By Three Hamilton Members, One Toronto Member
The Marxist urbanist Henri Lefebvre wrote that the working class is made out of urban material. His point was that to understand the working class and to organize it, one had to look at everyday working class life from the totality of urban life, not only at the part of it that occurs on the factory floor. Further, one had to look at the totality of the urban working class, not only at its industrial or factory segment.
David Harvey, another Marxist urbanist, points out that most Marxists have largely not taken Lefebvre’s lessons to heart, and have instead tended to ignore both working class life outside the factory and working class segments outside of the industrial proletariat. This point is less true of anarchism as a whole. Anarchists have historically theorized about and organized amongst the full range of working class and dispossessed groups, such as the peasantry and indigenous people. Neither the anarchist canon nor anarchism in practice identified the industrial working class as the indisputable vanguard segment of the dispossessed.
Indeed, since the revival of anarchism in the 1990s, a great deal of anarchist theory and practice has focused on the terrain of urban class struggle; particularly, in the form of squatting, anti-police and anti-racist organizing, local food security, struggles against ecologically destructive and colonialist urbanization, building counter-cultural spaces in the city, and building urban sanctuaries for migrant workers. This is especially true in North America where the link with the broader anarchist tradition has been almost completely broken.
In this piece, we will argue that workplace organizing or community/urban focus is not an either/or proposition. Historically, anarchist and other modern revolutionary social movements have been strongest when they address, as much as possible, the totality of exploitation and domination under capitalism – that is, organized along class-wide lines, in the workplace and in the streets. We begin with a reflection of the anarchist movement in revolutionary Spain, and how their organizations attempted to fulfill that task. Next we will lay out a theoretical basis to examine the particular role that cities and urbanization play in the (re)production of capitalism and what this means for our current context. Then, we will explore how the mode of production and phase of urbanization creates and informs a corresponding class composition and associated forms of struggle. Finally, we provide a practical example of applying this framework to a Toronto neighbourhood, and conclude with proposals of how this analysis should inform our organizing work.
Historic Study: The CNT as an Urban Social Movement
Besides allowing the introduction of our topic in concrete terms, the experience of the CNT before and during the Spanish Civil War also has the benefit of showing the profound connection between workplace and urban struggles that acted as the foundation of one of anarchism’s most celebrated movements. Although we must account for almost entirely different conditions in our current context, this should, we hope, make it easier to start thinking about how today’s anarchists may see their different areas of work as potentially stronger if related together in the form of some sort of class-wide, city-wide strategy.
The CNT may seem like a surprising or even one-sided choice. The CNT is after all most loudly claimed by the syndicalist wing of North American anarchism. However, a recent work of social history by the anarchist historian Chris Ealham shows that the CNT was far more than a workplace-based organization. In fact, Ealham argues and shows convincingly, through a meticulous social history from below, that the CNT is best described as a community union based in Barcelona’s rebellious working class barrios (neighbourhoods). While this exposition will need to be brief, Ealham’s book provides a fuller discussion. We hope the following outline will clarify the kind of strategy we have in mind, as well as provide some fuel for the radical imagination as applied to today’s urban class struggle. To be clear, we do not argue that the CNT of pre-Franco era can be “cut and pasted” onto today’s urban class struggle. Rather, this example provides us with an outline that helps us think about how we might organize in our cities today.
The historic Barcelona CNT shows us four key characteristics that can help inform our urban organizing today. First, the Barcelona CNT was organized both in the workplace and the neighbourhood. Organizationally speaking, at the heart of the CNT’s “community syndicalism” were the comités de barriada or district committees. Operating out of newlyestablished union centres inside Barcelona’s working class neighbourhoods, the comités were the functional equivalent of shop stewards, except that in this case the “shopfloor” was the neighbourhood itself. These “community stewards” acted “as the eyes and ears of the union in any given neighbourhood” transmitting information back and forth between the local Barcelona federation, which coordinated the local unions, and the neighbourhoods. The result was a high degree of overlap between the CNT’s organizational networks and the rich networks of Barcelona’s rebellious neighbourhoods, which by that time were already bastions of rebellion, self-organization, autonomy and class unity.
Not only did this structure allow the CNT to mobilize community support for workplace struggles and vice versa, it also allowed the local Barcelona federation to plan actions at a city-wide scale. It did this by bringing neighbourhoods together in collective action across the city. And also by giving the CNT power to disrupt and take space – the streets, in addition to workplace or industrial power. The ability to operate strategically at the scale of the city, that is to organize the city, is the second key feature of the community syndicalism of the CNT.
The CNT, and this is its third key feature, fought for issues of concern to the whole of Barcelona’s working class, within and beyond the workplace. It brought the power of its whole organization to bear on struggles against landlords, police, price-gouging merchants, the rising costs of public utilities, and other enemies and issues faced by the local working class – though one important exception was its failure to fully organize against patriarchy inside and outside the movement. Theoretically, we can say the CNT fought back inside capital’s productive, commodity and financial circuits, as well as against the Spanish State: the vicious tool of Spanish and international capital. One famous example is the 1922 Barcelona rent strike, organized by the CNT’s Tenant’s Union and fully supported by the CNT’s Builders’ Union. In this way, the CNT came to organize both around the production and reproduction of working class urban life. If, to paraphrase Lefebvre, the Barcelonan working class was made out of urban material, the CNT can trace its success as the leading working class organization of the time to the fact that it made itself out of this same urban material.
But, as Ealham points out, the CNT did not only adapt itself to this urban social terrain. It also changed it by promoting a working class universalism that allowed the Barcelonan working class to scale-up their identities and loyalties from individual neighbourhoods to the working class as a whole. This is the fourth key feature of the CNT that we want to point to here, because from an anti-capitalist perspective finding ways to build a class-wide allegiance from the existing material of local and/or more narrow identities is a key challenge to our organizing, especially at the neighbourhood level.
These are then the four features of the Barcelona CNT that we find helpful in thinking about what an anarchist approach to organizing at the strategic scale of the city might look like today. While there is a vast gulf between the conditions of Spain circa 1930 and where we find ourselves today, wherever revolutionary situations have taken place in urbanized societies, we see them nurtured by dense patchworks of association developed in neighborhoods, towns and cities.
While much can be learned by looking back to historical examples (for inspiration at the very least), the real starting point is to examine the nature of capital and the working class in our cities today. Is there something specific about the urban experience that foments class struggle? Or are cities merely the containers for struggles emerging from production? This question is even more important to contemporary anarchists, as cities have grown in number and size, and undergone dramatic structural changes. Urban social movements, many of them grassroots and militant, have worked to address the problems associated with neoliberal cities, while academics increasingly address issues of “the city”.
Urbanization as a Site of Production
Incorporating knowledge of capitalist urbanization into experience with militant urban-based social movements contains revolutionary possibilities. For anti-capitalists to engage on an urban terrain, they must understand how cities figure in the processes of capitalist accumulation. For this, we return to the work of David Harvey, which focuses on two ways that urbanization plays a central role in the development of capitalism: as a major process of capital absorption and as key means of implementing capital’s necessary spatial fix.
Harvey points out that cities, even before the development of capitalism, have always been class projects to control the surplus product of labour. Under capitalism, urbanization has become one of the key stabilizers of the system, providing an outlet for the necessary re-investment of profit that capitalists need to compete with one another, shape consumption, and direct flows of labour and capital to their advantage. Harvey posits that the city is itself a point of production essential to the development and maintenance of the capitalist system. The city is essential to absorb surplus capital; provide shelter and sustain workers; and create and transport commodities. Viewed as a whole, it can be seen as a primary site of production and the creation of value – in addition to individual factories and workplaces.
In order to survive, capitalism must constantly grow. However, this constant growth creates barriers, such as “high labour costs” which must be addressed, or else capitalism will go into recession or depression. Historically, Harvey argues, capitalists have used urbanization as a means to transcend barriers to capital, by restructuring the built environment and the lives of people living within it. Post-WWII, capitalism needed to shift production from war economy to mass motoring and consumerism. The suburbanization of North American cities provided a spatial fix to the barrier of an overaccumulation of capital. Later, as trade unions based in these same industries gained power, capital responded with deindustrialization and a shift of production to lower wage zones.
While the urban spatial fix can open up new phases of accumulation, it can also set the stage for new crises. Investment in the built environment can fail to materialize in the way capitalists had planned. This contradiction is at the heart of today’s crisis of capitalism. As capital surpluses grew under neoliberalism, so too did the pressure on the urban process to absorb these surpluses. In the US, this pressure resulted in an aggressive loosening of regulation to open up access to mortgages for lower income workers under the Clinton administration. Debt, a downward pressure on wages, sketchy financial instruments, and an over-supply of housing stock became a recipe for the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008, which was in essence a crisis of urbanization. This crisis continues to shift around the world in search of a spatial fix.
Urbanization as Exploitation
Spatial fix has a secondary meaning. Not only does capital fix its contradictions through cities, it also “fixes” in place a whole set of physical infrastructure (fixed capital) and social relations to go along with it. Each phase of capitalist urbanization carries with it its own mix of technology, consumption patterns, and class politics – Harvey’s “sociotechnical mix”. The Fordist city combined a highly energy-intensive spatial form, a high wage structure for privileged sectors of the working class, and a class alliance between privileged workers and local elites into an urban growth machine based on suburbanization. The flip-side to this was a disinvestment from inner cities, which were left to less privileged sectors of the class and allowed to decay.
In recent years, neoliberal capitalism has turned back to the inner city for fresh sources of accumulation and capital absorption. While deindustrialization continues to grip the rust belt, larger cities have become centres of capitalist innovation in financial services and their spinoffs. Sociologist Saskia Sassen maps the development of these “global cities” in the context of the broader scale of capitalist globalization. As information technologies and globalization have taken hold, Sassen argues that cities have become the most dynamic and profitable sectors of the economy in advanced capitalist states, providing transnational corporations with producer services, like: legal, human resources, financial, etc., to manage transnational production and servicing chains.
The social violence of gentrification must be understood as part of this larger canvass. A new urban growth machine, with its own culture and set of social relations, develops around the processes of the global city. Secondary forms of exploitation, in addition to the exploitation of labour in the workplace, reveal themselves as capital restructures the neoliberal city. Arts and culture, bound up with new urbanist ideologies of the “creative class”, become recuperated by financial capital and real estate speculators to seize monopolistic rents on urban space. Downtown condominium developments flourish while the urban poor – preyed upon by payday loans, slumlords, and temp agencies – are displaced to the periphery. Large sectors of the formerly industrialized working class are relegated to poorly paid and unstable jobs servicing the needs of the white-collar urban middle class. Meanwhile, the destruction of the countryside through suburban sprawl continues, despite the new urbanist mantra of intensification and “smart growth”.
Class Struggle over the Urban Commons
Under capitalism, the city is a key site of production, exploitation, and ultimately class struggle. Cities, regardless of their particular character, are immense repositories of value to be contested. The commons includes the obvious artifacts of public space and municipal services, which can provide respite and enhance the lives of working class people. This is to say nothing of the prospects of socialized production concentrated in the urban space. As Kropotkin declared in a much earlier phase of capitalist urbanization:
The cities… are organisms which have lived through the centuries. Dig beneath them and you find, one above another, the foundations of streets, of houses, of theatres, of public buildings. Search into their history and you will see how the history of the town, its industry, its special characteristics, have slowly grown and ripened through the co-operation of generations of its inhabitants before it could become what it is today. And even today; the value of each dwelling, factory, and warehouse, which has been created by the accumulated labour of the millions of workers, now dead and buried, is only maintained by the very presence and labour of legions of men [sic] who now inhabit that special corner of the globe. Each of the atoms which compose what we call the Wealth of Nations owes its value to the fact that it is part of the great whole. What would a London dockyard or a great Paris warehouse be if they were not situated in these great centres of international commerce? What would become of our mines, our factories, our workshops, and our railways, without the immense quantities of merchandise transported every day by land and sea?
But the commons also include less tangible embodiments of value in the form of arts, culture, education, and opportunities for a rich sociality. In the neoliberal city, to a much greater extent than in earlier phases, physical production is augmented by what autonomists have called the products of “immaterial labour”. Hardt and Negri argue that the shift away from industrial production in advanced capitalist countries has given rise to a new dominant form of production where what is created is not physical commodities, but “immaterial goods such as ideas, knowledge, forms of communication, and relationships.” These goods, Hardt and Negri argue, lend themselves to socialization due to immaterial labour’s “intimate relation with cooperation, collabouration, and communication”. And, as we have seen, this new production is tightly coupled with the production of urbanization.
Struggle for a free (communist) distribution of the immense value of the urban commons can comprise a major set of demands from a politically-composed working class. In turn, the political composition of the class has long manifested itself in sectional, neighbourhood-based forms, from the insurgent arrondissements of the various Parisian revolts, to the soviets of revolutionary Russia, to the more recent popular assemblies of Oaxaca, Buenos Aires, Spain, and Egypt.
Made of Urban Material: Class Composition and Consciousness
When we talk of class composition, we mean the product of the division of labour that stratifies the proletariat, and is necessary to serve the functions of capitalist production and reproduction. The imposition of gendered social roles, waged and unwaged work, employment and unemployment, the regime of white supremacy and patriarchy: these are some of the forces which form the division of labour and the composition of the class. This composition is constantly in flux – regenerating and transforming as a result of the ongoing process of class struggle waged both within and between classes. As capital is confronted by limitations to its growth and expansion, new ways are found to divide, exploit and dispossess the class, providing means to overcome its limitations. As a result, the working class is changed and must find new ways to attack and resist the control of capital.
This ongoing conflict means that particular combinations of forces will lead to the development of multiple layers of consciousness, and revolutionary potential amongst the class. For much of the radical left, this has meant that it is possible to deduce a section of the class, which can be identified as the revolutionary subject most capable of leading the overthrow of capitalism and establishing socialism. Though varying in degrees of orthodoxy and dogmatism, the commonly held line is that this subject is manifested in the industrial proletariat. Positioned at the heart of capital production, their exploited labour within the factories, mills and workshops is understood as the primary site of value creation, and also the element exceptionally capable of disrupting the accumulation of wealth by strike, sabotage, or occupation. Therefore, the workplace and struggles of the industrial proletariat become theorized as the most cutting edge section of the class struggle, or at least of primary concern for revolutionaries.
The Social Factory
The advent of the assembly line, automation, and the strict regimentation of the workplace, allowed for incredible increases in the productive capacity of industrial capitalism. Along with an increase in productivity, came the necessity of negotiating a labour peace with the trade union movement. This historic period of Fordism was defined by an arrangement built on the exploitation of the wage worker’s labour, as well as built on the pillars of white supremacy and patriarchy.
In her seminal essay, Sex, Race, and Class, Marxist-Feminist Selma James identifies the implementation of the wage system as a primary tool for maintaining the sex, race, and class division, and explores its consequences in terms of class composition. James’ examines, in particular, the creation and maintenance of the nuclear family as the basic unit of social organization fundamental to the expansive domination of capitalism. Within this social organization is the realm of unwaged labour outside of what is commonly considered “work” – the work of child rearing, of raising the next generation of workers to be exploited by capital, preparing food and maintaining shelter for the nuclear family. This unwaged labour has historically, through socialization, been gendered as the inherent domain of women. By gendering domestic labour, its exploitative nature is obscured as being ‘women’s work’ and outside of the standard exploitative/productive relationship in the workplace – despite being a function that is “if not immediately, then ultimately profitable to the expansion and extension to the rule of capital”.
While the relationships examined in Sex, Race, and Class focus heavily on the particular condition of the house-wife and role of domestic labour, James’ methodology provides a powerful tool for illuminating the terrain of the class struggle that stretches far beyond the factory gates. In doing so, it also exposes the deficiency of trade unions as organizations, “which reduce the continual struggle for social power by [the working class] into ‘economic determinants – greater capitalist control for a pittance more a week” and as a result, will often reinforce or maintain the capitalist division of labour and internal contradictions of our class, rather than provide an avenue on which to have them smashed.
Class Warfare in the Neoliberal City
Amidst de-industrialization in the US and Canada, production is less likely to be contained to one particular section of the economy, and instead, is spread out over the entire planet in a vast network made possible by widespread access to advanced communication technology and the political and military strength of the bourgeoisie. The unions which once represented thousands of workers, and secured healthy pensions and wages are in a decades-long retreat. Material conditions have provided the means and the necessity to surpass the Fordist arrangement – capital can now travel at lightning speed, bound by neither borders, nor a formidable class adversary. Organized labour is no longer a limit to wealth accumulation in cases where the conditions are such that standard organizing practices are made unfeasible, or in some cases illegal. Rather than negotiate a contract with a unionized workforce, capital is much better positioned to “negotiate” with the individual and isolated worker.
For the everyday wageworker, this has translated into a “career” that is typified by working for dozens of employers for low and inconsistent wages in a variety of industries. The precarious worker is a categorization that has become the rule, rather than the exception. It is important to note that such precarity has always been forced upon the most exploited segments of the workforce; after all, the categorization of migrant worker itself is defined by its inherent precarity. While capital is free to move and provide employment wherever it finds most appealing, the proletariat must literally chase after it – across the planet if necessary. So it has become that it is not a matter of simply being “between jobs”, but the reality that instead we are always between jobs. It’s More than Poverty, a recent report published by the Labour Studies department at McMaster University and the United Way, found that more than half of all workers in Hamilton and the GTA are in precarious work situations.
Within this context, the sites which hold the most promise for developing a revolutionary potential or combativeness among sections of the class can no longer be as easily contained to the struggles of the industrial proletariat, as deficient as this assumption may have always been. Likewise, capital has adapted to correct its vulnerability to standard trade unionism striking at key sites of production, both by extracting the teeth from these organizations and restructuring the nature of production.
However, when we consider the city as the social factory and the relationships that build, maintain and reproduce it as the forces that will determine the course of struggle, new potential for strategy, tactics, and political orientation become evident. The shopfloor becomes the city block: a shopfloor made up by the temp agency, the high rise complex, the household and family, the pay-day loan office, the construction site, and so on. The grievances to be addressed become the police, landlords, immigration enforcement, access to public services, childcare, and gentrification. And “bargaining” for a “collective agreement” or a change in conditions, may sometimes become the stuff of transportation blockades, public square occupations and anti-police riots. The concept of class composition is thus key, because it can push revolutionaries to base our organizational forms and the content of our struggle on the study of an always-changing working class experience and everyday life.
Examining the Terrain
The task then for revolutionaries is to determine how to nurture the conflicts erupting within the social factory, and how to engage in emerging forms of struggle in a manner that maximizes their revolutionary potential and addresses contradictions, while acknowledging the necessity to ultimately surpass and negate them. As a thought experiment on anarchist interventions in city-based organizing, we turn to the hugely diverse and gentrifying neighbourhood of Parkdale, Toronto. Here, we will attempt to apply our theoretical framework to examine the neighbourhood’s class composition, as well as its prominent sites of class struggle, in order to identify possible interventions and forms of class-wide organization.
Parkdale is a historic working class neighbourhood in the southwest of Toronto. It contains a concentration of high-rise apartment buildings, which are home to tens of thousands of low-income renters. Drawn to its relatively cheaper rents and proximity to downtown, Parkdale has historically served as a first place of residence for immigrants to the city. Since the 90’s, bars and retail shops catering to higher income young professionals have moved in. This development is consistent with the global trend of capital returning to the inner cities in search of new sources of accumulation.
However, despite capital’s push to gentrify, Parkdale’s high-rise apartment buildings have largely prevented the displacement of neighbourhood residents. In this way, we see these buildings as presenting a particularly difficult spatial fix for capital. The buildings are a massive infrastructure of concrete and steel. In order for Parkdale to become fully gentrified, the buildings would require massive renovation or need to be demolished altogether. South Parkdale’s residents are overwhelmingly poor.
Unemployment is high, with many residents on social assistance. The population is also highly diverse with significant numbers of Tibetan, Hungarian Roma, Vietnamese, and Sri Lankan immigrants, amongst others. While it is certain that a significant number of Parkdale residents are among the working poor, there is no available data on where Parkdale residents work. We can infer from the large immigrant population that Parkdalians are more likely to be working in precarious, low-paid jobs in the service, manufacturing (temp work), and care work sectors.
In recent years, the Parkdale Business Improvement Area (BIA), an association of commercial property owners and tenants, has worked to solidify an image of Parkdale as an up-and-coming neighbourhod. Re-branding it as “Parkdale Village”, the BIA calls its mix of immigrants, artists, and young professionals, one of Toronto’s “premier destinations for shopping and business.” The BIA’s propaganda campaign creates value for landlords, who can charge higher rents to the more affluent young professionals, and opportunities for developers, as more affluent people are attracted to the neighbourhood. The image projected here ignores the reality of growing poverty and the disparity of wealth in Parkdale today.
The ethnically heterogeneous composition of Parkdale’s population contains divisions, which need to be significantly overcome in order to build class power. Parkdale stands in stark contrast to the Barcelona of the 1930’s where working class barrios were largely ethnically homogenous. Consider the case of Parkdale’s Hungarian Roma population. Fleeing persecution from right-wing paramilitary groups in Hungary, Roma people have been arriving in Toronto in significant numbers since the late 2000’s, many making their homes in Parkdale. Yet, these refugees have not escaped anti-Roma racism in Canada. The Federal Government has made it clear that the Roma are not welcome in Canada, listing Hungary on its list of Designated Safe Countries and funding an advertising campaign in Roma areas, indicating that the Roma are not welcome in Canada. Roma people in Parkdale also face discrimination from landlords, social agencies, and their own neighbours in the high-rises.
Housing continues to be a key concern and site of struggle around reproduction for the working class in Parkdale. In South Parkdale, 93% of residents are renters. Tenants face rising rents, deplorable housing conditions, and landlords keen to displace poor tenants in favour of more affluent renters. The Parkdale Tenants Association has organized around these issues since 1970, bringing media attention to bear on bad landlords. However, especially in recent years, the group has struggled to contend with racial divisions among renters, especially with respect to the Roma.
Other sites of struggle include state immigration policies. The deportation of Parkdale high school student Daniel Garcia in January 2011 was a catalytic moment in the neighbourhood, which saw different sections of the class unite in a campaign to stop his deportation, including teachers and neighbourhood residents. However, the campaign exposed contradictions in class consciousness; many involved in the campaign mimicked the State’s ideology of the educated, professional immigrant in characterizing Garcia as a good student and productive member of society.
Building Power ‘Block by Block’
Given the class composition of a territory like Parkdale, if we are to conceive of the project of building classwide power as one that requires an urban approach and analysis, how do we proceed from here? What forms of organization can lend themselves to this project, and which hinder it? To begin to answer these questions, we look to the neighbourhood assembly.
A neighbourhood assembly can be conceived as a mass organization made up of residents and workers living or working within a defined urban territory. The neighbourhood assembly is autonomous – it does not take its direction from any political authority, whether politicians, religious groups, social agencies, unions or left-wing organizations. This allows the assembly to take on a proletarian character that the trade unions and social agency-dominated ‘community organizing’ initiatives cannot achieve.
In our contemporary milieu, class struggle anarchists have often fetishized the trade unions as a site of political intervention. But what is the actual content of the trade union organization in our current context? It’s the bureaucracy of paid staff reps, lawyers, and organizers, plus a number of elected executives, and sometimes a layer of union activists. The majority of the membership does not participate in union activity. Even in strikes, the percentage of workers doing picket duty is often very low. And as Selma James has pointed out, the trade unions play a role in maintaining the division of waged and unwaged reproductive labour under capital. So while the workplace itself remains one potential site of political intervention, we reject the notion that the trade unions are the primary strategic site of intervention for anarchists.
Community organizing, which is dominated by social agencies is just as ineffectual. This model confines class struggle to established avenues of recourse such as legal battles, lobbying, and consultation with government. The West Lodge Avenue rent strike in Parkdale in the early 90’s was steered in this direction by the local legal clinic. At the advice of lawyers, the tenants entered into a court legal battle with their absentee landlord in an attempt to have the buildings incorporated as one housing co-operative. The case was lost when the landlord came back out of the woodwork to claim their private property rights and the strike was demobilized.
Social movement unionism and agency-dominated community organizing share in common their role as mediators of class struggle. Both are directed by a layer of bureaucrats and professionals whose interests diverge from rank-and-file union members and neighbourhood residents. While the rank-and-file worker and poor high-rise tenant’s interests lie in abolishing themselves as members of an exploited class, the trade union bureaucrat and agency director rely on class divisions for their very existence. This is why a meaningfully liberatory organization of the class must be by and for the class, and operate outside and against the purview of these social managers.
As an organization that is generally concerned with working class life, both in production and reproduction, the assembly also has several advantages over the single-issue group, one–off campaign, or activist organization. The assembly is flexible in that it is an autonomous organization with the ability to take on a variety of issues and projects. Its flexibility lends itself to greater longevity than your average campaign group, because the assembly doesn’t need to fold once the campaign is either won or lost. Instead, the assembly’s activity may fluctuate from struggle to struggle, but it should be capable of passing lessons on from one struggle to the next. We offer the general assembly model here based on our current study and efforts in the urban territory, and we think it best corresponds to current class composition. However, more study and practice is needed to test this model out and further its development.
While an organizational form such as the neighbourhood assembly holds promise for being a means to recompose class power in our cities, it also presents challenges and raises the question of our specific role as anarchist militants. There are preexisting divisions within the class, which anarchists must struggle against politically, while seeking to build class-wide unity.
Contending with the various “community” based institutions meant to channel grievances and mitigate conflict (such as churches, local politicians, conservative homeowners groups, and community policing initiatives) is no small task. While pushing for self-organization and direct action, anarchists mustn’t flee the scene if ever the assembly decided to lobby their city councilor as a course of action, for instance. Instead, anarchists must be present to point out these contradictions and orient towards struggles or conflicts that lend themselves to overcoming them, while avoiding opportunism or “ambulance-chasing”. It would also require the political intervention of anarchist militants to foster principles of self-organization and direction, and to attack white supremacy, patriarchy and homophobia within the class. Furthermore, the assembly is likely only to take on a mass character in a period of low class struggle when catalytic moments of struggle arise.
A neighbourhood assembly could take a radically different approach to organizing class struggles, but is not a be-all and end-all proposition. We must still be vigorous in analyzing and responding to the various struggles and ruptures as they continue to emerge from within the neoliberal city. We also cannot fall into insulating ourselves to one section of the city or the class in the hopes that it holds all the necessary components to move our class forward. As capital continues to push further division and more total exploitation upon the urban environment, our efforts must strive to be as far-reaching and comprehensive as possible. Assemblies must federate across neighbourhoods and across cities, connect with rank-and-file and workplace committees, adapt and grow according to conditions, and be armed with the political capability of mounting decisive attacks that will win actual gains for our class in its entirety.