Activism at the grassroots: Essex

In an age of rampant neoliberalism, society is ever more fractured and polarised. Precarious employment conditions are dumping more people on zero-hours and short term contracts. Solidarity in the workplace is under attack. An increase in buy to let and homes of multiple occupation means community solidarity in our neighbourhoods is crumbling as people move in and out on short term lets, not staying long enough to generate a sense of belonging.

People are focused on just surviving in a dog eat dog world, becoming ever more individualistic, less inclined to favour collective solutions and unwittingly doing the bidding of the neoliberal elite. People on the estates feel they’ve been thrown under the bus and have lost faith in the political system. This is reflected in low voter registration and turnouts at local and national elections. This creates a political vacuum which the far right are only too happy to fill. Our presence at the grassroots on the estates is part of the strategy to fend off the far right.

Radical change needs the willing participation of the working class. There has to be a base at the grassroots in our neighbourhoods as well as our workplaces and colleges. The challenge of re-building solidarity in the workplace is being met by the rise of militant, new wave unions such as the United Voices of the World union to whom we offer our unconditional solidarity. As community activists, our focus of operation is the neighbourhoods we live in.

Working at the level of the estates, our task is to do whatever is needed to empower people. Our ultimate aim is to give life to an old slogan from the Independent Working Class Association: “Working class rule in working class areas”. This is easy to say — putting it into practice is a hard slog where we’re constantly learning lessons from our experiences and refining our approach. We can’t afford to stick to a rigid dogma — we have to be flexible and pragmatic.

Our ultimate goal is political, social and economic revolution, initiated by an empowered, progressive working class. It’s a case of nurturing different strands, bringing them together and picking up momentum along the way. This means starting off with easily attainable goals and moving on from there. The process involves a range of tactics from facilitating residents in lobbying the council to practical actions that improve conditions on the estates.

In facilitating the lobbying of councils, purist anarchists may see little more than a neighbourhood pressure group. We’re not and here’s why. The key is the word “facilitating”. We facilitate the Vange Hill Community Group, based in Basildon, by offering support, advice and logistical backing when necessary. When lobbying pays off, it empowers those involved to not just carry on but also to become more ambitious in their demands.

Then there’s direct action. In the case of the Vange Hill estate, it’s a combination of community clean ups and guerilla gardening. With the community clean ups there’s some degree of co-operation with Basildon Council in that we’ll tell them we’re having one, there will be sacks of rubbish and other bulkier items for them to collect when we’ve done. When it comes to the guerilla gardening on the estate, we just get on with it and don’t even think about asking for permission.

As this proceeds and the barriers to what can be squeezed out of a council are hit, we use our propaganda to place in context what most people instinctively understand about the limits of the state in an age of permanent austerity.

If we want to change the world, we have to move out of our comfort zones and work with those who don’t agree with us. We need to be able to convince people that radical change is not only desirable but possible. Just working with and writing for those who agree with us won’t help. We need to be there as part of the solution to problems on the estates and in the workplace, whether this is dealing with fly-tipping or supporting a group of workers in a struggle for union recognition.

Empowering people to become more ambitious is a step by step process. We’re in it for the long haul. The hope is that what we do on the estates where we have a presence a) inspires more people to get involved and b) inspires people on other estates to start doing the same.

There will come a point when barriers will be hit as the authorities refuse to relinquish any more power. The hope is that when this point is reached, people are politicised enough to push things forward in taking on the powers that be and start fighting for real change.

Dave Amis