Western Marxism is filled with theories around the failure of workers to fulfil their destiny and act as the principle actors in transforming capitalism to socialism. From Marx’s earliest notions of ideology and false consciousness, Althusser’s notion of the ideological state apparatus, Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and discourse, the Frankfurt school’s notion of the culture industry and, of course, the Situationist International’s notion of the spectacle, Western Marxism has tried to explain the failure of revolution.

Now, the Weapons Conference protest at Te Papa last year got me thinking. From a sociological perspective rooted in everyday life, the Weapons Conference was interesting in the way people steadily and quite quickly became willing to act against the Police and in contravention of the State. At first people were quite timid and not quite sure in their role, while the more experienced activists had already created the first blockade. One of the Auckland anarchists down for the conference initiated a seemingly trivial group activity of chants of “blood, blood, blood on your hands” combined with hand gestures. Another started encouraging and directing the setting up of further blockades of other entrances. At this point the police attempted to break up the first blockade but failed after, with only a bit of encouragement, large numbers of people sat down and helped reinforce the blockade. From this point on, blockades become confident and random people became much more willing and successful in the ensuing police skirmishes.

What if, then, this situation can shed light on the general social reluctance to engage in resistance? What happened here that made people more likely to engage in risky activities? I think the most important feature was group coherence and solidarity. From the beginning of the march where we got everyone to practice blockading, to the group chanting and hand gestures, and the flukey situation where others sat down when the first blockade was being attacked, these features all helped develop a sense of ourselves not as individual protesters but as a group with a strong sense of solidarity against the cops. In many ways, we achieved this quite by chance, but as the day went on and we continued to win and defend one another, the social solidarity increased. We knew that if any one of us was arrested, numerous others would jump in and defend us. The police knew this too, and didn’t dare.

And it reminds me much of school yard bullying. I remember seeing bullying but being far too scared to oppose it happening because I knew my back wasn’t covered, my friends would not be there for me in the face of the bully. But what if there was not only a culture of anti-bullying, but a strong sense of social solidarity at school to act against bullying? What if, rather than feeling isolated and singled out, I knew if I took a stand others would stand by me?

And what if this is, at least in part, generalisable to resistance across the social terrain? What if a key part of building revolutionary resistance is in building a culture and ethos of solidarity that reduces social atomisation and increases the feeling of our resistance being collective? Could this be why oftentimes the most effective resistance comes from areas of the social body still with strong collective ties or societies with the least amount of social atomisation?

Obviously the insights of Western Marxism still have much to offer, especially notions of discourse, but this insight of everyday life must also be a factor.

P.S. The strength of police at protests is dependant on three things:

  1. Their ability to atomise and isolate protesters.
  2. Their legitimate right to strike, as opposed to the illegitimate right for protesters to strike cops. This, combined with an enormously strong myth of police as near-omnipotent beings, makes initiative against police — and not simply in self-defence — difficult.
  3. Their weapons, training and already-established group coherence and solidarity.