This article will take a look at the following idea: A loss through Anarchist organising is worth more in terms of experience gained than winning through methods that take power out of your hands.
For example, organising as equals in a housing block/workplace, forming an open assembly or network that then takes action to win a demand and which creates ongoing dialogue, counter-culture and relationships of solidarity, is worth much more -even if it fails- than calling up the RTA or tackling things as individuals through lawyers or appealing to an Ombudsman. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do the latter (even if in our experience they don’t often get results anyway and in a lot of cases backfire) but rather that even these things should be done collectively as much as possible.
Reflecting on an example of my own is an organising drive I was involved in kick-starting through Brisbane Solidarity Network back in 2012. Basically there was a 2 month process of meeting with a tenant who had made contact with BSN over a slumlord’s antics. To set the scene, this place was a boarding house that marketed to people in vulnerable situations (eg: homelessness, sickness etc). They charged an insane $180 per week for a single room with no windows, the shared bathroom and kitchen were decrepit and tenants were monitored via a surprisingly advanced camera surveillance system. There was a rule board full of ridiculous rules, for example you were not allowed to openly discuss sex, gates were locked at 9pm so if you came home late you had to climb a fence (a previous tenant had told us he was given the boot for this reason) etc. This particular tenant that contacted us had left the tenancy but the slumlord kept the bond, stating that because the tenant had raised the bond money through a charity she shouldn’t be able to have it back. Upon meeting with her a couple of times over coffee and sharing landlord stories (a discussion which became political very quickly) we arranged to go suss the place out. Three BSN’ers met with her at the boarding house and straight off the bat the slumlord barked at the tenant about not really being happy with visitors coming and started questioning what we were doing there. We talked with a few other tenants at the back about what we were about and suddenly 6 people had surrounded us and were eager to share stories of how the landlord was continually screwing them over. This was in itself a really good experience and BSN still has connection with one of these tenants, who was to some extent politicised by the process. Also worth noting – BSN had a discussion day about this issue in Queen’s Park, and i shit you not, we met someone who overheard us walking past that used to live in the boarding house – he was stoked and started chatting about his experience there.
Anyway, we gradually got more tenants on side with the idea of supporting the tenant in question to do a delivery demand to get the bond money back (basically this involves getting as many people as possible as a show of strength & solidarity to support the tenant in collectively delivering to the landlord a letter listing the grievance, the demand and when action will be escalated if not resolved). The process of writing & refining the letter collectively in itself was a useful process, and a politicising one at that, as through the process we discussed the nature of the landlord/tenant relationship, moving to the idea that even though this landlord in particular happened to be someone with an abusive personality and enjoyed dominating the tenants and overtly breaking tenancy law, the issue isn’t the landlords personality – it’s their existence as a class. Bigger political questions like private property, the development of landlordism, hierarchy, State power etc also inevitably came up, and I feel the discussion added further clarity to everyone’s ideas. Also useful politically was the idea that law and rights don’t exist just because they are decreed from above on a piece of paper – they were won through struggle and have to be maintained through struggle and a nourishing, resistant culture that doesn’t let authority take an inch back. ‘Laws are iron chains for the poor but cobwebs for the rich.’
We agreed that it was time to strike the iron, the day came for action, we had heaps of supporters show up and.. the tenant didn’t show up. We heard later that she had a hectic personal situation come up (which happens all the time when you’re already marginalised, living in poverty and in crisis mode). Because of this she bailed interstate and moved into a friend’s place and the organising drive ended. Now from one angle this organising drive was a loss; the demand wasn’t ceded, but on the other hand the organising process led by the tenant was an empowering one, a form of collective education where people learnt a new way to deal with grievances rather than roll over and take it. Most importantly the tenant herself was thankful and reduced to tears that people would take the time and extend themselves to make her issue their own (solidarity). Obviously this could have gone further if the demand had been won, as the aim is to show people that direct action and solidarity, organising together collectively through assemblies rather than top down hierarchies, unaccountable representatives and bureaucracy not only can win demands, but facilitates a process that has the potential to grow into a culture of working class resistance and forms of self-organisation that can’t be demobilised from above (and ultimately which can assert itself to take more and more control back over life).
On the other hand I was once involved in an organising drive where the tenant decided to go through the RTA to try and resolve an issue where the boarding-house landlord had out of the blue claimed that she owed a whole bunch of money (which she didn’t) – simply because the landlord wanted to kick her out and move a close friend of his in. The RTA was automatically on the side of the landlord and signed the tenant up to an unsustainable payment plan which eventually made her homeless- basically these organisations turn social-justice issues into business as usual, prescriptive solutions, ignoring the huge differences in power in the landlord-tenant relationship.
I’ll give one more example where the struggle was won, but at the expense of the experience of ongoing collective organising (just because it’s a good story).
BSN were involved in organising a restaurant in the Brisbane CBD. The owner of this restaurant hired foreigners without working visas, knowing full well that their situation meant that it would be easier to control and exploit them. There were many issues, but things reached boiling point when some money went missing from the till and the boss made every worker pay back the same equal amount of money from their wages. We were contacted by two workers, who after discussing options and strategy said that they would meet with other workmates and get back to us on their decision. A week passed and I contacted one of the workers via txt to get an update and see if their was still an organising drive. The reply I got back was unexpected – ‘Thanks for sorting it out’ it said. I wrote back that we hadn’t done anything and asked what happened. ‘We got the money back. Someone put on a high pitched voice and threatened to hurt him (the boss) if he didn’t give back the wages’.
I think it’s important to share stories like this, because despite how small they are, successful organising counters the social memory of defeat so many of us have. It also shows basic nuts and bolts class-based organising in practice, something that doesn’t come natural to many people that do want to change the world.
We aren’t trying to build victories per say, though our methods should lead to victories (see: how to build a solidarity network), we are ultimately trying to build a culture of resistance and dual power, a culture where people are empowered to run society and take control of their lives, a culture where top-down organisations that take power out of the peoples hands cannot use grassroots struggles as springboards into political careers, electioneering and party politics that demobilise/disempower people from above and sell them out down the river due to the necessity of compromise and mediation that it creates.
It’s not where you’re from it’s where you’re at. The MST, a poor peasants direct-action movement in Brazil put it well when they say:
“We could have Jesus Christ as president, and he’d still have to do all the deals that politicians do. He would still not be in control. Unless the people can start to do things for themselves, and unless we can change our way of seeing things, nothing will change”.