The super-fast radicalisation of the student demonstrations caught everyone by surprise. Direct action is on the agenda again and it’s coming from a group people discounted as being “the children of Thatcher” and dismissed as being fundamentally consumerist and non-radical.
The criticism came before the political engagement in many cases – the focus on “violence” (name one social movement in British history that has passed without a few broken windows), as well as the caricature of the movement as bourgeois self-interest (ignoring the fact that it was the poorer school-kids faced with losing their Education Maintenance Allowance who gave the second demonstration such a boost).
Trade unionists, including yours truly, were reasonably quick off the mark to express solidarity and recognise them as an inspiration, but we’re still working out where we going from here. The various existing political groups took a while to adapt to what was going on – the SWP have gotten stick for doing their usual thing of selling papers at every opportunity.
The Christmas break has given everyone a bit of a break and time to regroup somewhat. Major political debates are breaking out on Twitter and blogs about important questions of organisation, leadership and political direction of the movement.
Anyone who’s been involved in politics for a while will be very aware of this happening before. Last time, it was the so-called “anti-globalisation” movement, which emerged to a large degree from the anarchic Reclaim the Streets actions of the mid to late ‘90s. Yet, by 2001, Globalise Resistance had emerged and tried to put itself forward as some kind of leadership of the movement. One of its tactics was to condemn the “violence” of the black bloc and anarchists at demos.
They failed, but the outbreak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars gave some of the same people another chance and we ended up with the hierarchical Stop the War Coalition. The single-issue, popular front politics of opposing the wars suited the more organised hierarchical groups much more than chaotic, multi-issue convergence politics.
And… radicalism started to disappear from the streets. The demonstrations against the G8 in Gleneagles in 2005 were, in retrospect, a wake. In the following four years, turn-out at demos and actions collapsed – the million-plus at that anti-war demo started to fade into an almost mythical memory.
If Gleneagles was a wake, then the G20 demos in 2009 were like hint of things to come. Anarchy was in the air again, the big demonstration at the Bank was deliberately designed to be diverse (with the different horsemen representing different issues). It happened and we all know what came afterwards – but it didn’t come to much. There was no repeat, the various demos afterwards were a little better than those before, but still…
And now we’re here. There is the danger of become over-organised, hierarchical and ultimately reformist – thus losing energy and support. However, there is also danger in being under-organised, chaotic and ultimately formless. I’d argue that the structures of anarcho-syndicalism are the answer that presents a middle ground.