In his latest column, Jon Bigger reflects on grassroots anarchist organising.
Living on a university campus means I come into contact with lots of people interested in politics for the first time. Some have never heard of anarchism and others have a very slim knowledge of what it is. It’s slightly different from meeting and discussing anarchism with people in their mid 20s onwards, who think they do know what anarchism is and are waiting to have a nice long discussion where they try to prove you wrong.
The anarchism conversation is the pits with the second group of people. They’ve already formed their prejudices but instead of just saying “I think you’re wrong”, they open a conversation seemingly interested in what you believe and why. It doesn’t matter how you respond. They’ve decided. “People are too selfish for anarchism to work” they say. “But that’s why we need anarchism”, you insist. “We need a system that prevents the selfish from having power and wealth beyond their fair share”. This doesn’t satisfy them and they spend what feels like hours explaining to you the way human nature proves that you’re wrong. Or maybe I’ve been meeting the wrong people.
The first group on the other hand can be much more receptive. I’ve recently been involved with a group set up horizontally and focused on collective decision making a direct democracy. We meet to discuss action, we carry the action out and we meet to assess the efficacy of the action before planning the next activity. Whilst there are two or three regulars in the group who call themselves anarchists the main body of the group are just there because of the issue we face. The fact that it’s organised along anarchist principles though has started to gain some interest within the group and people have started to ask questions in a genuinely interested way.
People have started to share books and pamphlets on anarchist organising. “I can’t believe these ideas aren’t more well-known”, someone said the other day, starting a conversation on non-hierarchical groups. This then leads to a discussion about terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘equality’ and ‘horizontalism’. As we carry out our direct action we talk about anarchism both as an end result and as a day to day activity.
We reach the conclusion that there is no end result. Anarchism as a day to day way of life starts in the here and now and never ceases. It is the continual challenging of power and authority. We can reach what we might see as some form of anarchist system and society but we must accept that the process of revolutionary change may never end. We will always need to be ready to challenge hierarchy whenever it starts to solidify or be recreated. We cannot assume that a system will prevent power becoming solidified without active participation from individuals and groups.
In a direct democratic system it may be necessary to challenge those that are delegated responsibilities and temporary powers for example. In a communal economic system it may be necessary to actively secure equality if people amass more than their fair share of wealth, food or housing. The idea of building organisations within our current society that can supersede the old ones once they are made redundant means that as we practice anarchism we create the future, no matter how far off that may feel or how many arguments or schisms exist in the movement itself.
The crucial thing about these experiments is that we do not need to convert everyone to anarchism. The group I’m in is made up of people focused on a specific goal. That goal intersects with other groups and so a network is slowly emerging based on mutual aid and solidarity actions. As more people get involved and see the value of this method of organising I’m seeing people develop skills that will help them transfer to other groups. They will recognise and be able to act in other groups composed the same way.
Sometimes the most revolutionary we can be is to start with the things closest to us. Some of the big problems of the world seem so far away we feel helpless to change them. But by starting small and local we might just make a little difference. We might also interact with other people making small differences in our area and suddenly we see meaningful change.
In reflecting back over 2017 I can’t help but feel a little sad and overwhelmed. The challenges are huge and sometimes I feel we tread water just to drift downstream. I feel despondent at the state of the movement and the bust ups that flare up between groups within it. When I look at the small things though, the manageable and controllable things nearby I can see the difference I and others make, together. Success isn’t a large protest with lots of publicity. Success can be lots of small but positive outcomes that really change lives. One of the outcomes we must seek is in spreading the word about our values and ways of organising to people who don’t know what anarchism is. For me, doing that positively, by example, has been one of the best lessons of the past year.