What we do right now matters

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Not only are we talking about taking back our government — taking back a democracy and making it a democracy — but we're here because we're talking about taking back our humanity. Taking back our humanity, right now here. That's why we're here.
We have a crisis here. But in a crisis there are challenges and opportunities. We're here because we are taking up the challenge and the opportunity…

Let's transform it into what our dear, beloved brother Dr King called “the beloved community”. Let's transform it so people matter more than things.

Danny Glover, speaking at Occupy Oakland

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We live in a time of unprecedented inequality and destruction of the environment on which all life depends. It is also a time of extraordinary alienation — for most — from the decisions that affect our lives. In fact, most people can sooner see the end of the world than an alternative system of social organisation. 

Yet the organised anti-capitalist movement in Australia is very weak.

This is not going to change simply because things are bad and getting worse. What those of us in the movement do right now — how we develop socialist practice — matters.

I think the Socialist Alliance has taken some positive steps in recent years. In particular, I mean the view to building a pluralist organisation that seeks to unite socialists and influence politics, that finds the way forward in and though the practice of struggle. That said, I think we have — and will always have — work to do on figuring out how to do this to maximum effect.

In this context I want to talk about some very practical lessons I learned in 2011 through positive experiences in the Illawarra. Some were new, and others I was simply reminded of, or came to understand better.

This is also, in part, an argument against routinism and socialist identity politics.

Illawarra branch in 2011

Two campaigns were priorities for Illawarra branch last year: the campaign to stop coal seam gas mining and Community Voice, a left unity and community democracy project that contested the Wollongong local government elections.

Socialist Alliance members initiated, worked with others in the local community and took real responsibility in both of these ambitious campaigns, which involved many new people in activity. They were also effective, shifting policy and deepening democracy in Wollongong and — together with other campaigns to stop CSG across the state — New South Wales.

The content of this prioritisation

To be clear, the branch voted to prioritise these campaigns in terms of our limited resources, necessarily reducing activity in other areas. Moreover, we worked as a team around these goals. We also had a division of labour among active branch members that was real — reflecting people's actual activity and our capacity as a branch, not what we hoped members would do.

In general, we challenged routines as things we simply had to do, instead weighing their value against other possibilities. Importantly, this required deciding what was more and less important. We ditched being part of every left action, event and campaign, in order carry out our priorities well.

This meant we avoided over-projecting, while consolidating our efforts to great effect. I also think the content of this approach recognised that social change is not a program, identity or routine that we simply have to work harder at, but a dynamic process of ideas, application and evaluation at the collective level — a collective that in the Illawarra is much broader than the current membership of the Socialist Alliance.

Furthermore, the impact of both the Stop CSG Illawarra and Community Voice campaigns shows that even a small team can initiate and do a few things well.

This wasn't an organisational fix that meant we didn't have to work hard. In fact, our leadership worked harder. It also wasn't a substitute for making political assessments. After all, if we prioritised the wrong campaigns, no amount of hard work was going to mobilise lots of people. Prioritisation was simply a means to really give these campaigns a go.

Effective campaigns

The aims of Stop CSG Illawarra and Community Voice — stopping coal seam gas mining and deepening community democracy — outlined the basis for involvement in each campaign. In both cases these aims spoke to immediately addressing a problem, while maximising participation. Moreover, the group's organisational approaches flowed from productively involving all who wanted to struggle to win the campaign aims.

Putting the time and energy that was needed to drive these two campaigns forward gave them a chance to be effective. This was vital to their growth, as people are not going to throw themselves into a movement simply because they think the politics are right; it needs to be a good use of their time (i.e. have a chance of winning), and not waste resources on activity that does not further growth in size or influence.

The initial effectiveness of both Stop CSG Illawarra and Community Voice motivated deeper activity from members, as well as broader involvement, growing overall capacity of the campaigns.

Moreover, the effectiveness of these campaigns mark an effective period for the Socialist Alliance. In 2011 the Illawarra branch got good stuff done, working with others to: influence politics; increase political engagement, awareness and activity; and deepen community collaboration and democracy.