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|s11- Protests against World Economic Forum at Melbourne|
Shortly after the S11 protests the DSP in their weekly paper claimed that the protests were a success due in large part to their organisational ability. This is nothing more than the rewriting of history to co-opt the story of the protest for their own party building. (GreenLeft: `We made it work by all sticking together')
Andy, a Melbourne anarchist involved in the S11 protests, wrote this paper in August 2001 in response.
But before you read Andy's paper, here is an email from Andy from the AWOL list from just after S11 that demonstrates the essential decentralised organisation of the S11 protests:
Tue Sep 19, 2000 9:02 pm Andy
(In reality, 's11' was a coalition of many groups and individuals, from both Melbourne, interstate and overseas, of which the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, and the progressive, activist environmental movement, especially Friends of the Earth, formed just ONE part.
Other parts included, but were not limited to, the radical, activist environmental movement, especially Earth First!, and a cross-section of those with Bad Attitudes towards Authority, Work and other forms of alienated existence. Those of you who would pretend to represent not only the needs and desires of such people but, in addition, that of the Australian working-class as a whole will find it increasingly difficult to ignore and/or to marginalise such groups. Indeed, this task will become increasingly hazardous the more obvious the real significance and enormous contribution of such groups to 's11' becomes, and despite what the leftist cults who attempt - and fail - to monopolise this movement would like to have the general population believe...)
People organised through Anarchist Web of Liberation - AWOL
Most people at the blockades were not part of an organised left party although we have dozens of those, who yelled at people via microphone speakers. Most people were in loose affinity groups.
- 12 workshop, skillsharing days.
- legal observers
- Reclaim the Streets
- legal teams
- i-express bike communications
- puppets, puppet workshops
- other sound systems
- benefit parties
- convergence booklets.
- Food not Bombs
- more stuff than i can remember.
or: I went to S11 and all I got was this lousy newspaper
By Andy August 2001
In light of all that’s been said and written about S11 and other, similar fixtures on the global protest calendar, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: the radical aspects of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement are under assault not only from the military industrial entertainment complex but significant segments of the official (Leftist) opposition. Now, leftist hostility to the anarchic element in social movements won’t surprise too many anarchists, whether they’ve been involved in organising such protests or not. Further, I’m not trying to argue here that ‘anti-globalisation’ - especially ‘anti-globalisation’ / ‘anti-capitalist’ protest - shouldn’t be subjected to criticism.1 It has been and will continue to be. That said, if the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement may be regarded as being one potential source of radical or revolutionary opposition to global capitalism, then it’s obviously important that anarchists2 understand both the nature of this movement - in particular what gives it this radical potential - and also the reasons it has generated such hostility. This is because it is only through developing such an understanding that effective measures can be developed to combat Leftist recuperation, and for whatever revolutionary potential this movement has to be realised.
The following is a very brief and necessarily flawed attempt to analyse the response of ‘the Left’ to S11, and is based on a paper semi-delivered at the ‘No Gods, No Masters’ Anarchist & Autonomist Conference (see elsewhere in Organise for an even briefer account of this conference). It is intended to be a modest contribution to a much larger and ongoing collective project of radical critique of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement here in Australia.3
One important aspect of current attempts to stifle the radical potential of the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement is the attempt by many on the Left to re-write the history of this movement in terms which downplay or ignore the absolutely crucial contribution of radical anti-authoritarian groups to its development, both in Australia and overseas. Anyone familiar with the history of the authoritarian Left will not be surprised at this: it’s routine for columnists for the ‘Workers’ Mop & Bucket’ (and its non-absurdist equivalents) to dismiss, or more simply to lie about, the long history of anarchist and other genuinely radical resistance to the rule of capital and the state.4 What makes the present assault on the truth in relation to the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement somewhat unusual is the fact that it takes place against a backdrop in which even the state / corporate media has been forced to acknowledge the power and influence of anarchist ideas in this growing movement, much to their (and often our) embarrassment. In essence, like our rulers Leftist groups are concerned (when they’re not openly horrified) at this widespread engagement with anarchist theory and practice and - horror of horrors! - the fact that many involved in this movement have found that anti-hierarchical organising actually does work, despite Uncle Vlad and other’s repeated assurances that it doesn’t.
Now, on the one hand, it would certainly be a mistake to give too much credit to the influence of groups (such as the DSP and the ISO) on anyone outside of the fairly small circles, typically dominated by students, from which these Revolutionary Vanguards of the Proletariat hope to recruit new followers. On the other hand, if anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists, and others interested in truly radical social change want to combat this recuperative tendency, then we must attempt to ensure that our own accounts are circulated among all those interested in social change, and to expose the lies and half-truths contained in both the state / corporate media and much of the so-called ‘independent’ or oppositional, leftist media.
'The Left' is often divided into two camps: one ‘reformist’, the other ‘revolutionary’. On an ideological level, the reformist Left, sometimes also referred to as ‘social democracy’, is most closely associated with the idea that ‘social justice’ may be brought about through the gradual reform of capitalist society. The two most important vehicles for bringing about this reform, according to the social democratic model of social change, are the trade union movement and the Labor Party. The trade union movement seeks gradual improvements in the lives of workers through various forms of bargaining and compromise with employers, a social pact enforced through the (capitalist) state apparatus. One of the reasons for the formation of the Australian Labor Party, which is this year celebrating its 100th anniversary, was - apart from defending a White Australia - to enable the Left, through winning elections to Parliament, to use the Australian state to assist Australian workers in their fight for social justice. In other words, the ALP developed as a way of providing workers some kind of ‘insurance’ in their struggle for better pay and conditions.
And while we’re on the subject of fairy stories, it’s worth noting that, once upon a time, ALP leaders and their counterparts in the trade unions referred to what they were hoping to achieve as ‘socialism’. Use of the term ‘socialism’ has been formally abandoned by the contemporary ALP, however, and many years after it ceased bearing any relation at all to the actual practice of the ALP or, for that matter, its policies.5
The revolutionary Left, on the other hand, barely exists almost entirely outside of the labour movement and the Labor Party - despite the best efforts of the ‘entry-ists’ - and persists in calling itself ‘socialist’.6 And, unlike proponents of reformism, leftist revolutionaries claim to desire radical social change. This is something which can only be accomplished outside of Parliament (‘democracy’) and something which is ultimately only secured through the overthrow of the capitalist state and the establishment of a workers’ state in its stead... and er, with them giving the orders... instead of, like, the bosses.7
Along with their comrades in the tabloid media and among the nation’s shock jocks, leading figures in social democracy opposed S11 and denounced those individuals and groups who planned to actually shutdown the WEF (as opposed to parade about outside it with placards begging those inside the Casino to play nicely) as ‘fascists’. This was true not only of the Labor Party but also the trade union movement, especially its peak body in Victoria, the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC). In much of the ‘mainstream’ commentary this was explained in terms of the labour movement leaderships’ fears of a repeat of the 1996 Canberra ‘riot’ by a small group of workers (who presumably couldn’t wait ‘til after Christmas for those promised bargains).
In short, regarding S11 there was some anxiety on the part of union bosses over whether or not workers, having been gathered together to symbolically demonstrate their opposition to ‘globalisation’ and its effects, could then be kept under their control. ‘S12’ was a perilous undertaking for the trade union movement, in other words, because it took place in very close proximity to a large group of others - Jeff Bracks’s “fascists” - prepared to take slightly more concrete steps to prevent a large group of rich, powerful and completely innocent men from going about their lawful business. In the words of VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard, what S11 lacked, and what therefore prevented the trade union movement’s participation, was “a lot of centralised discipline or authority”.
In emphasising the importance of the (non-)existence of a centralised authority, Hubbard hit the nail on the head, just as the ‘workers in uniform’ - whose Federation is affiliated to the VTHC - were hitting batons on protesters’ heads. This is because the power of the unions is ultimately based on the unions’ ability to determine the limits of workers’ power. ‘Violent’ challenges to the authority and power of the state such as S11 - besides causing conservative and liberal commentators alike to have apoplectic fits - tend to undermine not only the authority and power of the state but also that of the trade unions.8 Simply put, in order for the trade union leadership to be able to bargain on the behalf of its membership, it must first be able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the state and the bosses its ability to control its membership. Because of the existence of uncontrollable, decentralised elements, S11 represented a potential challenge to this control (as did N30, and as, for that matter, have any number of other confrontations between workers and the state).
On the other hand, however, the trade union movement must be able to demonstrate to its own membership, to the state and to society (especially workers) that it is able and willing to represent their needs and interests in a way that alternative institutions and processes cannot. What renders this ongoing imperative to re-present workers’ concerns to the relevant authorities especially difficult is that it takes place during a period in which there’s growing discontent among working people over the enormous disparities in wealth and power that exist within Australian society. And therein, as they say, lies the rub: the trade union movement simply can’t afford to ignore this anger over social inequality if it wishes to retain any degree of credibility in the eyes of workers.
Like most if not all other ‘political’ endeavours, the trade union movement’s attempts to sell itself takes place in large part through - and is therefore subordinated to the imperatives of - ‘the media’. So, what does the media require of the trade union movement in terms of spectacle? Certainly not direct action! S11 was a challenge to the authority and power of the state, in other words, not only because of the fact that thousands of people were willing to inconvenience a large segment of the transnational ruling class through blockading one of their meetings, but also because of the existence of alt.media, especially the internet and sites such as indymedia (http://www.melbourne.indymedia.org).
More exciting than the mere existence of alternative, non-corporate / non-state controlled media, which has existed, in form or another, since the invention of the printing press, was what they were able to communicate: the existence of non- or anti-hierarchical organisational networks (principally AWOL) intended to facilitate direct action against the WEF.
What was significant about AWOL, among other things, was the fact that it allowed for diverse groups to work together effectively and in a way that reinforced others’ endeavours. It also demonstrated what’s possible in terms of creativity and imagination when power is decentralised and non-hierarchical decision-making structures adopted. Strictly speaking, it’s not important that the state / corporate media or the various parties don’t speak the truth about this. All this does is provide further evidence, if any were needed, that the radical content of S11 remained strictly subordinate to both the ‘mainstream’ media’s and the Leninist sect’s objective of making capital out of images of struggle. What is important is that we are able to share that inspiration to further different projects, help establish and allow to flourish a culture of resistance to global capitalism.10
In essence, the Left - despite its very best efforts - was outflanked by S11, both organisationally and politically. Since then, every effort has been made, and continues to be made, to recuperate not just the history of these struggles, but also their organisational basis.
So what was the organisational basis of S11? The principle of decentralisation of decision-making authority: the antithesis of both social democracy and much of the practice, if not some of the rhetoric, of the revolutionary Left. What is even more threatening for the Left is the fact that S11 has entered into the consciousness of individuals in a way that theory divorced from practice cannot. What I think is required now is for revolutionaries, be they anarchists, autonomists or unidentified flying leftists, to ensure that S11 isn’t buried under an avalanche of lies and propaganda; that we don’t allow what happened during that time to become nothing more than some kind of hazy memory. Secondly, to establish alternative anti-marshalling to Leftist-inspired crowd control; to move beyond dependence on the existence of massive media spectacles such as S11 to provide us with a reason to live and finally to ask how can the experience of autonomous organising (or self-management) be extended to include the other 364 days of the year...
Til next time, take care of yourselves... aaand each other.
1 See for example some ‘Reflections on J18’: http://www.infoshop.org/octo/j18_reflections.html.
2 And, of course, all others interested in radical social change!
3 See also, for example, Owen Gager, ‘From Seattle to South Melbourne and After’, Red & Black, No.29, Autumn 2001, pp.31-37 (PO Box 12, Quaama, NSW, 2550) and ‘Reflections on May Day’, “a publication which will analyse the May Day events and anti-capitalism in Australia more broadly”: send contributions, comments and abuse to email@example.com or PO Box 3859, Weston Creek, ACT, 2611. Deadline for submissions is June 15, 2001.
4 For a recent example see leftist accounts of the origins of May Day: with a wave of the pen the eight anarchist militants arrested, tried and convicted of throwing a bomb into the ranks of Chicago’s police at a workers’ demonstration on May 4, 1886, are magically transformed into generic - and hence all-purpose - ‘labour martyrs’. An account of how contemporary anarchists have tried to combat this subterfuge may be found in G. L. Doebler, ‘Haymarket Through a Revisionist Looking Glass’, Fifth Estate, Vol.34, No.1 (352), Winter 1999, pp.5-6.
5 The decision to do so was no doubt based upon a recognition that this ideological sleight of hand was useless even in terms of reassuring the True Believers that their lives haven’t been completely wasted handing out how-to-vote cards on behalf of careerists more intent on securing a place for themselves in the machinery of state than anything so vulgar as promoting workers’ control of industry...
6 Elderly members of the Communist Party of Australia and its handful of just as funky offshoots such as the Socialist Party of Australia - not to be confused with ‘The Socialist Party’, formerly known as the Militant Socialist Organisation or MSO (and not to be confused with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) - remain in control of a handful of trade unions, while the current Premier of Tasmania, Jim Bacon, is an ex-Maoist, etc., but the inability of these sects to become genuine ‘Tribunes of the People’ (sic) seems to be a permanent condition, thank Bakunin.
7 Strangely enough, according to many of these self-described ‘revolutionaries’, this radical break with the past and the ‘old’, ‘rotten’ capitalist order is best achieved not through the development of a radical critique of everything existing but rather through the sale of newspapers. This is an activity which often results in younger members of these groups (much to the anguish of their parents) finding themselves hopelessly embroiled in complicated newspaper distribution chains...
8 In the topsy-turvy world of showbiz, ‘violence’ is defined as disobeying authority; smashing someone’s face in with a baton or running over them with a car before speeding off, on the other hand, is considered to be the very height of courage and diplomacy. Just ask Bubby.
9 Thanks to LK for his kind permission to use this skilfully hand-crafted one-liner.
10 Speaking of Resistance, a good case study in historical revisionism may be found in the pages of the ‘Green Left Weakly’. According to the DSP, until a couple of months ago AWOL didn’t exist, and anarchist involvement in S11 was limited to certain comings and goings within the S11 Alliance. In the end, however, it may be that, given the fact that in reality AWOL played a key role in helping to organise S11 (and more recently May Day), this kind of nonsense only ends up alienating more people than it reassures the faithful sheep in the anti-globalisation movement that the DSP is indeed a Good Shepherd.