Fighting to Win: Sufficient Strategies for Moving Forward
By Robert Augman
In our long-term struggles for a free society, our present organizing must reflect our long-term vision. Not only must it reflect such vision, it must also be our vehicle for moving us closer to such vision. As anarchists, our goal of a self-governed society, where we can directly organize social life from the bottom-up according to ethical criteria, must be at the heart of our efforts. But in the current context where all forms of social struggle are co-opted or defeated by the state and capitalism, we face the difficult task of building a movement that takes us toward our long-term vision. Many people around the world are struggling to fight off exploitation and oppression. But the project of “building the new society in the shell of the old” must be a major part of our efforts if we are to truly transcend hierarchical society. This task is a challenging one for organizers across the globe.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been getting a lot of attention from the anarchist movement as of late. And rightly so, because OCAP, a 14 year-old direct action organization, has used a popular and confrontational approach in fighting extremities of capitalist exploitation. And they have been largely successful!
OCAP was born from anti-poverty activism in the late 1980’s and came into a formal organization in 1990. Due to the earlier movement’s success in forcing changes through popular mobilization and direct-confrontation, OCAP made that strategy its basis and chose not to engage in consultation and compromise with those in power. It commits itself to mobilizing poor and homeless people to fight back through militant, direct action. OCAP developed what they call “direct action casework.” They mobilize people to fill welfare offices, build tent cities, stop deportations, prevent evictions, compel employers to pay wages they owe, take over empty buildings to open them for housing, and stand up against police violence. OCAP mobilizes those effected by state and capitalist oppression in the struggle against it, and uses direct confrontation as their main tactic. It’s no wonder anarchists are organizing in OCAP, talking about OCAP, and learning from OCAP. As a successful grassroots, direct-action force for social change, they provide concrete ways for making change in our everyday lives. And while the anarchist movement has been quite successful in winning the battle of ideas on the Left in the last couple years, there remains the need to make our movement more tangibly meaningful on the local front. As OCAP has shown, by winning actual gains, our movement opens up to the needs of our communities and the possibility of building a broader movement emerges that can put its politics on the ground and take steps forward.
In his article Fighting to Win: Anarchists and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (The Northeastern Anarchist, Spring/Summer 2002 issue), OCAP member and Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists supporter Jeff Shantz spells out the relevance of OCAP to the anarchist movement. Shantz says OCAP and anarchists share an anti-capitalist perspective as well as a direct action strategy. While anarchists and OCAP share these characteristics, it is the way in which such politics and strategies are constituted in our organizing that determines whether or not we are moving closer to our long-term vision.
One way that OCAP puts an anti-capitalist politics and a direct action, confrontational strategy into play is their struggles around housing issues. For example, they help secure housing for people who need it by taking direct action to reclaim unused buildings and turn them into livable places.
By pointing to the utter failure of state and capitalist institutions to provide housing for people who need it, these actions help illustrate the unethical nature of the state and capitalism. By mobilizing those effected to take direct action themselves, rather than begging the system for change, OCAP plays an important role in radicalizing and empowering those most effected by class oppression to utilize cooperative means in securing necessities of life. And by pushing beyond the particular action toward a broader vision of a world where people come together freely to act cooperatively to provide housing (and everything else) for everyone who needs it, OCAP plays an important role in popularizing the call for a free society. The state’s reaction of using police force to evict the squatters shows the state as a coldly unethical and uncaring institution that would rather provide jail cells than homes. By mobilizing wide sections of society into action, OCAP builds a broad movement that is essential to our social goals of a popular revolution from below.
As successful as OCAP has been in their housing takeovers and other actions, they have had to accept a lot of compromises. They’ve had to accept what the state and capitalist institutions offer them. As many of us have, OCAP has had to compromise their long-term vision of a free society in the day-to-day work they do of winning minor but necessary reforms. Instead of creating a new way forward, such victories are absorbed by the institutions we’re fighting against. And in the end the state and capitalism receive recognition for our hard work and legitimize their existence by showing their responsiveness and adaptability to the needs of the people. They remain strong and our movement’s power and utility are dissolved. It’s back to business as usual until we mobilize again.
In this way, direct action serves to change policy not power. It serves as an alternative style of organizing for those fed up with statist means. A direct action strategy and anti-capitalist politics ends up building the welfare state rather than a free society. Because we abhor this contradiction, we paint anti-capitalist rhetoric over our actions to spell out to the public what they were meant to convey. This use of direct action, as necessary as it may be in softening the blow of capitalist oppression, does not lead us toward our long-term vision of a free society. But direct action holds the principle of direct democracy. It illustrates this when people get directly involved in issues or policies that effect their lives – when they stop an eviction or deportation, stand up to police violence, or reclaim housing. But to push direct action beyond an illustrative tool that shows direct democracy, to become a vehicle for building direct democracy is how we must direct our energies if we want to actualize our long-term vision. This means transforming not only the way our actions are structured, but transforming the power structures that determine what society looks like. Reforms can certainly play a key role in reaching our goals, just as popular mobilizations from the grassroots can. The project of transforming power must be at the heart of our efforts. The anarchist idea must become realized in the anarchist struggle.
Instead of handing our victories over to the institutions we ultimately seek to eliminate, we have to put our effort into strategies that will allow us to weaken such institutions, and build alternatives to them that can become our own and can grow to ultimately challenge the very existence of the state and capitalism altogether, taking us into a new historical era that can lead us toward a free society. By pointing this out we are asking “what forms of organizing will allow us to fight injustice and exploitation while simultaneously build a free society?”
A free society rests not only on the elimination of the state and capitalism but also on the introduction of egalitarian forms of organizing society. If we oppose the current model of organization where social, political, and economic decisions are made at tiers above us according to capitalist principles, what do we propose in their place? What institutions can give form to a free society? What forms allow communities to be self-governing? Direct democracy allows all community members the freedom to participate in deciding the fate of our communities. By coming together in community assemblies we are able to make decisions in a face-to-face way and in a collective manner. We create a space whereby self-government can take form. This eliminates the need for professional politicians and bureaucratic apparatuses that serve the interests of capitalism and domination. In popular assemblies, all community concerns can be addressed in an open and democratic way. Policies on all aspects of social life – including housing issues – can be organized in a way congruent with our ethics of mutual aid and solidarity. These assemblies constitute a new political sphere where politics is a part of a rich community life.
But communities do not exist on their own. They play an interrelated role on all the communities around them. Therefore, direct democracy must go hand in hand with a confederal structure whereby mandated, recallable, and rotated delegates take community policies up to a confederal level to coordinate the decisions made at the community level. This vision of popular self-government enables all people to decide on the issues that effect their lives, rather than being subordinated to market forces, professional politicians, and other forms of hierarchical control.
This long-term goal of a self-governing society must be made from our present reality. If we really want to get there, we must ask ourselves: what are sufficient strategies for moving forward?
Because we do not believe that the free society is right around the corner, we have to use strategies that gain us victories that we can build on incrementally. It is not enough to build only in numbers and to reclaim the streets like we do in mass actions, hoping one day we’ll have the whole world on the streets and that institutions of domination will just disappear. A sufficient strategy must create new forms of self-government that can challenge institutional forms of hierarchy and domination.
New institutions that allow popular power to take form at the community level, where we can begin challenging the state and capitalist institutions themselves with a counterpower of our own, is a necessary component of taking us beyond our current situation. This popular power can exist in the abstract world, but must be institutionalized into tangible forms which do not disappear after an action. These popular institutions will be our vehicle to build on, ones we can give more and more power, resources, legitimacy, and radical direction to as we go. This allows us to put our long-term political vision into a tangible organizing form in the present. And it provides a way to move beyond our own organizations and begin organizing society as a whole. It opens up the door for a truly democratic movement to emerge to challenge state and capitalist institutions in concrete and visible ways.
As anarchists, we know that the housing crisis can not be solved without the elimination of the state and capitalism. Our organizing should reflect that, not simply by saying so but by doing so. To truly solve the housing crisis, our strategies must go beyond winning housing (concessions the state and capitalist institutions can afford) and seek to loosen the state and capitalism’s grip on housing by creating new forms of power from the bottom-up that are open, democratic, and egalitarian and that can be guided by ethical concerns. Such a form of popular power can begin to determine housing issues for ourselves. But it is essential that we work to build such popular institutions where communities can take an active role in the struggle.
While it is possible for relatively small organizations to take direct action by reclaiming buildings and turning them into housing units, such power remains hidden inside the particular organization and remains unaccountable to the broader community. By opening up assemblies where whole communities can take direct action, we open up a new arena of power, one that is inclusive to all the members of our communities. We begin to build an anarchist community struggle beyond the anarchist organizations. By functioning in such a way, and by making policy that addresses community issues and enriches community life, we begin to constitute a moral power in conflict with the dominant power of state and capitalism. This allows us a starting point where we can build a broader, inclusive movement that can be self-directed – addressing food, land use, health, ecology, and every other concern of our communities in an ethical and egalitarian way.
This movement will be ignored, ridiculed, and attacked by the hierarchical institutions because it constitutes a real moral and practical threat to the elitist and exclusive nature of the hierarchical institutions. This should be a tension that emerges into a dual power situation where the forms of popular self-government try to enlarge their influence and legitimacy over the right to govern. We must not shy away from the conflict with the hierarchical institutions, nor allow our popular institutions to be incorporated into hierarchical society. Our goals are at odds with hierarchy, and it must make such conflict clear and visible. It must hollow out hierarchical institutions of their power, legitimacy, and resources by bringing it over to our popular institutions. Such a dual power seeks to eliminate hierarchical power by replacing it with popular power. This can lay the groundwork for the long struggle of building a free society. Without such an arena where communities can construct a new way of organizing our lives together, we allow our victories to be taken from us and incorporated into state and capitalist frameworks, and we miss the chance to move past the current state of hierarchy and domination that rule our lives.
The long-term vision of a free society is a popularly self-governed one. To get there we must put our political vision into a strategy that moves us toward it. Because our vision includes liberatory forms of popular self-government, our strategies must try and build such institutions today.
These institutions can allow us a starting point for reclaiming power by making decisions about our communities ourselves. By doing this, we will pull power away from the hierarchical institutions of the state and capitalism, and create a new form of social organization. By empowering these institutions, we expand our role in determining the fate of our lives, our communities, and the world we live in. But unless we take on the project of building new forms of self-government, our victories will continue to be eaten up by the state and capitalism, and our efforts will serve only to make capitalism and the state more humane. If we want to work towards a world where humanity is able to self-direct itself toward ever-greater degrees of freedom and cooperation, we must take the right steps today in getting there.
Robert Augman is an organizer with the newly formed anti-authoritarian confederation, the Alliance for Freedom and Direct Democracy. He is also co-editor of Onward.