Sunday, December 30, 2007

Way over in the country of Belarus anarchists have recently organized a "self-reduction" campaign in protest against price increases in the cost of public transport in the capital city of Belarus, Minsk. The following is the press release of the organizers.
"Anarchists in Minsk organized a protest against the cancelling of discount public transportation tickets in that city. They called on people to ride for free and wanted to promote the idea of leaving tickets behind or passing on tickets to passengers when leaving the bus. On Thursday (December 28th-Molly) there was a small protest. Two anarchists who were holding a banner in Independence Square were arrested and got 3 days in jail. They'll be released on Sunday (Today, January 30th-Molly).
Molly Comment:
Very terse and to the point. Molly certainly applauds this sort of action because it is one that connects anarchism with the concerns of ordinary people, and she hopes that anarchists take such examples to heart. All that being said, however, such actions should always be undertaken with a clear-headed idea of their likely chances of success. These chances are minuscule in most places today. This doesn't diminish the "propaganda value" of undertaking such campaigns, but such things should be undertaken with a clear head rather than in the spirit of ideological exuberance.
What are the conditions of "success" for such an enterprise ? First of all recognize that such campaigns have occurred repeatedly. They are not a new invention. Try to learn from past experiences. They involve "self-reduction" not just in public transport, but also in terms of utility bills and rent. What they are is a limited protest against certain aspects of the cost of living amongst ordinary people- or those who wish to influence same. They may prefigure a society where at least some goods such as public transit are provided free of cost to all. While it is wise to put this desire for such a situation forward as part of the campaign, in purely educational terms, it is also wise to understand that the success of such campaigns is, at best, limited by the resources available to the target of such efforts. Just like any strike such campaigns are an attempt to redistribute "surplus", and if no surplus is available then they cannot succeed. Any attempt to self-reduce such aspects of the cost of living should come pre-armed with an idea of where such surplus can be found. Whether this be the profit of landlords or the budget of a city, what pool of money should be reduced in order to spend more on the good desired should be put forward.
The grand-daddy of all such self-reduction movements would have to be the Barcelona rent strike of 1931 (see ). It is also the example of the greatest degree of success of such movements. Even though it was broken by police repression the upshot was that most of the participants obtained financial benefits from their actions. Other, more recent, examples such as the self-reduction movement in Italy in the early 70s and its imitation in Vancouver BC at about the same time were far less successful. The 2006 San Francisco attempt at a "fare strike" was just as much of a lost cause as that of Vancouver in the early 70s. The Italian example involved not just refusal to pay transit fares but also "invasions" of grocery stores to reclaim food as a free good.
The Italian example succeeded at least partially, but to nowhere the degree that the Spanish one did. San Francisco and Vancouver were utter failures. What was the difference ? The answer is simple- organization. The Italian efforts were able to count on the at least partial support of trade union federations who could bargain with the civic authorities . Not everything was granted, of course, and the union federations, controlled by communists and social democrats ,put their own organizational interests ahead of the demands of consumers. In Spain of 1931 the "difference" between local councils of residents and locals of the CNT would often be rather obscure. The tradition of spontaneous organization amongst the Spanish working class of the time was strong enough that proper coordinating bodies were rapidly formed and took on essential functions at due speed. In North America, whether it be San Francisco or Vancouver, there was no such organizational tradition. No matter what the theatrical value of the actions proposed, and often carried out, by a small minority of activists it was useless in the absence of the ability of ordinary people to self-organize.
This is the reality. Long preliminary steps towards building such traditions of self-organization cannot be skipped. This may seem outre to those raised on a diet of television and other media, where matters can always be concluded before the end of the hour. It is still, however, as true as it always was. This misunderstanding of the nature of human social organization contributes to the fascination of spectacular actions for far too many anarchists today. The cult of the "rebel" overwhelms common sense, and instead of seeing an action as contributing to ongoing self-organization of ordinary people those who are attracted to a stage-craft view of politics imagine that some media will magically transmit not just the "news" of their actions but also the emotions behind them. Lots of luck guys. all means such actions are valuable, but they should be undertaken in a spirit of realism, with a goal of building self-organization amongst ordinary people, of perhaps winning temporary victories that could inspire such. NEVER should they be undertaken in the existential position of "showing off" one's rebellious nature.

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