Continuing his series on Activism in 2011, Chris Browne notes the reemergence of a horizontal politics on the Left, and its growing prominence in the anti-austerity and student movements.
Renowned anarchist and social theorist Colin Ward once observed how the philosophy of anarchism had, prior to the phenomenon of 1968, been consigned to the dustbin of nineteenth century also-rans. In the ‘60s, at the height of the Cold War, authoritarian communism loomed large in the form of a still-potent USSR; academic Marxism had proliferated into a self-referential cauldron of near-liturgical dispute and debate; and Spain, not 30 years previously the hotbed of European anarchism, remained under the yoke of Franco’s regime. Radical politics of an autonomous, non-hierarchical variety was peripheral at best.
If the Second Wave of radical feminism invoked anarchistic traits in its methods of organising –a rejection of ‘patriarchal’ hierarchy that would simply impose a new series of power inequalities within the movement- the events of 1968 saved anarchism from obscurity.
Without wishing to attach too much historical significance to the present moment, it’s not unreasonable to argue that anarchism, whether or not a small ‘a’ variety that is anarchistic in essence if not in name, has once again become prominent in UK resistance and activism.
Marianne Maeckelbergh, author of The Will of the Many, (Pluto Press, 2009) has noted how some significant structural and psychological traits in the alterglobalisation movement (and, as part of this broad category, I would include the UK based anti-austerity and student movements) have a direct lineage from those movements of the 1960s. Most importantly then:
participation, an aversion to representation, horizontality, diversity, decentralized notions of power…consensus, carnival as subversion, rejecting individualism, an acceptance of conflict as constructive, critical reflexivity, [a] non-reified approach to knowledge, an emphasis on the importance of the ‘grassroots’, [and] an internationalism based on strong solidarity and communication between activists all over the world.
These characteristics, and it is useful to focus on the meta-concept of ‘horizontality’ and a recognition of the constructive value of dissent and diversity, have grafted themselves onto our activist consciousnesses at a time when calls for traditional Union-based solidarity are at their weakest in decades, and an individualistic market capitalism reigns seemingly hegemonic.
Without offering too simplistic an analysis, or proclaiming loudly how the diffusion of social media and internet technology has radically and irrevocably changed our very psychology, it nonetheless seems unlikely that the shift in practice and discourse towards non-hierarchical structures, organizing, and thinking can be dismissed as just another Black Swan in the chaotic world of cause and effect.
The problematic (though not entirely erroneous) view of the traditional leftist parties, such as the Socialist Worker Party (SWP), as being rigid and hierarchical with an archaic fetishism of the mass party and revolutionary moment, have led to their being vilified and ridiculed in equal measure by the autonomous Left.
Nonetheless, as Maeckelbergh argues, and as the less-than-vitriolic Ed Maltby –Laurie Penny debate at SOAS also evinced, there is now emerging –to coin a sorry phrase- a ‘consensus on consensus’. By this I mean a commitment to non-hierarchical values and autonomous decision-making.
While the socialist parties will naturally never sit comfortably with the increasingly popular notion of parties’ irrelevance as a revolutionary vehicle –or indeed with the perceived irrelevance of a Marxist understanding of ‘revolution’ itself- they are nonetheless starting to acknowledging the value of horizontalism. At the very least they have begrudgingly conceded ground to it in the forums of new-Left radicalism around the UK.
While it is all very well to theorise models of non-hierarchical organization, the exercise is pointless if the people taking to the streets are either unaware of the fact they are exhibiting ‘horizontal traits’ in their group structuring and on-the-ground decision-making; or not exhibiting the traits at all.
The so-called ‘Student Movement’ –a clumsy and two-dimensional pigeonhole- which had its baptism of fire in the crowded courtyard of Millbank has had many adjectives thrust upon it: ‘rejuvenated’ is one of the most important ones, analytically speaking. It suggests a swelling of the ranks, beyond the traditional agitators; and, further to this, a significant involvement of new, perhaps previously ‘non-political’ young people.
A second key adjective would be ‘radical’, ‘radicalised’, or something similar. Many of these fresh activists grew disaffected with the bastion of careerism, the NUS, and its figurehead, Aaron Porter, after the latter’s initial refusal to support the demonstrators who occupied Tory Party HQ, and then his insipid vacillation in the weeks that followed. Doubtless, this loss of faith will have had something to do with his decision to stand down as President.
Many of these young activists, having been born into a campaign of self-interest –fighting against fee increases- have since come to realise how leaky a vessel the allegedly ‘single-issue’ campaign really is: a more holistic view of the attack on higher education is emerging, with universities being seen as just one front in a wider, ideological attack on public services, jobs, and local authorities.
Messy descriptors invoking the ‘/’ (e.g. anti fees/cuts), along with the ill-defined catchall of ‘anti austerity’ have begun to crop up, as the mainstream media tries to cope semantically with broadly anti-capitalist protests and direct actions.
The radicalised student base has achieved a greater awareness and numerical strength than at any point in the last twenty years, with its non-hierarchical, autonomous groups slowly encroaching inwards from their usual peripheral positions. Nonetheless, it is still marked by a touching naivety. In the next two pieces I will look at how specific cases bear out this assessment.