Grassroots Versus Astroturf Activism

Marches provide no challenge to the capitalist system, or its state

This weekend I got some hardcore abuse from supporters of the Socialist Party for my article on their 2011 Jarrow March. Most dismissed my constructive critique as “sectarianism”, but one ‘Russellcooky’ told me to “Fuck Off You Fascist Bastard” (even though I hadn’t advocated business-and-government control of the market place, repression of criticism or opposition, a leader cult and exalting the state and/or religion above individual rights). What I didn’t get was a rebuttal. And that’s because there couldn’t be one.

So I stand by my statement that “…importantly, the march is not some grassroots expression of discontent, born out of a working class community. Rather it is an ‘astroturfed’ action, a conscious political strategy to win the Socialist Party more members.”

But I don’t just want to make this an attack on the Socialist Party. All left parties have their own front groups, which organise petitions, lobbies, marches, and even sometimes ‘direct action’ stunts, in an attempt to increase membership, and therefore improve the party’s finances. However, in each case, the leadership is tied to the reactionary union bureaucracy, and so doesn’t actually want to challenge the system. In the end, what you get is ‘symbolic’ actions, which reach their absolute nadir in the Socialist Party’s death march.

Of course, astroturfing is by no means confined to the fake left. Non-hierarchical activists have our own varieties too, often based on ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ positions regarding lifestyle issues. Often, in the social centre ‘scene’, this results in an atmosphere that many working class people find extremely uncomfortable. ‘Good’, the activist says, ‘they are being challenged by our example’. But as a rule they don’t come back.

In short, astroturf activism is any attempt by an organisation to take political action which does not flow from the direct material interests of the people involved, for the purpose of recruitment.* The Jarrow marchers will not magically get a job when they get to London, and none of the participants could seriously have imagined that they would. If the first Jarrow march was a tragedy, then history is repeating itself as farce.

Compare that to the recent actions by the ‘Sparks’ rank and file electricians (latest bulletins here, background here)! It’s like the difference between night and day! Threatened with crippling pay cuts, and deeply distrustful of the union tops, they are taking ever more bold direct action, in an attempt to overturn the employers’ attacks. They are not asking someone for a favour, and they are not asking someone to take action for them. They are moving towards grabbing the decision-making process for themselves, and taking direct action, with the idea of making cuts impossible to implement.

By definition, occupations challenge the workings of capitalism and the state

Also, look at the example set by the Wall Street occupiers. Occupy Wall Street started out as little more than a Twitter hashtag, but got huge worldwide traction as the very idea of it thrilled people from Arkansas to Antarctica. The number of people physically there started off small, but grew as it became very clear that reinforcements were needed. Now more than two hundred occupations are in the pipeline across the US alone, and there is even an Occupy Liverpool in the planning stages! By its very nature, a static occupation asks questions which a meandering treck across the country does not.

When someone reposted my Jarrow article on Indymedia, someone called ‘Bob’ asked: “Do you have any better ideas, then, Infantile Disorder? It’s easy to criticise but not so easy to provide altenative [sic] ideas, is it?” No, perhaps it’s not easy, but it’s not for me to tell people how to resist, so long as they are resisting, and not just protesting.

In the past, resistance has taken the form of wildcat strikes, go-slows, work to rules, industrial sabotage, occupations, and blockades. As the pressure grows on working class people in this new great depression, necessity will become the mother of invention. Communists must do what Marx advised all those years ago – join in when it’s our workplace or community, offer practical solidarity when it’s not, and “always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole”.

* I don’t wish to pour scorn on the overwhelming majority of us who have done astroturfing before, whether as members of ‘left’ parties or non-hierarchical collectives. We’ve ‘seen through’ the system, and want a revolution yesterday, so in our desperation we’ve all done some silly, basically pointless stuff in the past. However, this is not to excuse the fake left leaders, who have a different set of material interests to their respective memberships.