Lessons From the Anti-Austerity Movement

The anti-Trump movement will only be successful if it takes stock of the struggles that came before it.

xpgomes12 / Flickr

A friend of mine recently attended a meeting about the nascent anti-Trump movement emerging in the UK. When I asked her how it went, she replied, “It was nice. Like the old days.” She meant that the meeting was reminiscent of those held during the heyday of Britain’s anti-austerity movement in 2010 and 2011.

Back then I was oscillating between low-level office work and anti-austerity activism. It was an extraordinary and dazzling time to be an activist in London, the site of the biggest protests. Your circle of comrades was always expanding; every week there was a protest or meeting of some sort. It felt authentic and urgent — a movement infused with real vitality and power. In some ways, it was the best time of my life.

But if there are parallels between the anti-Trump movement and Britain’s anti-austerity movement, contemporary activists should be worried indeed. In the latter, yes, the movement was transformative and we did brilliant things, but ultimately, we failed. If the anti-Trump movement is to avoid the same fate, it must learn from our mistakes.

Wishful Thinking

One of the central demands of the anti-Trump movement is impeachment. The demand seems rooted in a belief that the president will willingly step down or be forced out if his popularity plummets or his actions are deemed to be illegitimate.

Such a line of thinking is familiar to me. Countless times, I heard activists predict the disintegration of Britain’s coalition government when the anti-austerity movement was at its height.

Indeed, one of the strategies of the student element in the movement was to target the Liberal Democrats, the smaller and weaker partner in the coalition government with the Tories. The Lib Dems had reneged on their promise not to increase university tuition fees, and the theory was that we could use this as a way of peeling them off and fracturing the coalition altogether; the ruling coalition would then collapse.

Somehow, we neglected to ask ourselves some very basic questions about this theory. Why exactly did we think a party who had never been in government would give up its one taste of power simply out of a sense of shame? It was nonsensical.

“Power itself is actually quite a stabilizing force,” notes Novara Media presenter James Butler, who was involved in the student occupation at University College London in 2010. “Perhaps we didn’t realize that because we had been away from power for so long.”

Why do activists think Trump will step down or be impeached? His presidency gives his advisers the kind of power they’ve always craved. Why would they tell him to give that up? And who would bring him down anyway? The Republicans, who see in him a chance to finally dispense with the remaining scraps of the New Deal, or the lickspittle Democrats who failed to collectively oppose his nomination picks? And even if impeachment was successful, the president would simply be replaced by Mike Pence, a true-believing reactionary to Trump’s fair-weather fascism. Is this victory?

Another parallel between the two movements is the assumption that both will become a permanent fixture of the political landscape, with massive crowds fueled by limitless anger continually turning out for street-level demonstrations. But both are and were rooted in a kind of spontaneous, visceral reaction of horror — and as we learned in the UK, visceral reactions eventually peter out.

The anti-austerity movement had deteriorated significantly by 2012. First, because activists themselves became demoralized by losses. Tuition fees were introduced despite protests; most of the spending cuts we were fighting took place. And because we had no long-term strategy for how to continue the fight in the wake of such defeats, it was hard to overcome the exhaustion and sadness that short-term losses engendered.

Secondly, several elements of the movement experienced internal conflicts. For some, the insistence on non-hierarchical structures led to the ascendance of de facto leaders (as it often does). This drew recriminations and bitterness, causing some activists to bow out. Other elements of the movement ran into ideological differences over questions like black bloc tactics that quickly became heated. Movement debates became both personal and painful for many involved.

Finally, we underestimated the extent to which we would be crushed by state repression. Some students were arrested at protests for absurd reasons and went to prison for long stretches of time, like Francis Fernie who was given a twelve-month prison sentence for throwing two sticks in the general direction of a police officer. Others were subject to legal action by their universities, or threatened with suspension.

I was arrested along with 145 other people as part of an occupation of a department store. In our case, the experience was so chaotic and unnerving that many of those involved just wanted to forget that the whole thing had happened at all.

This led to a situation where activists were going to court with very few friends to accompany them. Many dropped out of activism altogether as a result, taking their skills and energy with them.

The Long Haul

All this should not be completely dispiriting. Though we in the British anti-austerity movement made numerous mistakes, the Trump movement can avoid them. But to do so, its key activists must accept that they are in it for the long haul and come up with a strategy. This is just as important as calling demonstrations.

What follows are some ideas, based on the UK experience about what such a strategy could incorporate.

1. Raise money.

One of the problems for the anti-austerity movement was that, outside of traditional institutions like trade unions, we didn’t have any money, making a lot of our activism virtually impossible to sustain. We could have avoided this problem by taking the issue of fundraising seriously.

Successfully raising money means you can hire buses to transport activists across the country, you can spend time on improving your political messaging and communication methods, and you won’t have to rely on the free and uneven labor of people who are also in full-time work — meaning you’ll have less burnout and lower turnover of activists. This must be a central part of your activism, not an afterthought.

2. Implement structure.

Many elements of the anti-austerity movement implemented structure very well — indeed, there wouldn’t be a UK anti-Trump movement now without the networks that were created from the anti-austerity movement. In turn, the anti-austerity movement relied on networks like the climate movement’s.

And yet, we were still faced with the inevitable problem of people dropping out of the movement without passing their skills, knowledge, and contacts onto others. To avoid this, assign roles to key activists in your movement and then treat these roles as permanent positions that must always be filled. If someone needs to withdraw from the movement, make sure they train up someone new to take over from them.

3. Take care of yourself.

Activists who believe in better conditions for workers have to remember to take care of themselves. At one point during the anti-austerity movement, the group I was a part of was taking action every weekend — indeed, we didn’t let up even after some members were gassed by police and three people ended up in hospital.

Activists need to take breaks, and they must create a culture in which it’s permissible to talk about how grueling protest can be, and how scary state repression is.

In the anti-austerity movement, I often found myself in a room with men (and they were usually men) who would introduce themselves by boasting about their arrest record. Glamorizing the risks associated with protest like this makes it harder for activists to ask for help when they’re struggling.

4. Show each other solidarity.

The disintegration of the anti-austerity movement was accelerated by the fact that many activists behaved heinously towards one another. Disagreements over tactics and ideology led to denunciations and excommunication, which ultimately achieved nothing except bad feeling.

A successful anti-Trump movement will need to be a broad coalition, and this means working with people we don’t always agree with. Ask yourself whether organizing with groups or individuals who are less “woke” than you will actually damage your chances of success. If it won’t, suck it up and work with them.

Of course, this sentiment cuts both ways: I’ve seen many activist groups reach a state of crisis because the white men present acted in misogynistic and domineering ways, for example. Political education for newcomers is therefore vital — but keep it as comradely as is reasonably possible, with minimal egotism.

5. Talk about what victory looks like.

A lot of the suggestions above are much easier to implement if you actually know what you’re aiming for. Many elements of the anti-austerity movement, particularly Occupy London, struggled to come up with concrete demands — and many of those involved were reluctant to do so altogether .

I suspect this was for two principal reasons: firstly, the internal politics of Occupy meant that it was almost impossible to debate demands without alienating certain activists. Second, perhaps discussing what success looks like involves admitting that we’re actually quite far away from a socialist utopia, so any achievable demands might end up being somewhat reformist and liberal. This reality is pretty depressing, so some people find it easier to avoid rather than wrestle with it.

If you don’t know what victory looks like, where will your movement go? How will you convince people to keep going when times get tough? You don’t have to settle for paltry successes like an election win for another Clintonite liberal. You can be bold, but be specific.

6. Take power.

Martin Luther King Jr once stated,“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” The Left should always be looking to take power so it can bring about profound social change and make sure that change is permanent.

Take a leaf out of Spain’s Podemos party or the Chilean student movement: identify leaders in your movement, train them up, and then have them run for office. Obviously running for office presents problems in the United States, where the Democrats are what Trump might call a “failing pile of garbage.” But activists should took at each election on a case-by-case basis: sometimes it might make tactical sense to run as a Democrat; other times there may be opportunities for independent campaigns.

Either way, leftist activists should aim to take power. And once they do, they should be reminded every single day of the movement that put them there, and that they better make damn sure they don’t betray its principles.

A full autopsy of the anti-austerity movement would demand an entire PhD thesis, and these suggestions barely scratch the surface. Nevertheless, anti-Trump activists should study the many movements that preceded theirs. Perhaps in doing so, they will come to different conclusions than me about what needs to be done to secure victory.

But there is no excuse for failing to take an inventory of the tactics used by upsurges gone by, or their consequences. There is too much at stake.