flexibeast.space - gemlog - 2024-01-02

The Australian activist left desperately needs an infusion of class politics

The Australian activist left will organise protests and rallies regarding climate change and things happening overseas. But what's it doing about the housing crisis, about the rate of homelessness, about migrants being scapegoated for it all?

“Housing affordability at lowest level in 30 years, data shows”

“Renters in every capital city worse off as affordability in the regions deteriorates, Rental Affordability Index shows”

“'Screwed up': There is 'virtually no part of Australia' these people can afford to rent in”

“Homelessness services under 'unrelenting' strain as more Australians turned away”

“What is the real cause behind Australia's rental crisis?”

What's the Australian activist left doing about increasing food insecurity, with increasing numbers of people regularly missing meals so that they don't go over budget?

“Food insecurity is 'absolutely everywhere' in Australia. Most are feeling it for the first time”

“'I just don't eat': Surge in Australians sinking into extreme poverty, new report finds”

“Food insecurity is surging in Australia. Advocates say it's the worst they have ever seen”

What's the Australian activist left doing about increasing numbers of people sinking into poverty, and about how expensive life is for those living in poverty, about dole payments that are so low that they trap people in poverty?

“Low income Australians are paying a 'poverty premium' for basic services, Anglicare says”

“The majority of people on this payment say they can't live off it”

What's the Australian activist left doing about the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis on women?

“The cost of living crisis is hurting women's mental health”

“The ongoing cost of living crisis has plunged many deeper into period poverty, posing health risks for people who menstruate across the globe”

These are surely (to use some Marxist-style phrasing) ‘objective conditions’ highly suitable for drawing people into activism that goes beyond voting and/or lobbying, towards other forms of protest and action[a]. But though there are organisations like the Rental and Housing Union of Australia[b] - of which i'm a paying member - actively organising public protests and actions, this seems to be far more the exception than the rule.

In this context, it's easy for the right, and the populist right / alt-right in particular, to make claims along the lines of:

Those who spend their time complaining about pronouns and cancelling various people and who seem to only take to the streets when it's about the environment or stuff overseas? They do that because they're privileged elites who don't have to worry about where to live and how to feed their families.

(In case you're wondering about my own background, check out my post “Some backstory”[c].)

It's also easy for the populist right / alt-right to push the ”environment vs jobs” furphy. It's all very well to say (and, of course, mostly true) that there are “no jobs on a dead planet”. But on the other hand, one of the big challenges faced by the environmental movements for many years has been that the effects of climate change haven't been having direct impacts on the lives of people in the Global North. Even now, climate-change-amplified events like fires and floods are not of daily significance in the way that issues around housing, food insecurity, cost-of-living, and welfare payments are.

Internationalism, and international solidarity, are important. Particularly for those in the Global North, whose countries have either very directly engaged in various forms of imperialism, or directly benefited from other countries doing so. But one of the best ways to grow support for internationalism and international solidarity is to get people on-side by actively campaigning around the basic survival issues they themselves are directly facing. To show, via concrete actions, how you're fighting against all the systems that have negative impacts on the average person. And a class-oriented perspective will lead one to want to actively fight in areas that have a significant class-based component - like housing, food insecurity, cost-of-living, and welfare payments.

Here's one of my favourite activism anecdotes, something that happened many years ago.

i was working in the back office of a bank, and regularly wearing business attire. At one point the local bus drivers - employees of the government - started taking industrial action regarding their employment conditions. There was, of course, the usual trashing of industrial action in the media. And one day, coming home on a bus, the driver was talking to, mm, a fellow driver i think? about what was going on. So when i got off at my stop, i said to the driver, “i just want to let you know that i support the action you're taking”, so that he was aware that at least one member of the general public was on their side.

Months later, an election having been called, i was handing out how-to-votes for a marginal leftist party at a polling booth on election day. A muscle car pulls up, the driver gets out .... and it's the bus driver. He ignores all the other people, comes straight up to me, and takes a how-to-vote.

Similarly, it's been noted how there were queers actively supporting the miners' strike during the Thatcher government in the 80s, e.g. taking up collections for strike funds:

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners held "Pits and Perverts" concerts to raise money which led the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] to become supportive of gay rights in subsequent years.

-- Wikipedia: ‘1984–1985 United Kingdom miners' strike’ / ‘Fundraising’

The mining industry in Australia today is thoroughly male-dominated and shot through with toxic masculinity[d]; imagine what it was like in the UK four decades ago. But there were at least some queers who didn't just write off the miners as misogynist heterosexist clods whose lives weren't worth worrying about, and instead, demonstrated that queers aren't necessarily urban elites detached from the realities of working-class people's lives.

All that said, as a veteran of the far-left, i'm also aware that the populist right / alt-right's claims are given extra weight by building on some very real issues, as i wrote about in a couple of entries on my “Short thoughts” page:

The amount of elitism, pretentiousness and immaturity in leftist and anarchist circles is so depressing. “Sorry, you don't have the social capital to join this ride.”

The amount of dogmatism, self-righteousness and arrogance in leftist and anarchist circles is also so depressing. “I have The One True Solution; everyone else is contemptible or dangerous.”

-- “Short thoughts”

With these sorts of attitudes and behaviours in play, and despite the cries of “no war but class war” from certain quarters, it's perhaps not that surprising that the Australian activist left isn't particularly engaging with the various issues many Australians are facing in their daily lives.

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[a] By which i don't just mean ‘street protests/rallies’, but also things like more subtle industrial action (e.g. work-to-rule, malicious compliance, not taking or processing payments, etc.), artistic works spread via social media, and guerilla marketing campaigns:

“The activists waging a guerrilla campaign against Coles and Woolworths”

An obsession with physical protests to the detriment of other forms of protests and action excludes people who can't physically attend such events for a variety of reasons, such as having disabilities, or being a parent or carer, or having work commitments such that not working means not getting paid, and so on.

EDIT, 2024-01-31; related:

In one instance, we expended a huge amount of effort and time to win a fairly modest sum of money by mobilising already-sympathetic people on a self-selecting basis from scattered parts all across the city. And in another, we won a vastly greater amount of money with relatively little effort, through the power of taking a particular defined constituency of people and organising almost everyone in it, regardless of whether they were particularly inclined towards left-wing politics or not.

-- Red and Black Notes: “Less mobilising, more organising”

[b] Rental and Housing Union of Australia

[c] “Some backstory”

[d] “'Not acceptable': Women in mining speak out against sexual harassment and discrimination”