How Do You Build A Movement? – Daniel Garvin

August 15, 2012

Occupy, like many preceding social movements, features the battle of the ‘radical’ versus the ‘liberal’. The debate tends to go in one direction with ‘radicals’ proclaiming in blogs and independent media that ‘liberals’ gut the movement of radical thought, inspiration, and the militancy that will eventually smash capitalism and the state.

The ‘radicals’ point to images beamed at us from Occupy Oakland, Greece, Spain and Quebec, seemingly ignoring the fact that we don’t live in Oakland, Greece, Spain or Quebec. We live in the UK, with different conditions, a different culture of politics and a different history of social movements. Sure, we can take inspiration and tips and advice from across the waters, but in the end we have to think about what we are working with. Some may point to last year’s riots and disagree, but I don’t think the insurrection is coming any time soon.

I am not a liberal. But, nor am I interested in playing a minority sport of radicalism. How do we achieve change? I don’t really know, but these thoughts reflect six years of being an activist seeking alternatives. I believe we live under the most powerful economic and political system in human history. Changing it is going to need a genuine mass movement. We currently do not have anything that remotely resembles a mass movement. Movement building, therefore, should be a primary concern.

While we should not drop radical politics, movement building won’t happen, in my opinion, if we are dogmatic and insular, which is why I think the consistent grumbling from certain ‘more rad and intellectual than thou’ cliques is unhelpful, and perhaps even counter-productive.

People are radicalised and empowered by joining social movements and engaging in collective actions. It’s a process, not an event. It took me years of gradually moving more and more to the left before I became involved in ‘the movement’. For a long time I was turned off by what I regarded as over-zealous activists who disagreed with everything, who seemed too negative to be constructive, and who made me feel inadequate because, for example, I lacked fluency in the theories of Theodore Adorno.

I think our immediate target audience for building the movement is the 500,000 people who come out on TUC marches. Labour-voting members of trade unions or other community organisations may not be overly political or active, but they hold a conviction that the world can be a much better place. To get these people involved, I think we need to ground the movement not in strict ideals but in more pragmatic, strategic, savvy thinking. We need to be relevant to people’s lives. We need to be worth the sacrifice of a few hours out of a busy week working and looking after the kids. A key element of this is to be seen to be actually making a difference, no matter how small.

We need to build with the vision that we can shift our positions over time. Remember, people get radicalised within movements. The identity of a social movement can be crudely divided into two parts; demands and tactics. To build a mass movement, to become more relevant and appealing, our demands should be positioned to the left of the mainstream, but not so far left that we are marginal and unable to relate to anyone less radical than us. Our tactics need to embrace genuine diversity. Phoney claims about ‘diversity of tactics’ are not enough if we’re giving out the message that we really think only black bloc tactics are worthwhile.

Modern forms of anarchist-inspired social movements have existed in the UK for a long time. We’re good at creating a small countercultural scene around squatted social centres, free parties, endlessly long meetings, zines, independent media outlets, blogs, and fetishised images of riots and tear gas. The ‘radicals’ in the movement argue that if only we just did more of all these ‘radical’ things, ignoring the mainstream media and ‘liberal’ consensus about what is acceptable to think and do, then we could get down to the business of pure revolutionary activity.

But people have been doing these things for decades, and we are still a tiny clique.


Reflections on the Pay Up campaign

“We should be as radical as possible” says someone, critically, in response to my idea for a UK Uncut-style living wage campaign called Pay Up. “Surely we want to abolish wage labour, not just give people a pound extra” they continue. “Yeah, the living wage, who defines that? It’s really problematic, we should price our own labour – you sound like London Citizens” says another.

London Citizens, while obviously not ‘radical’, have achieved something that we currently can only dream of – a network of thousands of people a million times more diverse in education, class, faith and culture than any radical movement to date; a network that has managed to organise locally and win the living wage for 10,000 workers in the capital.

Once the Pay Up campaign was launched, the usual small band of highly educated rad twitter users were quick to dismiss it. “Be more anti-capitalist” “What’s the use of a living wage?” “Why not demand full worker control?” “Only militant workplace organising”. Anyone who thinks that demanding a living wage is a waste of time is so far removed from the reality of what it means to live on the minimum wage, that they’d be better placed in the elitist ranks of the Tory party. Writing “full worker control” on a leaflet, or on a blog that no-one but your Facebook friends read, doesn’t mean you are any more likely to get where you want to go than those working towards lesser goals.

I want to engage people in the relationship between capital and labour; to build a degree of class consciousness. At the moment many people are critical of financial capitalism, but not the nuts and bolts framework of bosses and workers. Just because Pay Up isn’t overtly saying “smash capitalism and sack the bosses”, it doesn’t mean it’s not moving towards a fundamental critique.

Another blog criticised us, saying that “only militant working class action will achieve anything”. While I agree that “militant working class action” would be great, this calls to mind a radically different supermarket working culture to the one I know. People do not stand around at work chatting about radical theory like PhD activists. It’s hard enough to engage people in even the concept of a trade union.

There’s plenty to say on achieving social change, but here’s a final note. In 2006, 600 people camped outside Drax power station for the first climate camp. By 2008, 2,500 people were camping and engaging on some level with direct action on climate change. New people had joined. At this point, many of the old purists kicked off that the new people we’re not yet militantly anarcho enough. They wrote bitching indymedia posts scorning at the creeping ‘liberalism’. Many left, taking all their well-worn skills and experience. Others stayed, trying to get the camp to adopt hard line political statements that would finally stop the ‘liberal’ rot. Barely a national meeting went by without some reference to the battle between the ‘radicals’ and the ‘liberals’.  A few years later climate camp died, for many reasons, but a considerable factor was the vocal band of purists who were more comfortable preaching to the converted than engaging in the messy job of building a genuine mass movement.


By Daniel Garvin  (@daniel_garvin)