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Home arrow Sociology arrow Bourdieu and Social Movements: Ideological Struggles in the British Anti-Capitalist Movement

Activist history and ideological reproduction

Uncovering an activist's political history and socialization provides valuable data which explains the choices they make when it comes to joining a particular political organization. The data revealed that anarchists and socialists had distinctive political histories. In this respect, there was no overlap in their formative political socialization, strategy and practice. Their political activities were clearly linked to and shaped by the predominant ideology of the organizations they joined and continued to be involved in. I do not wish to suggest a lack of agency by activists concerning their choices; on the contrary, activists, according to my research, make very conscious decisions on when and what to be involved in and their choices are fully justified. Moreover, there is an articulation between their subjective understanding and the objective conditions which exist - which is why the habitus is an ideal concept for understanding and explaining their choices. Their political habitus evolves and adapts to new and different circumstances through a reflexive process while always recognizing what is familiar. Moreover, these choices feel natural since they are familiar. Their experience allows them to apply their existing knowledge and skills to a range of different situations. In turn, this makes them adept within situations where they are required to be politically active. Therefore an activist's history explains how the political habitus develops and reproduces durable patterns of practice, as Bourdieu argues:

The habitus, the product of history, produces individual and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemes engendered by history. (1990: 54)

The habitus is therefore history itself. It embodies political choices, knowledge, skills and understandings which make activists competent in the BACMF. The history of political activists shapes their future preferences for joining other similar organizations or network. Their experiences are deposited and subsequently processed within and by their habitus. The habitus, as a predisposition-organizing mechanism, has constitutive properties which then shape future action. In the following examples, anarchists and socialists demonstrated that they had gained a certain amount of 'know-how' and 'feel' for the protest game from their previous political experiences.

They used their knowledge to make a choice about which new organization or network they should join; they invariably chose the one that was made up of other like-minded political actors who shared their preferred ideology. In short, there was an ideological affinity, based on their previous experiences. Thus, the habitus reproduces history.

Anarchists

The anarchists I interviewed all had a politically active background in direct action anti-capitalist groups which have an explicit or implicit anarchist/autonomist ideological underpinning. For example: Earth First!, Reclaim the Streets, and Class War. In addition, the autonomist political practices of the Zapatistas also appealed to these activists, some who have travelled between Mexico and the UK to forge political connections and help with humanitarian projects such as KIPTIK, which is a UK-based solidarity network. According to their website, they have been working on:

a series of projects in the autonomous communities of Chiapas in South East Mexico, since May 2000. The aim of KIPTIK is to support the Zapatista struggle directly through the construction of drinking water systems, ecological stoves, health and mural projects.2

Some UK activists have worked with the Zapatistas since the 1990s and even today are part of an international observation corps who help to guard against perceived injustices against the Zapatista communities (Kingsnorth, 2004).

Two activists who have been to Mexico are Karl and Anne. They described their activist history:

I used to be involved in a direct action group in Newcastle called Tyneside Action for People and Planet (circa 1999). I lived in Mexico for two years and I was involved in Indymedia. In 2003 I helped the collective there. (Karl)

And:

I've been active since the 1990s, with the anti-road movement, Newbury bypass etc. I've also been to Mexico worked with local communities and indigenous people, especially women. I try to be active locally as well as globally. So I go to some of the major summit meetings, I was at Prague 2000, J18 and N30 Carnivals Against Capitalism in London [both in 1999]. (Anne)

Pete outlines his previous and current political activities, which demonstrates the way in which ideological reproduction may occur. He was active in Reclaim the Streets at the beginning of the British anti-capitalist cycle of contention and then became involved with both Indymedia and the autonomous UK social centre movement circa 2005:

I used to be involved in various anarchist political groups...

Reclaim the Streets for example... and local community work____

I now help run Indymedia within the social centre... helping the collective, helping to run things here also [at the social centre]. (Pete)

Activist involvement in the social centre is hugely significant. Social centres are an attempt to recreate the movement that emerged in Italy in the 1970s, although in the UK context there is not nearly as much tension between anarchists and autonomists - in fact there is incredible overlap and cooperation between them. It also has to be said that while a range of activists and non-activists with differing ideological viewpoints might attend cultural and political events held at a social centre, the (organizing) collective is largely made up of anarchist activists (Mudu, 2004: 922).

From the interviews I undertook, I found that there was an incredible amount of overlap between different anarchist and autonomous networks in the UK. Activists involved in one group were often involved in another. This is important to note since the Indymedia network based at one social centre, where Pete was based, advertised, among other things, the activities of the Dissent! network. This demonstrates how social capital between activists and groups can be exchanged and used to further political causes. Pete told me that:

lots of people who are involved in Indymedia would also be involved in organizing stuff for Dissent! Indymedia would advertise Dissent! network activities [among other things]. (Pete)

Indymedia is a left-wing media outlet but it is not exclusively anarchist or autonomist and a whole range of events is advertised. However, the overlap and support between activists in the same networks contribute to the reproduction of ideology, since this particular Indymedia hub is based at a social centre run by a predominantly anarchist and autonomist contingent. Thus, their ideological views are disseminated through the Indymedia network to other activists, which arguably shapes the anarchist space of the British anti-capitalist field, which in turn reproduces political practices and thus political distinction.

The anarchist activists I interviewed all had a political background in other anarchist networks prior to joining the Dissent! and/or No Borders networks. Some of them had travelled to Mexico and had gained useful cultural capital by acquiring knowledge, skills and ideas on activism from their involvement with the Zapatista communities. The Zapatista uprising has a significant symbolic value within the British anarchist networks; it is regarded as the beginning of the wave of the AGM which has a strong anarchist or autonomist current within it. Activists who travel to Mexico and work with the Zapatista community are considered to have undertaken a political pilgrimage of sorts. There is a strong political-ideological fit between British anarchists (for example, Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets) and the Zapatistas because the Zapatista community is pre-industrial and argues for autonomy from the state and supranational institutions, and they reject corporate economies of scale underpinned by capitalist rationalizations which jeopardize local production and their communities' livelihood and existence. This fits really well with the anti-consumerist and some parts of the anti-industrial political stance of the environmental direct action ideology that emerged in the 1990s in the UK. It is also arguable that, by working with the Zapatistas, activists could gain valuable cultural capital that could be used within the AGM and anti-capitalist movement fields.

A case in point was when I observed activists who gave a talk at a social centre about their time in Mexico. The activists were promoting KIPTIK and explaining how proceeds went to support education and clean water projects in Mexico. Moreover, some of the knowledge transfer consists of activist skills in terms of campaigning. Furthermore, these activities generate symbolic capital, as they demonstrate political credibility, experience and a genuine commitment to anarchist/autonomist praxis and societal transformation on the part of these anarchist activists. Any activist with this experience and status can then use their cultural and symbolic capital to direct struggles in networks in Britain.

The next section considers the socialist contingent of the BACMF, including their activist history and how it contrasts with those of the anarchists above.

Socialists

The political history of socialists is quite different from the history of anarchists mentioned above. The organizations and networks the socialist activists were involved in included the SWP, Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, the Socialist Alliance and, in readiness for the G8 summit in 2005, the G8 Alternatives. Some socialists were also involved in the trade union movement, including Unite and the GMB. When Occupy began in 2011, of course both anarchists and socialists became involved; however, this was a space that encompassed more than these two ideologies. To date I have found no overlap between socialist and anarchist networks. There is a veritable political divide and distinction.

I discovered two political differences in history between anarchist and socialist activists in the BACMF. First, socialists tend towards larger more centrally structured organizations, events and campaigns, and thus developed a certain experience of a particular political action repertoire associated with this. Anarchists tend towards being involved in smaller, loose-knit networks with no central structure - affinity groups are often a preferred method of organizing political actions. Anarchists tend to have been involved in ephemeral campaigns using micro-action, and the networks tend to dissolve and reform. Relevant examples are the way in which Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets UK morphed into Dissent!, and later activists involved in these were attracted to No Borders. In 2011, some of these activists were attracted to the anarchist sections of the Occupy movement. This is similar to Plows' (2004) biodegradable networks idea.

Second, anarchists, while wanting to overthrow capitalism, do not tend to offer a blueprint for change, preferring to act now without the constraint of a plan. They practise what is called prefigurative politics, which refers to living your politics now not deferring your ideas until a revolution happens. Some anarchist variants are influenced by postmodern ideas of the rhizome and plateau discussed in chapter 2. They dislike the idea of a plan as this might constrain the growth of a revolution. Socialists argue quite explicitly for macro social and political change, which is based on variations of Marxist ideologies, especially those associated with Marxism-Leninism.

An interesting example is Daniel, who is a long-standing member of the Central Committee of the SWP and has an established action repertoire for mass international and long-running campaigns such as anti-apartheid. This campaign helped to precipitate massive social and political change in South Africa with the ending of apartheid in 1994:

I have been a member of the SWP and its predecessor since the 1970s and I was very active in the anti-apartheid structure [in South Africa] in the 70s and 80s - that was something I would particularly like to stress. Anti-apartheid also helped a plethora of other coalitions and initiatives and things like that. So that is quite an important part of my personal, political history. (Daniel)

Daniel continues to be involved in campaigns for macro change which are informed by a socialist ideology.

Rick and Miles became politically active during their time as students, after which they then developed an interest in socialist and anti-war politics. They have been involved in large campaigns, both international and national, which draw on social democratic mechanisms and ideas for social justice. In particular, Rick was involved in Ken Livingstone's mayoral election campaign, which saw Livingstone become mayor for London in 2000. Rick disliked the fact that the New Labour Party had moved to the centre-right position in British politics (although New Labour claimed they were centre left, this is debatable). One such instance was in 2000, when Ken Livingstone was defeated as New Labour candidate by use of the block vote. It was considered profoundly undemocratic by certain activists who wanted Livingstone, as he was seen as an 'old labour' as opposed to a New Labour candidate. Thus Rick and others like him wanted to get involved in challenging Tony Blair's thwarting of a left-wing candidate.

Below, Rick and Miles outline their political activist histories, which are informed by anti-war and anti-imperialist ideologies:

Well, my activist experience really goes back to me being at university. I started to organize various sorts of activities on my student campus. I was a full-time activist from there really. I campaigned against the war in Kosovo. I then helped to get Ken Livingstone elected as mayor in 2000. (Rick)

I went to university, joined the Socialist Workers Party and was in that up to and during the time I was with Globalise Resistance. Previous to that most of the stuff I had been doing was around student work, student campaigning and I guess anti-war stuff in Yugoslavia. When the war in Iraq looked imminent I got into Stop the War Coalition. (Miles)

Although socialists do not have the monopoly on anti-war political campaigns, the way in which these movements have developed in the UK, for example through the Stop the War Coalition, means that they are heavily influenced by socialist groups with a strong Marxist-Leninist perspective. The socialists involved in these campaigns tend to draw on anti-imperialist ideologies to explain and resist imperialism and colonialism, say, with Daniel in the antiapartheid movement and Rick and Miles opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Natalie provides her history, which is further evidence of how large campaigns for social change tend to appeal to socialists:

Before joining Globalise Resistance, I suppose I became politically active through student politics. That was when I was a lot younger, student politics initially and then the anti-Poll Tax stuff. (Natalie)

The anti-poll tax movement was not exclusive to socialist politicos by any means; it attracted a wide and varied populace (Burns, 1992). Sometimes, however, it is not the issue per se that attracts socialists, rather it is the nature of the campaign. The anti-poll tax campaign appealed to socialists because it was seen as a vehicle for social change, which provided an opportunity to highlight the structures which create inequality in society: that is, the regressive nature of this tax, the economic injustice and how governments, through certain policies, favour the wealthy. Large-scale campaigns fitted in with the socialist political desire to move into a revolutionary situation, whereby criticism of capitalism can be elevated to people's consciousness.

The next account accords very much with the connections between socialist values within industrial working-class families. Fred describes part of his political socialization when he was quite young:

I was brought up in a south Yorkshire town which really suffered as a result of the closure of industry in the 1980s. So I was brought up around all that and I was took to see various chimneys and pits [that had been destroyed]. I was also part of quite a political family. My parents were in the Labour Party and active during the miners' strike, as well as having relatives who worked in the mining industry and stuff like that. So that's the beginning of how I became interested in politics as a small child. (Fred)

This particular activist felt he had witnessed injustice in the workplace and, as such, tried to organize a trade union branch, after which he became involved in UK Uncut, the SWP, and then Occupy in the city in which he lived:

I was approached by somebody in a Trades Council about organizing unemployed people. So what I decided to do was organize a meeting in the city and try to start a Unite community branch. Which is what I did, and we've now got about 300 members in south Yorkshire: unemployed, disabled and people like that. Occupy was something along that path and it was something that were happening in the winter of 2011, and I sort of, already been involved in UK Uncut and a small amount of workplace organization, and I were really, really excited about the stuff that I was seeing in America, and before that the stuff I'd seen in Egypt.

Fred's political socialization was clearly influenced by trade union politics and how this has a strong connection with socialist groups campaigning against austerity, hence his involvement in UK Uncut and then Occupy. Fred goes on to explain how he got involved in the Occupy movement in the city in which he lived:

So I were really quick off the mark in terms of Occupy and I built a Facebook page and all that sort of stuff. What I spotted quickly was that there were two other groups of people that were organizing and trying to put together meetings. So I pulled those two groups of people together and we had this really strange meeting in a pub. We had this meeting and it was a very difficult meeting in terms

of people____I think a lot of those people that came to that first

Occupy meeting were new to politics and they had not come from any sort of traditions. So they were highly and heavily influenced by stuff that they had read on the internet.

Fred expressed disappointment later on during his involvement in the Occupy movement, when he claimed that some of the activists did not understand that power lies with the ability of workers to withdraw their labour power, and he realized that Occupy activists were unwilling to acknowledge this or work with trade unions.

Dan, Rick, Miles, Natalie and Fred are all socialist activists. They developed a taste for socialist politics through unions and large campaigns aiming to carry out mass change. They have a strong anti-imperialist political position, represented by their involvement in anti-apartheid and anti-war activities, and an interest in long- running, mass campaigns at both national and/or international levels. They have demonstrated how their socialist politics is being reproduced since their politics led them to various new socialist networks, including the G8 Alternatives in readiness for the anti-G8 mobilizations in 2005 and the Stop the War Coalition. In contrast, the anarchist activists did not join or become involved with any of these groups, they chose to join predominantly anarchist networks such as Dissent! and No Borders.

The formation of these different anarchist and socialist networks are evidence of political distinction since they are structured around socialist and anarchist ideology. Neither anarchists nor socialists are part of each other's network. The different networks are also evidence of ideological reproduction, since the activists' ideologies lead them to join the network that fits with their activist history and ideological beliefs.

In 2011, the Occupy movement was a point of convergence between socialists, anarchists and whole range of other political groups, and along with this came disagreements over political practice.

 
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