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Learning from Dublin Mayday - anti-capitalism: where to now?
ireland / britain | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis Friday May 13, 2005 23:07 by Dec McCarthy - WSM
Part 3 of 3 articles on the Dublin 2004 EU summit protests
The experience of Mayday brings up us back to some of the perennial questions thrown up by counter summits protests: how do we broaden our movement and what role does direct action and confrontational tactics have in that process. These are, of course, the issues that have been mainstay of Red and Black debates over the past few years but have been usually viewed through the prism of events outside of Ireland. The following article is a personal account of DGN's approach to such issues in relation to Mayday and goes on to argue for increased tactical flexibility from anarchists within the anti-capitalist movement.
DGN and direct action
The two defining, and in Irish politics novel, characteristics of the various Grassroots groups including DGN has been the advocacy of non-hierarchical organisation and an insistence on the importance of direct action in protest. This emphasis on direct action has undoubtedly helped libertarians carve out a political space for itself. However, it is clear from Mayday and other events that Grassroots groups have planned over the past three years that we are primarily focused on spreading libertarian ideas and regard direct action as only one, albeit vital, element of libertarian struggle. This approach has meant that at least as much time and effort has been spent on making persuasive arguments and distributing leaflets as planning actions. Furthermore, many of those actions could be characterised as "fluffy", moderate or even simply symbolic. Some of the visiting protestors made it clear that they thought that we should have been much more confrontational. I would argue though, that our approach was principled but pragmatic. Tactical decisions cannot be made in a vacuum and we quite rightly had to take local sensibilities and political experience into account. In fact I think this flexibility was why Mayday was a relative success. What is important is that over Mayday we communicated our ideas to a fairly large amount of people and we did so without compromising ourselves. This doesn't mean I think we did everything perfectly or that the same approach would yield the same results in the future but simply that at that particular time in Ireland these were sensible choices.
To discuss this properly I shall first clarify what sort events DGN envisaged when planning the protests and what level of confrontation we imagined this would entail. The overall strategy and the main aim of the organisers of the No Borders weekend was plan events that could potentially involve large numbers of people (including any acts of civil disobedience). As street confrontations are, more often than not, determined by cops it was difficult to know in advance how all this would pan out but the actions were devised to minimise the possibility of arrests and avoid physical confrontation without ceding our right to protest.
So generally, over the Mayday weekend DGN chose to defy rather than confront-more akin to a pink/silver bloc approach than black bloc tactics- and The Critical Mass, the No Borders picnic, the RTS, the Top Oil Action and the Bring the Noise and the mass direct action taken in Fitzwilliam Square occupying a privately owned park are all examples of this. Many of these actions had some element that could have been deemed illegal but the hands off policing policy employed for most of the weekend meant that this never became an issue.
Early on in the planning process disruption tactics such as blockades were also mooted as was the possibility of direct action at the banquet centre itself but nobody within DGN advocated targeting property or employing militant tactics against the police and most activists, anarchist and non-anarchist alike, thought that widespread property damage or attacking the cops would be counterproductive. At the same time DGN consistently reaffirmed our support for a "diversity of tactics" in resisting neoliberalism both at home and abroad conscious of how at anti-capitalist events elsewhere divisions and splits had emerged between various alternative globalisation factions over the issue of militant tactics. Because of this the DGN organisers strove to avoid the terms violent or non-violent to describe the planned protests,
In Ireland One bloc fits all
So why did DGN chose this "fluffy" approach? First of all Grassroots and its spin off activist groups are broad libertarian coalitions which includes people who are convinced pacifists and this has definitely had some influence on Grassroots initiatives. But the question then remains why most of the anarchists within DGN, who are not pacifists, fully supported this approach. In practical terms, DGNers knew that we were not a small part of a general mobilisation-we were wholly responsible for whatever mobilisation took place. The small size of the anti-capitalist movement in Ireland and the magnitude of the security operation meant that militant action would probably attract very few people onto the streets and, in all likelihood, result in beatings and arrests. In the long term it was also thought that such forms of protest would alienate people and provide a pretext for the criminalisation of any anti-capitalist activity in the future. However, more importantly these choices also reflect in a very fundamental way the political orientation of most Irish anarchists including the WSM who believe that mass participation in protest and direct action should be one of the main objectives of anti-capitalist activity. This does not mean that we oppose other forms of protest and resistance but that we think that this orientation to "mass politics" is more likely in the medium term to build the confidence and momentum of radical social movements.
Push it, push real good
In the run up to the Mayday weekend it was impossible to know if groups apart from DGN were intending to use more militant tactics and we were concerned to accommodate a diversity of tactics while ensuring that there was a clear demarcation between groups that wanted to use different methods of struggle. The obvious logic of such a demarcation is to give people participating in protests the choice of what sort of actions and risks they want to take. To this end the DGN organisers of the Bring the Noise demonstration met with most of the international visitors before Mayday. It was agreed that any group who did not want to abide by the general guidelines drawn up by the BtN organisers including using "any form of offensive physical confrontation" should do so away from the main march.
This is why the most confrontational action of the weekend, taken by the "pushing bloc" at the Ashtown roundabout near Farmleigh, was done separately from the main Bring the Noise march. This bloc was made up of a mixture of foreign activists including the Wombles, some DGN activists and Irish Black Blocers. Their attitude was that it was important to contest the boundaries imposed by the state on protest so when the DGN march finished they emerged from the crowd, largely masked up and in formation, and advanced on the police lines. With only a hundred or so people within the bloc and another few hundred from the Bring the noise contingent behind them there never any possibility of breaking police lines. In fact, I don't think even if every single person at the protest joined in this would of a been a possibility without the use of molotovs and other weapons and would of resulted in the mobilisation of Irish troops. This was never on the cards and consequently the whole incident had a stagey quality as if we were all playing our allotted roles in a grand spectacle of rebellion
However, the pushing bloc, like the Tutte Bianchi who first popularised this tactic, did not see the action as an exercise in futility but a visible and empowering act of resistance. It is open to debate whether this action was a positive thing for libertarian politics in Ireland but my own opinion is that, on balance, the pushing bloc's symbolic confrontation was an important part of the Mayday weekend and a good example of diversity of tactics in action. The pushing bloc could certainly not have acted without the existence of DGN's larger protest and although their action had no chance of success it served a purpose by showing that through solidarity resistance is possible.
Symbolic or Symbollocks ?
This brings us to an interesting point- it is not always acknowledged by anarchists that many political acts and even direct actions, including property damage, are much of the time primarily symbolic. The importance of the symbolic dimension of political acts shouldn't be underestimated. After all those who stormed the Bastille were making history but in concrete terms they were breaking open a virtually empty prison. A corollary of the sort of reductive materialism that downplays the importance of symbolism also overestimates the importance of material damage. Often in arguments over tactics there is a false distinction drawn between the "real" resistance of property damage and the "illusory" resistance of other forms of direct action and protest. But it is obvious that we can't measure political progress in square metres of smashed plate glass. This is even truer today faced as we are with a complex and highly adaptable system that can easily absorb the financial and infrastructural costs caused by localised rioting. It is simply a choice of tactics made depending on the situation and the aim of the protest. The important issue is that the state does not define the limits of protest. So in a place like Dublin, where there is no tradition of libertarian politics and little experience of militant street protest direct actions like occupying a park or symbolic actions like pushing a police line, which in real terms do little to challenge power, have a role in spreading ideas. Such modest actions are obviously not going to affect the workings of capitalism but these acts and collective experiences can bind us together as community and in doing so create a small crack in the seemingly impregnable monolith of capitalism.
I believe there is definitely a role for such actions at counter summits. Once we had the element of surprise but now the police plan for months or even years in advance these events. Furthermore, as we saw once again in Dublin last year, the cops are given almost unlimited resources to ensure that the global institutions of capitalism can meet without disruption. The chances of managing to shut down one of these meetings are increasingly slim given the current balance of political forces and in Dublin, as I mentioned before, we knew well in advance that we would not be able to so. Instead, we focussed on mobilising as many people as possible. The fact that we were willing to defy the state and were willing to use direct action meant that thousands of cops and troops were called in to protect politicians from "their own people". This, to some extent, called into question their legitimacy and created a space in which we could communicate our ideas. This is what Mayday was about making the invisible visible and the unsaid explicit: that is we are ruled by a small elite that will use force to protect their privileges whatever the cost whether that means dismantling social services or human beings suffocating in containers or drowning in the Mediterranean trying to breach Fortress Europe. That we didn't use black bloc tactics is irrelevant the point is we achieved what we set out to do. To insist on militant confrontation with the state when you are in a very weak position is, to my mind, to play the state's game and to fetishise a tactical choice dependent on a very narrow definition of what constitutes direct action. After all direct action involves a spectrum of activities- from wildcat strikes to property destruction during counter summits- the important thing is it is collective action without the use of intermediaries.
Tactical flexibility and strategy
I think that Mayday shows that, as a movement we need to avoid being boxed either by others or by ourselves by defining ourselves simply as the militant direct action wing of the anti-capitalism. Popularising our ideas and methods of struggle can take many forms and Mayday worked because we took this into account when planning our actions, dealing with the media and cooperating with groups outside DGN. Unpredictability, imagination and a willingness to defy any limitations imposed either from within or outside will, I believe, broaden and strengthen anarchism. Sterile purism, dogma and formulaic thinking, on the other hand, will ensure that anarchism remains an obscure tendency of left wing thought confined to dusty rooms above pubs.
The difficulty is, of course, to be tactically flexible without abandoning the passion and the combativity at the heart of the anarchist tradition. This demands that we are scrupulous in assessing our own activities and clearly distinguish between media stunts, symbolic protest and genuinely effective direct action. In that spirit, the worst lesson to draw from Mayday would be that same tactics will necessarily work in the future or that we can avoid confrontation and still achieve our aims. Anarchism is nothing if it is stripped of its willingness to confront power and the tactical choices made over Mayday are not in any way a blueprint for future struggles. We have quite rightly criticised the old left for ritualistic and meaningless forms protest and we need to examine our own politics with the same rigour. If we are simply going through the motions whether it is repeating the same type of symbolic protests or property damage at a summit we will end up as bad the Trots.
How easily this happen became clear following Mayday when in October DGN organised a protest against a Less Lethal Weapons Conference in Dublin. We made grand claims about shutting it down, guessed that the media would talk up a storm as it had in Shannon and over Mayday and that this would generate publicity and momentum for the protest. In the end the media were not interested and although small groups of activists did manage to cause some disruption through small affinity group actions the protest ended up being little more than a fairly ineffective libertarian demo. It was ok but relying on a media furore is the antithesis of direct action. For me this protest marked the end of the line for an approach that has evolved over the past couple of years of Grassroots activity during which we benefited from the novelty of direct action on the Irish scene and the media became an unknowing partner in building libertarian protest. The decision of many DGNers since this demonstration to busy themselves with work on a social centre speaks volumes for the unsustainability of the "one set of tactics fits all" approach. It seems the time has come to explore different forms of direct action.
Mayday has shown that we can adapt anti-capitalist forms of struggle in an Irish context. Militant direct action is an integral part of anarchism and physical confrontation with the state and capitalism is an inevitable part of our struggle but, I believe, we should avoid mystifying this conflict and, as much as possible, chose the terms on which we wage our battles. On the other hand we should not veer away from conflict or employing more militant from of direct action where necessary. In the coming years we need to remain focussed on trying to create engaging and inclusive, rather than simply spectacular, forms of mass struggle and bear in mind that disseminating ideas and direct democracy are as central to our politics as direct action. Without broad support radical change is impossible whatever tactics we use. In fact, I would go further and say that we need to go beyond a circular debate on tactics and learn to think strategically. A genuinely revolutionary strategy is impossible unless we are willing to have a sustained political dialogue with the "non political" people we work and live with. For me these choices are meaningless otherwise. In short the small gains of the past decade, internationally and locally, do not mean we have discovered a tactical or political plan for anything except hope.