THE LIMITS OF UNSTRUCTURED COLLECTIVES
This article, or series of articles has been put together to discuss the strengths, but more importantly the limits of a certain type of organisation – one that has been defined variously as non hierarchical, horizontal, autonomous, anarchist, lifestylist , anarchist inspired, grass roots, direct action, freely associating and others. We are rejecting all these terms because not only have they been rejected at one point or another by those who organise using this form of organisation, often they refer to other forms of organisation or concept.
For the sake of ease, and because the term has been used in reference to our
generation for our form of individualism, we are going to refer to the type of organisation as ATOMISM.
This form of organisation many are familiar with – it traces it’s antecedents back to the Zapitista rebellion in ‘94 and further back to the libertarian movements of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It is the form of organisation the utilises collectives, working groups and networks for collective organisation and consensus decision making and hand signals for meetings. In the past decade we can see it’s use in the environmental, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and more recently the anti-cuts movements through networks such as Climate Camp, No Borders, Dissent and UKUncut.
The strength of this form of organisation has been its’ resistance to vanguardist hijacking/entryism, it’s lack of emphasis on a particular dogma or ideological bent explicitly (though there are implicit assumptions we deal with later) and it’s willingness to embrace a variety of end goals, strategies and tactics. This is a refreshing change for everyone who fears the monoism of demonstration, lobby and strike as the only methods for social change, especially when organised by monolithic and ineffective, or downright counter-revolutionary, organisations.
It is also suited to an age when rigid following of singular belief systems, such as religions, marxism, or fascism is widely derided (in the UK at least) as fundamentalist and peculiar. Few want to be in a group that feels cultish, or claims to have a monopoly on truth and understanding of society.
It can be seen to build groups dedicated to particular issues in campaigning that sustain their activity long enough to achieve campaign victories. This is unlike the popular front model used by Leninists that bottom feeds off current activity and campaigns around particular issues to recruit membership (or even worse ‘agitate’/educate) then leaves the campaign high and dry after three months of activity with no support.
There are other things to celebrate, such as the skill based activism that these collectives engender that helps campaigners develop unique skill sets, learn to deal with confrontation and repression fairly rapidly through immediate exposure to it, and generally helps people to learn by doing, rather than relying on the handy hints of a long dead Russians.
This is aided by an encouragement to freely choose roles and activity instead of being ordered to do so, or simply being given a task over which you have had no say in. The idea at the core of this practice is that decision making is not a responsibility to be given to others, but to be empowered to control yourself.
As such there is much to be lauded in these forms of organisation.
For all intents and purposes it is the most popular form of organisation for youth movements and single issue movements of our age. Its’ methods are borrowed and supported by liberals and lobbyists, derided by Leninists for the outright threat they pose to their monopoly on anti-capitalist resistance, are the subject of academic study, as well as being screamed about by the right wing press.
There are clear limitations, though, that have consistently failed to take into consideration core organised Anarchist methodology as well as well lessons learnt from the recent past about it’s own failings. If these lessons are ignored again, another generation is doomed to make the same mistakes at a time – at the risk of seeming hyperbolous – when the importance of getting it right could not be greater. On the edge of complete global economic and climate meltdown a movement for peace, equality, freedom and justice that has now captured the hearts and minds of the majority of agents for social change has to focus on being more effective.
The following is for the dedicated souls who wish to do more than create pockets of change, but for those who want to exceed our own expectations and engage a wider world with our ideas and hopes.
Here we are focusing on mostly organisational aspects, with the attendant ideological and strategical conclusions that can be drawn, or feed into this critique.
The lack of democratic accountability, the lack of rotation of roles, the development of knowledge and personality hierarchies, the elitist aspects of preference being given to those with time, money, education and societal status of being white and male and educated, the limited life span of groups, and their lack of coherent history, repositories of knowledge and their inability to provide easily accessible frames of reference are the what we identify as the limits of Atomism.
The focus on single issue campaigning, the internal, action based and skill focused nature of the movement, and groups’ engagement through socialisation rather than through wider forms of communication are also discussed.
Finally an inability to express alternatives, and the fact that action focuses on reaction to excesses of the capitalist system rather than the system itself are questioned.
The emphasis on open process that closes processes and the constraints of the decision making procedures, as well as the social and lifestyle constraints of fashion choice, meeting etiquette and the dominance of particular modes of discussion and being that are prevalent and promoted are all also major limits to the success of this model of organisation.
The lack of delineation of roles beyond working groups creates many problems.
There is a lack of democratic accountability and rotation in position of responsibility that cause knowledge hierarchies to develop. Knowledge hierarchies can be seen in the assumed positions of power of those with the most developed skill set around a particular task the group performs.
This is detrimental to the groups and the individual in several ways.
To the individual it sometimes lumbers them with responsibilities they never wanted, or inhibits them from learning new skills, taking on new roles, or, most importantly, occasionally taking a back seat. This is the primary cause of activist burn out, the developing feeling that nothing would be get done if it wasn’t for you – which leads to personal exhaustion, a over pronounced sense of self importance and a certain disregard for fellow group members – and people generally – who don’t do as much as you.
For the group it leaves it considerably weaker in several respects. Firstly political direction becomes dependant on the capabilities in practice of small group of individuals – what they can do and when they can do it decides your available plans of action.
Secondly new members, who are not often aware of the particular importance of someone due to their greater stake in the group through their particular skill set, are often disenfranchised by the assumed roles of responsibility and importance. It is not clear why these people are more important often, or when it is, it is not clear how you can develop the same skill set, or assume that position of responsibility. If it is not clear that there is a beginning and end point for that position (often because it is not even acknowledged that that person is responsible for a particular role in the first place) then how are you going to be able to have an equal voice to that person?
Thirdly there is little accountability. When someone is not doing a job well, or is in fact contravening the wishes of the group, it is hard to publicly rebuke. There is not only the social awkwardness, there is the inability to fill the role if they were stood down. By large there isn’t even a methodology for doing this and when there is it often seems like a personal attack on an already overworked soul who has only volunteered to take on the role anyway.
Meeting conduct is not only alien to most people and quite off-putting, it also rewards those with the most time, money, perseverance and personality. This can be seen be the length of consensus decision making, but also by the ability of those who know most how to use this complex system being able to manipulate it the most, either through pre-arranging the process to favour certain outcomes, by bullying the facilitation and process during a meeting, or just by being the most confident, forceful and tenacious.
Personality hierarchies develop, which are similarly due to the lack of rotation as well and, like knowledge hierarchies, leave groups precariously developing around the personal and political development of one or two individuals, and has the same attendant proneness to falling apart with that individuals change in mind, burn out, or holiday plans.
One of the most interesting aspects that these meeting and social processes limit groups in, is the way that they exclude, almost without exception, people of colour and of lower social class background and education. There is quite clearly the dominance of white educated males within these groups, followed by educated white females, and to certain extents there is an engagement with the LGBTQ community.
However in the rare cases these groups come into contact with what could be described as working class individuals, they are met with derision, disregard or active opposition.
For instance Climate Camp could actually be seen as an attack upon the working class in the attempt to deprive the working class of jobs with little, to no, alternative articulated. This is an extreme and general example, but when applied on a personal level there are interesting and important points to be learned.
Consensus is an alien concept to most people, but even more alien is the array of hand signals. However well explained these are (often to the impatience of the vast majority) it still provides a clear barrier to people wanting to engage with these new movements (this is discussed further in another article).
This is not something that cannot be overcome, however, if it wasn’t associated with a certain snootyness that, no matter hard they try, white educated people tend to exude. In many cases people from outside this particular social class have felt, or expressed, that they have been actively talked down to or ignored (on those rare occasions that they’ve engaged with ATOMIST organisations).
This has to do with a number of things, including dress (if you’ve ever turned up in a suit from work, or looking particularly trendy/fashionable before a night out to a meeting, you’ll truly know what it is to be an outsider), tone of speech, accent, emphasis on politeness (in Southern Europe, as amongst many here in the UK, politeness is considered the muzzling of true expression of feeling and thought) and topic of conversation outside of politics (how many times have you chatted about X-Factor with people at a national gathering?).
The fact remains that the key actors in these movements build movements of the same social class. This social class is the minority and is regarded by hardened right-wingers to left leaning workers with same dislike for the same reasons.
The limited life span of groups and networks can be seen as a strength. The ability to move on when something is not working and change completely can be seen as adaptable.
But at important times like these it does leave us with no easily accessible repositories of knowledge, no easily accessible methods of access to th scene or movement for newcomers and for a more popular frame of reference. Where do we read the history? Who do we even ask to find out? What would you associate with the movement/movements, if explaining to someone random on the street, that they would have heard of?
It is still hard for even sympathetic onlookers to understand the methods, aims and ideology of our movement as we have no coherent and accessible organisation, set of organisations, or simple source of information for people to engage with -beyond the most longstanding and widely used of information services, Indymedia of course.
Sadly it is limited to current events and not theory or organisational practice and so doesn’t really help with us explaining who we are, why organise, how we organise and what are our alternatives.
By and large the stories of our achievements and failures are oral.
As such they are not only coloured by personal experience to a greater degree than most, but are again inaccessible to wider society. It becomes so that the majority of the population who were not directly involved in particular movements do not understand the agents, tactics, purposes, achievements or causes for particular social changes or campaigns – take GM crops or the roads movement for examples.
The lack of knowledge of origins for certain practices of resistance that have become commonplace is disturbing not the least because they can easily be hijaked (like the far right have in Germany with Black bloc tactics) misrepresented easily or completely ignored.
This particularly relates to the fact that whilst action has been aimed at infrastructure of capitalism, it has often been a reaction to its’ excesses, rather than its’ essence. Campaigns have been won, or had marginal success, but have our groups been key in writing the narrative? The anti-GM movement clearly had its’ story written by the Mail for the majority of people in this country. All the movements highlighted (environmental, anti-globalisation, anti-cuts, anti-immigration laws) are in opposition to symptoms of capitalism and power relations, not the causes themselves.
Of course this is always a problem, and how else is there to be an entry point to anti capitalism? However single issue campaigning that is so dedicated to achieving its limited goals, without expressing a coherent alternative (the radical co-operative movement for instance?) leaves itself open to becoming nothing more than a radical form of lobbying. Gone is the hope that this can be an agent for social change, for the transformative change we so badly need to address the massive inequities of global society.
The narrative we express, then, is one that says ‘take action now, stop this horror, before it’s too late!’ but in it’s immediacy forgets to say (or drowns out) the cry ‘and lets build something better, or else it’ll never stop!’
Is this an organisational problem? Partially. It is most definitely a political, strategic and theoretical problem, but one of the problems of this form of organisation is its’ inability to go above or beyond a certain size, and its method of recruitment through socialisation.
Atomised collectives, by and large, never really exceed the amount of thirty. Maybe fifteen dedicated to meetings, and two to five core individuals, with a maximum one hundred peripheral to be called upon for large events. *
This can be said to be the nature of activism, the general result of mass disengagement with radical politics. However even in major urban centres where there a activist scenes of many hundreds, it can be observed, as regular as clockwork, that collectives reach a certain size then split, as some leave to focus on another single issue.
Is this the nature of human interaction and collective action? We are not sure.
But it could be suggested that personal growth and the ability to take on more responsibility and therefore more ownership of the projects the groups undertake, are stifled by the lack of rotation and the well developed knowledge hierarchies.
In this situation it is natural for a developed activist, desirous of more control and ownership of this major part of their life, to involve themselves in another area of activism that has not yet been monopolised by one clique.
Socialisation is the main form of recruitment to atomised organisation, with friendship being the number one reason to get involved. Shared experiences of a unique nature cement that socialisation process, in turn creating cliques of very tight knit friendship (or ‘affinity’ groups).
Communication tends to be internal and self regarding, leading to an obsession with the media, or publications internal to the atomised movement as these are the only places our actions are communicated and evaluated. They are rarely, if ever, communicated with the wider populace directly, through stalls, flyering, postering, door knocking, or any of the other dirty work that other forms of political organisation busy themselves with. This inward focus is another restriction to growth, and very rarely moves the organisations out of their singular hole.
There is little to no engagement with large organisations in any form, such as trade Unions, NGOs or political parties. Quite rightly they are rejected as dead ends, nonetheless the rank and file of these organisations are often approached by other political movements, are the atomised movements missing an opportunity here?
That atomised anti-capitalists are forever expressing their critique of the system through single issue engagement, rather than a broader critique, then, is due in some part to the nature of their organisations. The only way to engage people and continue to do so is by creating a narrow focus that key individuals can take ownership of, and that their socialised recruits can identify with, as the organisations do not make attempts to engage the wider populace, especially from outside of their social class.
Whilst there is some inherent questioning of the system that a protest camp, attack on infrastructure, squat, social space, or symbolic action creates, it does not express a broader narrative or alternative. This is failure of organisation, not only in focus of communication and lack of external focus.
Because of the social make up of the movement, and because of the limited numbers who will act together, there is a narrow focus on what is defined as constructive action.
This leads to a very physically based definition of action (I.E. prioritising a spectacular demonstration over a strike), and one that it is very skill based. Whilst skill sharing is emphasised and encouraged, it surely must be obvious that tripod climbing and arm tubes just isn’t an option for most people. This is not because they would be physically incapable (though many would be) or just need the right training, but because it is seen as an undesirable and unnecessary form of action by the majority of people. This is not necessarily a moral view point, but tactical and life view point.
Basically not that many people are action junkies because it is seen as peculiar (and thank heavens for that – i am not sure a beautiful new world could be made by a majority of people who base their lives around ‘taking action’) and because there are repercussions that come from acting – in what is still a minority – in this fashion that would be detrimental to peoples lives.
Another discussion that will be continued further as where is that of open process. The idea of open process is not only contradictory because of the reasons pointed out about (the personality and knowledge hierarchies, the limited recruitment due to the process of socialisation and closed social class, and the impenetrability of consensus and hang signals and the physical and lifestyle orientation of the groups involved) but also because decision making meetings are not necessarily an accessible way to involve someone in the actions of a groups or network. At least as a first step.
There is often a limited emphasis on introductory meetings covering who we are, why we do what do and how we do it. An incremental approach to involvement in group activity might be a preferred route to being invited to a decision making meeting as a first port of call. They are as daunting and alienating as the indoctrination techniques of the SWP – and reveal cliques very rapidly. An examination of open process is required to discuss further the implications of engagement with wider circles.
This lack of growth of numbers able to be involved in the movement is clearly a hindrance to the wider social aims of transformative politics, as it is going to require a wider populace than this small scene of thousands to enact true change. The inability to grow except through division and refocusing on single issues or tasks is part of the limiting factor on growth in numbers, and is also an expression of it.
There needs to be a balance between the hideous dogmatic party format approach of Leninists and the single issue cellular growth of Atomism – something that clearly articulates alternatives and a wider critique of capitalism, beyond the inherent questioning of capitalism through taking action against its infrastructure in single issue campaigning – and something that is more widely accessible, even less dogmatic in its ideology, that is not so based around lifestyle preferences, inherited BONUSES social exclusion or elitism. Something that is democratic, simple, easy to understand and engage with and openly available to take ownership over.
Within the atomised movement the suggestion might be re-engineering some focus toward direct external communication with the wider populace. This might be one hour a week for each group member putting up posters, flyers through letter boxes or doing a stall.
It might mean clearly announcing who is responsible for what and when that responsibility will finish.
Another consideration might be to do introductory meeting once a month or so, on a semi regularly basis, in order to give groups an opportunity to focus on engaging with new communities, or within their own community a little more consistently.
This could also give people a chance to break down social barriers to entry and engagement with the movement, as well as engaging a wider populace with the ideas of a wider a message.
For some though it is time to look beyond the atomised movement, if they haven’t already. There are radical unions, alternative economic projects, and co-operative movements out there to engage with, or start. As ever, it is worth keeping the Anarchist mantra of DIY close to your heart, as these projects offer a great opportunity to engage people with massive, transformative and radical change in a non dogmatic, easily accessible and day to day fashion.