Taking notes 18: On the need for Infrastructures of Resistance

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by Jeff Shantz

The habitat in which twentieth century radicalism could thrive no longer exists in the form that previously sustained radical movements and ideas (Sears, 2008: 8). Anarchism and socialism, the forms of political radicalism that animated much resistance of the working classes, poor and oppressed, were vital as components of broader infrastructures of resistance. These infrastructures developed within contexts of particular organizations of life and work. The last few decades have ushered in significant changes in the organization of social relations and conditions of production, which have transformed the possibilities for specific political projects (Sears, 2008: 8).

Emerging movements need to focus on the re-emergence of infrastructures of resistance if they are to be relevant parts of contributions to the development and growth of new waves of radical renewal and resistance. Anarchist and socialist movements and ideas thrived within the contexts provided by infrastructures of resistance developed as the working classes, poor and oppressed struggled for social justice, freedom and self-determination. Through struggle and the pressing realities of meeting material, cultural, personal and social needs and desires, people and their communities developed infrastructures of resistance to sustain themselves and provide the necessary supports to sustain ongoing struggles and the inspiration of the new world they sought to make.

The infrastructures of resistance included a range of institutions, venues, organizations and practices. Some important examples included alternative media and publishing, shared spaces such as social centres, bookstores, union halls and bars, workers campgrounds and medical clinics. As Dolgoff notes, with regard to working class movements:

They created a network of cooperative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, et cetera. All these, and many other essential services were provided by the people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus; long before the labor movement was corrupted by “business unionism” (ALM: 31).

Infrastructures of resistance also included practices such as rank-and-file networks, flying squads and working groups and opposition movements within unions. The infrastructures of resistance also included, notably, anarchist and socialist groups and organizations themselves. Key were informal networks of workers and community members inside and outside official union structures.

These varying infrastructures of resistance provided, allowed for and encouraged a range of material and imaginal supports within communities of working class, poor and oppressed people. Indeed it is within these infrastructures of resistance that community became possible and practiced in real ways.

As Sears (2008: 8) notes, these infrastructures of resistance “cultivated collective capacities for memory (reflections on past experiences and struggles), analysis (discussion and debate about theory and change), communication (outside of official or commercial media channels) and action (networks of formal and informal solidarity).”

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Changing Habitats

Over the last half century, many of these infrastructures of resistance have severely eroded within working class communities across North America. The erosion of infrastructures of resistance has resulted from a series of significant transformations in work and social life. It has also been impacted by shifts in the re-organization of political and social priorities and opportunities of official institutions within communities of the working class and oppressed. Most of the changes have been effected by defeats suffered through offensives of states and capital. At the same time, others have resulted from seeming working class victories such as legal recognition of unions and social citizenship (Sears, 2008: 8).

This has meant that over the past few decades working class opposition in North America has been contained largely within official, typically legalistic channels. Most common among these have been established bargaining and grievance procedures via union representatives in economic matters. This has been accompanied by a containment of political action within the official channels of party politics and elections. Indeed the separation between economic and political spheres (and the relegation of unions to the limited terrain of economic management) is a reflection, and result of, the collapse of infrastructures of resistance that expressed the connections, even unity, of economic and political action, and the need for organizations that recognized the connections between struggles in these areas.

Activities such as occupations, blockades, wildcat strikes and sabotage have been dismissed or diminished within unionized workplaces in which unions act as a level of surveillance and regulation of workers, attempting to contain their actions within the framework of contracts with employers. Indeed the main role of the unions became supervision of the contract during periods between bargaining and symbolic mobilization to support official union negotiations during legal bargaining. Rank-and-file militants have faced disciplinary actions, lack of support or outright shunning by union officials. Contracts include provisions that prohibit wildcats, as agreed to by the union representatives.

In Canada, the institutionalization of unions as economic managers has been accompanied by the institutionalization of working class politics within electoral politics in campaigns of the New Democratic Party (NDP) federally and provincially, at national and local levels. Politics has been reduced to party campaigns and lobbying for legislative reform as proposed and channeled through NDP caucuses.

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In the current period these institutional pressures and habits have constrained working class responses to structural transformations of neo-liberalism and economic crisis. Unions have sought to limit losses rather than make gains. The approach has been to negotiate severance deals that limit the harm done to former employees (and members) rather than contest the rights of employers and governments to determine the future of workplaces and workers’ livelihoods.

These arrangements have also engendered a certain faith in or reliance upon the system among the working classes. Rather than seeking new relations, or a new society, the institutions of the working class presented and replayed the message that working class desires and needs could not only be met within capitalist society, but, even more, depended upon capitalism for their realization.

Such a notion played into the “trickle down” fantasies of neo-liberal Reaganomics, which insisted that policies and practices that benefited business should be pursued as some of the gains made by capital would eventually find their way to the working class and the poor. Such was the justification for the massive multi-million dollar bailouts handed to corporations as part of the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.

There has simultaneously been a decline in working class institutions such as the working class social centres, “labour temples” or union halls as centres of cultural life and activity. Infrastructures of resistance provided the imaginal universe in which alternatives could be thought, pursued and even, if in part, implemented and realized. The decline of infrastructures of resistance left communities without alternatives or the possibility of alternatives, consigned to the sense that capitalism was the only option. This sense of resignation was reinforced by official institutions (unions and labour parties) that, in their rhetoric and actions suggested that another world was not possible and all desires had to be met or discarded within the context of capitalist social relations.

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Relations of exploitation

Cultural activities have been reduced to the occassional union barbecue or pub night. Shared spaces for discussion, debate strategizing and developing collective visions and practices have eroded. So too have opportunities to nurture connections across generations of workers.

The cultural activities of working class elders and youth have been separated, and even segregated. Great distances obtain between the so-called “youth subcultures” and the touchstones of adult cultures, themselves divided along a range of consumer preferences.

This has meant that more militant responses, possibilities of occupation, factory recuperation or wildcats, have not been raised as reasonable responses to capitalist crisis or restructuring. Now as the previous gains made by workers and social movements are being, or have been, erased under neo-liberal regimes, the working class, poor and oppressed are left alone to face precarious existence and exploitation without the necessary infrastructures that might sustain them or offer a basis for renewed struggle.

This is true in terms of the loss of autonomous institutions of the working class and poor, but also in terms of the loss of public institutions (the reified outcomes of struggle reflected in the welfare state and various social services) which have been privatized, turned over to the market and its cold profit logic.

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New Commitments

An anarchism attentive to and engaged with the next upsurge of struggles will be involved in the work of rebuilding infrastructures of resistance. It will necessarily avoid the trap of putting energy into building political sects preoccupied with preserving and replaying the “true” version of anarchism, which their group supposedly represents and has privileged access to.

The infrastructures of resistance help people and communities to develop the capacities to sustain human struggles over time and place. It provides a basis for self-directing these struggles strategically. They also allow for the crucial connection between local and immediate struggles and campaigns and broader and more thorough going projects of contesting and even overthrowing the existing social structures.

Anarchist organizing in the here-and-now of the present context makes possible significant contributions to the development, maintenance and extension of infrastructures of resistance, just as anarchist movements played important parts in earlier periods, from the Paris Commune of 1871, through the revolutions of 1917-1921 in Europe, through the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s to the New Left uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s. The development of anarchism as a useful resource for the working class, poor and oppressed will require a willingness to learn from ongoing struggles rather than a turn towards replayed lessons or strategies of the past (Sears, 2008: 10).

We begin (for awhile) by identifying transformations that have limited possibilities for the emergence of infrastructures of resistance, that have impeded a resurgence of militance while also opening new and different possibilities for action. Radical movements, that pose lasting social change rather than moments of fun but futile dissent, still face a very real threat of extinction if they do not adapt to changing circumstances. The habitat within which those radical movements thrived no longer exists in the same form.

There will be tendencies to preserve anarchism in small, ideologically pure, grouplets or narrowly constituted projects. This will ensure the marginalization of anarchist movements and ideas. Some of the newly radicalized anarchists of the alternative globalization era have already taken up comfortable residence in the anarchist subcultural ghettos. These venues have allowed them to accumulate a fair bit of subcultural capital or alternative prestige. Some will be content with that state of affairs, even advocate for it as it increases their own position of privilege within self-reinforcing movements or groups. Others have taken the similarly marginalizing path of protest mobilization, focusing energy preparing for short-term actions and moving from demonstration to demonstration. But anarchism can be, and in many cases is, much more as the development of infrastructures of resistance in workplaces and communities, including flying squads and solidarity networks, shows.

References

1. Dolgoff, Sam. 1980. The American Labor Movement: A New Beginning. Resurgence

2. Sears, Alan. 2008. “Habitats for Socialism.” Relay. 23: 8–10

[Note: We are also now on Facebook and this post is open to moderated discussion at: the postcapitalist discussion]

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[Thanks Jeff for this piece]

The writer is a community organizer, rank-and-file union activist and anarchist. He has contributed articles to Anarchy, Social Anarchism, Green Anarchy, Earth First! Journal, and Northeastern Anarchist. His books include Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance, Active Anarchy: Political Practice in Contemporary Movements and Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination. He is also editor of Racism and Borders: Representation, Repression, Resistance and A Creative Passion: Anarchism and Culture, and the online journal Radical Criminology. His website is http://jeffshantz.ca

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