by David K
I don’t think growing a popular movement should really be the goal of anarchist organising in the social and political environment we’re in.
Many approaches should be pursued – I quite fancy the anarchist enclave, for example, where anarchists exist side-by-side with normal society, buying out a row of suburban houses or an apartment block one by one, and slowly white-anting the old society from within. I also think the age-old commune is due a comeback with a bunch of intentional communities surely due to be headed for the bush any day now. (Bastard Press published a pamphlet on this a decade ago. Read it. It’s good.)
But I’m not opposed to building anarchist collectives. In fact, building is essential.
When I say build, what I mean is adding people to your collective on an as needed basis, or adding skills to your collective the same way.
I’ve never had a real conversation on building a collective in my twenty years in the game. Members are added by measure of enthusiasm, by social acquaintance, or, in the worst instances, by sheer persistence of presence. For sure, members have comically pleaded for the sane, but never for people with specific capabilities. We generally make do with what we have, which is never enough, and all too often our amateurism is covered up with the nebulous and vague slogan of “DIY”.
So what ends up happening is that our collectives aren’t built. They just kind of happen, without deliberation or planning, and the results are generally like throwing seeds into the wind and hoping for the best. You don’t get what you’d most like, unless what you’d most like is an organic growth with no planning whatsoever.
Organic growth is not revolutionary. Organic growth follows the path of least resistance. Deliberate, intentional, going-against-the-grain cultures, politics and economies can’t be grown, at least not in the early stages. They must be deliberately built.
Too often, anarchists simply dismiss massively important real world concerns that would immediately solved in normal society. And would even be solved easily and quickly by us in other circumstances.
If I were to suggest to you that we start a vegan cafe, we’d automatically start asking ourselves a few questions. Does one of us know a lot about vegan cooking? Does one of us know something about running a cafe? How about selling niche food in a crowded market? Does one of us know anything about wholesale purchasing? About tax? Commercial practice? Leasing buildings? Expenses and bookkeeping and liabilities? Health and safety?
If we came up with yes more times than no, we’d consider it starting that business. If we found ourselves to be strongly deficient in one of those areas, we’d probably set about learning it.
Or we’d hire an employee who already did know about it.
The practical value of that holds true in anarchism.
Some of this lack of deliberation and planning seems to me to stem from a confusion over what it is we are and what it is we do.
Being an anarchist isn’t goal oriented: there’s no finish line were you get a certificate of participation or a ribbon for coming first. Rather, it’s value oriented: you act like an anarchist because it’s what you think is the right thing to do.
Being an anarchist is far harder than being other value oriented concepts, like veganism, for example, because there’s no list of explicit ingredients to avoid in consumption. Though most of us should probably wear labels like may contain traces of racism.
Instead, there’s a list of behaviours we’re surrounded by in greater society that we try to not do, which is actually incredibly difficult, because humans imitate their environment, even when it’s unhealthy. Even harder, we’re trying to implement behaviours, to try to do,that we rarely see and have very little experience of.
That’s far harder than being vegan, or being fit, or being a non-smoker, where you institute a habit and mostly just work to maintain that habit. Anarchism is much more like being a good parent or supportive friend: a dynamic relationship, and a relationship that influences all participants, and so changes constantly in response to the internal and external activity around it.
On the other hand, being in an anarchist collective, co-op, commune or clique is goal oriented. You come together with the shared idea of making a zine library, or starting a reading group, or guerilla gardening, or building a revolutionary army that federates along Makhnovist lines and attempts to overthrow the heteropatriarchy. The formation of the group is a goal, the continued presence of that group is a goal (even if only to a certain time or event), and the execution of that group’s goals are kinds of sub- or supra-goals, too.
So just like the vegan cafe, there are two parts to our anarchist collective – anarchist and collective, or vegan and cafe. I can be vegan without operating a cafe, and I can operate a cafe without being vegan. I can be an anarchist without being in a collective, and be in a collective without being anarchist.
It’s putting the two together and melding the two into a value-goal combo that makes the world change. Twice as powerful, twice the work, half the spare time to relax. C‘est la vie.
A gathering of people who share a common value is just hanging out. A place where that happens is a social club. A gathering of people who share a common goal is a collective, and the places they meet are places of work. They can be friendly, social, fun and joyful, but that’s because work can be all those things. But they’re places of work.
That’s why building anarchist collectives should involve headhunting people with specific skills.
If you’re in a run-of-the-mill, everyday anarchist collective, you’re probably putting in a couple of hours a week on a project, and it may continue for years, even to decades. Two hours a week over two years is two hundred hours. If it was a job, paid at the Australian minimum adult wage, that’s about $3,500 worth of labour hours. Work that won’t earn you holiday leave. That you probably won’t get a word of thanks for doing.
And that you probably won’t even do right.
Do you value your own labour so little you’re willing to go put in that work and not get it right because you won’t admit you don’t know how to do some, or all, of it?
That isn’t rewarding. It’s draining. And that’s what burnout is, which is the plague of all anarchist groups.
Thinking that happy accidents will provide the organic, naturally occurring relationship that has all the goods an anarchist group needs to survive and grow in a world hostile to anarchism isn’t realistic. If it were the case, the average anarchist collective from the thirties would now be running entire suburbs of major cities, if not entire countries, and those collectives would have so many members they would stretch from the Jura Mountains to the sun and back.
But the reality is that if you need something, you have to go get it. It won’t come to you. (Sorry guys – Marxist teleology is just plain wrong.)
And worse, the fact is that most anarchist groups alienate the majority of capable people that do come to them, and it’s often because they lack the skilled and capable – the buildings are shoddily repaired and furnished, the anarchists in the bookshop haven’t read the books, the social centre is full of anti-social misanthropes, the radical workers union is full of students and the unemployed. And, of course, the website hasn’t been updated and the space wasn’t open when it said it would be.
So it must be built, to avoid alienating the potential capables, to avoid burning out the already collectivised, and to make the real change we want.
I’m not expecting anyone to seduce Bob the local bookkeeper into becoming a Bakuninist. (Though if you work out how to do that, please let me know.) But I don’t think it’s outrageous to seek out a Bakuninist with bookkeeping skills. Or, yes, for Bakuninists to acquire some bookkeeping skills if their collective needs them. (One year full time, about A$500 concession if you’re wondering. Benefit gig.)
If asked to imagine the skilled members I’d want in a productive anarchist commune (being a communist, after all), I’d picture something like this:
- A doctor, or medical practitioner of some sort at least.
- Someone who has a job in managing volunteers would be great.
- A counsellor, mediator and/or psychologist would pretty much be essential.
- Someone with expertise in childcare.
- Someone who works in IT is a must.
- Someone with skills in construction: building, welding, plumbing, electrical, in a pinch someone who’s worked as a property manager or a superintendent.
- If we’re still existing in the world we know today, someone with experience in legal issues, not necessarily a solicitor, but perhaps a legal assistant or secretary.
- Ditto someone really good with money: a bookkeeper or an accountant.
- If you’re having a public face (certainly not essential), a person great at customer service would be a luxury.
All of those people are in anarchism already – I’ve met them.
But if they’re in a collective, their skilled labour is probably underutilised, they probably don’t associate their skills with anarchism but rather consider them a ‘day job’, and probably joined for reasons other than thinking they could contribute those skills to the collective.
That’s a shame, and a waste. We have to start finding these people, utilising their skills, and start becoming these people with these skills, or anarchism as we know it is going to be stuck in first gear many more decades.