Organise! Issue 74 Spring 2010
This issue of Organise! deals with one of the key strategies of modern capitalism – its attempts to casualise many jobs on a world scale – and what can be done to resist it.
This issue of Organise! deals with one of the key strategies of modern capitalism – its attempts to casualise many jobs on a world scale – and what can be done to resist it.
EDITORIAL: What’s in the latest Organise?
This issue of Organise! deals with one of the key strategies of modern capitalism – its attempts to casualise many jobs on a world scale – and what can be done to resist it. A recent example of this resistance to the onslaughts of capitalism as been the events in Greece, where a mass revolt shook the country. An article in this issue deals with these events.
Organise! also marks the anniversary of another revolt, this time here in Britain. The struggle against the Poll Tax between 1988 and 1991, and the part that this paper and this organisation played in it, are described in detail. The Anarchist Federation tends to modestly hide its achievements but here we can be justly proud of the part that we played in the resistance to the Tax.
Of course new attacks are at this moment being mounted on the working class on a world-wide scale. This is to pay for the costs born by capitalists for a crisis that they themselves brought on. Whilst the banks are keen to award themselves huge bonuses, the boss class and government are preparing to launch a vicious campaign of cuts which will axe many services – in education, health, transport, the arts etc. – whilst at the same time preparing to reduce redundancy payments and pension deals. Greece itself is bankrupt and the International Monetary Fund is insisting that the Greek government carry out swingeing cuts. The resistance already shown in Greece needs to be launched again. The United Kingdom is in many ways in the same financial situation as Greece, and there should be no doubt that whoever wins the next election – be it the Tories or Labour – cuts will be attempted on a massive scale. The resistance that defeated the Poll Tax will need to be resurrected. Already workers throughout Europe are fighting cuts, and more and more people need to be drawn into this struggle so that mass action can both resist cuts and begin a project for a new society. Organise! intends both to comment on these forthcoming struggles and to contribute to them in reporting and describing them, and applying a libertarian communist analysis.
CASUAL WORK: NOT NICE IF YOU CAN GET IT
For many people in the so-called developed countries of the West, the choice of part-time working is a positive one. But for millions of others here and in the majority world, temporary and precarious work is not only their only choice but a ‘choice’ that leads to poverty, stress, ill-health and - often - death in unsafe workplaces.
The Extent of Casual Work in the UK
The term ‘casual work’ is used to describe a vast range of employment types with a similar pattern of constraint and reward depending on the employer, the type of work and the sector in which the work is being carried out. People in telesales or direct marketing will often have no contract or a contract that can be terminated at a moment’s notice. They are rarely paid for their time but only according to what they sell. They often work from home or independently and their work can disappear when the employer disappears or market conditions change. The jobs - ‘assignments’ - of agency workers can be short-term (in some cases lasting only minutes or a few hours) or - conversely - can last months or even years without the worker obtaining any better pay or job security.
The rise of casualised working began in the 1980s as a result of the Thatcherite assault on working rights and the creation of market conditions favouring casualisation. For those who had always worked in sectors characterised by temporary and casual working - agriculture, construction, the restaurant and hospitality trades, garment-making and so on - casualisation intensified work and reduced protections (especially as trade unions were rendered largely ineffective despite some courageous struggles). But casualisation and ‘flexibility’ also began to be imposed on other sectors: education, the public sector and the NHS. Deregulation and job insecurity makes it easier to get rid of jobs or replace permanent employees with temporary ones or offering less secure contracts through ‘restructuring’. Pitting one worker against another - as long as they remain isolated from each other - enables the bosses to get more work at times and in ways that yield the most profit. At the same time, casualisation and ‘flexible working’ make it harder for workers to resist these changes and defend their pay and conditions in response.
In 2009 there were at least 1.4m people working under temporary contracts though no-one knows for sure. High turnover of workers, seasonal and flexible patterns of work are the cause but politically, no-one wants to even try to count the numbers of unregistered and ‘precarious’ workers. They are a largely invisible part of the economy, a hidden ‘army of the reserve’ used by bosses as and when it suits them and let go, shifting from job to job, town to town, country to country, frequently alone, with no ties and no friends, unable to find or express solidarity or unity with others in the same boat.
Historically, the unemployed were used to discipline those at work with the fear of unemployment but they were always visible, could organise themselves and be organised around. The abdication of the unions from fighting on behalf of all workers and the decay of political parties as sources of progressive reform and social justice means that this ‘reserve army’ now offers no threat and no object lesson to the troops. Far better - as we said in 2004 - to siphon them back into temporary and insecure employment alongside permanent employees who therefore get a daily object lesson of what their working lives might become if they stand up for themselves.
Workers are regularly conditioned to lower their expectations and accept lower paid or skilled work than they had hoped for. The benefits system is used as a stick to make it increasingly difficult to refuse low paid work or anti-social hours. Greater regulation of the unemployed is the flip side to the deregulation of the labour market. And through in-work benefits, people are encouraged into the jobs market, often into part-time work, with workers subsidising low wage employers through a regressive tax system.
Throughout most of the last decade, almost half of the men and a third of the women making a new claim for Jobseekers Allowance last claimed less than six months previously. In other words they had had a job for less than six months. It’s true that the majority of part-time employees do not want a full-time job but conversely the vast majority of temporary workers do. Part-time employment may be a positive choice for some, temporary employment is usually not. Even amongst the ‘elite’, people with a marketable skill who are looking for work, agency workers, 60% are taking temporary work because they want but can’t find a permanent and full-time job.
The lucky ones will have marketable skills and find their way to one of 16,000 known recruitment agencies in these islands. These agencies may be seen and counted but there is also a hidden trade in human labour: quiet offices above nondescript high streets, suburban houses where people mysteriously come and go, people hired and fired by text, the bosses often unknown and rarely seen, leaving all to middlemen and admin staff who often don’t know who their employer is either. Those 16,000 agencies supply around 225,000 employees out of 1.4m temporary workers; so who supplies the rest? And where are they? What are they doing, at what wage? In what conditions? On this the bosses and regulators are largely silent.
The Big Sell
Flexible, casualised, working is often described by the bosses as entirely beneficial to the employee, both indirectly (efficiency = profit = job security) and directly: workers are, apparently, ‘empowered’. We gain new ‘skills’ and possess greater ‘autonomy’, doing more stimulating work at times we choose, generating a much better work/life balance. Or so they say. The ‘high road’ of flexible working is presented as a progressive trend, providing stimulating work while creating a pro-social dimension to employment practices. For some, maybe. But there is also a ‘low-road’ flexibility of increased deregulation, cost-cutting, casualisation and work intensification in pursuit of competitive advantage and profit-seeking.
Workers are now multi-tasked, put on jobs formerly done by other workers, taking away time at less intense periods of work they used to enjoy and which ameliorated work. For sure, the productivity of workers has doubled but little of this is due to investment in either them, the factory or office or working practices themselves except by way of increased disciplining and control of work and time at work,
‘Flexibility’ has also led to casualisation as workers are increasingly offered non-standard contracts, part-time work, ’zero hours’ and short term contracts, home working, on-call work and outsourcing. Many are made to become ‘self-employed’, offered a contract for specified services but actually under direct control and supervision. They are employees in all but name but lack the rights, benefits and protections they would otherwise get. This applies with even more force to casual workers with few marketable skills. Many companies increasingly have only a core of skilled, permanent managers and supervisors, surrounded by an insecure and transient, relatively low skilled ’periphery’, replicating the historical pattern in factories a hundred years ago or more: a core of skilled craftsmen and managers and a highly disposable workforce of temporary and transient less-skilled workers. Casualisation leads to lower wages and worse terms and conditions. But often unseen is the rise in unpaid working and the intensity of that work by people desperate to keep their jobs. Two workforces develop, in most cases in separate industries but increasingly alongside each other: stratified, isolated from each other, unequal.
Whatever the stated aim, in the UK and US and other economies modelled on them, all forms of flexibility tend to follow the ’low road’ model of work intensification, low employee control of working terms and conditions and increasing unpredictability in pay, hours and continued employment. In response, we work longer hours, complain less and have higher stress levels at work that in the rest of Europe. There is greater competition for jobs and this leads to extra effort at lower costs to the bosses, worth, according to the TUC, around £23bn a year.
Before enlargement in 2004, it was estimated that in the nine largest economies of the former EU there were between 4m and 6m people - mostly immigrants - working in the ‘informal economy’. While many will have papers and be working legally, a vast number are illegals, ‘sans papiers’, experiencing precarious work. All of these experience uncertainty, poor working conditions and low wages. They are often over-qualified for the jobs they are offered or can find, working long hours, enduring occupational instability, and performing physically demanding activities. They may have little knowledge of their employment rights, experience discrimination before and harassment at work and suffer extremely from stress and physical exhaustion.
Precarious workers are frequently ‘sweated’, forced to work long hours at high intensity, in sectors such as garment-making or food preparation. They work in marginal businesses where the boss has no or little interest in either safe working conditions or the health of his or her employees. You risk hard and physically debilitating work in unsafe conditions, the use of toxic substances with little protection, verbal and physical abuse from bosses and, additionally, if you are a woman, unwanted sexual advances.
In case you think this is true only in developing countries of north or south, think again. In 2009 the BBC reported that Primark had been buying garments produced by a sweatshop in Manchester. Investigators found illegal workers making and packing garments for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for a little over half the minimum wage. Work was intense with workers being harassed and abused to make up their quotas and meet orders, working in an unheated factory and paid in cash so no record of employment could be proven. As if paying employees only £3.50 an hour wasn’t bad enough, the firm - TNS Knitwear - subcontracted work to another firm - Fashion Waves - paying only £3 an hour. In Manchester, not Mumbai.
Similarly, the Department of Labour in the US estimates that 50% of the 22,000 registered garment contractors pay less than the minimum wage, two-thirds do not pay overtime and one-third operate with serious health and safety violations. Workers who try to organize and protest poor working conditions are often fired. If so, what do the unregistered ones pay and in what conditions? 4,500 of New York’s 7000 garment factories are classed by the DoL as sweatshops, often highly mobile operation of just a few sewing machines or clothes presses which can vanish and set up again after the state has performed its obligatory clampdown to please the liberals and reformers..
The Casualisation of Death
It is estimated that 2.2m people die each year in work-related incidents though the figure is likely to be higher. For instance, in 2005, India reported only 222 work-related deaths while the ILO estimated the true figure was nearer 40,000.
Precarious and temporary workers are far more at risk of death and serious injury than permanent and full-time workers because they are far more likely to work in unsafe and unregulated workplaces. Injury to them and their deaths are a shoulder-shrugging fact of life for the bosses, a minor inconvenience on the road to profit; after all, there are many more unemployed just beyond the fence or factory wall. In 2004 The Guardian reported that an employee at a high-tech factory in Hartlepool had died two years earlier from a brain haemorrhage after working for 24 hours continuously. Zhang Guo Hua was one of a large number of illegal Chinese immigrants working in sweatshop conditions and living in accommodation housing up to 30 other people. Because Hua had no papers and spoke no English, his death went unnoticed and there was no inquest. For the bosses and the state death has become a casual affair.
Precarious workers are often atomised, isolated and alienated, suffer from homesickness, loneliness and stress both off and on the job. The figure of 2.2m deaths each year does not take into account the number of precarious and temporary workers who commit suicide, are killed by fellow workers in hostels or drinking houses, die of drug overdoses or who simply drop dead from overwork someplace else and are never counted because they never did count except when it comes to calculating profit. A University of Melbourne study in 2007 found that part-time, temporary or precarious workers were between two and three times more likely to suffer depression than permanent workers. In 2008 a Canadian study confirmed that part-time workers with no job security would develop more physical and mental health problems than full-timers. As well as stress at work leading to a 50% excess risk of coronary heart disease, there is consistent evidence that jobs with high demands, low control, and effort-reward imbalance lead directly to mental and physical ill-health. The cost of treating people with depression, whose health has broken down, who are killed or who kill and must be punished, all these costs are simply passed on to the rest of society by the bosses.
The casualisation of work, sweatshop working, the infamous practices of the docks or piece working were diseases that we were told had been eradicated, like smallpox, from the industrial and commercial world, things that had no place in a ‘civilised’ country. But casualisation, the casualisation of both employment and work is a fundamental precondition of capital accumulation, one of the foundation stones of the Industrial Revolution and still necessary - and intensifying - in the age of mobile capital and globalisation. It’s a disease that can strike anywhere, in any workplace or sector, and that brings with it stress, fear, ill-health, mental illness, oppression, abuse and exploitation. Those who casualise their workforce, who exploit insecure workers do it for one reason alone, for profit, literally from the sweat on our brows.
YOUTH IN REVOLT
“This is no mere clash between anarchist groups and the custodians of the law. It’s much more. It is the revolt of an entire generation, the 700-euro generation, which is how much Greek companies tend to pay first-time employees. A miserable salary even by local standards. The unemployment rate among Greek youths is the highest in the EU and the education system is experiencing a profound crisis... Political life is rife with clientilism, cronyism and corruption. ... So the young are revolting against a society in which they feel alien, marginalised and unwanted.”
The Daily Adevărul reflects on the underlying causes of the December 2008 riots in Greece.
A lost generation
Two years ago it was called the “€1,000 generation” – Europeans under age 30 who bounced around in short-term jobs that paid €1,000 a month. Now, even that social label has been devalued. Today it is known as the “€700 generation” – young people entering what amounts to a huge temporary workforce who can’t afford the life and security their parents took for granted. They have little social security, will work far longer hours for much lower pay, and are far more likely to suffer from health problems as a result of their work. A recent survey commissioned by the Greek General Confederation of Labour found that of those workers finding themselves in this category (currently around a quarter of the Greek working population) 89% were not involved with union labour, 75% have never taken industrial action, 75% work in the private sector, and 64% are women.
Widespread unemployment is of course a huge factor in the growth of this casual, poorly paid work. In Spain, Italy, France and Greece, rates are up to 20-30%. In Britain the jobless rate for those aged 16 to 24 is marginally lower at 19.1%. However, this is still on a scale not seen since the early 1990s, and well above the Eurozone average of 15.9%. Many will be forced into temporary labour as a result of the increasingly aggressive benefits system; others will simply opt for anything they can get to avoid the humiliating and degrading experience of going on the dole.
Lack of well-paid, stable work has an obvious impact on people’s general quality of life. The number of adults up to the age of 30 forced to live with their parents due to economic insecurity and lack of access to good, affordable housing has also almost doubled in recent years. In Britain, first-time buyers now face house prices that are, on average, five times average incomes, compared with a multiple of three times 20 years ago. There is also widespread dependence on credit to boost what effectively amounts to poverty wages. People are thrust into a vicious cycle of escalating debt and dependence, often being forced to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.
The UK has never quite recovered from the collapse of the youth employment market in the 1980s. Partly as a result of this, over recent years there has been a huge effort by the state to get more people into full-time further education. The government’s widely publicised target of 50% of young people entering higher education, however, was quietly abandoned with the onset of the economic crisis. Universities are already over-subscribed and now face a squeeze on both fronts, with a wave of spending and staffing cuts accompanied by the promise of severe penalties from central government for exceeding recruitment quotas. Meanwhile, a general lack of opportunities is spilling over into the graduate job market, with levels of joblessness increasing by 44% last year alone and even more in sectors hit particularly hard by the recession, such as construction and architecture.
All is not lost, however! In a recent televised broadcast, Prime Minister Berlusconi was able to offer some highly practical advice. He was asked by a female student how she would survive the financial insecurity that had spread across Italy in the last few years. He said that the best advice he could think of for her was to find a rich boy, like his son, and marry him! Adding in the end that with a beautiful smile like hers she should have no trouble at all!
We are all workers, we are all precarious
Work has always been and always will be unstable while profit margins rule over human needs. The expansion of capitalism has witnessed massive displacement of labour according to shifts in supply and demand, the collapse and growth of markets and, of course, the onset of crisis. While capital has been free to expand across the globe, workers have always had to cope with the volatility of domestic job markets. The type of work we do has also been in a continuous state of change. In the UK jobs in manufacturing, energy and construction work have been in sharp decline since the late 1970s (levels of production have stayed the same). Last year the number of people employed in service-sector jobs more than equalled those in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, energy and water supply combined.
These changing patterns of employment also have an impact on the composition of the working-class movement. Industrial labour has traditionally been the stronghold for workplace militancy in this country. Jobs in the service industry, on the other hand, are far more likely to be on a temporary basis, un-unionised and lower paid. Workers are less likely to have sustained and regular contact with their workmates, and the largest firms in this sector are aggressively anti-union. The high turnover combined with little concern for workers rights means it’s far easier to simply sack unco-operative employees than listen to their demands. These days widespread industrial action is mostly confined to the public sector where union density is still relatively high and work reasonably stable (although this looks likely to change given the wave of recent spending cuts and “restructuring”). The public sector, however, only accounts for around a quarter of the UK workforce.
For those who entered the workplace through the 1970s to the late 80s, memories of picket lines, scabs and class solidarity run deep. Workers over the age of 50 continue to have the highest and most stable levels of union membership, with almost half of those in jobs for 20 years or more being members of trade unions. This is in sharp contrast to those now entering the workforce, with union density within one year of employment as low as 10% overall and even lower in the private sector. An experience of collective organisation, class solidarity and strike action is simply non-existent for a new generation of workers. Even in areas where trade unions have traditionally had a strong presence, they have proven to be largely impotent in the face of recent cuts. The strong rank-and-file movement that sustained them throughout the 70s and into the mid-80s is all but gone. Good old-fashioned absenteeism and theft appear to be the only surviving weapons of class warfare. A recent survey commissioned for the British Science Festival in Guildford found more than two thirds of people have stolen stationery from work, with nearly one in 20 confessing to taking valuable items such as mobile phones or computer hardware. The CBI also estimated in 2007 that 21m working days were lost thanks to workers “pulling a sickie”. However this figure is little comfort compared to the 172m days lost due to genuine sickness, the most common cause of which was anxiety and stress-related disorders due to overwork.
Economists have been quick to reassure us that the massive lay-offs prompted by the recent recession will be offset by growing opportunities in the service industry (the only market that continues to expand). Essentially this means a push for even more temporary and poorly-paid labour - the “€700 generation” is big and getting bigger. It would now be fair to talk of a section of the working class effectively excluded from what remains of the gains of the social wage struggles of past decades. There is a generation of people now entering the workforce who, if they can find a job, will likely have no experience of collective organising in their community (with people living at greater distances away from work) or in their workplace, have little knowledge or experience of workers’ rights, and are finding their public services under increasing attack. Holiday and sick days are also a luxury that you cannot afford when you barely make enough to meet your rent and utility bills. In the restaurant, bar and catering industry it is not uncommon to be working a 7-day week or within that to be pulling “AFDs” (abbreviated from “All Fucking Day”), which is anything above a 12-hour shift with no breaks. The best option available when faced with worsening working conditions is often just to leave and hope to find another job.
Not only this, but temporary labour is often employed to actively undermine what remains of the activity of organised labour. During the CWU (Communication Workers Union) actions of late last year, Royal Mail threatened to hire a 30,000 strong “army” of temporary workers to crush the strike. Around the same time in Leeds, the council spent more than £1m hiring temporary staff to undermine the city refuse workers’ strike. With unemployment rates so high, opportunities so scarce and with so little general experience of even the most basic principles of class solidarity, it’s hardly surprising that bosses are able to draw on such vast reserves of strike-breaking labour.
The “noughties” have seen the last death throes of social democracy. The notion of progressive social reform as idealised by the old Labour movement has been exhausted. Neo-liberalism has been effective in demolishing both the organisational architecture (for example, a strong trade union movement), and the social philosophy that underpinned the social democratic state. We truly do live in a “century of the self” where rampant consumerism is held to be the highest ideal. Where “labour” parties have attained power they have proved to be highly effective at dismantling working class movements and attacks on the social wage.
In the 2004 documentary “The Take”, a film that tells the story of workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina who reclaim control of a closed Forja auto plant where they once worked and turn it into a worker co-operative, Avi Lewis reflects on this general shift in social ideals. One of the subjects of his film is Maddie, a worker involved in the co-operative movement. Maddie is at odds with her mother (Anna), a Peronist who, despite the economic chaos into which the government has thrust the country, still holds the faith that newly elected leaders will bring change for the better. Lewis comments that, “For Maddie government has always been a force that tears things down and sells them off, but Anna like our parents’ generation remembers a time when government was about building things – a national project, a strong public sphere.”
Maddie has no faith in the political system because her experience has always been one of attacks on her class – on her healthcare, her wages, her social security and her job. It is exactly this experience that the Daily Adevărul refers to when speaking of the underlying causes of insurrection in the Greek youth - a society in which they feel alien, marginalised and unwanted; a society which has never offered any hope, only poorly-paid labour, unemployment and insecurity. It is as a result of this that the neighbourhoods of Exarchia burst into flame in response to the shooting of a 15-year-old boy, and that school students, inner-city youth and sans-papier immigrants burn the symbols of the neo-liberal order – the bank, the luxury shop and the police station – to the ground. This is also the type of generational divide that many of us find between young workers in the service sector and in temporary work and the older generation in trade unions and traditional industry – between those who are able to strike and take to the picket lines, and those who can only take to the streets.
The events of Greece and this wider wave of European radicalism are based around different communities than those we would recognise from the traditional labour movement. Although undoubtedly workplace organisation still plays an important role, a critical role even (one of the largest attended popular assemblies during the Greek December was that of the occupied GSEE trade union offices), geographical communities are playing an equally important part. In Greece the squats and social centres of the Exarchia district, and later the occupied town halls, universities and government buildings, played a critical role. In Italy, for the “Anomalous Wave” (rebellion sparked in response to education reform), popular assemblies were the key, with pupils, students and precarious teachers often breaking away from traditional trade union demonstrations to hold occupations and assemblies in the streets. The past year has also seen the resurgence of the radical university campus. Early this year saw over a dozen occupations across the UK in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and a new wave of strikes and occupations has already begun in response to recent attacks on education. Germany and Austria have also seen mass occupations. Claimants’ action groups are also springing up across the country and, in a time of such high unemployment and such sustained attacks against social welfare, have a crucial role to play. This is not to leave aside the inspiring examples of occupations of schools, swimming pools, libraries and other local resources that have recently occurred across the country. Riots and inner-city and urban unrest have obviously been a constant feature of working-class resistance, as have occupations. What is important in these examples, however, is the way these social spaces are able to act to unify otherwise isolated working-class people. These other means of organisation are able to act as an expression of class interests, in spite of the fact that in many cases there is a complete absence of the traditional labour movement.
The experience of many young people entering the workforce is almost reminiscent of the early days of organised labour. It is almost necessary to go “back to basics”. Informal links of fraternity and defence, the building blocks of a united working class, are more important than ever. People need to be in control of their own struggles and seek to cut across this growing divide, which is more than often also a generational divide, between unionised and non-unionised labour. It is clear from the election speeches of all the major parties that they intend to enter us into an “age of austerity” – that whoever wins the next election, cuts in spending and jobs in public services are on the cards. To those who have only known a post-Thatcher Britain this is nothing more than business as usual. That is not to say, however, that people are not angry and frustrated with the position that they find themselves in. Apathy and disillusionment are at an all time high, but as the many examples of recent unrest show. This does not mean that there is no hope. Quite simply, if capitalism has provided us with no future, then the responsibility we have is to make one for ourselves.
A shadow of... glorious (though strange) good things to come.
The Ranters and Libertarian Communism
The English Civil War (1641-1651) was a time unprecedented in English history. Although it ended with the victory of the bourgeoisie under Oliver Cromwell and the first moves towards the establishment of capitalist society, Parliament needed to mobilise lower-class support in order to defeat the Royal forces, and the challenge to authority and existing social order that this involved granted radicals a space to argue for their own ideas. For a brief period, anything seemed possible, and, for perhaps the first time in English history, it was possible for movements to arise based around ideals that anarchists and communists today can recognise as being not so far from our own.
1649 was a high point for revolutionary unrest during this period: King Charles I was executed in January, and April and May saw mutinies by troops over both Leveller political demands and pay issues. At around the same time, a group of soldiers burst into a parish church in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey and declared that the Sabbath, tithes, ministers, magistrates and the Bible were all abolished. This act, which took place near to where the Diggers were setting up their first commune on St. George’s Hill, shows how radical the questioning and rejection of established religion had become.
While the Levellers and the Diggers are both relatively well-known groups, the Ranters have attracted less attention, but they were perhaps the most radical of all the sects and groups existing in this period, and many of their ideas might still have some appeal for contemporary anarchists. Fans of Class War’s style might find their approach to swearing attractive: the prominent Ranter Abiezer Coppe is said to have taken the pulpit in a church and sworn continuously for an hour. He himself declared that he’d rather hear “a mighty angel (in man) swearing” than hear an orthodox minister preach or pray, and one account says that “’twas usual with him to preach stark-naked many blasphemies and unheard of villainies”. According to another pamphlet, they claimed that “God is so far from being offended at the... sins of drunkenness, swearing, blasphemy, adultery, etc, that he is well pleased... and that... it is the only way of serving him.”
‘The merriest of all devils’
The sexual radicalism of the Ranters certainly made an impressive contrast with the repressive society that created them. They saw Original Sin as being lifted, meaning that none of the repressive commandments laid down by the Church through the ages still applied. John Holland’s anti-Ranter pamphlet The Smoke of the Bottomless Pit claims that “they say for one man to be tied to one woman, or one woman to be tied to one man, is a fruit of the curse; but they say, we are freed from the curse; therefore, it is our liberty to make use of whom we please.” Another called them “the merriest of all devils, for... lascivious songs... downright bawdry and dancing”, and claimed that the last two were commonly accompanied by orgies. Of course, it is important not to take this too uncritically: unless accompanied by a commitment to women’s liberation, sexual liberation has frequently just been a way to extend male power. But the Ranters’ relaxed and positive attitude to sexual pleasure still seems vastly preferable to the fear of our own bodies many Christians still promote today.
This attitude to sexuality and swearing was part of a larger challenge to the entire concept of sin and moral order. This wasn’t just an abstract theological debate: the idea of sin was a vital tool for persuading the lower classes not to challenge social hierarchies and accept their role in life. An example of the political implications of sin can be seen in the writings of the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, who supported a limited, constitutional monarchy because he believed that “every man is by nature a rebel against heaven, so that ordinarily to plead for democracy is to plead that the sovereignty may be put into the hands of rebels.”
Mainstream Protestant theologians explained away all kinds of injustices by reference to God’s curse on humanity after the Fall, as when the Leveller William Walwyn was told that “a natural and complete freedom... was fit for man only before he had sinned, and not since”. In this context, the Ranters’ views had revolutionary implications. Coppe stated simply that “sin and transgression is finished... be no longer so horridly, hellishly, impudently, arrogantly wicked as to judge what is sin.” Other stories tell of Ranters looking for their sins with a candle, and concluding that none exist because none can be found, an indication of the way they were beginning to move away from faith in churches and preachers and more towards relying on their own powers of reason (some versions of this story end with female Ranters offering to inspect the contents of their male comrades’ cod-pieces, to see if they can find any sin in there.)
‘Howl, ye rich men’
The Ranters’ views didn’t stop at individual libertarianism: they were also firmly opposed to private property and class society. They emerged from an atmosphere of tense class conflict: one man in Northamptonshire in 1643 asked “what do you tell me of birth and descent? I hope within this year to see never a gentleman in England”, and Charles I himself had warned of the danger that “at last the common people” may “destroy all rights and properties, all distinctions of families.” Abiezer Coppe called the abolition of property “a most glorious design” and called for it to be replaced with “equality, community and universal love.” One description of their views states that “they taught that it was quite contrary to [nature] to appropriate anything to any man or woman; but that there ought to be a community of all things.”
This communism was accompanied by a vicious hatred of the rich: Coppe warned them that “your gold and silver, though you can’t see it, is cankered... and suddenly, suddenly, suddenly... shall eat your flesh as [if] it were fire... have all things common, or else the plague of God will rot and consume all you have” and declared “howl, howl, ye nobles... howl ye rich men for the miseries that are coming upon you. For our parts, we that hear the Apostle preach will also have all things in common; neither will we call anything that we have our own.” Many believed that all social inequality was about to end, as can be seen from the title-page of Laurence Clarkson’s A Single Eye, which declared that it was printed “in the year that the powers of heaven and earth... shall be shaken, yea damned, till they be no more.” These ideas seriously scared the ruling class: the clergyman Nathaniel Homes worried that the common people “much incline” to “a popular parity, a levelling anarchy”. (Homes was not the only writer of the period to describe radicals as demanding anarchy, as the Quaker Robert Barclay also published an attack on The Anarchy of the Ranters and other Libertines.)
‘The greatest curse that ever came into the world’
Along with the class conflict that formed the Ranters’ views, there was an especially strong opposition to the church hierarchy. As far back as 1589, Bishop Cooper had warned of “the loathsome contempt, hatred and disdain that the most part of men in these days bear... towards the ministers of the church of God.” Archbishop Sandys added that “the ministers of the world are become contemptible in the eyes of the basest sort of people.” In 1634, a Joan Hoby from Buckinghamshire declared that “she did not care a pin nor a fart for my Lord’s Grace of Canterbury... and she did hope that she should live to see him hanged.”
Unsurprisingly, the Ranters also turned this hostility to the church up as far as it would go. Coppe denounced “the Ministers, fat parsons, Vicars, Lecturers, etc. who... have been the chief instruments of all those horrid abominations, hellish, cruel, devilish, persecutions, in this nation which cry for vengeance.” He urged the pious to give up their formal religion and declared that “the time is coming, that zealous, holy, devout, righteous religious men shall... die for their holiness and religion.”
This view was shared by numerous other preachers, such as Thomas Tany, who thought that all religion was “a lie, a cheat, a deceit, for there is but one truth, and that is love”, and publicly burnt the Bible “because people say that it is the Word of God, and it is not.” Holland said that “they call [the Bible] a bundle of contradictions... Another said it was the greatest curse that ever came into the world, for, said he, the Scripture hath been the cause of all our misery... and there would never be any peace in the world, till all the Bibles in the world were burned.”
The Ranters’ hostility to established religion combined aspects of anti-rational mysticism with the beginnings of what we can recognise as a rational, materialist worldview. Clarkson, a repentant ex-Ranter looking back on his past, wrote that “I conceived, as I knew not what I was before I came in my being, so for ever after I should know nothing after this my being was dissolved”, rejecting the entire idea of an afterlife (while still believing in some kind of God).
Holland explains that “they say there is no other God but what is in them... and that men ought to pray and seek to no other God but what is in them. The titles they give God are these: They call him The Being, the Fullness, the Great Motion, Reason, the Immensity.” When a religious group reaches the point of not recognising any God other than their own powers of reasoning, the practical conclusions of their doctrines come close to complete atheism. One young shoemaker in St. Martins used to laugh at any mention of God, and say that he believed “money, good clothes, good meat and drink, tobacco and merry company to be Gods.” Similarly, many denied that there was any Heaven other than earthly happiness, or any Hell other than feeling sad.
‘Such men and congregations should be suppressed... that we may have truth and peace and government again’
As you may have noticed, we haven’t been living in a stateless, classless, secular utopia for the last three and a half centuries. So what went wrong? First of all, the Ranters immediately (and unsurprisingly) attracted harsh repression. In August 1650 Parliament passed an Act for the Punishment of Atheistical, Blasphemous and Excerable Opinions, which made it illegal to say that “there is no such thing... as unrighteousness, unholiness or sin... or that there is neither Heaven nor Hell”, among a number of other heresies. This law was accompanied by harsh action: a W. Smith was hanged at York “for denying the Deity”, Jacob Bauthumley was burnt through the tongue as punishment for writing a Ranter tract called The Light and Dark Sides of God, and in 1656 Alexander Agnew, also known as Jock of Broad Scotland, was hung for denying the divinity of Christ, the effectiveness of prayer, and the existence of the Holy Ghost, souls, heaven, hell and sin.
The same year, the radical Quaker James Nayler rode a donkey into Bristol in imitation of Jesus and was condemned to be whipped through the streets of Bristol, then had the letter B branded on his forehead, his tongue pierced with a hot iron, and was given two years of hard labour. Faced with this kind of repression, it’s not surprising that radical movements like the Ranters collapsed, especially since a worldview that celebrated pleasure and denied the existence of an afterlife offered little reward for martyrdom.
However, the collapse of the Ranters was not entirely due to state repression. A wide variety of other factors worked against them, such as the fact that they only rose to prominence after the failure of the less radical Leveller movement. While this defeat meant that many ex-Levellers became Ranters, it also meant that they faced a powerful, united state which had successfully put down the dissident elements in its army. They also had to compete with a wide variety of other sects, especially the Quakers: the Quaker Leader George Fox boasted about how a judge had admitted that if it wasn’t for Quakerism “the nation [would have] been overspread with Ranterism and all the Justices in the nation could not stop it with their laws” (although this statement almost certainly shouldn’t be taken at face value, since Fox would have had a definite interest in exaggerating his sect’s importance, and the ruling class often get hysterical about any threat to their power).
In addition, the Christian elements that remained in Ranterism led many of them to a disastrous pacifism: Coppe famously stated that he was for levelling, but not in favour of “sword levelling, or digging levelling.” Despite all the advances that they’d made towards an atheistic, materialist worldview, they still ultimately believed that they could wait for God to come along and destroy property and class society, rather than having to do it themselves. It’s also possible that the Ranters were just ahead of their time: the anarchist and communist movements have been products of industrial capitalism and the working class it creates, and the Ranters existed in a period before capitalism had finished creating a class of dispossessed urban wage-labourers. Their tendencies towards rationalism would probably have been much more pronounced and appealing if the scientific knowledge needed to underpin a materialist understanding of the world had existed, and their championing of sexual liberty could have had disastrous consequences (especially for women) in a time before effective contraception was widely available.
So what can we take from the Ranters today? It’s certainly true that they failed to turn the world upside down, but then who has? All the insurrections of the past have ultimately ended in failure, but they’ve also shown us a brief glimpse of what another world might look like. Perhaps the last words should go to the Quaker Edward Burrough, who told the restoration government that they could “destroy these vessels, yet our principles you can never extinguish, but they will live for ever, and enter into other bodies to live and speak and act.” More than 350 years after the Ranters and their fellow radicals were crushed, their principles of liberty and community are still entering into new bodies, and our resistance still threatens to shake the powers of heaven and earth.
The title is a quotation from Abiezer Coppe’s Fiery Flying Rolle, cited on p. 334 of C. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (Harmondsworth, 1975)
Anabaptists: Named after their practice of baptising adults instead of babies. The implications of this were more radical than might be immediately obvious, since while both Catholics and mainstream Protestants saw the Christian faith as a community that everyone had to be involved in from birth, the Anabaptists believed that faith was something each believer had to come to individually, and so it couldn’t be imposed from above. The German Anabaptists led by Thomas Müntzer launched a war against all existing authorities and attempted to establish a social order based on total equality and communal ownership of all property, but were harshly suppressed.
Antinomianism: Literally meaning “against law”. Not a specific group, but a term used to cover all those who rejected external law in favour of their own personal moral code. Antinomian ideas spread widely during the period discussed in this article, and posed a radical challenge to social hierarchy and Christian moral order.
Diggers: Also known as True Levellers. Radical group led by Gerald Winstanley. Called for the abolition of private property and communal cultivation of land. They set up a series of communes, most famously on St. George’s Hill in Surrey, but were driven away by landowners. Saw the monarch, clergy, lawyers, and buying and selling as all being linked: “If one truly fall, all must fall”.
Levellers: Political movement aiming for equality and democracy. Less radical than the Diggers and Ranters, but still challenged the existing social order by calling for freedom of religion, equality for all under the law, and something close to universal male suffrage. Had a considerable base of support in the New Model Army, and troops supporting the Levellers challenged Cromwell’s authority and launched several mutinies.
Ranters: Perhaps the most radical of all the groups existing in this period. As well as supporting communal ownership instead of private property, also denied moral law, the existence of sin, Heaven and Hell, and saw God as existing in all things, which often led to denying that an external God existed in any traditional sense. Almost unique in their championing of total sexual liberty during this period.
FIGHTING AND BEATING THE POLL TAX: A RETROSPECTIVE
A good deal has been written by anarchists about the defeat of the Conservative government’s Poll Tax (or ‘Community Charge’, its official name) because we were one of the tendencies building the community revolt that resulted in this working class victory. This year sees the twentieth anniversary of the start of non-payment in England and Wales, inspired by mass refusal in Scotland, where implementation had started a year earlier. There was also escalating confrontations with local government, Labour and Tory alike, as councils caved in to government pressure to set rates and collect the tax forcibly, imprisoning even those they knew couldn’t pay.
Anarchists, not least the Anarchist Communist Federation (as the AF was then called), recognised the significance of the anti-Poll Tax struggle. Our members were involved in fighting as a federation and as members of local community campaigns. This is reflected in articles in ten consecutive issues of Organise! and the writing of two pamphlets that set the scene for much of what followed, and which were widely re-published by anarchists and community campaigns. This article is a member’s observations on what we wrote and the context in which we wrote it.
Our first pamphlet, The Poll Tax and How to Fight It, was in print around October 1988 and was inspired by resistance in Scotland, where, for example, 75% of homes in Edinburgh had ‘Won’t Pay’ posters in their windows. In this period we advocated non-registration in Scotland (including mass-sabotage of the process) as well as the non-payment that was to follow. We celebrated the first community anti-poll tax groups being set up north of the border and, rather optimistically as it turned out, we appealed for non-implementation of the tax by council workers, even suggesting what action they could take. It was clear even at this stage that we were going to have a different strategy from the left, who wanted people to cooperate by registering, even if they were going to protest later.
In ‘What lies behind the poll tax?’ (Organise! 14: Feb-April 1989) we outlined exactly what would be in store for our class in England. This article is a little softer on the councils than the pamphlet. The focus is primarily on the tax as an attack on jobs and services. Looking back, it seems that as an organisation we still didn’t quite understand how the struggle would contrast with traditional campaigns that defended state provision. The article missed the fact that the campaign in Scotland already heralded a class on the offensive for the first time since the defeat of the miners’ and printers’ earlier in the decade, and that in many senses the struggle against the Poll Tax had more in common with the widespread inner city unrest of 1980s.
In ‘Poll tax crunch point’ (Organise! 15: May-July 1989) a Glasgow member exposed Labour’s indignantly entitled ‘Stop It!’ campaign against the ‘Tory Tax’, and they advised activists in England and Wales not to be side-tracked by local politics but to work instead for blanket non-registration from the start. They also suggested what kinds of organisational structures were working best at this stage, including resisting Trotskyist attempts to takeover community-based campaigns. We said of the left, ‘watch out for these people, their authoritarian politics will alienate people and destroy effective action’. Again we advocated trying to involve council and other workers from the start as a key strategy.
‘Mass non-payment takes off’ (Organise! 16: Aug-Oct 1989) celebrated the success of mass non-payment in Scotland and bailiff ‘reception committees’ on estates, and also the impetus that the delivery of registration forms in England and Wales had given those embryonic campaigns. We spared no venom in exposing the hypocrisy of the Labour councils, who amongst other things had frozen the bank accounts of 130 people who had refused to register in the Central Region and deducted money from them. Again we advocated and celebrated solidarity activity by council workers, still with little evidence of it taking place, let alone being effective. With hindsight, we read as though we would have simply been uncomfortable not doing so. We were class-struggle activists, and class struggle will inevitably involve the workplace, right? But what we did get right was the centrality of area-community fight back.
In ‘Militant and other parasites on the poll tax struggle’ (Organise! 17: Nov-Jan 1989-90), ahead of most anarchists and most of the Left, we had worked out that class strength in fact lay almost entirely in the community and not in some idealised ‘yin-yang’ ‘workplace-community’ harmony. At the same time we waged war on the authoritarian left and in particular Militant. With horror we realised that this Trotskyist tendency within the Labour Party had ditched its other campaigns to apparently concentrate on a community fight back as well. Having watched with amusement the soap opera that was the Trotskyist Left for some time, we realised and exposed in detail their real strategy in arguing for mass non-payment and simultaneously signing up the unwary in community campaigns to the Labour Party. They were trying to take over the Party by getting kicked out of it. It was mad but true! This article’s insight would still make Tommy Sheriden’s blood run cold, if it’s warm in the first place, and is probably the most important to appear in Organise! in this period.
Our second pamphlet Beating the Poll Tax (March 1990) again drew its inspiration from Scotland, being published ten months after poll tax demands were sent out there, noting that by December 1989 Lothian council had already admitted that it would have to write off huge amounts of unpaid tax and have to take 100,000 non-payers to court, such was the scale of non-payment and community solidarity. By now bailiffs needed police protection on Scottish estates, as they tried and failed to gain access to non-payers’ homes and were confronted by organised and well-planned collective resistance.
Registration had been sabotaged in England and Wales to the extent that many local councils were months behind schedule in sending out demands. Already Birmingham’s Labour council predicted at least 120,000 non-payers. InBeating the Poll Tax we argued that communities needed to organise not merely outside of the Labour party, councils and union bureaucrats but against them. The pamphlet concludes with a chapter exposing the left for cynically trying to lead the class to an inadequate and misguided conclusion about the Labour Party: that it wasn’t doing enough to support the struggle against the poll tax, when they knew that it was out to destroy that struggle, and throughout the campaign had in fact endorsed successive acts of sabotage by Labour bureaucrats.
As we said in Beating the Poll Tax about Militant, ‘every decision they have made on their campaigning strategy has been based on what they think best serves the interests of their struggle within the Labour Party, not on what’s best for beating the poll tax.’ In that pamphlet we noted that Militant had just launched what we knew to be a front organization, the All Britain Anti Poll Tax Federation ‘in a bid to stamp their leadership on the movement.’ With hindsight, it is hard not to smile at this understatement, given the almost terminal damage inflicted on autonomous community struggle by the ABAPTF.
Still we were looking to council workers to support non-payment. Desperately trying not to rule it out, we noted that ‘the strength of organised resistance to the poll tax is – currently – rooted in the community-end of the campaign’ and ‘the spread of community-based organisation has not – so far- been matched by a similar level of workplace and industrial activity’ (my emphasis). True, in Edinburgh, council workers threatened to strike if any of them was penalised for non-payment, and we made much of a dole office strike in London when workers refused to become poll tax ‘snoopers’ for the council. But it was clear that it was primarily from the communities that the real resistance was coming.
TUC get off your knees!
The non-emergence of workplace opposition changed the landscape of class struggle as far as we were concerned. The enemy was the same enemy, the state and capitalism, but the industrial defeats of the 1980s had destroyed workers’ confidence in the workplace as a viable arena of struggle, and the unfolding collaboration of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party and the TUC with the implementation of the tax did nothing to help the situation. With only three months to go until the first bills would be issued in England and Wales, we were nervous, but in ‘Labour’s poll tax panic’ (Organise! 18: Feb-April 1990) were able to report on what was already turning into a mass mutiny. As reported in ‘Poll tax fury’ (Organise! 19: May-July 1990) demonstrations took place all over England as local councils set poll tax rates. In many places these were so heavily policed that riots broke out. This repression and resistance to it culminated in the mighty ‘Poll Tax Riot’ in Trafalgar Square on March 31 1990: ‘The Peasants Revolt’ (also issue 19).
Flattered as anarchist organisations were to be given credit by the media for orchestrating the most exciting insurrectionary upheaval since the inner city riots of 1981, we ourselves were genuinely taken aback and in awe of what our class is capable of. Arguably the riot was the product of the thwarted aspirations of the 1980s. On one level, we were merely defending our right to march on the capital without being mown down in a pre-meditated attack by police horses and vehicles. But within minutes of that first wave of batons, it was clear that we had been bottling up something painful and powerful for too long, and that the state had no concept of what it had unleashed. For every blow struck back at the police, and for every shop window and Porsche trashed later in the West End, our real power was most evident in the speed with which barricades were erected, maintained and defended by people who had never met before; promises between strangers to look out for each other were made and kept; people targeted by police were de-arrested, and de-arrested again; and the struggle was generalized in the way that only class-struggle can be generalized: the South African Embassy got torched. There was more laughter than shouting; more hugs than bandages (on our side).
Stand or fall
The level of spontaneous self-organisation amongst the ‘rioters’ genuinely fooled some people into thinking that the people were indeed the puppets of some sinister secret force. But we weren’t. It began as “Stand together, fast, or fall” and a defensive stance against a police charge directed at young and old, male and female, the ‘up-for-it’ and the ‘scared-out-of-my-wits’ alike. It was a point of no return for ordinary people, many, possibly the majority, on their first ever demonstration, certainly in the capital.
‘The Peasants Revolt’ in Organise! 19 took a lot of work. We didn’t want to make excuses for class violence. It wasn’t a last resort. It was provoked, yes, but we could have fled and we didn’t. There were several points when the article resonates with a love of our class and the beautiful destruction it is prepared to unleash when its back is against the wall. And like Class War, who’s individual members suffered far worse in the backlash than ours did, we refused to apologise for the violence (as though it was ‘ours’ to justify anyway). But the article is slightly pious nonetheless and reflects our sense that other anarchists would revel in the violence rather than interpret it accurately and that, as usual, good analysis fell to the ACF. On reflection, we should have admitted that we had had fun too.
The clampdown following this event was extensive of course. Not only were the press and the Met seeking out the identities of rioters, but Labour’s Roy ‘exemplary sentences’ Hattersley and Militant’s Steve ‘we will be naming names’ Nally, were for once of one mind. ‘ The state goes on the offensive’ (Organise! 20: Aug-Nov 1990) comments on police operations after the event and on the establishing of the Trafalgar Square Defence Campaign and the amazing extent to which a working class already struggling financially was prepared to show really meaningful solidarity with the defendents. Outrageously, the ACF even advocated ‘masking up’ as routine on future demos! We were right because, as we reported in ‘Fighting on the poll tax front’ (Organise! 21: Dec-Feb 1990-91)