Fighting to Win: Thoughts on Reform and Revolution
By wispy cockles
The most crucial questions facing the North American anarchist movement concern its relevance to people who do not identify as anarchists. Will our movement become even more insular and self-absorbed or will it become more diverse and broadly based in contemporary society? Will anarchism be a dynamic political philosophy able to adapt to different people’s conditions, needs and desires, or will it build more ivory towers occupied by fewer and increasingly detached ideologues? Answers to these questions with actions and words will determine whether anarchists will be a revolutionary force for social change or just a marginal collection of individuals that don’t threaten to make the system obsolete. Unfortunately, most people in this society don’t have the time or the inspired spirit to struggle for some abstract utopian ideal. Their time is mainly spent trading their labor to survive and to aquire a few of the material luxuries that mark success in North American society. I believe most people will be willing to fight for tangible changes in the present. Moreover, most citizens will be inspired by their ability to win struggles against capital and the state collectively. Small victories can help revolutionary struggle to go the distance.
As a movement, anarchists are almost exclusively associated with actions that, while daring and brave, are mainly intended for propaganda purposes. We are skilled at making bold statements against the system. We’re quite adept at making a scene and manipulating it to be a soapbox for our opinions, but we’re not so good at initiating, organizing and partaking in struggles that win tangible concessions for our communities.
Black bloc tactics at mass demos are an example of our tendency to make statements rather than victories. Corporate property is destroyed, press statements are issued and the capitalists suffer relatively minor damage. I am supportive of black bloc-style militancy, but for most working people, students and other citizens who might have a problem with the current system, nothing changes when these tactics are used at mass demos. Many people might be sympathetic, but they likely remain uninspired to join in the struggle for a classless, directly democratic society if they don’t see how it’s going to benefit them.
As an anarchist movement, we need to get our act together and apply our current dedication and militancy toward changing people’s lives in the present. Black bloc tactics can be used to stop people from being evicted or deported. Mass mobilizations could be crucial to beat back anti-poor and racist policies in the cities in which they take place. Anarchism can become synonymous with an organizing culture that wins victories against state and capital rather than, as is often the case, being seen as a self-indulgent and self-absorbed counterculture.
Anarchism as a political philosophy is based on a rigorous set of principles and ethics. While many politicos of different stripes may claim that the ‘ends justify the means’ and pursue their goals in the most opportune of ways, anarchists, by and large, strive to practice ‘a prefigurative politic’ where means and ends are seen as simultaneous. In other words, ‘You reap what you sow.’ While this principle is beautiful in its commonsense appeal, it provides a distinct set of challenges for anarchists who wish to create substantive social change in the present rather than just propagandizing for the revolution or the utopia. What is a small collective of anarchists to do when they want to get homeless shelter policies changed so people don’t freeze to death in the winter cold? How are the anarchists concerned with the AIDS crisis in South Africa to go about making essential medications accessible without compromising their anti-reformist principles? We must figure out how to effect change in the present toward a revolutionary ends.
A STRATEGY OF UNREFORMABLE REFORM
Many radical groups fight for reforms the system can’t provide without collapsing. The revolutionary potential of this tendency needs to be encouraged and explored. When we or other movements call for food to be supplied to everyone at no cost or an end to poverty or housing for everyone, we are calling for unreformable reforms. This strategy has a potential to not only provide people with some of the better things in life, but also to illustrate the problems, limits and inadequacies of capitalism and the state in their totality. An unreformable reform such as calling for universal housing is both something the system can’t provide and something people think they should have.
When others join in the fight against specific injustices of capitalism, these struggles can act as a sort of analytical flashlight. When people are, for instance, actively fighting to end poverty, they might begin to see for themselves the limits in capitalism’s ability to deal with that problem specifically, and then draw lessons from that experience about capitlaism’s inability to provide for people’s needs and desires in general. While being explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian, we must engage in struggles that concretely illustrate the inadequacies, limits and horrors of the capitalist market place and make life more bearable for people under the current system. That’s what solidarity is all about.
We should maintain our explicit anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian positions while attacking specific aspects of capitalism in a sustained and dedicated manner. We should take an area of focus that affects people’s lives on a massive scale. Say we start a campaign or an organization that says everyone should have a home, like DC’s Homes Not Jails. This idea runs so contrary to the logic of the real estate market that capitalism cannot accommodate such a reform. To do so would annihilate landlords, real estate brokers and many other major players in the system. But to many people it makes sense: ‘yeah, everybody should have a home. Nobody should be sleeping on the streets.’ In the process of struggling for universal housing, a movement could simultaneously illustrate the limitations of capitalism to provide for people’s needs and as well stop people from being evicted, get cheap or no cost housing for many folks.
Engaging in these specific struggles for unreformable reform is consistent with our anti-vangaurdist politics. Instead of propagandizing against the system because we have all the answers and the masses need to be told what is wrong with the system, we create situations of struggle that allow people in this society to see for themselves what is wrong with the system and draw their own lessons and analysis from their experience.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty fights for an unreformable reform and wins many gains in the process. Poverty is a key aspect to capitalism; it cannot be done away with while the system is still in place, as it is capital’s lifeblood. OCAP is a broad-based, explicitly anti-capitalist coalition of workers, students, First Nations people, homeless folks and the poor in general. On Oct. 16, 2001, OCAP successfully organized an action the shut down much of Toronto’s financial district. This action was the culmination of a campaign against the conservative anti-poor policies of Ontario’s Premier Mike Harris. The day of this action, Harris resigned due to “personal matters.” Many believe it was OCAP and an OCAP related coalition called the Ontario Common Front that drove him out of office.
Clamor writer Kari Lyderson said winning tangible victories has been OCAP’s goal since it started in 1990. “For example: a typical community organization will fight an eviction, a case of discrimination or harassment on the job, an illegal firing or pending deportation, by filing paperwork, appealing to local politicians, letting the media and the public know about the situation, and possibly holding protests or information pickets. OCAP also uses these tactics, but if they are not successful, they are prepared to take it to another level. This is where ‘direct action casework’ comes in, where OCAP members physically prevent authorities from evicting or deporting a person or turning off their gas, or where they take concrete action that is too creative, destructive, or persuasive to be ignored.”
OCAP uses some militant tactics to fight against the continued oppression of many people in Canadian society. Over the years, they have confronted officers who have beat up homeless people, taken over empty hospitals to get more homeless shelters, and opened squats in buildings owned by slumlords. OCAP organizer John Clarke has claimed that these actions have a 98 to 99 percent success rate, because the state and corporate bureaucracies just don’t know how to handle the militant response to their anti-poor policies. OCAP’s example of successfully fusing community organizing with militant direct action tactics is an example anarchists should look toward. If we could build a movement of explicitly anarchist or explicitly anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist organizations that stopped people from getting evicted, from getting deported, that won people better wages and shorter working hours, we would see a general change in the public’s attitude toward us and toward political life in general. If people saw in their everyday lives that it was possible to win substantive change through organizing and militant direct action, they might well throw themselves into fighting the status quo and making radical social change. Victories, no matter how small, are the foundation of revolutionary struggle. Defeat and martyrdom keep us looking behind rather than moving forward toward our goals.
USING REFORM AS A REVOLUTIONARY TACTIC
While fighting for unreformable reforms could be one, but not the only, framework to win concessions and advance a revolutionary movement, there’s a second aspect to it I call tactical reform. A tactical reform is simply using reform as a tactic but not as a strategy of reformism. As a tactic, we can use reform to fight for concessions that directly provide for our needs, such as food, housing, access to abortion and the like. Reformist methods fight for things that, in theory, will make peoples lives better indirectly by ‘fine tuning’ the system. Reformism is not simply a method of fighting to make people’s lives more bearable by prying concessions from those in power. It creates an investment in the system by attempting to alter policies so the system will work better for the people in the long run. One example of reformism is the fight for campaign finance reform, which in theory will cleanse the political system of corporate interest. The theory behind campaign finance reform puts its faith in the idea that if corruption through campaign contributions is eliminated that the benefits will somehow trickle down to the people. It puts its faith that, given the right amount of reform, the system can work for the people. It is indirect. Tactical reform, on the other hand, is direct and should be employed alongside a stance that the system cannot work, that people must take back from the state and capital what is rightfully theirs. We can keep our strategy non-reformist by only fighting for reforms that provide directly for people’s needs. In a sense, tactical reform is people taking power back for themselves in pieces. When people win housing for themselves or better wages or other necessities, they are taking power away from the powerful and claiming it as their own. When people win the freedom to self-determine what goes on in their neighborhood by direct democracy, or to have an active and direct say in the policies of their place of work, they are winning victories that fulfill their social desire to self-mange themselves. Such victories can provide the sustenance and fuel that might one-day lead people to take the whole pie, not just the crumbs. People are genuinely inspired to fight when they can win concessions that make their lives better and more fulfilling in the present. OCAP’s motto says it all: ‘Fight To Win.’
Revolutions are not entirely spontaneous, and as much as we might like, we won’t awaken one day and find capitalist social, economic and political relationships vanquished. We must build strategic paths out of the woods we are currently lost within. We begin doing so by hacking away at the thickets and obstructions in our path, In other words by dealing with immediate and specific social problems and winning collective victories. To tell the people we struggle alongside that revolution is right over the horizon and to not assist in forming a practical strategy for getting there is completely irresponsible. People won’t walk toward a utopia when they see no realistic way to get there. Why should they believe it exists at all?
wispy cockles lives in Richmond, VA where he organizes with the Better Days collective and spins records with the 804noise crew.