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Politics as Unusual

September 23rd, 2007 · post by Tom · Make a comment

A new organisation in London wants to learn the lessons of successful social movements abroad, and make the fight against poverty a central focus for grassroots radical politics…

The experience of poverty is all across London, as thick as smog in Victorian times. Not just low wages: bad diet; the unemployed scraping by; little time with family and friends; irregular immigration status; poor housing and homelessness. This is the London which does not feature in the popular imagination and which is almost entirely excluded from conventional politics; the London sleeping in hostels, or in snatches on the bus between full time jobs; the London without leave to remain. The London with a bitter experience of powerlessness.

The London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP) was formed as an instrument for the transformation of that experience. To see where we are going though, first it will help to understand more about where we’ve come from.

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is the strongest inspiration for us. An explicitly anti-capitalist organisation based in Toronto, Canada, they work with homeless people, welfare (“social security” or “benefits”) recipients, and workers out on strike. Two key principles guide their work. First of all, that the power of the dispossessed consists in disruption – making life difficult for managers and state authorities – not just lobbying, letter writing, or even polite demonstrations. Second, that they aren’t a charity – they bring working class people, people living in poverty, to the forefront of their organisation and action.

Two of LCAP’s founding members visited OCAP last year, and were enthused by what they saw and heard. One campaign particularly impressed us. OCAP discovered a neglected law which required special social security payments to be made to welfare recipients whose health was failing due to poor nutrition. OCAP signed up thousands of people to the “special diet allowance” at clinics in working class neighbourhoods, dragging down millions of Canadian dollars into the pockets of poor people. Simultaneously, they organised occupations of events held by the provincial ruling party; keeping concrete pressure on their interests. (See the film ‘Raise the Rates’ on the website of the Hackney Independent group, also, for comparison chapter 5 of Piven, F and Cloward, R (1988) Poor People’s Movements: why they succeed, how they fail, Random House.)

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) is based in a suburb in Northern Philadelphia, the poorest district in all of Pennsylvania. Both KWRU and OCAP utilise a tactic called “direct action casework”, which contrasts to the passive casework of traditional welfare rights organisations – which, despite having been radical many years ago, are now largely confined to offering advice and services. As KWRU say, “No one is refused help or put on a waiting list, they are just asked to join the struggle and help others.” (See www.kwru.org.) Collectif de Solidarite is a Paris based group, which brings together insecure (or “precarious” workers) workers to support each other’s struggles. (See http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/marxmakhno.html.) Flying pickets and creative direct actions have helped them provide critical support to the victory of striking workers in the service sector – in companies such as McDonalds and hotel chain ACCOR.

We find in these stories a gust of fresh air. Many of us live on the margins ourselves (as squatters and insecure workers for example); and others are employed as advice workers in traditional welfare rights organisations. We’re frustrated by the passivity of the welfare rights bureaucracy. While many sincere and dedicated people work in Citizens Advice Bureaus and the like, their fundamental role is often simply to tell people how few are the legal rights that are handed down from on high. We get turned away, or we find ourselves turning people away.

That these rights – to social security, housing, and so on – are a result of the struggles of poor people themselves, and are testament to their potential power, is little known. (See Lavalette and Mooney (2000) Class Struggle and Social Welfare, Routledge: London, for evidence of this.) In LCAP, we have a tool for the resurrection of that radical tradition, the resurrection of that collective power.

But the stories refresh us for another reason. Between us, we have decades of political involvement – including the anti-roads struggles, ecological direct action, anti-G8 mobilisations, work in Occupied Palestine, and so on. We have come to believe that the thesis is this: that social movements are successful in confronting the entrenched power of capital when and only when (i) they organise around issues which are deeply felt in the everyday experience of large numbers of people and (ii) they proceed by a strategy of disruption – i.e. by altering the terrain of interests held by ruling elites. For (ii) to be possible, the issue has not only to be widely and deeply felt, it must be susceptible to a strategy along these lines. These criteria explain why the anti-roads movement and the anti-poll tax movement won. They suggest why Stop the War, Make Poverty History, CND, and Dissent! (the network against the G8) all failed.

LCAP is a project which prioritises the domestic class struggle over spectacular – though not very effective – protest on international issues. By engaging with the everyday experience of thousands of people, we make politics a matter for everyone, not just the activist ghetto. By having a strategy based on effective disruption we can build a movement based on victory, not just demonstration and spectacle.

According to the Mayor’s office, a staggering 51% of Inner London’s children live in poverty (www.londonchildpoverty.org.uk). At work, at the benefit office, at school, on the street, when trying to access services, or register views at the level of governmental politics; we get managed, tossed around, patronised, side-lined, intimidated and lied to. But as this article goes to bed, LCAP has won our third piece of direct action casework, and have two more cases set for the week ahead. It feels like we just might have begun to win again.

If you live in London, and want to know more or get involved, get in touch. If you live elsewhere, and think you might want to pioneer a similar organisation in your town, we’d also like to hear from you. We are: www.lcap.org.uk

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