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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #67 - The `vast machine' or anarchist communism? + INTERVIEW WITH Belarusian anarchist

Date Tue, 05 Dec 2006 12:20:47 +0200

"Air travel was dangerous so she took a train to Paris and got on the daily charter bus to England. When the bus reached the English Channel everyone got out and wandered around the enormous ferryboat. Maya watched British tourists buy duty-free liquor, pump coins into slot machines, and stare at a comedy on the television screen. Life was normal- almost boring- when you were a citizen. They didn't seem to care or realise that they were monitored by the Vast Machine.
There were four million closed-circuit television cameras in Britain, about one camera for every fifteen people. Thorn once told her that an average person working in London would be photographed by three hundred different surveillance cameras during the day. When the cameras first appeared, the government put up posters telling everyone that there were `SECURE BENEATH WATCHFUL EYES'. Under the shield of the new anti-terrorism laws, every industrial country was following the British example.

Maya wondered if citizens made a deliberate attempt to ignore the intrusion. Most of them truly believed that the cameras protected them from criminals and terrorists. They assumed that they were still anonymous when they walked down the street. Only a few people understood the power of the new facial-scanning programs. The moment your face was photographed by a surveillance camera, it could be transformed into a consistent size, contrast and brightness that could be matched against a driver's license or passport photograph.

The scanner programs identified individual faces, but the government could also use the cameras to detect unusual behaviour. These so-called Shadow programmes were already being used in London, Las Vegas and Chicago. The computer analyzed one-second images taken by the cameras and alerted the police if someone left a package in front of a public building or parked a car on the shoulder of a highway. Shadow noticed anyone who strolled through the city instead of trudging to work. The French had a name for these curious people- flaneurs- but as far as the Vast Machine was concerned, any pedestrian who lingered on street corners or paused at construction sites was instantly suspicious. Within a few seconds, images of these people would be highlighted in color and sent to the police." (Taken from The Traveller by John Twelve Hawks, Bantam Press, July 2005)

The above passage about a fictitious future society, taken from a `bestseller', does not seem that far off from today's Britain. Recent articles in Organise! and in our pamphlet on ID cards have already highlighted the kinds of technology that are available and being implemented to various degrees. The arguments for this increased surveillance are the same- it is necessary to protect the public from terrorism. Many people have accepted this dangerous logic. Anarchists have always argued against the argument that we need to give up our freedom in order to be `safe'. For example, Malatesta provides an eloquent denunciation back in the late 19th century in his book `At the Caf‚: Conversations with Anarchists'.

Gino (a worker): Is it true that you anarchists want to remove the police force? I am not their friend, and you know it. But I'm also not the friend of murderers and thieves and I would like my goods and my life to be guarded as well.

Giorgio (Malatesta): And who guards you from the guardians? Do you think that the best way to provide for one's security is by offering up one's neck to a gang of people who, with the excuse of defending us, oppress us and practice extortion, and do a thousand times more damage than the thieves and murderers?

Events since September 11th and the advent of the `war on terrorism' in earnest, have given us many reasons to see the truth in Malatesta's words. Just think how `secure' the Brazilian worker felt when he was shot by the police seeking to `protect' the public. Yet, for the most part we continue living our lives oblivious to this repressive surveillance, increased police powers and the vast quantities of information that exist about us in various data banks. On the surface, it doesn't seem to impinge on our lives. Even those active in anarchist and other social movements that challenge the current power structures, are not usually conscious of the likely surveillance that is going on. Our phones are most likely tapped, undercover officers will have been used to identify `who's' who' and our activities will be monitored. It is only in certain circumstances, recently in the build-up to G8 protests, that individuals have overtly felt the weight of surveillance and police control of activity. Nevertheless, the protests have largely gone ahead in some form. In Scotland last year, despite certain individuals being targeted by the `FIT team', the heavy police presence around the `eco-camp' in Stirling, and some actions seemingly known to the police in advance, meetings, demonstrations and other actions went ahead, sometimes taking the police by surprise. Instead, the focus of the State is largely on Islamic activists. Anarchists have not shown too much concern about this, seeing Islam as an enemy of anarchism. However, we maybe should rethink our silence. Anarchists could easily become the next target. The State may choose not to see the difference between an Islamic `training camp' and one set up by Earth First.

In Russia this year, anarchists were the target. In Russia and many other countries of the former Soviet Union, anarchists are struggling to organise under heavy surveillance and police repression. Those activists who attempted to go to St. Petersburg, as they had gone to other venues for other protests, had a very different experience. The protests were banned outright and hundreds of known activists were arrested in advance. People were stopped at the border and bureaucratic and financial impediments made practical organisation almost impossible. Yet, despite these difficulties, anarchist movements exist and are continuing to grow and develop.

There is no doubt that the tendency throughout the world is for those in power to increase their control over every aspect of our lives. Capitalism is a system that is unpredictable and impossible to control. Marx's economic predictions have proved to be only too true: that capitalism is inherently prone to lurch from crisis to crisis. As a result, those in power desperately struggle to control what they can, in order to ensure the stability and survival of the system that is the basis of their dominance. They cannot control capital itself: financial movements around the world, rising and falling prices of commodities, fluctuating demand for products. Therefore, they aim to control the people- as workers and consumers. Every aspect of society is geared to ensuring that people consume and work, according to routines and schedules. They need our lives to be predictable and our minds to be busy with seeking individual `happiness' that is brought about through `success', money, and entertainment. Any thoughts of the `bigger' questions on the meaning of life are safely controlled and managed, for example, through organised religion.

However, all through history, many people, to varying degrees, have proved impossible to control and manage in this way. In today's world, anarchists are some of these people, refusing the legitimacy of the State and the need for authority, rejecting the work ethic, the drive for money and status and the diversion of consumerism, and ignoring the existence of borders. In the `Traveller' the heroes and heroines resemble anarchists. They have chosen to live `off the grid'. This is the only way they can survive as free human beings and resist the `Vast Machine'. The novel is based on the struggle of these exceptional individuals, cut-off from the rest of society, against the Machine. Many anarchists also attempt to have as little to do with society as possible- not engaged in official `work', living in squats or camps and travelling to different countries to help with struggles. As the State becomes even more intrusive and repressive, some individuals are forced into `disappearing', living under assumed identities, leaving their homes and countries. Therefore, having alternative networks and ways of living that are independent of the State and capitalism are crucial to both our resistance and survival. However, we want to do more than resist; we want to transform. These alternative networks, structures and cultures will form the basis of the creation of a new society.

But this is not enough. As the characters in `The Traveller' discovered, they needed other people, ordinary people who were still part of the system, in order to mount any effective resistance. The same goes for anarchists. Creating alternative, off-the grid, micro-societies may be important for survival, for making life more bearable for some individuals, and/or for creating new ways of doing things, but the goal is to transform all of society. A few individuals heroically fighting back will not accomplish this. Therefore, we have to have a strategy that also involves resistance and transformation in the `heart of the Machine', where the vast majority of people are. History has shown that although individual action is important, it is only when people in great number say `no' or `we want this', that change takes place. The campaign against the Poll Tax was an example of this. Individuals may have found ways of avoiding the Poll Tax but this did not bring an end to it. But when masses of people refused to pay, the government caved in. The same could happen with ID cards. It is not enough for anarchists and a few others to find ways of avoiding its imposition, we need to build a mass movement against ID cards where thousands and thousands of people are refusing to have anything to do with them. The protests against the G8 in Petersburg could not have been repressed if the small anarchist and alternative movements in Russia and Europe had been joined by thousands of ordinary Russians.

We can not only turn back the tide of repression and surveillance, but create an alternative society. The descent into a Big Brother future is not inevitable. But our success depends on a two-prong strategy: the creation of autonomous networks and structures within in which we can live more freely and experiment with new ways of living, and the building up of a mass movement that will cause the `Vast Machine' to disintegrate in the face of its force and vitality.

The following interview with a comrade from Belarus, now living in England, though of interest in its own right, illustrates many of the points made in this article. They show the constraints on political activity that make it very difficult to organise. Though in Britain anarchists do not experience such repression, we must not become complacent; the British State is moving in the direction of increased surveillance and repression of opposition movements. As mentioned above, Islamic groups are feeling the brunt of surveillance and repression. The point to be taken from this interview is that despite the repression, they not only manage to fight back, but stress the importance of having a public presence and are aware of the need to win over others to anarchism.

INTERVIEW WITH Belarusian anarchist

(living in Britain since the crack-down over election protests)

1. How easy is it for you to organise meetings? Can you book rooms to have meetings and advertise them?

It is possible to organize meetings via closed communication channels (mostly mailing lists and personal contacts). Booking rooms is more difficult: from time to time, activists gather in each other's apartments, but regular meetings in a same location would draw attention of state enforcers: warranted and unwarranted searches, confiscation of equipment, in some cases even planting incriminating evidence such as drugs. Advertising meetings in public is quite dangerous. The last safe publicly advertised gathering happened last Autumn, during the Belarusian Social Forum and the "No Culture without Subculture" festival. Since then, the state uses all legitimate means to stop publicly announced meetings from happening. The most widespread practice is to use fire department inspection as an excuse for closing down the site.

2. Can you be openly anarchist or against the government? Can you publish material that is critical?

No. The new criminal code introduced last year criminalizes a whole range of activities - see the survey document on the web at http://belarus.indymedia.org/1713

3. Can you organise public protests?

Yes and no. We can organize public protests, but any protest that isn't sanctioned by the state is illegal, and state officials only sanction actions that are innocent and located at far ends of the city. Nevertheless, non-sanctioned protests are organized - exemplified by the protests that took place in March and April in Minsk.

4. What controls exist on people who may be questioning the system? How intrusive are the police or any other authority?

With the latest criminal law changes, the state has all the tools necessary to threaten and punish people without breaking its own laws. Even without it, police routinely fake detention protocols, writing things like "public disorder" and "attacking police officers" when no such thing took place. For example, one activist was arrested again immediately after being released from prison; two undercover officers came up to him and fell to the ground, as if he attacked them.

State authority is being propagandized in all state institutions, starting with kindergartens. Concerts of musicians known to be critical of the state are not allowed. Carrying non-state flags is illegal. During the protests in March-April, it was usual for police to subject people on the streets to searches and to confiscate innocent things such as warm clothes and food. The activist scene is also widely penetrated by police and KGB provocateurs, instilling the atmosphere of fear and distrust.

5. What about neo-Nazi groups? Do they threaten what people try and do?

They exist around Belarus, but luckily, the situation is not as bad as in Russia. In many towns and cities, there are strong anti-fascist movements that keep neo-Nazis in check. Still, Nazis benefit from the silent support of the state. For example, just before I left Minsk, a Nazi concert was announced and held in a concert hall of a military base couple of blocks from my house.

6. How do people feel repression in everyday life?

In a lot of different, mostly subtle ways:

* - the abundance of police and military on the streets, sometimes carrying Kalashnikovs
* - State red-and-green flags (nicknamed "sunset over swamp") in all appropriate and inappropriate places, often accompanied by portraits of Lukashenko
* - Endless stream of Stalin-era propaganda on TV and in state newspapers (and there's only one non-state newspaper left, and they only sell it under-the-counter or in some European embassies)
* - Praising of state and Lukashenko in kindergartens (this one really pissed me off), not to mention schools and universities
* - the general atmosphere of fear, as people who believe propaganda think Belarus is surrounded by enemies and internal traitors, and those who don't think that they'll get in trouble if they speak up
* - No job safety at all, as people get fired at will (speaking Belarusian can be enough), and as new taxes and legislations bring down whole sectors of local economy

7. What do you do or can you do to resist and fight back against all of this?

First of all, we spread information: news outlets with anarchist viewpoint, propaganda of self-organization, informational support of grass-roots initiatives, and critique of the establishment (both the state and the opposition parties). The recent creation of Indy Media (IMC) in Belarus has certainly increased the amount of activity in this area.

Somewhat related is the (sub)cultural activity, such as organization of expositions, concerts, satirical movies ("Navinki" group has grown to be very good at the latter), etc.

Now and then, anarchists start or get involved with other independent initiatives. For example, we managed to form a strong anarchist core within the Minsk Linux User Group, our example of self-organization has led many MLUG activists to form better opinion of anarchism, someof them have become anarchists themselves. The Critical Mass movement in Minsk was started by anarchists from Belarusian Anarchist Federation group. The IMC Belarus was initiated by anarchists and to this day remains strongly pro-anarchist.

Then there's also anti-fascist movement across the Belarus, which is far more successful than its counterpart in Russia. It is quite well-organized, although you can't also discount the fact that fascists in Belarus are not as dangerous as in Russia: they have less criminal background, there are many disorganized bonehead groups with no direct backing from state or church, and there is strong anti-fascist sentiment in the general public, caused both by World War II memories and the traditional Belarusian mentality of tolerance.

One area that begs for further exploration is the labour movement, which was thoroughly destroyed in the late 90-s. Belarusian workers are disorganized ("official" trade unions obviously serve entirely different purposes), and there's also a divide between workers and intellectuals, with most anarchists being intellectuals and having huge difficulty (if they are at all trying) finding contact with workers. Even worse, there is another divide: between the city and the village. This divide is illustrated by the make up of the Spring 2006 demonstrations: 99% of the participants were young intellectuals, mostly students of humanitarian and IT colleges and universities. No attempts have yet been made to get working class people involved.
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