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March 2007: Remarks on the Efforts underway to Organize a Northeast Anarchist Network Printer Friendly Version


Remarks on the Efforts Underway to Organize a Northeast Anarchist Network

James Herod
March 20, 2007

My apologies for plugging into this discussion so late in the game. I've had the proposal for the network on my desk since it was first issued. My only excuse is that I was trying to get shut of another important project that I had been hung up on for months. These days, it seems, I'm only able to get my mind around one thing at a time. Anyway, I submit the following remarks for your consideration.

(1) The location of decision making is not explicitly dealt with in the proposal. In the second paragraph of the section on "Possible Structure," we read: "For face-to-face communication, we propose regular exchanges of delegates between different communities, and gatherings of the network in bimonthly or seasonal consultas, assemblies, or spokescouncils." Will these gatherings have decision making powers? The use of the word "delegate" would imply that they do, according to the usual practice. That is, the standard practice is to send delegates from local collectives or communities to regional conferences. Those delegates have the power to make decisions that are binding on the local groups. Most of the anarchist federations that have been set up in recent years follow this practice. Their annual or bi-annual regional assemblies are the final, or highest, decision-making body in the organization. Giving delegates decision making power obviously shifts us from practicing direct democracy into the practice of representative democracy. Historically, this nasty little contradiction (that is, to claim to believe in direct democracy while actually practicing representative democracy) has been finessed by saying, well, those delegates are recallable. I personally don't believe that delegates should have decision making powers. All that delegates should be able to do is negotiate agreements, which then have to be ratified by the local assemblies (collectives, communities). There is a group in the ongoing revolt in Oaxaca, Mexico that uses this procedure. They call it "consulting with the base." Decisions taken in the Popular Assembly (APPO) have to be ratified (at least with this one group, Section 22 of the teachers union -- I think it may be the only one though) by the local chapters of their union. If we are going to use delegates (as opposed, say, to a system of regional voting across communities) this is the only way (I currently know of) to operate and be true to the principle of direct democracy.

The issue of the decision-making power of a regional gathering of anarchists has already arisen, at the Sunday afternoon (February 25th) discussion of the network proposal at the meeting in Chinatown, Boston. Some people there thought that that meeting had decision-making powers and that a vote there would mean that the issue had been decided for the network. Others said no, all that a vote here will mean is that this is a proposal that we will send back to local collectives for approval. These conflicting interpretations emerged time and again throughout the afternoon.

(By way of an historical note related to this issue: I participated in the founding conference of the Great Plains Anarchist Network and in several of its activities for a few years thereafter. We held regional meetings twice a year. Even though the network was founded explicitly on the autonomy of each of its member collectives, invariably, at each regional meeting, heated debates would re-emerge about the decision-making powers of those regional assemblies. It's understandable in a way. Why spend time debating an issue and reaching consensus on it, if it does not apply to anyone? Yet the natural thing to do, when gathering together, is to debate the issues and try to reach agreements on proposals and projects for dealing with them. And so we would do that. But then at some point, sometimes only at the end, someone would say, well, this doesn't apply to us because this gathering has no power to tell us what to do. As far as I know this ambiguity was never overcome.)

There is a way to make region-wide decisions, preserving local autonomy (that is, keeping decision making in the local collectives), and without holding regional assemblies of delegates. A proposal can be discussed in the local collectives and voted on, but with the votes being tallied across collectives. (I think I am correct in saying that Nefac has invented a procedure for doing just this, for making certain kinds of decisions, regionally, in between their annual general assemblies; we should get them to explain the procedure to us; I could take a stab at it, as I think I know how it works; but I'd better leave it to them.) There are problems: (a) how to get the original proposal; (b) should the votes be tallied by individual or collective; (c) if the latter, there is a danger that the majority of individuals may be for a proposal which gets voted down if each collective has one vote, and vice versa; (d) are the collectives using majority rule or consensus (so-called consensus decision making, by the way, is still majority rule, it is just a procedure for getting the largest possible majority on any given issue). All these issues are too complicated to go into here.

[Comments on the internet device --- I have not had time yet to examine the devise MaRK mentioned.]

I would suggest that it be explicitly stated that all decision making resides in the local collectives (assemblies, gatherings, organizations), with the understanding that those units are practicing face-to-face direct democracy, and that any regional decisions that may seem necessary (will there be all that many?) be made either with a system of vote tallying across collectives, or with conferences of delegates who draft agreements which are then worked back and forth between local groups and the delegate conference until general agreement is reached. This system would not necessarily apply to any specific issue-oriented project, which could be handled in another way, which I'll get to now.

(2)  How to generate regional projects. Although this was never written up in the formal GPAN documents I think this is how it was generally assumed that it was suppose to work. An individual or collective in the network could float a proposal for a specific project on the network's lines of communication (eg, listserv, website). Those who (across the region) were interested in the project, and felt they had time and resources to devote to it, would volunteer. All these volunteers will then meet to hammer out an agreement about how to do the project. The project was thus to be controlled by those who were doing it, not the network in general or its annual assembly. Obviously, a project could go forward only if there were enough people who were willing and able to work on it. This process of affiliating around specific projects meant that we did not have to spend endless hours setting up and running an organization. As far as I know, however, GPAN did not generate any regional projects, using this procedure or any other. There may have been one or two that I was unaware of or that have happened since I left the area. Basically, GPAN functioned as a "network" (whatever that means) of loosely affiliated autonomous collectives, who maintained a website, and who gathered once or twice a year in regional meetings, during which workshops and general discussions would be held (with the inevitable partying of course). Whatever projects were being carried out in the Great Plains were done by local collectives, mostly in their own communities. Actually, this seems to be how it works in New England as a matter of course. Those who are interested in biolab work get together and map out a project; similarly with immigrant work, tenant organizing, or any other issue-oriented project. I don't see any problems with this procedure.

(3)  I found it supremely ironic that after all the criticisms directed at Nefac for years for having a "platform" the first thing this gathering of one hundred anarchists intent on setting up a new northeastern organization for anarchism did was to start hammering out a platform. Isn't that what a statement of purpose actually is? And of course we ran into severe disagreements right off. At the founding conference of GPAN the diversity of opinion was so great -- ranging from extreme individualism to staunch federationism -- that we didn't even attempt to hammer out a statement of political beliefs, knowing it was impossible. We settled on a vague ten item "Points of Unity" document. Unfortunately, I've been unable to recover it, but will keep trying (I've written a friend in Lawrence), and will forward it to this list when I get it. My memory is that it was rather better than the one we've been considering. The items listed in the current draft under "Purpose" are mostly procedural, and do not really represent a statement of beliefs. There is in the first paragraph, it is true, a general commitment made to "anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppressive" struggles, but thereafter it's mostly procedural recommendations, that can actually apply to any organization, whatever its political beliefs (like the Klu Klux Klan), things such as "to facilitate the production of propaganda" and "to open up lines of communication and coordination among groups." I think we will need a much more concrete statement of political beliefs for it to be meaningful (and hopefully one that will at least include some minimal mention of "work," a glaring and painful omission from the current proposal). The question is: can we get it?

(4)  In the first paragraph of the section on "Possible Structure" we read: "We propose a decentralized network, based on the voluntary association of autonomous local groups, collectives, assemblies, and individuals committed to the aims described above." Who will decide whether or not a given collective or individual is committed to "the aims described above?" The formal federations that have been set up have explicit procedures for admission to membership (and for expulsion from membership) in the organization. "Networking anarchists" are apparently against such membership organizations. But how then is even a vague commitment to anarchism to be maintained in the network, since basically anyone can join? I haven't heard anyone suggesting a procedure for saying that a collective that wants to join can be excluded. What if an outright dyed-in-the-wool primitivist group wanted to join the Northeastern Anarchist Network? What then? Or what if, less dramatically, a collective tells us that they can accept all but two of our statement of principles? What then? The question of "membership" is not so easily avoided or resolved. In GPAN, we started out with established groups who had gotten together to set up a network. Later a few other collectives joined, but I don't know how. It just seemed to happen.

(5)  Anti-Oppression. I take it that this is just a new name for identity politics. And I take it also that this issue seems to be generating the most heated disputes. Identity politics has held hegemonic sway over the left in the United States from the early seventies until today, completely swamping (and even derailing) class analysis and anti-capitalism. It had seemed that its hegemony had finally been broken with the re-emergence of class struggle anarchism in the late 1990s. Apparently not, however, because here it is again, creeping into the anarchist movement. (For example, in paragraph four under "Possible Structure," in the list of oppressions, wage-slavery is conspicuously absent.) It's true probably (but not likely) that capitalism might be gotten rid of without getting rid of all the other forms of oppression, like sexism and racism. It is not true however that sexism and racism can be gotten rid of without getting rid of capitalism, because they are essential props for capitalism. The exclusive, or even predominant, focus on identity oppressions, disconnected from anti-capitalist politics, is therefore wrong-headed. Unfortunately, I am not aware of many successful attempts to combine the two, through forty years of being in the radical movement, to the great misfortune of our struggle for a free society.

(6) If its true, as is stated in paragraph two under "Purpose," that this new network wants to show "respect for existing organizations," then perhaps it should not partially steal (or seem to) the name of an existing northeastern anarchist organization. The northeast has an anarchist organization, the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists. Northeast Anarchist Network is too similar, to my mind. What will it be? NEAN? or NAN? Couldn't we think of something a little different? New England Anarchist Network? North Atlantic Seaboard Anarchist Association? Ten (?) State Anarchist Association? (all bad, right?) By the way, as an aside, I dislike the term "network" -- too nebulous -- and much prefer the term "association," but I was overruled at GPAN. (There is a good critique of the "networking" idea in Monty Neil's essay on Chiapas, "Towards a New Commons." Network theory, on the other hand, has been grabbed onto by at least one radical theorist and used to analyze modern capitalism -- see Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society -- I haven't read it, but it was recommended by Cindy Milstein.) While we're on the question of words, I dislike the term "consulta." It's pretentious.

(7)  Although I am naturally very happy to see us anarchists trying to get our act together, I am also, in another sense, rather distraught actually by this initiative. If successful I think it will formalize the split in the anarchist movement, in the northeast at least, between the so-called "red" and "green" wings. These are very spurious labels, first of all. I know of no social anarchists who call themselves "red" anarchists. It is my impression that the red/green distinction was invented by primitivists (please correct me if anyone knows the specific historical origin of the expression) in order to bolster their position by denigrating social anarchists. Primitivists hate Marx, for example, and associate him with "communism," and therefore with "red." It is a form of red-baiting, it seems. Most social anarchists believe in class analysis and are anti-capitalist. Apparently, this makes them "red," in the eyes of primitivists. The "red" however is way off the mark, as applied to anarcho-communism. Communism in this phrase does not refer to soviet communism or leninism or even to Marx. The phrase was in use years before the bolsheviks ever appeared on the scene. It refers to Kropotkin, to communalism, and to the original idea of communism, as practiced even in the middle ages, and as articulated later by utopian socialists, as meaning local community control and autonomy. Also, how in the world did it ever happen that the so-called green anarchists are claiming exclusive rights to radical environmentalism. Bookchin practically invented the orientation single-handedly in the late '50s and early '60s. We had radical environmentalists decades ago. I went to the first Earth Day in 1970. Our group did a "radical intervention" in the march, because even then, at the very first one, Earth Day had been co-opted by liberals. Are the disputes over environment and animal rights so severe that anarchists can't work through Nefac to deal with them? Is Nefac so rigid that it can't deal with such debates internally? None of the anarchists I know who are associated with this initiative identify as primitivists. They all say they are social anarchists. Then again, there is that failure to include work in the draft proposal for a network. Are primitivist ideas sneaking in? Actually, the neglect of work is not exclusive to primitivists, post-left anarchists, and Crimethinc; it was characteristic of the sixties New Left itself. The New Left hated the working class. Hence, its legacy of identity politics to the subsequent radical movement. Not something to be proud of. I'm just worried. Are we doing the right thing in trying to set up a second anarchist organization in the northeast? Are we anarchists so divided that we can't find a way to work together? On the other hand, on a personal level, I have been reluctant to join Nefac because of some rather serious disagreements about anarchist revolutionary strategy. But they have never told me that they were unwilling to work with me internally over these issues, so it's obviously just me. But why is it exactly that others aren't joining Nefac instead of setting up another anarchist outfit? I suspect that those who started this initiative have reasons, and perhaps it would be best if they were made explicit. I have discussed this initiative with several members of Nefac and they don't seem overly worried about it -- far less than I am in fact. I'm a bit puzzled by this. One hundred young anarchists in the region bypass their organization and move to set up another one, and Nefac isn't worried (disappointed?). Ah well, I worry too much.

I have discussed many of these issues in greater depth in my position paper written for the founding conference of GPAN, called "A Great Plains Association for Anarchy?" I realize that the proposed projects at the end of that document must appear terribly tame. I was trying to focus on the need for the assemblies and so I downplayed other things. Please don't think I am a reformist. Also, this historical document (I guess five years puts it a bit into history) should not be seen as a proposal for the present endeavor. The paper is posted here under Selected Papers: 1998-Present.

This web site is not yet loaded up, except for a few items under Selected Papers: 1998-Present. So no point in clicking on anything else; you'll just get a blank page.

You might also be interested in my little piece "Issues that Divide Anarchists in the United States," which is also posted here under Selected Papers: 1998-Present.

I hope these remarks will prove useful to others.