Apollo House ‣ A Volunteer's Response: Part 3

Paul Bowman with the third piece in his response to an earlier series of pieces by Rowan Clarke on the Apollo House campaign. Paul Bowman is a member of Dublin Central Housing Action and the IWU, both affiliated with the Irish Housing Network, and volunteer with the Outreach Team in Apollo House.

Conclusion - A clash of models

As I said at the outset, the point of comparing my own assessment of the Apollo House and action with Clarke's, is to see if we can tease out the difference in political perspectives that could lead to such different verdicts. In my view the explanation for why the operational or organisational achievement of Apollo House is relatively invisible to Clarke, is that we are starting from different basic assumptions on how political change happens.

I see Clarke's view as one that assigns overwhelming significance to the impact on public awareness to the detriment of the outcomes achieved and the organisational achievement. Clarke grudgingly accepts the achievement of outcomes for the homeless - although his idea of only 40 people being aided is again woefully misinformed - but the operational achievement appears to be completely invisible to him. In other words, I see him as being stuck in what I call the politics of mobilization and representation.

To explain what I mean by that I have to briefly outline the different models of social intervention according to the organiser model. There are three basic models of social intervention, the advocacy model, the mobilization model and the organiser model. They are distinguished by their attitude to power and the strategy and tactics they use. 

Advocacy accepts the existing power structure and management as it is and intervenes to get the best outcomes for their "cases" as they can by using the advocates expertise in gaming the existing system, by lobbying, networking, favour-trading, using appeals, courts, etc. 

The mobilisation model accepts the existing structures of power but aims to change the policy of the existing power-holders by mobilising public support to put pressure on them, or ultimately, via elections, to displace the existing power holders by a new management. Mobilization tactics include protests, A to B marches, symbolic actions and stunts, and concentrating on media coverage and impact on public opinion. 

The organising model recognises the existing power structures and current management, but seeks to build new counterpowers to overcome the existing structures by exercising our own power. Tactics are principally focused on direct action and include occupations, blockades, monkeywrenching, strikes, etc.

Two things need to be stated about this three-way breakdown of models of intervening for social change. 

First, they are not new. The organiser model has its roots in the syndicalism of the pre-WW1 period, of radical unions like the IWW and Larkin and Connolly. They stem from an era when many workers didn't have the vote and had no other option but building their own power to oppose the rule of the bosses.

Second is, despite the historical origins, all three of these models are more or less independent from any particular political tendency - trade unionist, socialist, anarchist, liberal or fascist can all equally make use of the different strategies and tactics of the three models.

Despite the strong role of organising culture in the workers movements from the 1890s to the 1930s, the post-war period saw a relative decline of that culture in the West, thanks to universal franchise and the Keynesian era of managed collaboration between bosses and unions, followed by social partnership from the 1990s onwards in Ireland. After all organising strong collectives for direct action is hard work and often risky. So long as the politics of exerting pressure through mobilization and electoralism was, more or less, delivering the goods, why not take the path of least resistance? 

Another factor is that the type of tactics best suited to the electoral game, media-centred activity, building candidate profiles, measuring success by influence and impact on public opinion and the polls, are precisely the strategies and tactics of the mobilisation model. After all, if you show people how to get what they want by their own power, they might not bother electing your candidates to do it on their behalf. 

The end result of all of this is that people have actually forgotten that there is any third option beyond simple advocacy or the politics of mobilisation and (electoral) representation. Danny Morrison's oft-quoted "Armalite or ballot box" slogan presented itself as covering all the options for political activity. Leaving many activists, looking for something other than electoralism or dead-end militarism-for-its-own-sake, at a loss without being able to fully articulate what's missing.

For me this is why Clarke sees the self-organisation of the new army of volunteers of Apollo House as having no value and the operational achievements as being at best "redundant". The problem with his perspective is that it leads to the passivity of ‘actionless waiting’ (for that newer, more perfect housing campaign to appear on the horizon) and being reduced to hunting for the presumed "villain of the piece" to compensate for the resulting feeling of powerlessness.

In contrast to Clarke's pessimism I see the achievements of the Apollo House action as immensely encouraging, a new milestone in the development of the politics of organising and direct action that we need to continue to build. Not only to end homelessness and the housing crisis, but also build a society fit for all its members, based on prioritising human need over profit. As extraordinary as the level of outcomes achieved for homeless people by Apollo House were, and the undeniable massive impact in the media and public opinion, we need to remember that both were dependent on a solid foundation of direct action and organising. Apollo House was not a charity or a stunt, but an operation, and a successful one. Above all, one with many useful lessons for all people interested in taking future action for positive social change. 


  1. No amount of "intellectual" analysis's or "personal experience" can try and claim it was, a non hierarchical "direct action" using peoples donations to what was claimed as an "end homelessness" campaign, and the expenditure of nearly 40,000 euro was used towards a private security on an occupation, (to uphold a court order.)

    Attached here is a collection of those who have defined direct action - "against the authority in the shop, direct action against the authority of the law, direct action against the invasive, meddlesome authority of our moral code, is the logical, consistent method of Anarchism." [Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, pp. 76-7].

    "if such actions are to have the desired empowerment effect, they must be largely self-generated, rather than being devised and directed from above" and be "ways in which people could take control of their lives" so that it "empowered those who participated in it." [Martha Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, p. 55.

    Direct action inspires self liberation, where people organise upon themselves and their lives and doesn't involve in having intermediates act on their behalf.

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