180 (or 179 depending who you ask) days after losing their jobs 55 Carlton & United Brewery workers won them back. This struggle – #CUB55 – has been probably the most prominent industrial dispute in Australia of 2016. This struggle has been taken up by elements of the union leadership as a key fight over wages and conditions and the role that labour-hire and contracting plays in holding down both down. It has taken on a national dimension. It drew in a fraction of the class that is involved in a few of the blue-collar unions and the Left (maybe in the 10,000s?). More generally the shafting of the CUB55 became a symbol in public debate of worsening working conditions – especially those of skilled blue collar workers.
The decision by the Lady Cilentro Children’s Hospital to not discharge the infant Nepalese refugee Asha back to Nauru and the emergence of a vigil in solidarity was an important and inspiring event. The experience of it was radically different from the protest-politics-as-usual that typify the activist repertoire in Brisbane. Now that Asha has been discharged into community detention, and is facing a very uncertain and probably deeply unpleasant future, there is a desire to make sense of what has happened, what is going on and what does it mean?
Predicting the future is often a mug’s game but we can be fairly confident that 2016 we see the conditions for capitalism, both in Australia and globally, worsen. At the very least the mining boom is grinding to an end and perhaps there will be another global meltdown. What will this mean? Depending on the size of the malfunction it will (probably) mean rising poverty, homelessness, unemployment (though currently employment in Australia is surprisingly high) and general misery and declining wages, government spending (as revenues drop), wealth levels and good vibes. This will (probably) all manifest in impacts on life expectancy, mental health, identity based-conflicts, state repression, social cohesion… all this in a world already marked by war, violence, inequality, alienation and ecological disaster. A grim prospect unless we can collectively change our destiny.
It is impossible to define a new politics without an analysis of capital, on the one hand, and, on the other, without a practice of struggle and a practice for utilizing counterpower (Lazzarato 2015, 25).
On a recent trip to Melbourne I attended a meeting billed as an ‘anarcho/autonomo/commie’ met up and discussion. It was all and all a pretty terrible experience. I left the meeting feeling depressed, confused and wretched. Of course this is not remarkable. Life in general, and especially in late-capitalism, can be a pretty dispiriting affair. In a discussion with Mark after the meeting he pointed out that it was also an ‘illuminating’ experience. I think this is true. My hope here is to attempt to express what was illuminating about this meeting, and I believe it may be of interest or use to a wider group of people than those who endured the unpleasantness itself. Here I wish to touch on why some meetings are terrible, the difficulties of communicating in the absence of a shared political language, two important bifurcations in anticapitalist thought (over how the relationship between revolutionaries and the rest of the class is imagined, and over the way that we understand the dynamics of race, class and struggle in Australia) and finally the role of ‘theory’ and the persona of the ‘theorist’ in all this.
…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.