Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Practical Anarchism:
There's an interesting article in the July 29th edition of 'Freedom'. Freedom is a biweekly produced in London England, and has claim to being the oldest anarchist periodical in the world as it was founded by Kropotkin and friends in the 1880s. The article, by Martyn Everett, is entitled 'Practical Anarchism', and it describes the work of the 'University of the Third Age' in Great Britain.
The 'U3A' is basically a network for self education for people over 45. The network was set up in the early 1980s and now has 574 local groups. Membership as of Feb., 2006 stood at 153,000 people. This network differs from formal education in that there is no process of marking; there are no 'certificates' granted; and the roles of "teacher and pupil" are not rigidly set. There is no faculty in this University. Often classes have no teacher whatsoever, and teachers in one class pass on to become students in another. There are no formal "campuses". Classes often meet in private homes.
The author shows how this sort of structure is exactly the sort of thing described by Kropotkin in his writings on anarchist society. he goes on to argue that experience in such non-hierarchical groups might be generalized by the participants into other forms of social organization such as "credit unions, housing co-ops and communal allotments". My own prejudices would argue that one should add a lot of other items to this list.
It should be noted that there has always been an undercurrent of this sort of meliorist thinking in the anarchist tradition. The most thorough going modern exponent has been Colin Ward, but much of Mutualism and Syndicalism has understood that the creation of everyday alternatives in a piecemeal fashion is "direct action" in the true and proper sense. In the USA Paul Goodman was very much in this tradition. In fact it would be as hard to find any deus ex-machina of 'revolution' in Goodman's works as it would in Ward's writings.
Two things should be noted about this whole matter. One is the insufficient understanding of what the term "direct action" actually means. In its original syndicalist formulation it meant action on the job that directly changed the working conditions without resort to any sort of "petitioning" of the bosses, either passively and legally through grievance procedures or even in a militant fashion through the most determined or even violent of strike action. The concept of sabotage would only qualify as "direct action" if its immediate effect was the desired result- such a slowdown of the work process. Direct action also had the connotation of not relying on politicians to gain desired reforms but directly struggling for them at the workplace. Given the reality of union organizing this meant that 95 to 99% of this direct action struggle was not the flashy actions of strikes but rather the day to day building of links of solidarity. It was as useless to vote for politicians- to petition them by ballots- as it was to except to influence them by riots- to petition by bricks and bullets. The syndicalists, whether of the European "anarcho" variety or the "non-political" North American variety embodied in the IWW or the OBU understood very plainly that their militant actions were usually just skirmishes and holding actions unless they demonstrated the effectiveness of the building of links of solidarity- the real work of direct action which would make true victory possible.
The second thing to note is that the direct action of building such alternative ways of acting and often using them to further one's ends either in conflict with rulers or by ignoring them is what should truly be meant by a "revolution of everyday life". These are actions that affect one's prospects and desires, and those of one's peers far more than what passes for the self declared heirs of "the revolution of everyday life" and what they propose, assuming they propose anything.
In most countries outside of North America there has been a revival of this "practical anarchism", whether it be in the new syndicalism or in community based struggle. There is a certain imperial strain in the anarchism of the USA that is very much opposed to this concept of practical anarchism and wishes to impose its own vision of impractical anarchism where practicality becomes sly hints about better ways to carry out petty vandalism. This imperial anarchism reduces the everyday concept of changing one's life to a memorization of turgid dogma and competition as to who can appear the most militant.
The idea of "direct action" being action tailored to directly achieve a goal is totally lost in this dreamworld. Ordinary people actually care about achieving something, at least now and then. Imperial Anarchism finds the whole concept irrelevant. Consistent 100% defeat in the set piece operas of demonstrations around this or that international conference of the ruling class simply don't register in this mindset. You can't notice that police who deploy perhaps 1% of the lethal force of which they are capable always and every time win in that they control the streets at the end of the day even if they hold well back from "maximum force". You can't notice this if you don't care because winning is actually unimportant and the spectacle of opposition is everything. To the exclusion of the building the ties of everyday living that true anarchism actually consists of.
Direct action and the revolution of everyday life are two great concepts of practical anarchism. But they can never be applied until there is a clear understanding of what they mean.

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