At the start of February we had our first national congress of 2014 up in Manchester. Some of our members have written down their thoughts and reflections on the sessions which we hope you find of interest. Needless to say these are personal reflections of some of the key points of interest in each session and are not necessarily representative of Plan C as a whole.
Session 1 (Summary by JW (MCR)) – Building a Popular Left.
Post-crash struggle has been characterised by resistance to austerity – but (in the past few months in particular) we have seen some indications that radical or, at least, left wing ideas are popular, widespread and generally held. For this reason, the first session of Plan C’s congress was dedicated to the question: how do we build a popular communism? This conversation is intended to serve as the beginning of longer term experiments that aim to: actively popularise left positions, disrupt widely held right wing narratives and build on popular ideas to help make them appear achievable in the face of capitalist realism.
Naturally we covered the unanticipated popularity of Russell Brand’s Paxman interview, comparing him to other (transference) figures such as Beppe Grillo (of Italy’s MS5) and Owen Jones. Popular left figures in the media can focus attention on certain problems. We also discussed the possibilities for this to have a pacifying effect.
In the other direction, we looked at how the right gains mainstream recognition and shifts narratives. UKIP have recently had enough airtime to operate largely, if not entirely, through media strategies – a process of normalisation that helps right wing views on immigration, for example, become acceptable. How can left views be normalised in ways that help to advance alternate visions of society?
We discussed the existence of people that hold left views, even radical ones, outside of the organised left – while activism tends to come only from existing networks. Mainstream political debates and the mass media successfully amplify ideas – but how/can this be part of a strategically orientated process in which people undertake political activity with these ideas? We found that the subject of demands, as approached in terms of a popular left, was a helpful way to consider this question.
We did not talk about any specific demands at length, but examples given included – a reduction of the working week, (a) Universal Basic Income, and rent-caps. There was concern that to focus in on demands risks coalescing around Plan B politics (or, ‘Plan B +’) whereas ‘Plan C’ has sought to develop narratives that counter these kinds of politics. Owen Jones’ came up in this part of the discussion, helping us to define the difference between interrupting reactionary slogans (skivers vs scroungers etc.) and making concrete interventions. How/can demands and interventions be sure to have affects that ultimately push beyond Plan B politics?
To very loosely summarise some of the prominent conclusions – it’s easy to identify new militant left subjectivities that exist outside of the left’s current organisational forms. Pointing to the existence of these subjectivities need not just be agitprop for recruitment, but rather recognises that we’re not alone and that we need to place strategies within peoples’ everyday lives.
Other questions posed included – why it is that the left is seen as defending a past rather than embodying a future? What are the unpopular left views? What is the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘populist’ for the purposes of this conversation?
Session 2: Playing Well with Others (summary by JT (MCR))
Gaz and Ben wrote an article called ‘Coordination Beyond Unity’ (in Issue 3 of The Exchange), in which they argued that co-ordination, amongst a contradictory but potentially mutually strengthening ecology of organisations, is a more productive approach to relations with other left organisations than a monolithic and potentially dogmatic politics of unity.
In the context of the impetus in Plan C to develop resonant relationships with other groups, we decided to create two institutions for use by both Plan C and the wider left: a magazine and a festival. These pieces of infrastructure are intended to both help us coordinate with other organisations and to thicken relationships within our own organisation.
“The newspaper is the scaffold of the party”
Plan C have committed to starting a journal to help us think through the questions and challenges that arise during our organising.
The editorial board will consist of a small group of people from within Plan C. In forming the editorial board we had a discussion around having a 50:50 gender split, and what other differences within the organisation we want to have represented on the editorial board, we don’t want it degenerating into a homogenous clique.
The advisory board will commissions articles and will set the agenda. This will consist of Plan C members.
The readership this is aimed at will be communists, autonomoids, anarchists and the curious, both those without a political home and those already ensconced within friendly projects.
The writers can be anyone, not just Plan C members. In fact, we actively want to include lots of articles by non-PlanCers.
The content will:
- Be distinctive by its strategic, practice-based bent
- Have a strong cultural element that is not an afterthought
- Have an international element, and be a link between the UK autonomous left and similar groups elsewhere in the world
- Not be unanimously agreed on by all of Plan C and not just push our line.
The magazine will exist primarily on the internet, with a small print element. It will be free.
- A time for Plan C and fellow travellers to go to the countryside in the summer to discuss politics and enjoy each other’s company.
- This year will be a one-off, a trial run, and fairly small – 100-150 people. We hope this will be a success and turn into an annual event.
- There will be no camping. This is a luxury communist event. We’re going to hire a building.
- There will be themed discussions, entertainment, good childcare, long walks and exquisite feasting.
- There will be a safer spaces policy, but we’re going to think through it ourselves, and not just import an existing model wholesale.
- All participants will be involved in the day-to-day running of the space. Although Plan C will guarantee it happens, everyone will be expected to chip in.
Session 3: Periods of Struggle and Social Reproduction – Food Banks Proposal (GD (Leeds))
The question ‘Should the radical left organise (in) food banks?’ has been raised in various informal discussions . The discussion centred round 2 questions:
1) Are food banks an interesting area to explore?
2) Would an inquiry be a good way of doing that?
Why foodbanks in particular?
Firstly, foodbanks are a new thing in the UK and are growing very rapidly (500,000 users, demand has tripled in the last year). The example of food banks to some extent stands for a wider question about how the anticapitalist left organise, or don’t. Despite the BNP now making tentative moves into ‘food bank’ stalls in East London, the left-wing response to them seems limited to rhetoric. In Europe now and historically further afield, food provision for poor people has been used as a political tool – Golden Dawn in Greece at the moment use them as ‘machines for producing gratitude’, and the Black Panthers and Hezbollah were other examples cited. Clearly the provision of food can and has been used to produce political effects and it could be argued that in the UK at the moment, their political effect is essentially a capitulation to both austerity politics and rising food prices in a world where both money and food are in fact plentiful.
Are foodbanks places to organise from/around or merely a site of desperation and vulnerability?
It was proposed that foodbanks are (obviously) a way of meeting people’s material needs but also possibly a way of building social relationships and political action around basic needs. Could food banks be used not just as a way of alleviating basic immediate needs and not a way to prop up a dying welfare state or a Big Society initiative but as a site of productive struggle? Several comrades commented that from their experiences that people who are experiencing acute poverty often lack agency – they’re just surviving. Several people pointed out that there’s a big difference between being a ‘service user’ or getting material help or advice, and being an active participant in a process, an activist or organiser. Also that foodbank volunteers are quite often those in poverty/ receipt of benefits themselves, so there’s not a clear everyday distinction between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Is there then a solidarity that could be built upon?
What’s the relationship between foodbanks, waged labour, the state and voluntary/community work?
Foodbanks are an interesting/concentrated intersection between the shrinking welfare state including state agencies like the DWP/ JobCentre and voluntary, community and local organisations. An inquiry could use information about specific foodbanks to draw wider conclusions for a politics in/against/beyond the neoliberal ‘welfare’ state at the moment. Can voluntary sector be enabled to be more ‘militant’? Rather than setting up an alternative to the voluntary sector?
What is the bigger reason for intervening in/ organising around foodbanks? What’s the broader politics – of food, of reproducing ourselves, of work and poverty?
Food banks ties closely into the two most fundamental questions of social reproduction: 1) How do we produce and distribute food 2) How do we manage sexual reproduction and the raising of kids? Food banks show that work has been delinked to the ability to feed ourselves (in Leeds a new food bank is opening on Friday evenings specifically to help those returning from work). The decoupling of the wage from the ability to use the wage to buy what we need could be a way of our research linking people who aren’t unemployed and aren’t even using food banks; drawing into the generalising social reproductive crisis.
What are the ‘alternatives’ to foodbanks? Or more antagonistic, constructive models?
Foodbanks can be seen as a disciplinary apparatus not only for the people who are beneficiaries but also the people who work for them. Another commented that mass expropriations – as we’ve seen in Andalucia, for example – is a far more direct way of getting people the food they need without the mediation of ‘referrals’ by the state and the mediation of non-governmental organisations. In Latin America, the MST movement claimed a ‘constitutional right to steal’ if people were unable to afford food. The idea of ‘collective self-provision’ as another alternative to food banks was raised.
An inquiry – why, what, who and where?
The broad proposal was for a small group to work on an inquiry for a few months. This would ideally involve comrades in different cities (Leeds, London and Manchester at a minimum), or could start in one city and then work to draw more people in. An inquiry might include those working and using them, intersections between the state and the voluntary and community sector, and so on. The inquiry could build a network of people working in foodbanks across the country. There would be the possibility of using this initiative to produce propaganda to further politicise food. Volunteers might be the best people to talk to and could contribute more if they wanted. The proposal of an inquiry also opens up the ethics of ‘militant’ research – something of which many of us in Plan C have a fair bit of experience.
This session highlighted how infrequently ‘we’ actually directly consider our relationships to the fragmentary welfare state and the growing social crisis. Almost everyone supported the proposal of the inquiry but by the end of the discussion there was some agreement that the general proposal could be too large a piece of work for the current active group if and we wanted it to fit in well with other work we were doing. However a number of people expressed an interest in continuing this discussion. Get in touch if you’d like to be part of this.
Alongside this we finalised our membership and complaints procedures (our ‘join Plan C‘ page has been updated to reflect this), improved our subscriptions process and tinkered with some of the “back of house” elements which help Plan C to tick along.
If you like what you read and want to find out more about getting involved please head to our ‘Join Plan C’ page or get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org