The following article was published in issue 1 of Black Light (which was actually the second issue, but just to be fancy they called the first issue Issue 0), released at the recent Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair. It’s an expanded version of this earlier blog post.
Andy put a bunch of subheadings in the printed version that I haven’t reproduced here (because I am slack).
in Contemporary Australia
by Kieran Bennett
The first task of any small political group is to understand the situation in which they seek to operate. Understanding the economic, political and social situation in a given society shows a political group the way forward; it allows us to identify what opportunities exist, what challenges we are likely to encounter, and what our capacity is likely to be in responding to these.
In issue one of Sedition, Jeremy of the Jura collective presented an extremely optimistic picture of the current situation in Australia. In ‘Organising in Australia’, Jeremy correctly identified that the Australian context presents significant challenges for revolutionary anarchists; we face a “political culture steeped in passivity and representative disempowerment”. Persistent corporate propaganda informs us that “life in Australia is as good as it gets – or will be as long as we keep shopping”. The ongoing farce of reformism offers no realistic hope for achieving the radical change our society needs, and it is deluded to think “that the entire population will wake up one day, realise they’re insurrectionists and spontaneously and instantly create the anarchist society”. Any realistic assessment of what will be needed to achieve libertarian socialism directs us towards the task of organising, “we need to build a sustained revolutionary movement”.
Jeremy’s initial argument for organised anarchism is absolutely correct, but his assessment of the organising situation in Australia is utterly wrong. Jeremy writes:
“There is widespread discontent and resistance among millions of people in Australia. They talk to each other and build networks and take a variety of political actions.”
The available evidence on the organising situation in Australia suggests the opposite.
Apathy and Partial Discontent
In June The Australian breathlessly reported that strike days in Australia had reached a seven year high of 257 600, but when you step outside the ideological bubble of the Murdoch media talk of renewed industrial militancy seems farfetched. In 1996, Australia recorded 928 500 strike days, in 1986 it was 1 390 000, in 1976 it was 3 799 400. In 1987 there were 223 strike days per thousand workers, in 2008 it was 21, and in 2007 at the height of work choices, it fell to an all-time low of five.
The decline in strike activity is mirrored by the decline in union membership:
From August 1992 to August 2011, the proportion of those who were trade union members in their main job has fallen from 43% to 18% for employees who were males and 35% to 18% for females. – ABS
Australia’s working class remains in the trough of a thirty year low in resistance, as measured through strike activity and union membership. These measures are particularly relevant as Jeremy argues for anarchist engagement with those unions pursuing the ‘organiser’ model.
The discontent that does exist in Australia is expressed either as total apathy, or as discontent with the present head of government. Compulsory voting is still working for the Australian state. Voter turn-out in federal elections remains at or around 94%, and the informal vote in federal elections hovers at around 4%.
There is no evidence of millions of discontent Australians engaging network building or political action in statistics on civic participation. At the 2006 census :
19% of adults reported that they had actively participated in civic and political groups in the previous 12 months. This level of involvement varied with age, peaking at around 24% for people aged 45-64 years. The civic or political groups that people were most likely to be active in were trade union, professional and technical associations (7%), environmental or animal welfare groups (5%), followed by body corporate or tenants’ associations (4%). Only 1% reported active participation in a political party – ABS, 
Anarchy and Formenting Resistance
All of this paints a grim picture for anarchists seeking to build a revolutionary movement in the current Australian context. There are however, limited opportunities for advancing anarchism in this context.
The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement of 2011 resonated with a small subsection of Australian society. For a short time ‘Occupy’ camps in major Australian cities provided an opportunity to advance anarchist ideas to those small groups of people who were inspired to emulate the actions of the Occupy Movement in the United States.
Indigenous discontent with the Northern Territory intervention continues, and the spread of welfare quarantining to the rest of Australia will affect Australians in major population centres for the first time.
The fortieth anniversary of the Tent Embassy in Canberra became the launching point for a renewed Embassy campaign by indigenous activists. The indigenous sovereignty movement argues that land rights are a poor substitute for indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty that was never ceded. Limited space may exist for anarchists to make the links between land rights, reconciliation and capitalism. Land rights are about integrating indigenous communities more fully into Australian capitalism, co-opting indigenous resistance, and further opening indigenous controlled lands up for exploitation. Anarchists may feel uneasy about the statist sounding language of sovereignty, but we are surely for indigenous self-determination, and there is no self-determination under capitalism. In order to advance such a dialogue, Anarchists will need to actively engage in solidarity with the indigenous sovereignty movement, including the defence of the tent embassies that have been established in cities around Australia.
A minority of Australians continue to be disgusted with the treatment of refugees, and resistance inside the system of immigration detention centres continues. Anarchists in Australia are engaged in the campaign for refugee rights and against mandatory detention, but more could be made of the space this campaign presents were anarchists more consistently organised. Trotskyist groups use Refugee Action Collectives like Lenin branded soap boxes, yet the nature of this issue lends itself to an anarchist critique. Anarchists should not be shy in arguing against borders as a general principle. The Cross Border Collective in Sydney is producing some interesting work along these lines .
Australians continue to express concern about the state of the environment, and climate change in particular. Outside the union movement, environmental politics are one of the largest areas of civic participation in Australia:
Over 5 million people (34%) aged 15 years and over took some form of environmental action in 2007-08. People most commonly signed a petition (17%) or donated money to help protect the environment (14%), while attending a demonstration for an environmental cause was relatively rare (2%). Some people expressed their concern about the environment through a letter, email or by talking to responsible authorities (10%), or by volunteering, or becoming involved in environmentally related concerns (9%). 
As frustration with the mainstream political process’ capacity to address environmental issues increases, the space opens for anarchists to advance make the case that capitalism is responsible for ecological catastrophe, and that the capitalist state is incapable of an adequate response. Within the environmental movement there is a two-fold task for anarchists, to argue for real mass organisation (and not GetUp style tokenism), and to argue for tactics that actually confront polluters, the state and capitalism.
The election of conservative governments at the state level in the most populous Australian states has led to a renewed attack on public sector and construction workers. The trade union movement has been militant in its response now that their supposed allies in the Labor party are in opposition. Whilst supporting the campaigns of teachers, nurses and construction workers, Anarchists within these sectors must be ready to argue for more militant tactics. We need to be ready to make the case that industrial ‘umpires’ should be ignored, that early compromise by union bureaucracy must be guarded against, and that continued disruptive industrial action delivers the goods. Again, these tasks would be easier if anarchists were a more organised tendency.
The storm clouds of global financial crisis continue to grow on the horizon, whilst Australia has thus far been isolated, the situation continues to cause a sense of unease. Were a deepening of the global crisis to significantly affect Australia the situation for Australian workers could change rapidly and resistance could develop or falter in any number of ways.
It is likely that next year Australia will have a conservative government, intent on pushing politically motivated austerity, attacking the union movement, and pushing a conservative social agenda. The task before us will be to argue for resistance. In his article in Sedition, Jeremy argues that “if we actually want to make change, we need to do the hard work of building accessible, long-term formal organisations, linked to larger networks”. In that, I whole heartedly agree.
 February 2012, pp. 2 – 4. Sedition is a new joint publication of Anarchist groups in Australia.
 Disappointingly, each article in Issue 1 of Sedition is attributed to a pseudonym or to a first name only. A rather unnecessary step for a movement that is not underground.
 ILO, http://laborsta.ilo.org/, 9C Days not worked, by economic activity
 ILO, http://laborsta.ilo.org/, 9D Rates of days not worked, by economic activity
 ABS, ‘Decline in Trade Union Membership’ http://j.mp/NKZJLt
 ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Voter Turnout’, http://j.mp/LkQFsK
 ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Informal Votes’, http://j.mp/OIvp1j
 It will be interesting to see the most recent census results, taken in the post GFC world. The 2006 results are probably still a reasonable reflection of civic participation in Australia, anecdotally there does not appear to have been a sudden shift.
 ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Civic Participation’, http://j.mp/LrKms5
 Check out http://www.treatyrepublic.net
 ‘We Don’t Cross Borders; Borders Cross Us’, http://crossbordersydney.tumblr.com/
 ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Environmental Citizenship’ http://j.mp/NyC02K