Monday, 3 January 2011

Politics and tactics in UK Uncut

Capitalism incorporates radicalism
A 'protest' is currently being promoted under the UK Uncut banner which is generating disquiet, or even outright opposition, among activists. The central London action on 15 January is not, like previous protests, focused primarily on challenging tax-avoiding companies and demanding they pay up.

Instead it is advocating 'mutuals, co-ops, credit unions or nationalized banks' as a preferable alternative to Vodafone, Top Shop and other targets of recent anti-tax avoidance actions.

The publicity urges defence of Northern Rock and Royal Mail, as well as promising: 'We will also distribute flowers and sweets to those whom choose to shop and more importantly work at John Lewis given, despite its numerous imperfections, that it represents a different  way of doing business.'

This is clearly juxtaposing 'good capitalism' and 'bad capitalism', seeking more ethical practices within the system - and even holding up some existing practices as examples of these.  It is also openly advocating a moralistic approach, by 'rewarding' those individuals who make the 'correct' ethical choice, rather than addressing the political issues at stake. It therefore marks a profound retreat from the radicalism of UK Uncut protests thus far.

I won't add anything further about the weak politics, as Sofie Buckland puts the case persuasively HERE. But I will add my thoughts on why it is bad tactics.

The strength of the UK Uncut movement has been its capacity for mobilising thousands of people nationwide against something which has largely been overlooked, but which is in fact a scandal: tax avoidance by corporations, amounting to tens of billions of pounds in uncollected taxes annually. This unites people, irrespective of their views on precise alternatives.

The implication of these protests, in fact, is that the government pursuing tax avoiders would be a welcome alternative to massive cuts to welfare and public services. That's precisely why this has gained such momentum: it offers a concrete, and positive, focus for anti-cuts campaigning. It makes the issues around cuts more real, and poses an alternative. 

The question of mutuals and co-ops is a divisive distraction. What's especially interesting is that it's a right-wing, or moderate, deviation from the existing campaign. It's often assumed that left-wingers need to tone down their demands in order to achieve unity with those to their right. But in this instance it is the movement's more conservative elements who threaten to divide and weaken it.

It is especially dangerous because there's no way trade unions will get on board with anything promoting support for John Lewis or any other company. If activists take seriously the challenge of working with the unions this is a detour they will avoid taking.

Finally, it's worth re-posting the section about UK Uncut and democracy in my recent article 'Leadership, organisation and the left - a reply to Laurie Penny'. As I indicated in this article, there are severe limits to 'decentralised networks' and reliance on online organising. It's time for some face-to-face democratic co-ordination.

Here's what I wrote previously:

'UK Uncut is hugely inspiring. Together with the student protests, the nationally co-ordinated days of action against tax avoidance have shattered the myth that people won't resist the cuts. They have given fresh hope to everyone who wants to see a fightback. They are particularly powerful because they draw attention to the alternatives, i.e. pursuing unpaid taxes rather than imposing cuts.

The protests are celebrated for their dynamic DIY quality, for the way they depend upon no prior organisation. As Laurie writes, about current protests more generally, 'Their energy and creativity is disseminated via networks rather than organisations'.

The obvious strength is that yes, anyone can do it. This has led to protests happening in unlikely places, in towns where there's little recent history of either political protest or left-wing organisation. The tactic of having national days of action, together with a central website, has ensured a degree of co-ordination. (Incidentally, the existence of a central website, Facebook page and Twitter account is in contradiction to the fashionable rhetoric of 'decentralisation').

But there's also a problem. In an online network there's no way of arriving at decisions democratically. All sorts of ideas can be circulated, via Facebook, Twitter, etc, but there's no way of pooling experiences and ideas then using that as the basis for collectively deciding what steps to take next. That requires such old-fashioned things as meetings and conferences.

It may also require electing people to co-ordinate things in between meetings. Someone, somewhere, must have decided that 18 December (for example) should be a UK Uncut national day of action. Fine. But wouldn't it be better if a co-ordinating meeting, or representatives elected to oversee co-ordination between meetings, made that decision?

When does a 'network' become an 'organisation'? It seems to me an artifical distinction. The case for such things as democratic assemblies, a high-level of co-ordination and elected representatives - which are possibly deemed to define an 'organisation' - arises spontaneously from the movement's development.

The lack of democratic structures is an understandable flaw in the early days, but as the UK Uncut movement progresses it will become more relevant. That's not just because democracy is A Good Thing. It matters because detailed face-to-face discussion is sometimes necessary if we're going to arrive at an informed and correct decision about what practical steps to take.

Inevitably differences over tactics will arise - often underpinned by differing political standpoints - and these need to be discussed and resolved.'



  1. Sure, partnerships like John Lewis aren't ideal. It'd probably have better industrial relations if it was a worker co-op and encouraged unionisation. But compared to comparable firms, the rate of exploitation is lower - and the surplus does not go to an external capital-owner.

    In the US, the steelworkers union is working with the Mondragon worker co-operatives to try and create jobs in new "union co-ops". This would allow for unionisation alongside workplace democracy.

    Perhaps this is something we should be looking to propose as an alternative to the model of entrepreneurship? ;-)

  2. We could make a list of companies. We could then assess them against a range of criteria: trade union rights, fair trade practices, shareholder policies, ethical investment, working conditions, pay inequalities within the workforce, and so on.

    But where would any of that get us? It shouldn't be the job of activists to provide lists which rank businesses on any of these criteria. What they all have in common is that they are driven by competition and the pursuit of profit, which makes them liable to clash with any notion of social and economic justice.

    We also know that some of them are avoiding taxes. At the same time, we're told there are no alternatives to mass austerity. This should be the overwhelming focus of campaigning, not offering guidance on consumers' ethical choices.

  3. I agree - the approach you outline would be pointless. You'll notice though, it is not one that I have suggested.

    The event has since been cancelled, according to Aaron Peters, who listed it. I suspect the fact UKuncut is a network rather than a defined organisation is both a strength and a weakness - though Peters says the process of open criticism has been conducted in a comradely manner.