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Editorial: British anarchism in 2016

It’s hard to know where to start when writing an editorial about 2016. So much has happened in British politics that a summary piece could easily end up being just a list of uncommon events, from the rise of Corbynism and its impact on the libertarian left, to Brexit, the collapse of the Tory consensus and the quiet grind forward of the Pitchford Spy Cops inquiry. Hillsborough, Iraq and many other issues would all be worthy of comment in a “normal” year.

It’s the first of these items however which has had the broadest impact on the anarchist movement, leaving us in a classic political bind as, after decades of right consensus, a social democratic party begins criticising neoliberalism, sweetened by a failed rightist coup, and makes promises of gains down the electoral road.

Yet what does Corbynism practically offer us as members of the 7.5-billion-strong “don’t have a superyacht” club? The optimistic answer might be that if Corbyn and co. win back permanent control of Labour from the right, if they then manage to bypass the mainstream media and win broad support that is so far lacking, if they take power and aren’t then mangled by a combination of State, military and private interests, they might be able to implement at least some good old-fashioned nationalisation* along with investment in housing, protection of arts funding, an “integrated transport system**” and the like.

After 30 years of fighting losing battles; that sounds like a balm for the collective soul of the left, reversing the worst of the neoliberal long march by using the power of the State for good. It’s no wonder so many people are flocking to the likes of Momentum. It would be churlish to deny the draw of hope, or indeed write off such activity as useless — from such acorns movements can grow.

But we do know the limitations of social democracy. We’ve seen it again and again, not just in the past but now, in Greece and France and Venezuela and many other countries where the left has “gained power.” These governments, all of which benefit from a stronger grassroots left than Britain, have not, in the crux, been able to stand up to the weight of capital or the will of the markets. There’s not much evidence that McDonnell’s continuing of the Miliband-era “fiscal lock” will be able to break their mold in any but the most perfunctory of ways.

For many, that will be enough. A few bones is better than nothing, even if the ultimate failure of the social democratic left to make headway will likely result in a resurgent right-wing smirking “told you they couldn’t protect you” as they ride to power on a wave of renewed petty nationalism.

But we know it’s not enough. There is so much further to push, not just in straight policy terms but to rebuild the very bones of the progressive body. We can’t exercise power in our workplaces through the goodwill of Corbyn. We can’t push councils out of “fiscally responsible” budget cuts by waiting until 2020 and hoping McDonnell can nudge his cash-flow around a bit by 2025. All of that has to come from us, organising at the grassroots level, rekindling solidarity as a social norm.

Extra-parliamentary challenges change things where Jeremy Corbyn mouthing words at a honking chorus of Westminster goons does not.

In October a vast groundswell of discontent in Poland from women facing a total State ban on abortion led to a humiliating U-turn by one of Europe’s most right-wing administrations. A vast international movement largely crushed neoliberal stitch-up trade deal TTIP earlier this year despite the extreme efforts of EU bureaucrats and politicians to bury even the basic details of what was happening on pain of prosecution. And here in Britain Iain Duncan Smith’s hated disability testing of people with chronic conditions partially collapsed in the face of thousands upon thousands of legal challenges and protests amid public pressure and horror over the tortuous, sometimes lethal policy.

Direct action works. It’s the only way to push further than timid reformism and “making the best of a bad deal.” Even social democrats themselves realise this, though they try to bind such activities to their electoral yoke.

And anarchism’s basic critiques of social democracy, even under nice-guy Corbyn, remain as relevant and trenchant as ever. None of our movement’s criticisms of Keynesianism, the State-led economic structures Corbyn and co. are attempting to rehash, have ceased to be true. Last time around our philosophy railed against its systemic inequalities, its inflexibility, its high-handedness, its ultimate use as a means to stabilise capital in times of crisis at the expense of the working classes.

Those priorities remain at the heart of a New-Old Labour project. The parliamentary left remains wedded to a rose-tinted vision of what the State is, what it’s for, what it can achieve, in ways which ultimately just mirror the opposing dogmas of neoliberal rightists. The flavour du jour is Corbynism, a rusting electric heater in the midst of a neoliberal winter night. We can — and must — do more to warm our cockles.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Freedom anarchist journal


* An article of faith for the left, but the right were never wrong in noting the downsides of clunky, patronising, one-size-fits-all State planning. It’s only their “improvements” which were inhuman.
** As a policy this was comprehensively skewered by a 1982 episode of Yes Minister called Bed of Nails.