Roderick Cobley argues that the organised left should be playing an active role in protests called by groups like Anonymous
This year’s Anonymous protest in London, called to mark 5 November, the night of “gunpowder, treason and plot”, attracted twice as many participants as a similar affair last year. It was part of a global day of action with protests estimated to have occurred in over 400 locations across the world – including the small town of Lompoc in Santa Barbara county, California, where 20 protestors marched!
I was one of a very small number of rs21 members who went down to Trafalgar Square on the night. There was no question that the event was significant both in terms of size, and the level of political militancy, as the popularity of chants such as “one solution, revolution” made clear.
It was also very noticeable how the vast majority of attendants had no obvious political affiliation. Socialist Worker placards were held aloft by some, interestingly without the paper’s name ripped off at the top as has been common elsewhere. One protestor, a young man, walked around on his own with a Soviet flag. But the organised left was almost entirely absent.
This raises some important questions. The first is, why this absence? The second, does it matter? The second question answers itself by looking at the crowd on the night, at the clear impact they had – at least in column inches and the attempts by sections of the press to demonise them – and the global nature of the wider event. Clearly, this event was one in which revolutionary organisations should have been present at. So we need to answer the question as to why they were not there.
There is no question that a substantial layer of activists are increasingly being won over by a range of “new” social movements. These are varied in nature but have certain key commonalities. They are critical of traditional leadership structures that prevail in more conventional campaigns and movements. They frequently have an exuberant optimism in their attitude to the possibilities of the new technologies to built movements, often framed in terms of these making traditional leadership unnecessary. And they are inspired by the legacy of the movements of the squares, going back to Tahrir Square, and as a result see taking and holding physical space – the occupation – as a key tactic.
The Occupy movement is the obvious example of this. In Europe, the most famous was the Indignados. We can also count other groups, such as UK Uncut, as being influenced by this in their focus on occupying of physical space – shopes in their case – and their lack of a clear defined leadership or structure. Anonymous has its own character, being infamously born as a very un-political movement of trolls on the internet site 4Chan, and only later taking on its more political identity. It again shares key similarities including the focus on the internet.
The attitude of existing far left groups and activists to these movements has often been a sceptical one. This was my personal experience in relation to the start of Occupy St. Paul in 2011. It was repeatedly suggested to me that the protests would not even be able to stay for one night, yet they lasted all the way up to Christmas and undoubtedly had a noticeable impact.
These sceptical attitudes to movements of this “new” type are in many ways a legacy from the experience we had of profound sectarianism of many “autonomists” towards socialist ideas and groups during the anti-capitalist movement and after. Despite their newness, the legacy these movements build on is an old one and in the past one that socialists have regarded with hostility – an attitude frequently reciprocated. So a reluctance to prioritise protests organised by these groups is to be expected, but the fact that these movements are clearly gaining an audience of some size demands that we take them seriously.
Fortunately, there have been signs of things changing. As a former member of the SWP, I know how that organization was able to build a presence within the Occupy protests, with some members able to write for their Occupy Times newspaper. It also succeeded, for a time, in building a relationship with UK Uncut, even having one of their leading members speaking at a plenary session at Marxism. Nonetheless, the idea that such movements and campaigns are of secondary importance compared to the more conventional work in trade unions and campaigning groups is alive and well.
We are living at a time when resistance in the UK is fragmented and partial. Tentative action in the public sector is repeatedly subject to trade union officials calling things off, the latest being the shocking sell out by UNISON over local government pay. In the private sector, there have been a string of often successful fights at specific workplaces and companies, including Hovis Bakers, the Ritzy in Brixton and most recently the charity St Mungo’s, but no sign of generalisation.
In terms of other campaigning movements, a range of forces exist, from the People’s Assembly to various small local campaigns, many rooted in the organised far left or the trade unions. Much useful work has been done, but none have made a crucial difference. I was present at the founding of a Fast Food Rights campaign spearheaded by the BFAWU and MP John McDonnell but this has not as of writing made a substantive breakthrough, although there has been undoubted progress. In this time, the growing size of the new movements like Anonymous is striking.
It is even more striking when one compares the forces they can draw when compared to that gathered by many more conventional left forces. For instance, last year the Anonymous protest was organized at the same time as a well-publicised protest organised by the People’s Assembly. It was obvious when one walked between the two protests, just yards apart, that Anonymous was not only bigger, but younger and livelier than the People’s Assembly. It certainly did not feel like cranks but the beginnings of a vanguard, and this year even more so.
In short, the more traditional left campaigns and organisations have not made a breakthrough, while movements such as Occupy and Anonymous are gaining a real audience and can no longer be dismissed as fringe.
This year there were signs of openness to socialist politics among activists of this nature. It becomes vital to think of ways of engaging with movements and groups of this kind. This should not be a matter of turning up at events that are already organised in order to sell magazines, but to work out a way to become part of these movements so as to help build them and encourage links with other kinds of campaigns, including trade unions.
Anonymous is a particularly difficult example in this regard, as there appears to be no organising centre beyond a number of websites, the authors of which are, aptly, anonymous. As a recent article in The Nation points out, there are also some decidedly unsavoury aspects to this particular movement. However, groups such as Occupy and UK Uncut have physical meetings and decision making processes which we can get attempt to get involved with. Becoming part of these movements and helping to build them will give us an opening not only to argue for socialist ideas, but to talk about bringing these movements and the spirit they embody into the labour movement.
In particular, it would make sense to build links between movements like Occupy and workers that are fighting back, such as at the Ritzy or St Mungo’s, or for that matter the fast food campaign. These new movements, although not sharing all our analysis of the world, have a zest and imagination that would enormously benefit other campaigns and movements. By working with them as partners we can get our voices heard and our ideas considered, to the mutual benefit of everyone engaged in resistance.