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Reigniting the Struggle- For a Brisbane Workers Assembly(Draft)

a meeting has been organised to discuss this proposal on 15th March at 5.30pm at Freedom House 69 Thomas St West End 4101

The accumulation of capital is Australia remains much stronger than that in much of the world – especially the global North. As long as high rates of growth are sustained in China and India then the resources Boom Mark II will continue to produce high levels of growth here. Even then however there are clear lines of tension: the shortage of labour-power means that there is extra pressures to increase productivity (read work more intensely and longer), and the “patch-work” nature of the economy means very uneven distributions of the benefits and costs of the resource economy (along with the big picture issues of exploitation, alienation, ecological devastation etc.). The fragile nature of the global economy, the inability to achieve sustained global levels of growth, also means there is the ever present possibility of another crash and that the effects of these will be felt in Australia. Revolutionaries need to respond to the tensions and struggles of today, yet keep one eye on the future possibilities, and be prepared to change tactics and strategy as the material conditions of capital shift.

Currently the Left has very little meaningful to offer to the masses of people in Australia. At least three years into the current crisis the state of emancipatory politics is far from impressive. Recompositions are happening, slow and under the surface and probably outside of communication with each other. This short letter is an attempt to engage with these.

The Absence of a Viable Praxis

There are probably tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people In Australia with some kind of radical understanding of the society we live in and a desire for something else. Some of them would have had personal histories in the organisations of the Left or social movements both in Australia and internationally. The vast majority would be involved in very low levels of activity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doing important things, maybe involved in local campaigns and unions, taking time to think about the world, building communities in whatever ways they can. But these efforts don’t add up to a coherent challenge to capital. There are small handfuls of highly active people in sects, grouplets, milieus, and branches of the Greens and Labour, campaign groups etc. but equally this doesn’t seem to add up to much.

What we lack is a viable praxis, that is a way of conceiving the world and acting in it that produces a useful critique, poses appealing alternative visions and modes of doing in a way that connects to peoples’ lived experiences and simultaneously offers a real challenge to the social order. And we don’t seem to know how to create one.

There are possibly two very different reasons that contribute to this impasse. One is the massive recompositions of work and society that was launched at the end of the 1970s. This reorganisation of capital’s accumulation process involved a remaking of the everyday. We now work, socialise, talk, hang out, eat, live and think in radically different ways than we previously did. The inherited patterns of social struggle have had their material basis they rested on pulled away from them.

Secondly there has been the long history of defeat – that 2003 anti-war movement is possibly the most important of these in the last decade ( the Accord process in the 80s the most important overall). These defeats are also the experience of attempts to organising collectively and then being ignored and the daily feeling of being caught and ground down by capitalism. “The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker”(Marx 1990, 899).

Both these two intertwined dynamics are part of the long history of class struggle that in part explains both the general condition of the class and the inadequacies of struggle. People feel defeated and a certain assemblages of political practice that were passed down to us over the last hundred years have been defeated – that is they can no longer really connect with our condition. It is true that they have much to teach us, and the history of class struggles is a history we need to reclaim and defend. Yet if we just carry on with the ideologies of the past we have nothing to say.

What would make a viable praxis? It could perhaps consist of the following elements: a critique of capital that accurately describes the lines of tensions in its material conditions and ideological mystifications; utopian dreams that are optimistic and appealing; practical suggestions and strategies that combine with peoples’ lived experiences; organisational methods that are functioning and self-sustaining; and a way of acting that accumulates and uses power.

Such a practice requires a certain way of thinking about the world. It is important to realise that the possibility of another kind of society doesn’t come from somewhere out there, from good ideas dropping to reality, but from really struggles that exist in the present. “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence” (Marx and Engels 1973, 56-7). The way life is organised under capitalism conditions both the material possibilities of communism and the potential for struggles to realise these possibilities. And it is the struggles of everyday people, in our millions, that is the only force that can realise these possibilities.

This means a certain way of thinking about class. Class doesn’t simply mean a sociological division into groups, it also means the possibilities of struggling collectively. Marx writes of the notion of “radical chains”, that the way that we are exploited under capitalism means that we exists as a “class which is the dissolution of all classes”(1992, 256). This exploitation is historically specific. It is the concrete ways that we work every day, the ways that we socialise how and where we shop, what we talk about etc. In this historical specific totality exists tensions and antagonisms and these provide the possibility of struggles that could realise radical alternatives. These possibilities exist as tensions in our daily lives. Class consciousness doesn’t refer to simple people taking a set of ideas (becoming socialists or anarchists etc.) it refers to the collective creation of understandings about the nature of the societies we live in, and more importantly the lived experiences of struggle, in which we teach ourselves the nature of our own power and how to use it.

Such a thinking about class means a faith in the masses. That is that even if we can recognize the power of ideology in shaping the way people thinking and the fetishizing effects of commodity society we do so to argue against the idea that people are somehow ‘dumb.’ There is no need to talk down to people. Faith in the masses also means realising that there is a desire for revolt, that rebellion will resonate with peoples’ experiences. And that the people in revolt will often go beyond the ideas and limitations of self-professed revolutionaries.

Class Composition & The Mass Line

How can we contribute to the development of such a praxis? What could be the broad suggestions and practical efforts?

Firstly we must be attentive to class composition. What this means simply is that the capitalism constantly revolutionises production, and that it often does this in a relation to struggle. From the 1970s to today capitalism has reshaped our lives in an attempt to decompose the previous ways we worked and lived because these were the bases of our power. We must pay attention to what the new workplace looks like, the new relations of labour and technology, the relation between different sections of work, and the hierarchies that have developed amongst the class. Broadly speaking there has been a rise in the size of the service and tertiary sections of the economy, an increasingly important if numerically small ( in terms of employment) mining industry, and expansion of easy credit which has led to more small businesses and increased consumption, and more employment is organising through contracting. There has been a proportional increase in part-time and casual employment and full time employment itself is also relatively more insecure. The costs of the provision of health, retirement and education are increasingly pushed onto the shoulders of workers themselves as individuals who often finance them through debt. This only scratches the surface. It is possible to say that the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism has been a total change of modes of living.

Emancipatory politics must base itself in these new conditions (even if we draw on historical lessons.) But how to do this? One of the contributions made to revolutionary struggle by the Zapatistas has been the radicalisation of the Maoist conception of the Mass Line. Expressed in such notions as “the inverted periscope” and “walking, we ask questions” the idea is that revolutionary politics are not brought by revolutionaries from outside the class to the class but rather created through actually investigation into the conditions we live in: primarily communicating with people about where they are at, what their concerns are, and trying to generalise these concerns into organised and collective efforts. For the Maoists the party was crucial in this, the Zapatistas free the method from the party. What we can take is the idea that the way to develop a viable practice is through an active engagement with the world, in being part of the world, and attempting to generalise common concerns into a politics of the common.

This hinges on the ability of presenting and organising common desires in a way that goes beyond the restrictions of capitalist normality. Rather than making demands to the state, we need common projects that are aimed ultimately at ourselves as a class.

Thus we also need to increase the level of shared theoretical discussions about the nature of society, to share and communicate experiences of struggle, to generate more spaces where people meet and discuss with each other and become part of each other’s lives directly and encourage experiments in living differently.

We must also be open to spontaneity and to struggles we weren’t involved in initiating.

The following suggestions are simply a way to open a door.

Concrete Suggestions

To carry out such an approach I suggest the following strategy.

1) The organisation of collectives and caucuses of workers on a city-wide industrial basis. Let’s get together those revolutionaries who all work in one industry and starting meeting and discussing what is going on and how from there we can start to carry out the ‘mass line.’ All the different collectives and caucuses could then meet once every four to six weeks to generalise the experiences going on and contribute to undermining sectional divisions. Perhaps it doesn’t simply have to be workers. The university group could involve academic and general staff and students, the child care group admin workers, child care workers and parents, transport group could involve workers and users etc.

Each collective and caucus could attempt to make workplace focused media – papers, websites, videos etc.

The larger ‘general’ collective should also publish a regular free newspaper focused on experiences and issues of work. This should be humours, topical, intelligent, informed by theory and clearly written, and also encourage collective writing and participation from readers. I suggest the name ‘The Grind’.

The organisation of collectives and caucuses around issues of reproduction: housing, welfare, education, health etc. Obviously there could be some overlap with the above but it is important to challenge and struggle in the community and well as the work-place ( is there even a clear division anymore?).

2) The organisation of regular and high standard theoretical discussions and research. This could involve public forums, written documents and bottom up enquiries into important issues of the day. These should be held increasingly in suburbs where there is little formal political activity and have an open and relaxed feeling to them

3) A large scale intellectual campaign against reaction in the class. There have always been reactionary currents in the working class. In the absence of viable practice insecurities find expression in a host of reactionary fantasies and conspiracies particularly hostility to Muslims and refugees. Liberal multiculturalism has limit effectiveness in addressing these ideas as it fails to address the causes and is often presented in an elitist and dismissive way. Whilst some success can be found in the direct physical confrontation with organised fascists there is the need to make a broader radical argument in the class. I suggested the formulation of website and free publication under the name of “Mongrel” that makes a proletarian critique of reaction – in full colour and with a sense of humour

Next Steps

If comrades find any level of agreement with these points, I would like to meet soon. I would suggest a small meeting and first and the perhaps a larger all day event. A comrade who read a draft of this suggested that in many ways I was simply suggesting activity that would fit with the Industrial Workers of the World. I would recommend that we discuss other currently existing similar projects .

To this end a meeting has been organised to discuss this proposal on 15th March at 5.30pm at Freedom House 69 Thomas St West End 4101

Balibar, Etienne. The Philosophy of Marx. Translated by Chris Turner. London & New York: Verso, 2007.

El Kilombo Intergaláctico. Beyond Resistance: Everything. An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Durham, North Carolina: Paperboat Press, 2007.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Ben Fowkes. Vol. 1. London: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Marx, Karl. Early Writings. Translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton. London: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1992.

Marx, Karl , and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology Part One. 3rd ed. New York: International Publishers, 1973.

Subcomandante Marcos. “The Word and the Silence ” in Subcommandante Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, 75-77London: Serpent’s Tail, 2001

Subcomandante Marcos and The Zapatistas. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.” In The Other Campaign / La Otra Campana, edited by Subcommandante Marcos and The Zapatistas, 60-147. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London & New York: Verso, 1999.

One response to “Reigniting the Struggle- For a Brisbane Workers Assembly(Draft)

  1. From whence does change come?

    The debate over how to bring about radical change to society is a key question of our time.

    The parliament has failed do so.

    It is not as if protest groups have not tried to influence the parliament, but their success has been limited — recently the Felton Farmers have been successful in stopping a coal to petrol conversion plant near their properties but the bigger impact of coal seam gas mining on farming is still a major issue on the Darling Downs and elsewhere. Transnational companies has gone over to gas as an energy because of the oil crisis in the middle east and elsewhere.

    The Greens in coalition with Labor federally have failed. Their sole representative in the lower house even supported NATO bombing of Libya and therefore US imperialism! The Greens have been divided for over a decade on whether to place emphasis on environmental or on social policy.

    Soon Labor will be tossed out federally so where does that leave the environmental movement with its long sought after reforms on climate change and sustainable energy? These reforms never challenged the exploitation inherent in capitalism.

    The reformist approach never achieved much as the failure of the Whitlam government demonstrated to us so long ago.

    Most of the reforms of the 1970s that the Whitlam government brought in would have happened anyhow – the US had already lost the war in Vietnam when Whitlam pulled Australian troops out, a better more egalitarian education system was required by the shift of capitalism to an information economy … even women’s liberation was needed to expand the workforce especially in the public sector and in service industries.

    Various attempts to bring about change outside the parliament have also been piecemeal and limited.

    Unions have been able to arrest the decline in the standard of living but not much more. They have been absorbed for the most part with the economic struggle.

    The only political party that raised ideological issues in the state election was the odd mix of Catholic/AWU/Country allance that Katter’s Australia Party represents.

    The KAP placed Public Assets Sales at the top of its list of grievances with the Qld Labor government.

    The KAP was rewarded in its stance by taking 1 in every 3 votes away from Labor. (“An analysis of the Queensland election by The Courier-Mail shows that, on average across the state, Katter’s Australian Party took 30.81 per cent of ALP votes.” see http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/katter-wins-where-alp-fails/story-fnbt5t29-1226311934937 ] By contrast, the Greens vote declined statewide and lost some votes to the LNP despite its alliance with farmers over coal seam gas.

    All other issues in the state election revolved around ‘service delivery’.

    The ALP’s incompetence in this area helped bring it down.

    Cost of living is an issue in every election especially during an economic crisis like the GFC (it has not gone away). It is not as bad as Greece but there are major impacts on workers through casualisation. The fact that Sue is the only union member in her workplace is evidence of the impact of casualisation and shift from blue collar to white collar low paid jobs.

    The union in Qld made a crucial mistake after Bligh and Fraser declared that they would sell Queensland Rail. They should have formed their own political party and campaigned against the ALP on ideological grounds.

    It has not been until after the election result that ALP dominated unions like the CFMEU building division (David Hanna) and AMWU (Andrew Dittmer) have come out and openly criticised the parliamentary wing of the party for deserting workers — and even now that criticism has been muted. Will Labor leaders be held accountable for what they have done to harm workers and their unions? Not so far. Part of the reason for this is the failure of the socialist groupings in Australia to organise in unions and in community organisations made up of working class people. In recent time the socialist groupings have preferred the ‘sexy’ issues of ‘equal love’ and julian assange.

    An extra-parliamentary opposition will form — but how it operates and where it chooses to organise will determine its success in bringing about change.

    Ian Curr
    March 2012

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