct conflict with the
powerful interests in society rather than one that sought to create an
alternative but coexisting culture.
SeaSol is itself partially a product
of the crisis - without the low pay, unstable jobs, landlords trying to
cut corners, and high unemployment, perhaps the group would not have
generated the interest and momentum to keep going.
“Propaganda of the Deed without Explosives”
By taking on a project of manageable size, and starting with a few small
victories we hoped to boost our morale and confidence, increase our
experience and strength in numbers, and act as a sort of “propaganda of
the deed”, demonstrating the usefulness of direct action, that workers
and tenants in today’s society are not totally powerless.
It would also
serve to illuminate the true nature of society as one divided between
workers and exploiters, tenants and landlords. This would act as a
stepping stone to bigger projects and reinvigorate the flagging Seattle
To launch SeaSol we created a website, a contact list of a few dozen
people, a phone number, and posters that said things along the lines of
“Problems with your boss? Problems with your landlord? Contact us!” After putting up several hundred of these posters, calls started coming
In contrast to the IWW, which had a well-established system of rules
and procedures, we took a more ad-hoc approach. Our first few contacts
were dead ends, the most promising one resulting in a short-lived
postering and leafleting campaign at a shipyard in support of one
worker’s attempts to galvanize his co-workers to react to management
abuses and their union’s indifference.
A few politically inclined
friends joined the group which started operating independently of the
IWW branch meetings.
The first fruitful campaign came a few months into 2008 when we met
with dissatisfied tenants of the Greenlake Motel, which despite its name
was used for long-term housing for people who could not obtain standard
rental accommodation due to bad rent history, bad credit, criminal
records, or similar problems.
The residents paid well above average rent
to live in small rooms with leaking roofs, malfunctioning washing
machines, unreliable electricity, and rat infestations.
discussion and research, a crowd of thirty or so people descended on one
of the landlords’ more upmarket hotels one sunny February morning to
present to the management a list of repairs to be made to the motel.
Unfortunately, all but one of the tenants were too afraid of potential
eviction to participate in this demand delivery, but nonetheless it
scared the owners enough to get them to make repairs within a few days,
despite muttering to tenants "don’t listen to those communists …".
In the following five and a half years, SeaSol engaged in 36 fights
against recalcitrant business and property owners, and won 28 of them
outright. In some of the rest, at least partial victories were attained,
in one case resulting in the permanent closure of the business.
fights have included getting unpaid wages, tips, or overtime for a
fired worker at a restaurant; forcing a landlord to return a deposit,
make repairs or cancel an eviction.
More unusual fights have involved
forcing Chase Bank to return money they shortchanged a SeaSol member,
getting a company to pay for an employee’s car smashed by a crane at
work, and preventing a 50% rent increase for a group of a dozen tenants
in low income housing.
SeaSol has also occasionally engaged in solidarity and strike support
actions, and joint actions with other solidarity networks or groups
such as Casa Latina, an NGO for Latino immigrants that sometimes uses
direct action in wage theft cases.
The group has several levels of
commitment: there are 300 people on the phone tree of which 120 are
“members” who have said they are interested in participating frequently
in actions, another 800 or so are subscribed to the action announcement
email list, and there are currently 22 people on the “organizing team”,
who have committed to attend meetings, answer phone calls, and mobilize
people using the phone tree.
The Life Cycle of a Typical Fight
After receiving a call or email from someone who has seen one of our
posters or heard about SeaSol from a friend, a few SeaSol members will
meet with them, find out if they have a grievance that falls within
SeaSol’s broad scope, and explain how the group works - through the direct
action of the people affected by the problem themselves.
If the new
person is amenable to playing a leading role in their own fight and
supporting other people’s actions, research is conducted into the
situation, to assess the landlord or boss’s background, properties,
customers, funds, social and political connections - anything that could
be used to pressure them if the fight is taken on.
A fight proposal is then brought to the weekly meeting, where it is
discussed by the group and assessed in terms of “winnability”: can we
effectively hurt the target by causing economic or reputational damage,
or disrupt the functioning of their business in other ways such that
giving in to our demands is the rational thing to do? We also consider
whether the person with the grievance is likely to remain involved and
If we decide we have the means and capacity to take on the
fight, the next step is the “demand delivery”: a crowd of 20-50
SeaSolers will support the person with the grievance and turn up as a
large group to deliver a letter demanding that the issue be resolved
within a short time period (usually two weeks).
The purpose of the
demand delivery is twofold: to show the boss or landlord that the person
they have wronged has a large and active group of supporters, and to
energize participants in a collective exercise of power against the
class enemy, gaining their interest and commitment to the coming
campaign. Demand deliveries are often fast-paced and fun trespasses onto
the territory of the powerful.
There is a chance that the landlord or boss will give in before the
deadline expires, but more often they choose to ignore the demand
letter. In that case a campaign of escalating direct action begins.
Escalation is one of the key principles of SeaSol. The idea is to start
with small, low cost tactics such as postering and leafleting and over a
period of weeks increase the intensity and variety of tactics used
against the target, perhaps with an increasing frequency of louder and
more annoying pickets at more locations, eventually expanding to the
company’s other shop fronts, and/or the owner’s house.
tactics is highly encouraged. We have found that it is often not the
current tactics that the bosses or landlords are facing that cause them
to give in, but the fear of what will come next.
The appeal of trying to
wait out the campaign disappears as they realize that we are a
persistent and increasing threat. Escalation allows us to conserve our
forces and use just the right amount of pressure to make them give in.
Other Solidarity Networks
Within a year of SeaSol’s creation, our procedure for waging campaigns
was more or less fully established, and we started giving trainings
(inspired by the IWW’s widespread and effective Organizer Trainings) to
members on organizing, research, and tactics. We also publicized our
activities online, announcing our victories on various anarchist sites.
Some members, myself included, felt that our methods would be a boon to
anarchist groups worldwide, many of which were stuck in a rut of
activism and propaganda activity, lacking the experience and power to
launch effective workplace or community organizing.
As well as improving
our capacity locally it was necessary to take a global view and
broadcast what we believed was an effective strategy as widely as
possible. The training was adapted into a shorter presentation format
that outlined the key ideas, and over the next two years presentations
were given in over 30 cities in the US, Canada, England, Scotland, and
More extensive trainings were also given to local groups that
requested it, sometimes via Skype to remote locations such as New
Zealand and Lithuania, and a “Build your own Solidarity Network” guide
was produced and distributed online and eventually in print in English,
Spanish, and Slovakian.
Detailed descriptions of an organization’s
activities and processes can be quite hard to find, and it would be
great if other groups started circulating more extensive accounts of
their activities with more of a technical focus on the specifics of
mobilization and tactics and so forth, to enable their worldwide
Thanks to local initiatives by anarchist-communists,
anarchosyndicalists, IWW branches, and insurrectionary anarchists, at
least 40 groups have sprung up across the world - Steel City Solidarity in
Hamilton, Ontario may be the most successful of these, having just won
its seventh fight, for unpaid tips at Seven Windows restaurant.
Unfortunately a significant fraction of these groups disband within a
year of their creation, and some have only been able to maintain a low
level of activity.
In some cases, this is because the organizers are too
busy with multiple projects and are unable to devote the amount of time
needed to keep a solidarity network functioning, in other cases,
organizers leave town, or there is a lack of response to postering
campaigns, or the issues encountered are too difficult to frame in terms
of a simple demand.
It is possible that we understated the amount of
effort required to launch a solidarity network, made it seem too easy
and too much of a quick fix. Nonetheless, solidarity networks have
become a popular and successful way to get local organizing off the
Occupy All the Things
Occupy Wall Street emerged from a call by AdBusters to shut down the
financial center in September 2011 in protest of the bailout of the
banks, corporate influence on democracy, increasing wealth inequality,
or any comparable permutation of buzzwords.
There are dozens of similar
international calls to action put out by activist groups every year, but
why did this one become so popular compared to others?
resonated with masses of people whose living conditions had worsened
thanks to the economic crisis - whether they had lost their homes through
foreclosure, their jobs through layoffs, or were facing furloughs or
restricted access to social services thanks to recent cuts.
influence of previous events in 2011 was clear - the idea of occupying
public spaces was now familiar to many thanks to Madison and the
“movements of the squares” (the Indignados in Spain, Syntagma Square in
Athens, and the much more extensive revolts in the Arab world focused
around Tahrir Square in Cairo and similar locations).
to David Graeber, “one thing that helped a lot was a smattering of
people from Spain and Greece and Tunisia who had been doing this sort of
thing more recently. They explained that the model that seemed to work
was to take something that seemed to be public space, reclaim it, and
build up an organization headquarters around that from which you can
begin doing other things.”
Several rounds of mobilization from the
unions and NGOs and the brutal police reaction combined with reluctantly
increasing media coverage added to the momentum. Soon hundreds of
localized versions of Occupy Wall Street sprang up around the US and the
Occupy Seattle followed the same trajectory of many other Occupies
around the country, though it was more active and radical than most.
first few days in late September saw a few libertarians and conspiracy
theorists handing out leaflets about chemtrails outside the Federal
Reserve Building. Something struck a chord, perhaps the increasing
coverage of Occupy Wall Street combined with the effects of cuts and
crisis, and soon there were nightly gatherings in Westlake Plaza,
downtown’s commercial center.
The power struggle in the daily general
assemblies between the liberal-pacifist wing and the radicals (a
temporary anarchist-socialist alliance) resulted in a consistent series
of victories for the radicals - the Mayor’s attempt to neutralize the
movement by hosting it in City Hall was defeated, and a “night of 500
tents” to start the permanent occupation of Westlake was launched.
police soon forced the campers out of the downtown square though,
displacing them to the Seattle Central Community College campus. It was
notable how many liberals became radicalized after experiencing a police
Enthusiastic general assemblies continued, as did the
interminable debate about violence and non-violence. As the weather
worsened, the uneasy coexistence of downwardly mobile urban
professionals , homeless youth, the long term unemployed, and students
degenerated. Hard drug dealing led to small-scale nightly internal
By mid-December the encampment at Seattle Central was no more,
and without this central focus Occupy Seattle scattered into separate
projects. A little over a year after the dissolution of the camp, only a
few of these projects survive - the problem of ephemerality familiar from
the anti-globalization years.
But before it disappeared Occupy Seattle gave birth to the greatest
confrontations in the city since the WTO: the day of action of November
4th in solidarity with the Oakland general strike, where after a pepper
spray-filled day of demonstrations against banks, angry crowds
surrounded the hotel where Chase Bank CEO Jamie Dimon was speaking; the
West Coast Port Shutdown action of December 5th, intended to show
solidarity with Longshoremen and port truckers (again marred by union
legalism and control of turf); and a series of occupations of vacant
buildings, one of which lasted for three months.
One of the few material gains of Occupy was accidental - banks backed
down on a wide range of fees they wanted to introduce , but that isn’t
where the importance of Occupy lies. It created space outside the normal
political system for a surprisingly wide range of people to interact
For all its faults and limitations it was a significant break from
the norm of US politics, displaying an unusual degree of mass
involvement and a challenge to the legitimacy of power the of the “1%”
and of capitalism in general.
SeaSol and Occupy
Despite being one of the most active social struggle groups in the area,
SeaSol’s efforts to intervene and engage with Occupy Seattle were
fairly lacking. SeaSol is very focused on its organizing activity and
some SeaSolers were skeptical since Occupy seemed to display all the
loathed activist features.
Beyond the participation of individual
members and a drive to mobilize for the December port action, we hosted a
“Direct Action Workshop/Discussion” whose purpose was to clarify the
meaning, and encourage the use, of direct action - returning the phrase to
its original anarchist definition of unmediated action by the people
affected by a problem themselves, in contrast to the confused modern
interpretation that it means some kind of militant, aggressive stuntism.
Discussion followed on potential ways Occupy Seattle could use direct
action. We intended this to be the first of a series of workshops, and
began work on a proposal for Occupy to start a direct action campaign
around foreclosures. Unfortunately we did not follow through with this
plan due to demoralization and worsening conditions at the encampment.
Several months after Occupy some other SeaSol members started an
anti-foreclosure group in Seattle. Stand Against Foreclosure and
Eviction (SAFE) is closely based on the City Life/Vida Urbana NGO in
It follows a different model to the decentralized, direct action
based groups that are the subject of this article, being more amenable
to paid staff and negotiations with banks, but SeaSol is supporting its
actions and it will be interesting to see how it develops.
East Bay Solidarity and a Foreclosure Free Oakland
The East Bay Solidarity Network started in mid-2011 and engaged in
several SeaSol-like fights before changing gears.
Many of the East Bay
Sol organizers were heavily involved in Occupy Oakland and noticed that
the home occupations they participated in during Occupy were supported
by lots of people and generated media interest. The time seemed ripe for
a direct action campaign against foreclosures.
We thought that the time would be now to start defending peoples’
houses because we could get people to come out and support, the media
was eating it up, and the narrative that big banks were screwing people
out of their homes was widely accepted. As Occupy Oakland faded away, we
saw that we could channel some of that energy into this campaign.
East Bay Sol started brainstorming on how to build an effective
campaign. Their research revealed that Oakland was one of hardest hit
cities in California: over 1000 foreclosures in a city of 400,000
people. “In a city that was majority people of color and low income
folks, this didn’t come as much of a surprise.”
The potential profit to
be made from ongoing gentrification meant that banks were facing
pressure from real estate developers to go through with foreclosures.
Just Cause and ACCE, the two non-profits fighting foreclosures before
Occupy, could each only take on 1-5 foreclosures a year.
The plan was to form a coalition of four groups: Just Cause, ACCE,
East Bay Sol, and Occupy Oakland Foreclosure Defense, focus on the areas
most heavily hit by foreclosures, and build neighborhood assemblies
intended to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor mutual support for
anti-eviction defense, shifting the emphasis away from the four groups
arranging pickets on behalf of foreclosed families to a more
self-organized model, one that had the potential to build longer term
A campaign of extensive door-knocking in the Maxwell Park
neighborhood was carried out by the coalition over the summer of 2012,
but “after a few months of really trying, we realized that we all had
very different ways of actually doing this work and how we developed and
helped new people become organizers.”
There was a tension among the
groups in the coalition between the typical NGO staff-driven, service
oriented model and East Bay Sol’s non-hierarchical model that emphasized
developing local organizers.
The coalition dispersed and East Bay Sol members decided to focus on
their own neighborhood in West Oakland instead, and fight against all
evictions, renters as well as homeowners.
This new project, called FEFO
(Foreclosure and Eviction Free Oakland), is currently in its initial
phase, with flyering, door-knocking and one big community meeting as of
the penning of this chapter. It is still taking on normal SeaSol-style
“micro-fights”, as well.
Anti-Workfare in the UK
The British government introduced workfare - forcing people to work
without pay in order to receive meager unemployment or disability
benefits - in 2011, its stated purpose being something along the lines of
“helping the long term unemployed back to work”.
The imposition of
workfare is another effect of crisis and austerity. Politicians benefit
by being seen to be doing something about high levels of unemployment;
welfare can be cut; businesses benefit from unpaid labor; and if the
workfare scheme is successful in the long run, they also benefit from
the downward pressure on wages and working conditions.
The Solidarity Federation (SolFed) sees workfare “as part of a long
term re-structuring of the labour market towards more temporary, lower
paid jobs and with poorer conditions and fewer benefits.”
SolFed is the UK section of the anarcho-syndicalist international,
the IWA (International Workers Association). It shares SeaSol’s
commitment to direct action and opposition to bureaucracy, while having
more explicit political aims and industrial strategy and not being
limited to just one city.
SolFed locals have used direct action tactics
partially inspired by SeaSol - first, to get unpaid wages for a member
who was employed by the temp agency Office Angels, using their
international links to target Office Angels’ parent company in several
countries , moving on to tackle other cases of wage theft and also
targeting landlords. They then applied a similar strategy in their
campaign against workfare.
While the idea for the campaign came from SolFed members on workfare
schemes, reaching out to other claimants via leafleting efforts outside
Job Centres has proven difficult. “Claimants are generally kept isolated
from each other and approach the benefits systems as individuals which
makes bringing them together quite difficult.”
The principal form of action has been noisy pickets outside the
companies using workfare, turning away their customers and damaging
their reputation. As with SeaSol, the idea is to hit companies in the
pocket, making their continued participation in workfare unprofitable.
By focusing primarily on one company at a time until they pull out, the
intent is to trigger a “domino effect” resulting in the eventual
collapse of the workfare system.
One idea proposed in SolFed was to run
wage-theft campaigns to get current or former workfare employees the
money they should have been paid, building on those initial victories to
gain momentum and power in a similar vein to SeaSol’s strategy.
Aside from standing outside shops, communications blockades and
social media campaigns have proved quite effective, tactics that SeaSol
should consider imitating. On May Day 2012 they organized a “quite large
roving picket of companies using workfare which had around 150-200
people participating and was supported by Occupy London.”
The withdrawal of the health food chain Holland and Barrett can be
directly attributed to SolFed’s pickets. SolFed and Boycott Workfare, a
more activism-oriented network, together with various anarchist and
activist groups have targeted Poundland, Argos, HMV, Haringey County
Council, Superdrug, Tesco, Oxfam, Homebase, and multiple other companies
Their actions, combined with negative public opinion,
unfavorable media, legal and logistical issues have resulted in the
withdrawal of an increasing number of companies. The campaign against
workfare continues to operate successfully. Hopefully, workfare will
only last a few more months before being scrapped by the government as
Useful Characteristics of Movements; Deficiencies and Problems
In this section I’d like to summarize what I believe to be the most
advantageous features of the various projects I’ve described,
contrasting them with their opposites.
This may come across as an
over-simplification - in reality I realize that all movements contain
contradictory aspects; the movements I’ve looked at have many
weaknesses; and these characteristics overlap and can’t really be
separated so neatly.
For example, sometimes symbolic action is useful - in
inspiring people, raising awareness, and acting as a focal image for a
movement - but it’s of secondary importance and should not be prioritized
as it has been until now.
Direct Action vs. Symbolic Protest
There was no better illustration of the weakness of symbolic protest in
my personal experience than the 2003 march in London against the Iraq
war. Millions marched saying “Not In Our Name” and the government did
not change a thing about its foreign policy.
At times one of the
greatest weaknesses of Occupy was its dependence on and orientation
towards the mass media. The default assumption is that we can persuade
the powerful to see the error of their ways through protest or argument.
Power does not care when people speak truth to it.
This is rooted in a
moral, “magical thinking” conception of the world, where being in the
right will automatically lead to righteous outcomes. In the place of
“speaking truth to power,” we propose directly interfering with the
ability of businesses and governments to function or make profits.
Collective Action vs. Personal Behavior
A capitalist society individualizes social problems and prevents
collective solutions. It’s automatic to assume the solutions to problems
in your life are individual. Everyone is out for themselves, it seems.
Hence the interest in personal solutions: changes in diet and lifestyle. The individual way out of problems caused by crisis and austerity is to
spend less and work more.
SeaSol and related movements illuminate
another way out: collective conflict against the common enemy.
Alienated Activism vs. Struggle Based in Daily Life
Many of the problems of modern day movements are characterized in the
article “Give Up Activism,” written shortly after the “Carnival Against
Capitalism” also known as J18 in 1999.
Since then, the term “activism”
has sometimes been used to critique these tendencies, which can become
confusing since it has broader uses. When I’ve referred to “activists”
in this chapter I do not necessarily mean they display all the negative
features of activism. “Activism” as obstacle to authentic mass
participation has been conveniently summarized as:
1. Activist identity (identifying primarily as belonging to an
'activist community', " to think of yourself as being somehow privileged
or more advanced than others")
2. The subsequent substitution of an activist group for wider struggle,
"a division of labour implies that one person takes on a role on behalf
of many others who relinquish this responsibility"
3. An opposition to abstract nouns, "the bizarre spectacle of 'doing an
action' against capitalism - an utterly inadequate practice"
4. Ritualistic activity which serves only to reinforce the activist
martyr identity, "dull and sterile routine - a constant repetition of a
few actions with no potential for change"
5. A focus on saving others, struggling on behalf of some oppressed
group (animals, Palestinians, or indeed, 'the workers' ...) as opposed to
for ourselves: "revolutionary martyrdom goes together with the
identification of some cause separate from one's own life".
SeaSol, East Bay Sol, and SolFed’s activities in contrast are “for
ourselves” - they are based on our own experiences as workers, tenants,
and benefit claimants. If I don’t get paid at work I know I can rely on
SeaSol to back me up.
Beyond this, revolutionary ideas suddenly become
much less abstract in the context of collective, practical struggle:
“instead of making the case for self-organisation, direct action,
solidarity in the abstract, you can just ask people to come along to a
picket”. It’s difficult to make a complete break with activism though,
and solidarity networks still retain some features of it.
Mass participation vs. professionalized social management
Far more serious than the problem of activism is the related tendency
for movements to bureaucratize and for a layer of experts to become the
permanent leadership of a movement, disempowering their followers and
inevitably warping the movement away from its original purposes for
their own benefit, intentionally or not.
This is one of the key reasons
anarchism broke from socialism - it recognized the universal tendency for
power to corrupt, for any movement to fall back into the hierarchical
and commodified modes of behavior of the society it springs from.
world based on wage labor everything decays towards “service” or work.
This is alienation again, the tendency towards separation of all
activities into distinct realms, moving from self-interested direct
action towards doing things on behalf of abstracted, distant causes.
Representation dominates over self-management.
For the sake of “efficiency” paid organizers are brought in and the
organization starts to resemble a business, accruing non-profits,
integrating into the system, becoming dependent on grants and
relationships with politicians and sponsors, diverting energy into
useless dead ends like elections and harmless protests.
This tendency is
very established, omnipresent even. NGOs and union bureaucracies were
one of the principal barriers in Madison and a major obstacle for
self-organized movements against austerity to overcome.
This is why solidarity networks emulate anarcho-syndicalist groups in
minimizing bureaucracy and spreading decision making, participation,
initiative, skills, and knowledge as widely as possible across the
group. This entails direct democracy in meetings, rotating positions,
and frequent training and education.
While anarcho-syndicalist unions
show an important workplace organizing practice, SolNets could very well
be considered a form of community anarcho-syndicalist organizing - or a
form of community syndicalism.
Adaptation to Contemporary Conditions
“Permanent work has been abolished. Part time and flexible work, long
periods of unemployment following short periods of work are now the
rule.” This quote refers to the situation in Greece post-austerity, but
precarious and flexible employment has been a reality in the US and UK
for some time, particularly for youth. If crisis and austerity continue
the situation will only worsen.
Solidarity Networks emerged due to the difficulties of organizing
inside a workplace. While the intent is certainly not to remain an
external force, organizing only with those who have already left their
employment or living situation, it is an easier point to start from.
former SeaSol organizer put it in terms of “organizing the worker, not
the job” - it might also be termed “diffuse organizing” - anyone who has
been through a SeaSol fight will be much more likely to initiate
collective direct action in future situations in their life, opening up
multiple opportunities for inside organizing in a city where Solidarity
Network type activity is widespread.
Winnability and Escalation
Due to a lack of a shared pool of experience to draw on and what some
might term a “Leftist culture of failure,” many activists are content to
rush into campaigns without attempting to assess whether it will be
possible to achieve their goals or what those goals even are, resulting
in a repeating cycle of defeat and demoralization.
One of SeaSol’s key features is its focus on realistic goals. Over the
past few years we have developed a reliable system to win limited
campaigns against bosses and landlords by framing things in terms of
“winnability” and escalating tactics. From a strategic point of view,
this means engaging in “small winnable fights, snowballing into a wider
movement”, as one SolFed member put it.
This of course has its disadvantages - with too much of a focus on
winning in the short term, and procedures that become so established
they are unquestioned, you can end up with an overly quantitative way of
looking at things and an unwillingness to take risks, missing
opportunities to expand and try out new ways of doing things.
The danger of turning a temporary tactic into an eternal principle is a
risk for SeaSol. We could get bogged down in doing the same thing over
and over again.
Despite several attempts, and despite IWW and other
union organizing experience, we have not developed a workable strategy
for moving towards organizing entire workplaces or apartment buildings.
To remedy this we hosted a series of “strategy sessions” to think about
future directions, and various members have launched C-TWO, the
Committee for Tenant and Worker Outreach, to move further in the
direction of larger scale, more collectivized fights.
The initial stage
for C-TWO is extensive door-knocking to gather data about major problems
people face at home or at work, and which jobs and apartments are ripe
Reproducibility and Longevity
A well-established training program counters the problem of key
organizers disappearing that has plagued many movements in the past.
Together with a constant source of landlords and bosses to take on,
SeaSol has survived for five and a half years and is showing no signs of
Intermittent participation in SeaSol has been one of the
ways in which activists scattered by Occupy’s disintegration have
maintained contact. Longer lasting groups act as anchors during periods
of low activity, so establishing them is important in the long term.
Some organizations seem to put the cart before the horse in terms of
heavy organizational structure without any substantial activity to
justify it. With this much structure, merely maintaining the
organization uses up all the energy of a small group.
networks are organizationally lightweight, having only the structures
that are needed to keep their activity going, adding or discarding
elements as needed. A phone number, a meeting space, money for posters
and a contact list are the bare minimum to get a solidarity network
Danger of Providing Social Services Instead of the State
As cuts increase, social movements may relieve the pressure on the state
by doing its job for it. This is something SeaSol avoids thanks to its
requirements of participation and reciprocity. It’s more of a problem in
service-providing groups where the aid is more one-directional, such as
(free food distribution group) Food Not Bombs.
Towards a Critical Mass of Crisis Resistance
To have any hope of building viable mass movements for resisting
austerity and the effects of crisis we need to start by taking on
problems of manageable size given our current weakness.
almost nothing, the small victories approach of solidarity networks
creates the social power needed to move on to the somewhat more
ambitious projects of workfare and foreclosure resistance illustrated by
SolFed and East Bay Sol’s projects.
Progress in larger scale organizing
will be slow and fraught with obstacles, but over the years as we build
our numbers and expertise, the pace will quicken.
We should be taking an experimental, iterative approach, analyzing
the weaknesses and opportunities in the social structure, finding out
what works through experiment and participation, modifying our strategy
based on our observations, then repeating the process.
reflection, adjustment, expansion. Trying new approaches reveals new
possibilities and limitations in a way that an impartial, detached
observer of social processes cannot. New theory emerges from practice,
new possibilities spring from the increased awareness of our collective
With a victory, or series of victories, achieved by members of a
certain community - a particular social network of immigrants, or
restaurant workers for example, confidence spreads and the possibilities
open up for more extensive struggle in that area.
By increasing the concentration of people experienced in taking
direct action within a given locale, the rate and extent of acts of
resistance, building links of solidarity between different sectors and
communities and thus breaking out of the isolation and atomization of
modern day life, we move towards a critical mass - a point at which acts
of resistance reinforce each other, a qualitative change in the class
struggle leading to a chain reaction of ever-increasing size, moderated
only by repression, cooptation, or drastic changes in the economy.
Supplemented with a “culture of resistance” of shared experiences and a
vision of that future which is a logical extension of collective power
and mutual aid - a future without bosses, landlords or politicians - that
emerges from this increased activity, future eruptions like those of
Madison and Occupy will be vastly more powerful, less hampered by
inexperience, able to defend themselves from cooptation.
Not only will
they have the power to defeat austerity measures, but they will be on
their way to making a total break with this corrupt, unequal, utterly
note: formatting for footnotes seems broken. see pdf version for correct details.
“Return of the crisis: Part 1,”Aufheben #18 (2010), http://libcom.org/library/return-crisis-part-1 (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Wisconsin – Next Stop, the General Strike!”(2011), http://seattlefreepress.org/2011/02/28/new-article-on-situation-in-wisconsin/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
Walter Winslow, “The Seattle Solidarity Network: a new kind of working class social movement” (2011), http://libcom.org/files/the-seattle-solidarity-network.pdf (accessed July 8, 2013).
Juan Conatz, “Wisconsin: Why a general strike hasn't happened yet” (2011), http://libcom.org/blog/some-limitations-movement-wisconsin-04042011 (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Recall in Wisconsin – the Alternative Was Worse” (2012), http://seattlefreepress.org/2012/06/11/recall-in-wisconsin-the-alternative-was-worse/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
“Wobbly Fred Thompson on the 30s depression”, http://libcom.org/history/wobbly-fred-thompson-30s-depression-studs-terkel (accessed July 8, 2013).
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a famous and
very top-down NGO. Rather than accept unionized employees, the Seattle
branch of ACORN shut down.
OCAP, “Direct Action Casework Manual”, http://ocap.ca/node/322 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Jeff Shantz, “Developing Workers Autonomy: An Anarchist Look At Flying Squads” (2006), http://www.iww.org/en/node/2246 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Winslow, “The Seattle Solidarity Network.”
Steel City Sol facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Steel-City-Solidarity/505161452856830 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Interview with David Graeber, Washington Post, October 3 2011.
Black Orchid Collective, “Occupy, to end Capitalism!” (2011), http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/occupy-to-end-capitalism/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
John Jacobsen, “Occupy Wall Street’s Next Steps – Part 1” (2011), http://anarchism.pageabode.com/john-jacobsen/occupy-wall-street-s-next-steps-part-1 (accessed July 8, 2013).
SAFE website: http://safeinseattle.org/ (accessed July 8, 2013).
East Bay Sol member “R”, quoted from personal correspondence.
Abolish Workfare, Solidarity Federation pamphlet.
SolFed, “Denied deposits? Refused repairs? Harassed by your landlord?” http://www.solfed.org.uk/south-london/denied-deposits-refused-repairs-harassed-by-your-landlord (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed, “SF-IWA calls for national week of action against Office Angels” (2012) http://www.solfed.org.uk/solfed/sf-iwa-calls-for-national-week-of-action-against-office-angels-9-15-may (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed member “JP”, quoted from personal correspondence.
SolFed, “A domino falls” (2012), http://www.solfed.org.uk/brighton/a-domino-falls-holland-barrett-quit-workfare-after-direct-action (accessed July 8, 2013).
SolFed member “JP”, quoted from personal correspondence.
Shiv Malik, “Graduate's Poundland victory leaves government work schemes in tatters”, The Guardian, 12 February 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/feb/12/graduate-poundland-government-work-schemes (accessed July 8, 2013).
Andrew X, “Give Up Activism” (1999), http://libcom.org/library/give-up-activism (accessed July 8, 2013).
Comments on article “Give Up Classtivism” at http://libcom.org/library/give-classtivism-why-class-struggle-long-boring-hard-work (accessed July 8, 2013).
“Do something! A critique of activism”, http://libcom.org/blog/do-something-critique-activism-28052012 (accessed July 8, 2013).
“no1” in forum discussion at http://libcom.org/forums/theory/what-do-anarchistlibertarian-communist-movements-need-order-grow-03072010 (accessed July 8, 2013).
Some of the tensions in opposition to activism are summed up pretty well by Kellstadt, http://libcom.org/library/anti-activism (accessed July 8, 2013).
Costas Douzinas, “Europe's south rises up against those who act as sadistic colonial masters”, The Guardian, 28 March 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/28/europe-south-rising-up (accessed July 8, 2013).
This article is a chapter from the book The End of the World As we Know It? Crisis, Resistance, and the Age of Austerity (AK Press, 2014). Written in April 2013.