A world in waiting

“…the weakening of the state, the progressive development of its imperfections, is a social necessity. The strengthening of other loyalties, of alternative foci of power, of different modes of human behaviour, is an essential for survival…Our task is not to gain power , but to erode it, to drain it away from the state.” Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action

Local authorities across the UK are facing unprecedented challenges in delivering their services. After years of enforced cuts and austerity they are no longer able to deliver the services they once could. In terms of service delivery and supporting the most vulnerable within society they are shadows of what they once were. And the effect on communities is devastating. The steady erosion of civic life and institutions over the last 60 years has created a culture of dependency which has deprived communities of the skills and knowledge that once ensured their survival in troubled times. The thriving informal networks and local organisation based around community self-help and mutual aid have been steadily killed off. This hollowing out of community life, now that local government has pulled back from offering anything but the most minimal of services, has meant disaster for vulnerable people across the UK. Alcoholism, disputes between neighbours, CSE, drug dependency, loneliness and isolation, domestic violence, homelessness and food poverty have all risen dramatically. If, as a cynic might suggest, the purpose of austerity was to create a divided and fearful populace ripe for manipulation then the job has been well done.

In this climate of cuts and disintegrating communities local government is still under pressure to deliver services. Ironically many of the problems that people would cite in terms of anarchists seeking to replace existing institutions i.e. shortage of staff, lack of resources etc are exactly the same problems that local government is now facing in continuing to deliver the services they once doled out so liberally.

In a local authority that I am aware of they have come up with a solution to at least provide some of support. Why I believe this is important to us as people wishing to see the current order replaced with something better and more humane, is that I believe it is a tactic we can adopt, modify and put to use for exactly the purpose outlined by Colin Ward in the quote at the start of this article.

Despite the idea being simple, this authority is, as far as I know, the only one to use this approach. The approach, called a “Day of Action” (DOA), works as follows: First an area is selected that has been identified as having, in the eyes of the authorities, a particular concentration of problems. These might be things such as ASB, neighbour disputes, street drinking, drug use, homelessness, slum landlords, possible human trafficking etc. Previously statutory services would have been able to provide across the board support on an ongoing basis to keep such problems at an acceptable (to council managers and local politicians) level. As stated above, this is no longer possible.

Once an area has been selected the Day of Action organiser will try and invite as many partner organisations or agencies as possible to take part. But, and this is a key element, each participating organisation need only send one or two people. The emphasis is on having as many different areas of knowledge and expertise represented as possible.

On the designated day all the participants will assemble at a central co-ordination point, usually a community building or, on occasion, a gazebo or mobile trailer. The coordinator will have a list of everyone who is there, the organisation they are from, their area of expertise and a mobile number. For example, a recent Day was centred in a low income working class suburb where there was a mix of private and local authority rented accommodation, a substantial elderly population, a significant number of foreign workers living in low quality accommodation and issues around ASB, drug dealing and fly tipping. The groups present were the fire service, a local NGO offering support for drug users, the police, representatives from housing associations, housing advisors, various relevant council services and members of a charity supporting families on low income.
Once all the participants are assembled they are paired up with someone from another organisations. In the Day that my contact took part in, for example, they were partnered with someone from a drug user support charity. Each pair is given a part of the local area to focus on and then either goes door knocking (as in my contact’s and the NGO worker’s case) or just walking around and interacting with local people. This interaction is the key part of the day and its purpose is to find out what local concerns are, promote any current council agendas and see where resources can be targeted. As the needs or concerns of people are identified through conversations where possible these are matched to some of the expertise represented within the participants. For example, some of the residents of a block of low rise rented flats we met with cited concerns over fire safety within the building. Participants in the day were able, through liaising with the coordinator, to ensure that members of the Fire Service came over later to talk to. They also put one local resident, a single mother, in touch with a housing advisor, to see if she could move out of her current flat to one more suitable to her young asthmatic daughter.

Some requests for advice or concerns are dealt with on the day but, where appropriate, participating organisations take contact details to follow up subsequently.

So, how does this relate to creating a new society and “… The strengthening of other loyalties, of alternative foci of power, of different modes of human behaviour…”? Organisations like SolFed, Radical Housing Network, United Voices of the World and a vast number of non-hierarchical and anti-capitalist organisations do amazing work in providing support for vulnerable or marginalised groups. And, based as they are around mutual aid and genuine solidarity, they offer a far better and more sustainable long term alternative than having to beg for help from organisations that are themselves often part of the problem.

I would like to propose that where there is an active community of anarchist or related groups* these local groups get together to create their own “Anarchist Day of Action” (or whatever they’d like to call it!). Instead of the state sanctioned organisations featured in the local government example mentioned above it would be made up of groups with a shared commitment to creating a decentralised, ecological, non-hierarchical and anti-capitalist future.

Let me sketch out a hypothetical picture of how such an “Anarchist Day of Action” might work.

At a pre-arranged date and location representatives of local groups assemble. For this example we’ll use a town centre location but other options are possible. The groups set up a small base of operations consisting of a small gazebo and some tables and folding chairs. As part of this they might also lay on some free, or pay as you feel, refreshments. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy- but it’s nice to be able to offer people a cup of tea or coffee. They might also provide some simple children’s activities (colouring in sheets/ lego etc) to occupy children accompanying any adults who need to have a discussion about an issue affecting them. After a short briefing participants pair up and a co-ordinator is nominated. This role can rotate over the day but it is important that there is always someone whose sole role is to act as a central point of contact for the group. After making sure that the co-ordinator has an up to date list of everyone taking part and their specialism the group divide into two. A small number will stay with the stall and do general interaction with members of the public who show an interest. They can also act as an emergency reserve of people if any of the pairs need additional support at some point. The majority of the group, who are all paired up, divide the geographical area between them and disperse.

Participants walk around the area engaging with anyone who looks like they need support or who looks friendly. It’s entirely up to the individual participants. Some, for example might like to talk to local market stallholders, or another pair might decide to target a small square where couriers tend to congregate or an area where workers from local retailers/ fast food shops like to smoke between breaks. The exact way you’ll approach people will according to personal preference and situation but an opening gambit might be something like: “Hi, we represent some local groups who are trying to find out what problems people living or working in this area are facing”. Obviously if you were approaching a specific group e.g a group of fast food deliverers you’d adapt your approach accordingly. In my experience it doesn’t matter too much what you say to get the conversation started; Most people are only too happy to be asked what they think.

Over the course of conversations people’s concerns will come out. To use an obvious example, during conversation with a group of cleaners taking a break between shifts the cleaners explain that they are all on low pay and are unhappy with their working conditions. As the pair talking to the workers have only a general knowledge of the best ways of taking this forward they contact the co-ordinator, who in turn contacts the participant from, for example the local IWW or SolFed. The relevant representative can either come over to the cleaners or they can arrange to meet later at the central point and have chat over a brew. Another pair, for example, might discover that many local people talk to are unhappy about the council’s plans to destroy local greenspace to make way for a retail park and private housing. In this example a follow up a discussion with a local EarthFirst member, or similar organisation, could be arranged via the co-ordinator.

The key, as mentioned above, is diversity of experience. In order to be able to engage meaningfully with as many people as possible you need to have as many options as you can for people to find relevancy in their lives our struggle (see footnote a end).

This tactic, which I have outlined above, accomplishes several things:

  • It allows us to promote our ideas to a wider audience (and hopefully gain new allies for our struggles) whilst at the same time offering genuine assistance to those who need it.
  • By working together it increases the co-operation between different groups in an area and allows them to see the potential for overlap and mutual support in their different struggles.
  • By providing a genuine alternative to seeking help from existing power structures we are taking concrete steps towards undermining those power structures and rendering them irrelevant.
  • By working together in this way people see that we are more than just a counterweight to the extreme tendencies of capitalism. Our diverse movements represent a concrete manifestation of the world that could be. Everyone, including ourselves, need to see that we are fighting for something, not just against something.

As depressing as the rise of populist politics is, there are two important points about it that should give us some cause for optimism. Firstly it shows that people are deeply dissatisfied with the traditional forms of government that have dominated our world till now. Secondly it shows that they are willing to consider radically different forms of government than those currently maintaining the status quo of dominance. The problem is that people are looking to the wrong alternatives because they are the only alternatives that have made it into the public consciousness. We need to let people know that there is an alternative to the status quo that doesn’t involve choosing between Jeremy Corbyn or the Far Right. All of the organisations that we represent, who share the common goal of placing people before profit, who believe that everyone should be free to reach the maximum of their potential, whether they call themselves explicitly anarchist or not, represent something else. We represent a world in waiting. And the more people hear about this world, and come to believe in it, the stronger it becomes and the weaker the existing structures become. The tactic I am suggesting represents a small way in which we can start doing this.

*I use the term “anarchist or related” as there are many groups who would not classify themselves as anarchist but who share similar ideals and objectives. Obvious examples would be the numerous local groups that operate in fields as diverse as bicycle repair, local food production, IT and mobile phone repair, hairdressing, internet radio and radical herbalism. The list is extensive and depends on what is available locally. In what I am proposing it would be a great mistake to exclude any groups who offer an alternative to aspects of the current dominant narrative.

immaterialfox(at)gmail.com