Dancing in the Dark: social strikes and directional demands, some comments on a debate.

social strike 1

…what is our strategy and what are we meant to be supporting? (Southall 2015)

Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf. (Solidarity)[i]

What can we do? How can we collectively struggle to both improve our lives in the present and open up paths to a radically different society? Whilst there are varying kinds of ‘activism’ that are happening it is not always clear what their relationships to actually achieving anything are – so too the various models of social transformation that make up the ideological foundations of various groups, parties, scenes, sects and milieus are often very far removed from the world we live in now. Just because it seems more imperative than ever to do something doesn’t mean we know what to do. More fool us.

Most often activism (whatever that is!?!) in a town like Brisbane is made up of fairly ineffective cycles of rallies organised at dull meetings under the fluorescent lights of the TLC Building, campaigning for various political parties and NGOs and GetUp! style clicktivism that has taken on an increasingly slick and professionalised appearance. All often carried out by hard working comrades with good and sincere motivations. The historic defeat of the antiwar movement that proved that rallies that stay within the boundaries set by the state have no power and everybody knows it has not provoked a consequent rethinking of strategy or tactics. So too whilst we can take comfort that perhaps strikes, at least in certain industries, have the ability to directly hit the accumulation of capital, it is now almost twenty years since there has been an industrial dispute that has had a national impact. Strikes and unionisation are at historic lows. In the context of ecological meltdown, permanent war, the end of the mining boom and an increasingly authoritarian state and public culture it is not obvious that we have a clear strategy to address our concerns on a large or small scale. Also the strange composition of the Senate where populist outsiders have thwarted much of the government’s agenda means that we have been spared the need, on some issues, to confront this impasse.

It is with this in mind that a debate that is taking place in anticapitalist circles in the UK is of interest. Now we should avoid that habit of Australian radicalism to attempt to simply copy and apply approaches from overseas in a way that fails to be sensitive to the contexts they developed in and their differences from the contexts we live in. Yet there might be something to be gained from looking at On Social Strikes and Directional Demands by Keir Milburn from Plan C and the response to it written by Angry Workers of the World.

Milburn’s (2015) article is a short suggestion for a form of strategic thinking built around two intertwined planks – the social strike and the directional demand. The argument starts by diagnosing multiple levels of paralysis and failure in the current activity of the ‘Radical Left’; paralysis and failure that arises out of both internal subjective flaws and the structural nature of the context.

‘At the present moment it feels like all sections of the UK Radical Left are trapped in a state of impasse.’ What are the problems that have created this impasse? Firstly the absence of a strategic orientation creates a tendency for comrades to be trapped in either ‘Comfort Politics or Fire Brigade politics’: ‘Comfort politics is when you do things because they are familiar or seem tactically (or affectively) easy…Fire Brigade politics is when people swing wildly from one campaign to another, rushing from one outrage to the next, trying to put out the fires that someone else is starting.’ Added to this is the ‘electoral turn’: the successes of Syriza and Podemos are creating an orientation that tries to mimic these projects in the UK – specifically the Green Surge. Milburn argues that the Syriza and Podemos will not be able to deliver on their promises, and thus when this electoral turn is exhausted it would behove comrades to have another approach ready to argue for and implement. But all this sits on a deeper problem: the failure of what passes for radical politics to meet the needs of the current lived class composition and the challenge to develop one that does.

Such an approach doesn’t involve the standard ultraleft, communist and anarchist ‘pose of all knowing disinterest’ towards these electoral efforts. Rather these electoral efforts, which Milburn calls Plan B+ (in the lexicon of Plan C Plan A means austerity, Plan B means an attempts to reinvigorate social democracy/Keynesianism and finally Plan C refers to commons and/or communism), are caught by the structures of ‘neoliberalism’ and prevented from achieving their goals. Such electoral projects are not entirely pointless rather ‘Plan B+ politics can be useful in this task beyond the resources and protection it can provide for populations and movements. Even at their point of failure Plan B electoral politics can be useful if they can clarify the anti-democratic effects of neoliberal (sic) that work against all forms of collective action.’ Milburn is arguing that what is needed ‘is to make those effects and mechanisms visible as key political problems while framing them in ways that can exceed Plan B solutions’. This involves ‘two more general questions from which you can draw up a strategy:  ‘how do we shift things in our direction?’ And: ‘what direction is that anyway?’’ The answer he provided to the first is the social strike and the second is the directional demand.

What on earth is a ‘social strike’ and how is it different from the older industrial strike? I assume the direct inspirations are the social strike in Italy in 2014 and Blockupy. It seems that the social strike means at least two different but related things: firstly industrial disputes that spread outside the workplace and generalise into a broader form of class struggle; and struggles that emerge outside of the workplace proper and that attempt to block the circulation of capital. (Question: is this similar to the strategy being pursued by Indigenous activists in opposition to the forced closure of communities in WA?)

Milburn cites the experience of a 1995 Metro strike in Paris and the understanding of this strikes that was developed by participants of autonomia who were in exile in France at the time – specifically Antonio Negri. Negri’s(2003) argument is that these struggles marked a particular turning point, the emergence of a new form of struggle linked to a new class composition. The strikes of railway workers were accompanied by increased social cooperation of public transport users. For Negri this showed that public services were increasingly ‘productive’ in that they created the ‘global form which structures production itself’(232-233) and that users of these services were also active participants in the creation of these productive capacities. Thus the wave of strikes created a community in struggle that wasn’t simply defending outmoded social democratic forms but rather was posing communism in the shape of a radically democratic reappropriation of the management of this collective productivity and doing so in ways opposed to the state. For Negri this was the birth of the ‘metropolitan strike’ where ‘the whole of social life’ became the terrain of struggle (234). Negri’s latter work continues on this theme arguing that in contemporary capitalism the metropolis is effectively analogous to the role the factory played in previous types of capitalism: the site of productivity, exploitation and struggle (Hardt and Negri 2009).

Milburn has no clear and concrete suggestions for a ‘social strike’ rather stating that there are three elements to it: ‘These are making the new conditions visible, disrupting the circulation of capital and directly socialising, collectivising and communising our social relations, reproduction and struggles.’

Milburn identifies two problems that the social strike is an attempt to overcome. Firstly strikes aren’t working. The strike has been previously the core weapon of the class, the tool we use to apply ‘leverage’ but now ‘strikes have stopped working so well, at least in the developed world.’ The evidence for this failure Milburn posits is that the numbers of strikes and their duration are at historically low levels; and the cause of this is not, as the Left normally claims, bad leadership but rather ‘changes in class composition, in particular changes in the experience of work and changes in the organisation of production.’ The social strike is thus an attempt to develop the strike in a way that fits with our current composition:

The idea of a social strike, as it was originally developed, obviously relates to the concept of the social factory, the idea that the sphere of production has escaped the factory and seeped into the rest of society. The era of the strike is associated with the era of the Mass Worker, with very large workplaces, clear lines of antagonism between workers and managers, and with collective break times and visible factory gates giving opportunities for communication and agitation. Now those kinds of mass workplaces have been broken up through outsourcing, work has become more precarious, the kinds of work we tend to do has changed, etc. These all make it much harder to establish the common interests that an effective strike requires.

The social strike tries to make visible these new conditions. Arguably part of the problem of our age is that our experiences of work don’t fit with the inherited images and languages of work. For example most workers in Australia understand themselves to be ‘middle class’ (and just as importantly our experiences as workers are incredibly heterogeneous). Also there is no excuse to exclude the experiences of unwaged labour – most often performed by women – from our understandings of work and our images of the worker. The social strike then is an attempt to ‘express the new common conditions politically’ by focusing on the collective problems that beset our lives.

The social strike tries to manifest power not by stopping a single workplace – for as Milburn argues such struggles would be pre-emptively outmanoeuvred by the new organisation of capitalism and conditions of work – but by jamming the circulation of capital and commodities. If the massive changes in logistics were part of the counter-revolution against the power of the Fordist working class it has simultaneously produced new points of contestation. The struggles by workers in logistics together with broader social movements have the possibility to prevent large amounts of capital from being valorised. Here Milburn draws on the experiences of Occupy Oakland, #BlackLivesMatter and the Piqueteros.

A strategy based on such a level of disruption immediately faces two problems. It would need large-scale public support to prevent it being easily and violently repressed; and such a struggle would also put extreme pressures on our abilities to survive. What am I going to have for breakfast if the truck that delivers the milk to the supermarkets is blockaded? The answer to both is to ‘Socialise, Collectivise, Communise’: that is directly create common forms of reproducing our lives both as part of a struggle and also as a response to the general crisis of social reproduction. The questions of alternative forms of social organisation can’t be put off to the day after the revolution because without them struggle is impossible in the here-and-now. Commons create the material possibilities of a struggle to take place (How will we eat? Who will look after the kids?) and they work as a pole of attraction to win people to the struggle by developing already existing better way of livings.

The social strike needs to be accompanied by the ‘directional demand’. This is a way of framing demands in a radically different way from how they are used in Australia. Demands are either made by (post?)social democratic forces on the premise they are currently achievable and thus a form of decent society is possible without abolishing capitalist social relations[ii] or by various inheritors of Trotskyism who believe that demands play a pedagogical role: supposedly their role is to mobilise people in struggles that expose the limits of what is possible within capitalism and thus raise consciousness. The directional demand is something else. Directional demands are demands that attempt to address current lived material needs and to do so in a way that increases our collectivity and power as we move inside-against-and-beyond capitalism:

In short directional demands aim to provide a direction of travel rather than simply describe the wish for ‘full communism.’ They need to make sense within existing conditions while pointing beyond them. Indeed they need to make better sense of the current situation and the potential it holds than conventional politics does. They need to play a compositional role, I.E. link different sectors or interests together or indeed produce a new subject of their own. And their fulfillment, or indeed movement towards their fulfillment needs to leave us, the working class, the multitude or whatever, in a stronger position, able to better articulate what we want and better able to exercise the power to get there. The Universal Basic Income (if framed correctly) could provide one example, a Debt Jubilee or Universal Expropriation (a residency restriction on housing), could provide others. Developing a program of Directional Demands is a way of addressing the electoral turn while leaving room to go beyond it.

Milburn admits that this strategy is a general orientation rather than a concrete plan. ‘Accepting this doesn’t mean we should just set the date for the great social strike? It is more a matter of asking what tactics we can adopt to socialise existing strikes and how we might help turn social movements and social reproduction struggles away from merely symbolic action and towards the exercise of material leverage?’ Thus in specific struggles we could try to move out of their limitations by experimenting with making the above real. Milburn is suggesting that we can escape from our current limitations by applying this approach to our concrete conditions.

The response to this strategy by Angry Workers of the World is interesting[iii]. Angry Workers of the World share the objective of wanting to go beyond the current impasse and also address ‘how can limitations of single disputes be overcome and their social isolation (from other spheres of working class life) be broken down.’ Yet they argue that Milburn’s approach fails to offer a correct way forward to do this.

They argue that Milburn attempts to address the problems from the level of the political rather than within the concrete specifics of lived working class experience and as such his suggestions contain a number of flaws: ‘politics’ i.e. the state is framed as the major field of contestation, neoliberalism is reduce to a set of policies rather than being understood as ‘a contradictory phase of capitalist development and class struggle’ and working class struggles are reduced to leverage to achieve policy objectives. As such Millburn’s argument remains at a level of generality unable to actually give concrete suggestions on the way forward.

Angry Workers of the World give a very different reading of Syriza and Podemos. Rather than understanding them as honest attempts to transform society that will inevitably run up against failure they understand them as successful projects radically and fundamentally different from, even hostile to, actual proletarian struggles for emancipation. The shift of people’s hopes towards electoral projects was because the previous struggles in the squares remained too enamoured of the political – a sphere where we lack any real power – and thus ‘imploded’. Added to this is an understand of the Left as an expression of a middle class and professionalised existence: ‘The Trotskyite left as individuals and organisation materially depends largely on their positions within the ‘guaranteed’ public sector and the trade union apparatus, which pushes them into defensive politics’(angryworkers 2014a).

The crux of the debate is how do we overcome the segmentations that define the current composition of the working class. Milburn’s approach is essentially that we can add something to certain struggles – as a political choice – that will allow for the struggle to spread across the society. We can bring to light our conditions, block the circulation of commodities and capital, start to communise the means of social reproduction and provide a political framework that will allow the different fragments of the class to start to understand themselves as part of something bigger and a different society as possible and desirable.

Against this Angry Workers of the World depict the defining lines of our material conditions as being much more concrete. The reorganisation of the class after the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s has lead to a proliferation of segmentations in the processes of production that are also enforced politically. This is the hard reality of our lives. The possibility of communism only exists as much as struggles of specific workers within a specific segment of the class start to explode out from these boundaries thus connect with other workers and are therefore compelled to remake society and do the work of emancipation. ‘Workers’ have to find forms of organisations which materially undermines the segmentation imposed by the production process – they cannot just step out and ‘generalise externally’:

The class movement will have to develop its organisation along the lines of global productive connections and materially change these connections: in its intensive stage class struggle will simultaneously have to create the (pre-)conditions for ‘the production of communism’. Workers’ struggles will not only ‘attack capital and the state’ by withdrawing social labour – strikes will interrupt social reproduction to an existential degree and thereby force the class movement to re-organise production and circulation while fighting. In this stage of class struggle we will be able to discover not only how social labour is globally integrated, but also that most social labour in capitalism is superfluous – no one will complain about the lack of market research calls or supply of electric tin-openers. A huge mass of human energy and creativity will be set free. At the same time the class movement will face the question of how to re-organise production in a form which not only guarantees effective subsistence, but also extends the ‘self-organisation of struggle’ into a self-organisation of social production: abolishment of hierarchical division of labour and uneven development. The revolution is not only an act of ‘smashing/taking power’, but of revolutionising social relationships, of getting rid of the contradiction between individual and social by materially transforming how we (re-)produce our social existence. (angryworkers 2014b)

This means the useful activity of communists is far smaller than that described by Milburn. Communists as workers can of course participate in the workplace as workers attempting to cooperate with others in that workplace in struggle. But beyond this the most useful activity is to try to circulate experiences of struggles in an attempt to help, but only help, to allow struggles to move beyond their segmentations. Added to this communists as communists can help the theoretical self-education of the class and perhaps even develop a strategic understanding of the current period of capitalism and thus choose to work in certain industries which might have particular strategic power. This strategic power relates to both the role a specific workplace may play in capitalism and also the organisational power of the workers there. ‘Workers’ organisations in that sense are not the ‘organisations through which the working class struggles’, they are rather organisations which support the tendencies towards self-organisation and emancipation in the struggles and movements as they happen.’(2014b). Thus Angry Workers of the World have made a political choice to start a worker’s newspaper in a specific region of the UK and work together in the warehouse industry.

This also leads to a clear position on the usefulness or harmfulness of revolutionary organisations – they are critical of both the return of syndicalism (the IWW) and the rise of ‘neo-Leninism’ (by which I think they mean efforts like Plan C). Rather they encourage comrades in these groups to:

a) abolish the facade of their particular organisation and reflect critically whether their activities contribute practically and theoretically to what we can still term as ‘workers autonomy’ and b) engage in a collective inquiry of the weak spots of capital, workers’ conditions and already existing collective steps below the surface

This process would not require the break from exiting organisations (IWW, Solfed, Plan C) but forums of debate and militant research beyond ‘activist networking’ and beyond the parasitic form of academia.

A wider mass publication, which reflects critically on current struggles ‘from the inside’ and analyses their material context would be the first priority.

This process should lead to a collective proletarian intervention in future ‘Occupies’, turning likely re-emergences of occupations of universities or other ‘public spaces’ into proletarian spheres.(angryworkers 2014a)

Both Milburn and Angry Workers of the World base their politics on an understanding of the importance of class composition. In short this is an understanding that sees the shape of working class experience changing as capital changes. Simultaneously the struggle against capitalism is the motor-force that drives these changes. As such different organisational and strategic forms of struggle will arise from different compositions. There is no ahistorical answer to working class rebellion.

Milburn writes:

The concept of class composition was central to the Italian Operaist tradition (which in the UK has fed into what’s called autonomism). It sees the composition of the working class as changing historically through cycles of struggle. Capital restructures through technological innovation and reorganizations of the work process. These often seek to undo established forms of working-class power. These changes produce a new ‘technical’ composition of the working class with particular political affordances, perhaps, for example, the reorganized work process allows good communication between certain sectors of workers but blocks it between others. The second aspect is the political composition of the working class, this is determined by the effectiveness of the forms of organisation and action through which these affordances are exploited or overcome and the interests of the class asserted against the interest of capital.(2015)

Angry Workers of the World:

By ‘technical composition’ we mean the actual historical form of how workers cooperate within a process of division of labour mediated by machinery and shaped by different levels of development; how the immediate production process relates to the wider social process of (re-)production and forms and levels of consumption; how formal individual skills relate to wider social skills of workers necessary to perform labour; how different categories and sections of workers are brought together and are segmented; how the class conflict is mediated institutionally and culturally.

By ‘political composition’ we mean the process of how ‘working class’ and ‘workers unity’ actually forms out of material conditions and experiences of struggles: the concrete form of organisation of struggle workers develop based on the collective nature of the capitalist production process, overcoming it’s segmenting nature; the concrete demands and wider social critique which springs up from concrete conditions and ‘aspirations of productivity’ – a historically specific relation between living and dead labour; the form of how particular struggles relate to each other and turn into a generalised movement due to the social dimension of production and general conditions within a capitalist cycle; how this generalisation tends to happen through struggles within central industries which can express an advanced stage of conflict between capital and workers; based on this relation between central sectors and wider society, specific forms of ‘economical and political’ organisations (councils, assemblies) of the class movement are formed and can express a specific ‘social alternative’, a historically specific communism.(2014b)

I think here we can see differences between the two positions. Class composition is a dynamic process involving how we work both, paid and unpaid, in a specific site and also how it is organized across society, but also involves what we are thinking and talking about and what if any kinds of organizations we have and how they operate and function. ‘For each historical phase of class struggle, we identify a compositional type of working class, which is at its core not only its location in the overall process of production, but also the series of experiments with struggle, comportments, and the way determinate and life needs come to be renewed and newly defined’(Negri 2014, 11). Each of these elements interrelates with and determines the others. It is often easiest to understand that the technical determinations of work are the strongest influence – but this ignores the role that the subjective struggle of workers plays in constantly compelling changes and modifications in the operation of capitalism. It also can ignore the key radical kernel of Operaismo: we exceed capital. Capital wants us as workers, consumers and citizens and requires, in fact depends, on us. Capital is ultimately nothing more than the estranged product of our own creativity. Yet we are always more than this. Thus capitalism as a society is constantly attempting to react on a macro and micro level to our excessive self-activity in whatever forms that may take.

Class struggle is how we recompose ourselves as the makers of the conditions of our own lives, how we move from a class in itself to a class for itself. What role do self-declared revolutionaries have in the dynamic? For Milburn we can do much: as we engage in struggles we can put forward politics that aim to advance the level of class struggle on a whole. We can intervene. For Angry Workers of the World the recomposition of the class can only emerge out of specific struggles and spread due to the complex interrelationship of the dynamics of those sites. The best strategy is to attempt practices that support struggles and their circulation and develop our deeper collective understanding of our condition. We can spread the good news but we are not the Messiah.

So what does this mean for those of us in Brisbane? We can’t and shouldn’t seek to simply copy the approaches of those in different contexts but we can certainly learn from them. The initial difficulty is that strategy needs a subject; if we are going to ask what can we do then we need a we to do it. Now there is a danger here: this ‘we’ only makes sense if it refers to a group of us that have the necessary coherence to come to a decision and act on it. Conversations aimed at ‘what the Left needs to do’ are often pointless. Both Milburn and Angry Workers of the World are in conversation with clear groups of comrades that have the ability to decide and to act together. However forming the original knot of comradeship can be incredibly difficult. It is hard to generate the level of political commonality, human solidarity and commitment necessary. Last year Andrew, Richard and myself produced a survey to comrades as part of the process of trying to generate a new political organization – but this has stalled as we just don’t have the time to do it. The irony being that for me at least personally the desire to form a political organization is due to the lack of time I have and thus I want the small efforts I can make to be part of something more – to not feel that I need to be at every meeting in the inner city to be able to do something…

Milburn’s argument for a social strike is both exciting and seemingly impossible. It gives a vivid point of orientation. Faced with the failures of our current strategy it gives us at least the possibility of imagining what might and could be done. Yet the idea of blocking ports and highways seems way beyond our capacities – especially if we want to avoid being smashed by the state whilst the viewers at home cheer on. It’s also a strategy that could be taken up for struggles removed from the workplace proper – over ecological issues or the border régime for example. But it is clear that there are no short cuts. We would need a strategy to get us to this strategy. Given the authoritarian climate attempts at mass illegality that don’t have sufficient capacity to generate a large level of participation and substantial support will just lead to some heads being cracked, comrades arrested and in the courts and/or behind bars. Importantly the social strike relies on the creation of directional demands – but such demands can’t be generated from the minds of radicals in isolation. Rather they need to arise from ongoing processes of militant research (aka workers’ inquiry) that identify and generalize the already existing antagonisms and desires of the present.

Thus if we were to take the notion of the social strike seriously we would have to start by popularizing the notion and work on creating the possibility of its possibility: doing the kinds of investigations that can give it material shape, create demands and start the practice of organizing. Even by starting to add to our collective radical imagination the concept of social strikes we may reveal a polar star that can help light the way.

The perspective of Angry Workers of the World seems far more realistic and possible. It understands, crucially, that the processes of the class in movement belong to the class as a whole and that there is only a marginal contribution that self-identified revolutionaries can make. It gives us a way out of the swings and roundabouts of activism and rather points towards the importance of focusing on the workplaces we are already in and the people around us, whatever their formal political persuasion, as the people we want to struggle together with. The most obvious limitation is that by focusing on the workplace proper and trying to select strategic industries to work in and support it may end up reproducing the very segmentations it wishes to over come. What happens to the people and parts of our lives that are outside of wage-labour? Can the experience of life, exploitation and struggle in capitalism be reduced to what happens in the walls of formalized wage-labour? This was always a problematic, and fundamentally sexist, distinction but it is more and more difficult to make in a situation of ‘biocapitalism’(Marazzi 2011, 49) where more and more of life is subsumed by capitalism. (The AWW do explicitly reject the notion of the ‘social factory’…). Of course the approach of the AWW could be shifted to the campus, the street corner, the queue in Centrelink or the playgroup and so on. This is further complicated by their hard determinism – that such an approach is premised on workers in struggle being propelled in a certain direction and thus neglecting the importance of specific debates, emotional and affect states like hope and the ability to create a vivid and popular image of an alternative form of life.

Ultimately (and perhaps disappointingly for the reader who has come this far) it is impossible to get a verdict on this debate just on paper. Rather we need to see how such strategies unfold in practice and if they realize their stated potentials and can overcome what seem at this stage to be theoretical weaknesses. For those of us in Brisbane the value of them is conceptual: it can help us reinvent what we are doing. The shared emphasis on class composition shows us the necessity of starting from life as it is lived not some ossified ideological figment. They share a desire to start talking and thinking about power, about what our collective strength actually is rather than appealing to formal authorities or prioritizing moral purity.

At the very least the lesson that come from this discussion are let us start at the knotting together of the ‘we’, try to grasp the actual conditions and antagonisms that we are immersed in and begin talking about strategy. How are we going to find a way out of this mess?

angryworkers. 2014a. Discussion Paper and Minutes: Meeting on Crisis and Class Struggle in the Uk – Liverpool, September 2014. Angry Workers of The World [cited 4th June 2015]. Available from https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/discussion-paper-and-minutes-meeting-on-crisis-and-class-struggle-in-the-uk-liverpool-september-2014/.

angryworkers. 2014b. General Thoughts on Relation between Capitalist Development, Class Struggle and Communist Organisation. Angry Workers of the World [cited 4th June 2015]. Available from https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/general-thoughts-on-relation-between-capitalist-development-class-struggle-and-communist-organisation/.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Marazzi, Christian. 2011. The Violence of Financial Capitalism. New ed. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Milburn, Keir. 2015. On Social Strikes and Directional Demands. Plan C [cited 1st June 2015]. Available from http://www.weareplanc.org/blog/on-social-strikes-and-directional-demands/.

Negri, Antonio. 2003. “Reappropriations of Public Space.” In Revolutionary Writing: Common Sense Essays in Post-Political Politics, edited by Werner Bonefeld, 231 – 241. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia.

Negri, Antonio. 2014. Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin. Translated by Arianna Bove. New York: Columbia University Press.

Solidarity. As We See It [cited 14 November 2014]. Available from http://libcom.org/library/as-we-see-it-solidarity-group.

Southall, Nick. 2015. Comment on ‘#Oxi2015 5 Hypotheses Arising from the Struggle in Greece’. The Word From Struggle Street [cited 9th July 2015]. Available from https://thewordfromstrugglestreet.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/oxi2015-5-hypotheses-arising-from-the-struggle-in-greece/.

[i] Yes, I know this quote has become something of a cliché. But it is so great how can I not use it?

[ii] A more mystified version of this is the belief of radical social democrats like the Cloudland Collective who mistake a form of social democracy as the overcoming of capitalism – state ownership plus workers councils.

[iii] For the train spotters amongst us there are some interesting points of convergence and divergence between Plan C and Angry Workers of the World – and both formations seem to be very, and healthily, internally dynamic.


21 thoughts on “Dancing in the Dark: social strikes and directional demands, some comments on a debate.

  1. Rebel Waltz: the sun disappears only to reappear

    “History lasts long.” (Alex Tsipras)

    “I must follow them, for I am their leader.” (Alexandre Ledru-Rollin)

    Thanks again Dave for your engagement and this interesting post. I will try to address a few of the main points and arguments, while leaving other issues to our many future discussions.

    Firstly, as you know, I don’t think that the invasion of Iraq should be portrayed as a “historic defeat of the antiwar movement.” Nor do I believe that this struggle “has not provoked a consequent rethinking of strategy or tactics.” However, I do agree “it is not obvious that we have a clear strategy to address our concerns on a large or small scale.” Instead we have many strategies which are often contradictory, unclear, and fluid.

    When discussing the so-called ‘Plan B’ and ‘Plan C’ I think it’s important to remember that without a ‘Plan C’ there will be no ‘Plan B’, as capital’s ‘Plan B’ is a response to the danger of communism.

    As for Keir Milburn, it is not surprising that he “has no clear and concrete suggestions for a ‘social strike.” We have often discussed the problems of focusing on contemporary ‘workplaces’, and critiqued antiquated ‘workplace organising’ strategies. The way the term ‘work’ is used and understood often makes these types of discussions very difficult.

    As you say, the general strategy of Angry Workers of the World seems more realistic and possible. However, I agree that an obvious limitation is focusing too much on the ‘workplace’, as well as neglecting the importance of specific debates, emotional and affect states like hope and the ability to create a vivid and popular image of an alternative form of life. I also agree with “the necessity of starting from life as it is lived not some ossified ideological figment.”

    Meanwhile, we have seen a widespread turn to the occupation of various social spaces, as well as what Naomi Klein calls ‘blockadia’, where ‘the whole of social life’ is increasingly seen as the terrain of struggle.

    Still, strikes, especially general strikes, remain important, and in many places over the past few years they have grown in frequency, size and intensity. What Milburn neglects in his analysis of strikes are the importance of industrial laws and the use of authoritarian state and privatised forms of violence (e.g. security personnel, various ‘mafia’ gangs) against militant workers/unions. Here in Australia, the Federal government is currently ramping up its attacks on organised labour – while the dead hand of the ALP both corrupts and polices its ‘industrial arm’. Elsewhere we have seen a significant rise in self-organised ‘workplace struggles’ and the rise of smaller, rank-and-file/base unions. However, this is not as evident here.

    Millburn’s suggestion of ‘directional demands’ raises the question of – who are we making demands of/to? While workers are on strike, and when people occupy squares, parks, universities or other places, they can experiment with controlling their own lives and advance new social relations which are the basis for more widespread and powerful resistance and revolt. As I wrote in my article ‘The Three Nos’ – Among the questions being asked during these experiments are: Should movements have a unified set of demands? Do movements often have too many demands? Is the absence of agreed demands an obstacle to the effectiveness, impact or longevity of movements? Do demands cede power to those we oppose, or lead to co-option? Are demands suggestions for the powerful, expressions of what is non-negotiable or the communication of common needs and desires that can help to frame and organise struggles?

    There is a well-recognised danger that making demands of those who cannot, and will not, provide what we really want involves remaining on the terrain of capital and its state forms, trapped within the logic of capitalism. Yet, while creating alternative practices in the here and now is crucial, we also need to consider and articulate suggestions for how alternative spaces, times and practices can be widened and extended, creating the agendas, processes, infrastructures, or institutions that can sustain and expand long-term global revolution. We should also be careful that short-term demands don’t end up limiting our imagination. If ‘our demands’ are not what we actually want, need or desire shouldn’t we be honest about that? Perhaps, when we project into the future, instead of formulating demands we should be thinking more about ‘statements of intent’; explaining what we intend to do for ourselves, without capital and its state forms, proclaiming the type of action we are taking and intend to develop, and outlining the work required to create new ways of producing, organising and living.

    From what is included in your post, I find it hard to understand why Angry Workers view neoliberalism as ‘a contradictory phase of capitalist development and class struggle’, but fail to consider Syriza and Podemos from the same perspective? Also, their analysis fails to acknowledge the level of violence inflicted on the ‘struggles in the squares’, as well as overstating how ‘enamoured’ these struggles were ‘of the political’.

    It often appears that movements are exhausted or even dead, when they no longer take traditional or mass forms. Many of those who appreciate that politicians can’t represent us have shifted their attention to ‘alternative social relations’ in their homes, communities, neighbourhoods and ‘workplaces’, where personal, local and mutual needs can be more directly addressed, where participatory democracy is more practical, and where forms of cooperative organisation, which materially undermines the segmentation imposed by capital, can be produced. Perhaps we can call these – ‘Plan Cs’?

    ‘The difference between the Communists and us is that we are communists. ‘

    I don’t view being ‘communist’ as an identity, but a variety of subjectivities. For me, being communist involves being part of multitudinous movements. As Greece makes clear, ‘struggles are the great teachers’, the ‘engines of revolutionary theory’, and ‘we learn history, by making history’. Communist praxes follow and are clarified by social movements. To try and understand the multitude’s strategic vision we should look to a wide variety of theory/practice, interweaving communist hypotheses with the proletariat’s struggles.

    As I said in my reply to your previous post on Oxi, I’m not keen on the distinction between ‘the class in itself and for itself’. I’m also not a fan of the technical/political class composition dichotomy, or the schematic and contradictory ways it’s often used to explore class struggle.

    The concept of ‘class composition’ can be useful to analyse class struggle by investigating proletarian power and coherence. Yet this coherence does not manifest itself in unity but in diverse, fluid and interconnected activity. Rather than searching for ‘a subject’, I approach the multitude as a process of revolutionary becoming – where the diversity of the multitude’s movement of movements reflects a contemporary ‘complexification of class composition’. The self-organisation of the multitude is assisted by the recognition that people have multiple subjectivities within a multitude of subjectivities, and there are numerous organisational approaches to being that diverse collectivity in practice.

    Instead of yearning for ‘a political organisation’, I prefer to think of myself as part of a class project. This political project produces a variety of subjectivities via complex and dynamic collective processes. Fluidly organising to accommodate the disparate nature of the multitude, we can more easily adapt to change and respond to, and reflect, changing subjectivities. We can employ the power to cooperate and communicate, and ‘create the path by walking’, where the production of the common composes new subjectivities and these subjectivities collaborate to produce the common. Here the strategic goal can be the expanded re/production of non-capitalist subjectivities, new forms of communication, social collaboration and interaction.

    The idea of blocking ports and highways may seem way beyond our capacities – until we think about the Bentley Blockade or the looming battleground on the Liverpool Plains. None-the-less, for many of us, it is the daily struggles to resist capital and to create more democratic, peaceful and loving social relations where we are (including online), and amongst those we are in contact with, that is crucial. “The small efforts” you make are clearly an important part of something more (your blogs and the circulation of information about Greece being obvious recent examples). I greatly appreciate your contribution, our communication, collaboration, and interaction. Hopefully, in a small way we’re helping to ‘find a way out of the mess’.

    Lots of Love,

    1. Thanks Nick
      Lots to thing about here. One small point. In 2008 when there was the wave of struggles after Alexandros Grigoropoulos was murdered by the police I really agreed with a lot of commentary that said what was so radical about these struggles was their lack of demands. Then the global cycle of strikes that came after often contained elements who were very explicate that they had nothing to say to the state. Remember the frustrated liberals demanding that OWS demand something!?! ‘What do you want?’ What is the link between what happened say from 2008-2012 and then the subsequent formation of Syriza and Podemos and the return of demands?
      I don’t know.
      But I was thinking about a previous point you made of needing to understand what was going on in Greece in relation to the cycle of struggles. Too much focus, including my one, has been on the manoeuvres at the top – whether in the meetings with the Troika, behind the scenes within the Troika or at the top levels of Syriza. Perhaps that isn’t where the sun appears.
      lots of love

  2. Hi Dave,
    in reply to your question about the period between 2008-2012, I think the rise of Syriza and Podemos is in many ways a response to what is considered by some ‘the lost opportunity of the GFC’ and the ‘defeat’ of Occupy and the ‘real democracy/squares movements. These movements contained a variety of tensions – importantly the tension between being more focused on states or being more focused on immanent politics/participatory democracy. After state violence was unleashed, the need to fight, ‘so we can run away’, was clearer. For those who may have considered violence the best response to violence, the Arab Spring provided repetitive examples of how futile this was. So, some fled towards the source of the state’s violence, in the hope of reasoning with it, redirecting it, or perhaps demolishing it from within. Others ‘took to the hills’ or ‘melted away’, seemingly disappearing, but more likely escaping back to other times, places and struggles in their homes, communities, neighbourhoods and ‘workplaces’. And some did a bit of both, or were willing to engage in any arena of struggle. I think each tactic is understandable and has various benefits and drawbacks, dangers and potentials. However, ‘the left’ tends to focus on, and champion, limited understandings of the political and the revolutionary struggle. So, I think it is important to highlight the more ‘micro’ everyday political struggles and the revolution that already exists, and is being re/produced, from ‘below’.

    Reform and revolution can be complimentary. Limiting state power can restrict attacks and encroachments on the multitude’s autonomy, assisting the expansion of practices aimed at ending capitalist state power. There are a variety of capitalist state forms, some of which are worse than others. All of them create obstacles that the multitude can challenge from outside and demolish from within – by helping to create powerful autonomous times, spaces and its own organisational forms. Rather than posing a strategic choice between reform and revolution, we can recognise that it is proletarian struggle that imposes reformism on capital and to achieve reforms it is necessary to create revolution.

    When I was growing up in England, sunshine was a term of endearment for the people that we were fond of.

    Lots of Love

    1. Hi Nick, thanks again for the excellent insights. I have been rereading a lot of stuff lately and what you have said reminds me a lot of an argument made by Midnight Notes in Promissory Notes (written in 2009) http://www.midnightnotes.org/Promissory%20Notes.pdf. (Sorry for the weird formatting.)

      “The struggles that have brought on the crisis, especially those in
      Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, have laid down the foundational experiences of contemporary struggle for the “consti- tution of the commons.” We believe that these experiences are im- portant for the US anti-capitalist movements, and we have tried to identify some characteristics of these struggles (especially those of the Zapatistas and other groups arising from indigenous Americans).
      One of the most important distinctions to make (but most dif- ficult to draw) is that between those that are on the “inside” (what we sometimes call “social democratic”) and those that are “au- tonomous” or “outside.” In a way, this distinction is a variant of one between “reform” and “revolution” in the anti-capitalist politics of the first part of the 20th century when “reformist” social demo- cratic parties were important institutions.
      The “inside/outside” distinction, however, is not a spatial one, but one of political relation. “Inside” means demands on a (state/mar- ket) institution that is normally dedicated to reproducing the labor- capital relation, while “outside” means communal appropriation of de/non-commodified resources, perhaps in parallel with formal de- mands. Either can happen anywhere, just as commons can be main- tained or created anywhere. The two aspects can be complementary or contradictory. For example, appropriation can be enhanced and/or undermined by demands made on an institution. Either can be means to build alliances and express needs beyond those making the de- mands. By analyzing inside/outside relationships and potentials in specific contexts, a movement can clarify its strategy.
      The inside struggles are waged primarily within existing in- stitutions and arenas, such as the state, corporations, the legal sys- tem, traditional civil society, or traditional cultural constructs, the goals of which are generally to increase working class income, commodity wealth, and power within the system, without directly challenging the capitalist organization of society or creating col- lective alternatives to the capitalist system. They typically take the form of demands on the system. However, they may at times be quite confrontational and push the bounds of capitalist legality and propriety. Such willingness to openly confront the system is very valuable, at least at this point in the US, since it has greater likeli- hood of transcending initial demands.
      By contrast, “outside,” autonomous struggles strive to create so- cial spaces and relations that are as independent of and opposed to capitalist social relations as possible. They may directly confront or seek to take over and reorganize capitalist institutions (a factory, for example) or create new spaces outside those institutions (e.g., urban gardening or a housing cooperative) or access resources that should be common. They foster collective, non-commodified relations, processes, and products that function to some real degree outside of capitalist relations and give power to the working class in its efforts
      to create alternatives to capital. In the US many of these struggles appear as outside the formal economy. A number of MN friends have recently commented on these kinds of struggles. Massimo De Angelis writes in a definitional spirit in The Beginning of History:
      When we reflect on the myriad of community strug- gles taking place around the world for water, electric- ity, land, access to social wealth, life and dignity, one cannot but feel that the relational and productive prac- tices giving life and shape to these struggles give rise to values and modes of doing and relating in social co- production (shortly, value practices). Not only that, but these value practices appear to be outside correspon- ding value practices and modes of doing and relating that belong to capital…The “outside” with respect to the capitalist mode of production is a problematic that we must confront with some urgency, if we want to push our debate on alternatives onto a plane that helps us to inform, decode, and intensify the web of connec- tions of struggling practices (DeAngelis, 2007: 227).
      Chris Carlsson has mapped some part of this terrain in the US in his Nowtopia where he writes:
      Community gardening, alternative fuels, and bicy- cling, on the other hand, all represent technological re- volts that integrate a positive ecological vision with practical local behaviors…Taken together, this constel- lation of practices is an elaborate, decentralized, un- coordinated, collective research and development effort exploring a potentially post-capitalist, post-pe- troleum future (Carlsson, 2008: 45).
      That is, the social democratic approach tries to use existing in- stitutions to increase the power of the working class in its relation with capital, while the autonomous approach tries to move inde- pendent of existing institutions and to build a non-capitalist society.
      This “outside”/”inside” distinction, however, is not easy to make. After all, just because you write on your banners in red and black that you are a Revolutionary Outsider, it doesn’t follow that you are. “History” will have to judge, and often the answer is long in coming. Moreover, those who wish for a short answer should re- member the warnings of our situationist friends who point out to us the difficulties in making this inside/outside distinction in a so- ciety that is dominated by the endless flow of images, metaphors, and dialectical hooks, where A is easily turned to not-A (and back again) in a flash, and the “outside” can easily be turned “inside out.”
      We believe, however, that working class struggles in the Amer- icas are becoming increasingly autonomous, and this distinction between reformist and autonomous struggles is central to much of the political discussion that has been permeating Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. It cer- tainly has been central to the Zapatistas and the debate they initiated with their “Other Campaign” in 2005, when they offered a non- electoral alternative to the Obrador presidential campaign of the social democratic PRD (Partido Revolucionario Democratico). The “other Campaign” was an extended, cross-Mexico conversation be- tween the Zapatistas and local activists in dozens of communities, sharing experiences of struggle and asking how authentically dem- ocratic politics might be constructed. We are learning from this rich discussion and are trying to walk in the direction it has pointed.
      First, we must note the inevitability of many “inside” struggles. Indeed, most struggles against the destructive consequences of the crisis at this time in much of the world at least start from the “in- side.” But such struggles may escape the bounds of being “inside.” Our intent is that the characteristics we identify below can help de- termine whether social democratic struggles create, or are likely to create, conditions that foster real alternatives to capital. That is, whether they foster or lead to “autonomous” struggles, rather than confine struggles to the systems’ limits, perpetuate or recompose divisions within the class, or turn those involved off to any possi- bility of future revolutionary struggles.
      Autonomous struggles, however, are far from free of the need for careful scrutiny and thoughtful evaluation. What are the char- acteristics of anti-capitalist “autonomous” struggles? After all, au- tonomous struggles may be co-opted or isolated, they may not generalize, they may privilege some class sectors over others, etc.
      History has “many cunning passages,” and not only may social democratic struggles develop in increasingly autonomous direc- tions, but autonomous struggles can support, inspire, and guide struggles that emerge in an inside context. Some people might be involved in both forms. And in the real world, many struggles are likely to blur this schematic categorization, perhaps in their initial action, but also in their evolution (for example, the Greek battles sparked by the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos in Athens). The fol- lowing are a series of characteristics of revolutionary struggles that we have gleaned from this anti-capitalist experience, especially from the struggle against genocide and mass murder in the service of capital that has turned the tide in the last decade from Oaxaca and Chiapas to Tierra del Fuego.”

      1. And personally I have been pretty dismissive of the social democratic hopes that people have invested in the ALP since wining the state election. But there is a noticeable increase in confidence amongst my workmates since Newman got kicked out and this has contributed to some informal and formal organising going on.

  3. Hey Dave, interesting read. For the thing at the start about “comfort politics” is the most crucial aspect of this. I feel that almost everything that passes for activism in Australia is a version of this. And to be honest, I think most of the suggestions from the groups you discuss fall into this category as well. For me, if we are serious about breaking with comfort politics, we have to honestly face up to the options we have for trying to intersect with forces that have the even the remotest hope of achieving anything. I think we have to accept that there is currently zero space for genuinely radical politics in any meaningful forum. So our first task needs to be rtying to open up that space by rebuilding movements and class structures. There are three possible avenues for this I can see, all of which are far fetched to varying degrees.

    1. A coordinated attempt to engage with the trade union movement.
    I don’t think it’s possible at this point in the development of capital to build new unions. I do think there is scope to engage in existing unions. That could be rank and file, but I think it has to be more than that to genuinely break the comfort politics barrier. I think something a lot of folks on the far left miss is that there is a layer between the top level officials and ALP apparatchiks and the rank and file. It’s made up of organisers, educators, trainers, researchers etc. and in some unions, delegates and activists. It is a space that remains connected to rank and file members and in which there is some openness to new approaches to building the movement. The thinking is dominated by the US-style community organising based on Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz. It is very flawed but is based on a genuine desire to rebuild unions. I think a loose network of like-minded comrades operating at various levels of that space could be able to assist with rebuilding unions and also trying to build respect/influence and intervene politically in that process.

    2. As above in general but with a focus on the Greens and attempting to intervene there to see whether it’s possible to push the Greens to more of social democratic organisation. I accept all the limitations of Syriza etc. but they have unequivocally opened a space for politics in Greece that we can only dream of. It might possible for the Greens to become or to initiate something similar?

    3. Some kind of project aiming expand the coop movement into working class communities.

    1. Hi Richard, sorry for the delay in getting back to you and I can only be quick.
      I find your comment to be really challenging as it is making me ask how do I already diagnose the present and what potentials do I see or am I imagining. I think the radical tradition I am in emphases the existence of submerged and thus largely unseen rebellious potentials. But are they actually there or are they a projection of the ideology that goes on in my head and thus facilitate my permanent encampment in comfort politics?
      As for you suggestions – I like how they are all possible. A distinct group of comrades could embark on any or all of them and circulate the experience more widely.
      much love

  4. This is is a really useful post and discussion that’s helped me clarify some of my own reactions, so thank you for that. Since this has now been republished on the Plan C site, it might be worth reposting some of the comments (especially the first one from Nick) there?

  5. Interesting article, but I think an area that needs more work is the issue of globalisation of capitalism. There are all kinds of ramifications to this, but while in some industrialised countries of the world, major factories employing tens of thousands of workers are uncommon, this is not so in many other countries like China, Indonesia, India etc….
    We, with international unionists, have been developing a new organising concept called the ‘global picketline’ see http://aawl.org.au/content/workers-organising-globally-global-picketline-concept


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