One of the most beautiful banners I ever saw was designed by a working-class activist named Af. He had previously worked at a brickyard in Maltby, but one payday he cashed in his wages and used them to travel around India for six months. Upon his return he became the ‘Guru of Norfolk Park’. Norfolk Park flats used to stand behind Sheffield train station, close to the now grade II listed Park Hill flats of “I love you, will you marry me” graffiti fame. I could never remember which floor he lived on, but it was easy enough to find because Af’s landing was the only one which did not smell of piss. Instead it smelled of Nag Champa and endless possibility.
Af’s banner read ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’. It was illustrated with his vision of a better, braver, brighter world. It was lovingly and beautifully hand-crafted for (if I remember correctly) a Reclaim The Streets (RTS) party in either 1996 or 1997. It was a work of art.
We somehow managed to get it onto the roof of the John Lewis department store before sneaking back down to Barker’s Pool to join the gathering crowd. Two climbers ascended the 90ft flag pole in the middle of the square and danced fiercely in tight circles high above our heads. Behind them, dancing higher still, Af’s banner waved as a backdrop, bright like a beacon in the midday sun (actually, it was probably a bit later than midday, we were anarchists after all). Then a pair of John Lewis security guards appeared on the roof and took it down.
I was gutted.
“Philistines,” I lamented to Af, “Have they no respect for art? All of the work you put in! It belongs in a gallery, not a recycling bin!”
Af just laughed and said “Well it is a ‘temporary’ autonomous zone.”
Which both cheered me up and shut me up.
The T.A.Z or Temporary Autonomous Zone was, and remains, an important element of anarchist action ever since Hakim Bey (Peter Lambourne Wilson) coined the phrase in his book/compilation of the same name in 1991. The idea, put simply, is to create temporary moments of liberty in the cracks of Empire. Stateless moments of joy where we can experience, however briefly, freedom from the pernicious creep of neoliberalism. RTS was a T.A.Z, as are squatted social centres, protest camps, raves and riots. T.A.Z can be found in those situations when you stare into the eyes of the beautiful people who surround you and the look you exchange says: “We got this. This is our moment.”
T.A.Z is a simple idea, but the language of Bey is far from simple. There can be little doubt that it is beautiful, and it is powerful. But nobody should be fooled into thinking it is anarchist. For all the talk of anarchy and autonomy, it is elitist and defeatist. His escapism is understandable, in part, because it was written at a time when the status quo seemed to have obtained total victory; the time of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. Who wouldn’t want to escape into another world of their own creation? But Bey isn’t looking for a hippie commune, he’s after a hedonic kingdom. A kingdom where Emperor Bey can live by the Thelemic law of ‘Do what thou wilt.’ Wherever there are Emperors, there is also hierarchy. Wherever there is hierarchy, there is always exploitation. All well and good if you’re creating an S&M T.A.Z of consenting individuals who understand the rules of the game. But on many occasions, writing as both Bey and Wilson, we are talking about a man who has sought to justify and somehow radicalise the ultra-authoritarian, deeply controlling oppression which is paedophilia. Bey is an aristocrat, not an anarchist.
The idea that the T.A.Z is the only strategy which we have left has also been surpassed. In France, the Zone À Défendre (ZAD = Zone to Defend) may have begun as a single (if very substantial) anti-airport protest camp, but it is now an example of how the T.A.Z can be made much more permanent and potentially more emancipatory. As neoliberalism tumbles ever more deeply into multisided crises of its own making, the end of history is looking more like the thankful end of a particularly stupid form of economic control.
The death cult of neoliberalism, the bastard child of capitalism and colonialism, has brought us to the brink of total ecological collapse. But Nietzsche was wrong, this beautiful generation have looked into the abyss and instead of having a staring contest they’ve said ‘fuck that’. They recognise that system change is an absolute necessity. The ZADs have spread across France and as well as being much-needed frontlines against ecological destruction they have become testing grounds for alternatives to the status quo. If they can escape cooption by the state as well as they have escaped eviction, the ZADs have the potential to become Permanent Autonomous Zones (P.A.Z).
There have been other P.A.Z in Northern Europe, such as Freetown Christiania in Denmark, but none with the insurrectionary potential of the Zapatista MAREZ or the self-governing regions of Rojava. Not least because the inhabitants of those particular regions were already segregated by the constant aggression and prejudice of the oppressive states which ruled over them (or, in the case of Turkey, occupied them). In Europe, the majority of people who seek out spaces which have the potential to offer alternatives to the status quo will be radicals who are already politically aware seeking like-minded people, or they will be ‘single issue’ activists (often both). A tiny minority will be locals ‘lucky’ enough to live near the space/site in question (although to be fair plenty of highly active anti-frackers started out from this position). In the case of camps set up to oppose a given development, this is all well and good, but for projects which are actively seeking to bring about radical and lasting change in society this can be highly limiting. Long-term autonomous spaces such as Nottingham’s Sumac Centre and Edinburgh’s ACE have done amazing work of the years which we can all learn from, but we had yet to see the emancipatory message that social centres offer take a hold in the communities which need them the most. Then 2020 happened.
In the UK, a decade of austerity measures has seen a rise in grassroots projects which rely much less heavily on dwindling funding, professional institutions and/or the state to provide solutions to the problems facing our communities. So when the Covid-19 Crisis brought normal systems to a halt, the grassroots projects were able to hit the ground running while the state was still getting the hang of Microsoft Teams. Better yet, people with no previous experience of community organising also got involved very quickly thanks to the formation of partially Freedom-inspired Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups. Sadly there have already been the usual attempts to co-opt the grassroots, but more and more people and independent groups are linking up and realising that we really don’t need the bureaucracy of state and the large tick-boxing, money-hugging institutions to get things done. Change was in the air.
Then George Floyd was murdered.
This weekend saw the largest civil rights protest in history. All 50 states in the US. 18 countries around the world. Over 200 towns and cities (and some very small villages…) around the UK. All demanding justice. All demanding change.
While the mainstream media spins the usual lies about violence and laments the fate of statues, there are areas of Minneapolis which have been without a police force since the end of May. Areas which have organised market-places with free food and goods, along with services ranging from hair-cuts to bike repair. And while the politicians and bureaucrats seek concessions in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo, Seattle has witnessed the creation of the ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ (CHAZ). A six block region of downtown which includes Seattle Police Department’s East Precinct; already rechristened the ‘People Department’. Incredibly, local residents and businesses have agreed to “disaffiliate from Seattle”, creating a (state-free) free state within the United States.
It is far too early to predict how the current situations in Minneapolis and Seattle will develop, but their significance cannot be understated. All spaces of autonomy leave their participants forever changed; more confident in their own abilities and less in thrall of authority. The US, as Neil Middleton pointed out, is a superpower in decline. This is not just the decline of a singular country, it is the decline of the neoliberal global economic system. Something unimaginable when Bey put forward the concept of the T.A.Z. three decades ago.
The cracks in the system are beginning to show, and those cracks can be occupied. Minneapolis and Seattle show how quickly such opportunities can arise. We need to be prepared. Prepared to put forward our own visions of what a better world could be. And, more importantly, prepared with the skills which can help protect and provide for our communities. Those communities will not be open to the systematic changes our world so desperately needs until they are confident in their ability to provide for themselves and those that they love.
Everyday Autonomous Zones are a mechanism to develop that confidence. In the UK, we must build on the grassroots responses to austerity and the Covid crisis. Expand the self-evolving network which has already offered vital support with regard to the provision of things like food and supplies so that it covers other fundamental needs. Encourage community market gardens and other projects which strengthen local food security. Develop communal kitchens which feed body and mind while offering much-needed companionship to the marginalised multitude. Look at ways to provide other essentials, such as energy, shelter and care, in a communal fashion. Build and equip multi-media, multi-discipline studios to allow for the creation of unfiltered art, music, film, literature and news. Always be open to opportunities for collaboration, accepting help if it is unconditional. Always be wary of compromise and the agendas of funders and institutions. Share your skills and be ever open to learning new ones. Think social enterprise transformed into social emancipation. Because the more we do for ourselves, the weaker the bonds of authority. The fuller our communal skill-set, the better prepared we are for freedom. Change is coming. Be that change.
Main photo by Street mural in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone created by local artists, published under CC BY-SA 3.0: