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(en) Britain, Organise* #64 - social centres & the g8: boxer or benjamin?

Date Sat, 02 Jul 2005 11:34:24 +0300

How do radical social centres view the G8 mobilisation
and the relationship of mass protest to their own,
local campaigns? The AF attempted to find out
In this edition we hoped to bring you a full
survey of responses from social centres and
related groups across Britain to the G8
Summit, their views of the current condition
of the anti-globalisation movement and how
worldwide movements and ideas impact on
local actions and campaigns. It proved
tougher than we thought so this article,
based on just five out of thirteen possible
replies and some comments by individuals,
is by its nature subjective and incomplete.
Never theless, we hope some insight will
come out of it.
Social centres are places where individual
activists can come together to develop
common aims and agendas, to co-operate
around issues and campaigns of common
interest, trying to build local critical masses
that can challenge local elites and politics.
As collective and organisational anarchists
we believe that temporary and conditional
co-operation by individualists and
autonomists, such as may be found in single
issue campaigning or temporary
autonomous zones, are important and have
positive outcomes. But can social centres
become the seeds of a more permanent and
focussed `unity of ideas' and purpose which
could really challenge the ruling class, our
political elites? How far can they go to form
a new society in the carcass of the old, or to
help overthrow capitalism? After all, there
are dozens of local `social forums' around
the country, places where people come
together to debate issues, raise awareness
and plan campaigns and actions without the
added burden of creating and maintaining a
(semi-) permanent physical place that is
ours and which acts as a focus for
discontent. Given that the social centres
provide a more stable base for reaching
their local communities, and collective
activity in general, might those people at the
hear t of this movement have different
perspectives on the G8 mobilisation and
protests like it compared to individual
The survey attempted to probe whether
there was any kind of developing consensus
on the role of protest. Or whether the
lessons we learned from such protest could
be applied locally, amplifying the ability of
the social centre to challenge capitalism
and the state, or if such events changed or
focussed local agendas in particular ways.
The answers we got were thought provoking.
The first and most striking response was the
view that some social centres did not have a
consensus view of such questions. How
social centres should respond to the G8 and
the relationship of symbolic or ritualised
protest to the ethos and functioning of social
centres provoked a mixed response. This
lack of any unified view was echoed in the
different opinions expressed about social
centres as a whole. One activist said her/his
local social centre "is simply an extension or
continuation of what is always happening"
and went on to say "it would be impossible,
or a waste of time at best, to try to get some
kind of consensus answer to such
questions". Stated categorically, the fact
that a social centre exists does not create
any collective consciousness or joint activity
arising from that consciousness. This is one
extreme. Of course diversity and
inclusiveness is a pre-condition for the
creation and operation of social centres and
autonomists see it as a strength, based on
their own experience and of the new activist
movements they have observed. As a result,
though, some social centres - but not all -
remain simply spaces that individuals or
campaigning groups create and use without
them being anything more, a place where a
co-operative and consensual society is
developing, for instance. Are social centres,
then, merely reactive, taking up the issues
and campaigns of people who walk through
the door but not having any longer-term
perspective or developing a programme
intended to confront the state in a coherent
The second was the extent to which some
social centres appeared to be dominated by
`activist-ism' and were difficult to sustain.
That same activist said, "I see very little on-
going hard slog local work or campaigning
as most people seem to skip from one
exciting thing to the next. Ongoing projects
always seem to suffer from low energy and
involvement while people start yet more
new things; always re-inventing and
duplicating". Our own knowledge of, say, the
Bradford 1 in 12 Club or the now-closed Red
& Black Centre in Sheffield would confirm
this. Yet if we look in detail at, say, the
Sumac Centre in Nottingham, Kebele in
Bristol, the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh
or RISC in Reading the reverse is the case,
with strong on-going campaigns and
services underpinning single-issue
campaigning or short-term actions and
protests, with much intermingling of people
and exchanges of ideas.
Thirdly, and happily, social centres take the
injunction `think global, act local' very much
to heart. Virtually all saw a definite link
between the issues we will be taking to the
G8 and those that affect us all locally:
privatisation and casualisation, anti-war,
climate change and so on. These issues
were empowering and provided a coherent
bundle of ideas around which to come
together, co-operate and mobilise. We did
not ask a question like "To what extent are
such issues important to the people you live
and work amongst?" since that wasn't the
point of the survey. We were seeking instead
the view of social centre activists of the
relevance of symbolic protest to what they
do. At an extreme, one activist expressed
the fear that we could be nothing more than
"middle-class white kids playing at
revolutionaries while actually doing little
more than pissing, smug in our `party and
protest' ghetto". Happily, more responses
were at the other end of the spectrum. One
said such protest was "integrated to my own

work . It is my work" and advocated
"undermining the global economic system
[by] personal actions such as non-financial
exchange, own grown food, buying locally or
fair trade". The personal is political, the local
can indeed be global. One centre had moved
closer to its `community' and as a result had
begun "hosting meetings to fight post office
and swimming pool closures, local anti-
fascist meetings, becoming a space for food
hygiene courses and gardening workshops
for disadvantaged schools in the area where
the centre is based, providing a cheap bar
and cafe where you can encounter local and
national radical literature, catering on local
demos, collection point for food for asylum-
seekers" and so on. It's a picture that closely
resembles the sindicos of the Spanish
anarchists (which had a revolutionary
potential) but also many community and
trade union centres (which are primarily
welfarist and reformist).
What G8 protest meant locally displayed a
similar pattern of divergent responses. For
some their response to G8 was ritualistic
and logistical; it was about getting there,
doing what had to be done and coming
home again. For some it was a `distraction',
for others re-energising but with the danger
of deflation longer-term, for still more a
means to build closer networks and
relationships. But many did think they would
return stronger in terms of their local
campaigns or community work, that such
protest was a necessary extension of local
action even if its effects were chiefly in the
here and now and longer-term impacts on
policy less difficult to predict.
Some social centres do have common long-
term political aims that provide common
purpose and a unifying spirit. Others simply
`enable' political and campaigning work to
occur but without themselves possessing an
agenda which is consciously pursued. We're
aware, of course, of centres that have
collapsed or closed precisely because the
core or founding group felt they were being
over worked by `the movement', people who
did the exciting stuff but not the `shit work'.
And because they can be sometimes merely
`spaces' or `zones' where things happen (or
don't), there is very little practical or
purposeful solidarity, merely association.
Some people do some stuff together and
some people don't or do other things.
The social centres and their network are
important, of course, it's why we keep trying
to set more and more up! They develop the
organisational and practical skills of people
who pass through, broadening political
discourses and developing association and
some solidarity. There can be support and
auxiliaries to on-going campaigns, or
initiators and focus points of new
campaigns. Their strength lies in their
permanence; when they are. When levels of
mobilization fall, people or issues move on,
the social centres carry on, providing a
continuity of knowledge, experience,
networks, association and just plain people.
This enables them to survive but does it
enable us to prosper, as a movement?
The Spanish anarchists developed
perspectives and a manifesto that struck
chords with sections of the working class.
They then used their trade unions, political
groups, newspapers, town, village and
neighbourhood meetings and their sindicos
to spread that agenda amongst any who
would listen, developing centres and
cultures of resistance organically but above
all coherently and connectedly, making
maximum use of the benefits of association
and solidarity. This enabled them to push
for ward with their political agenda and gave
them resilience under pressure. But many
social centres today don't have any unifying
vision, merely aggregates of people, co-
operating or not, agreeing or disagreeing.
One activist did say "we have to know what
alternative system we want and try to live
it". Living the alternative [if we can] can
offer individual and group solutions but
never a solution to the problem of our social
relationship to capitalism. More important is
the idea that we focus on that `alternative
system', a system that offers global
solutions to war, destruction of the planet,
oppression and exploitation rather than
simple protest and opposition. Until such a
politics becomes universal and until we
develop unity around a common set of
alternative systems we may continue to
protest but struggle to progress.
Organise is the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.
It is published twice times a year to promote discussion
and the development of anarchist communist theory.

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