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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise #66 - HOW DO ANARCHIST IDEAS GAIN INFLUENCE? Media, Academia and Class Struggle

Date Sun, 16 Jul 2006 08:10:35 +0300


Anarchists, in Britain at least, have traditionally been hostile to
using the mainstream media and academic press to spread our ideas.
But are we missing out on the chance to reach a wider audience?
Perhaps after the high profile given to anarchists in anti-capitalist
actions against the G8 last year we should be grabbing those 15
minutes of fame while we have the chance. Or is our distrust of the
media and academia well-founded? This article is presented for
debate since not every AF member is in agreement with all of the
views expressed here. To date, AF members have limited ourselves
to writing letters to local newspapers, talking to programme makers
and doing the odd radio interview, all in an individual capacity, but
we have discussed whether to do more.

A different kind of media interest

From the "Face of Hate" tabloid headlines about Class War in the
1980's to the hysterical "Anarchist ‘gallows’ to disrupt G8"
in the Sunday Times last May referring to their 'discovery' of an
anarchist plot to hang ourselves off bridges, we are used to reading
alarmist, ill-informed or blatantly fabricated articles in the daily
newspapers, whether these are directed at specific organisations or at
"anarchy" in general.

But since the Gleneagles G8 summit and in the few months
preceding it, the AF has been inundated with a different kind of
press request that is more open and seemingly more respectful of our
viewpoint. First we were asked to participate in what became a
BBC4 documentary "G8 - Can You Hear Us?", a story made up
from following various groups at (and on their journey to) the
summit. Then Channel 4 News contacted us to ask if we'd "got any
events or actions planned" for the summit.

In recent months we've even been invited on to that scary BBC1
religious Sunday TV programme "The Heaven and Earth Show" to
debate the Christian work ethic, and ITV youth series "It's My Life"
asking us to argue 'wealth can't buy happiness' against Peter
Stringfellow! Then BBC TV Newcastle emailed to find someone
who had received "but did not pay" a fixed penalty notice, to form
part of a debate about their use by local councils to punish graffiti
and littering, and apparently to give it a civil liberties flavour. Even
our views on football seem to be of interest, at least to one Guardian
sports journalist, judging by a quote from one of our Resistance
bulletins about FC United. We're just waiting for that call to ask us
for our racing tips.

A related issue is a heightened interest in anarchism from the
academic direction. As well as contact from the mainstream media,
the AF has had numerous requests from students of media studies
or critical theory who want to get our views about direct action and
misrepresentation of anarchism in the media for their essays or
projects. We've also had an interview request from a student
newspaper for their "In Ideas" section (does that mean we're really
cool?). All of these approaches offered an opportunity to overcome
misconceptions. This is presumably in response to 'intellectual'
articles written by journalists and academics in magazines like the
Economist "For jihadist, read anarchist" and on various websites like
Aljazeera's "Al-Qaida: The wrong answers", who think it's clever to
liken anarchist theory and tactics to those of Islamic terrorists. Our
Aims and Principles have also been quoted, and misrepresented, in
an academic paper in the journal "Studies in Conflict and Terrorism"
called "Anarchist direct actions - a challenge for law enforcement".

Should we be taking this heightened interest seriously and attempt to
engage better either as an opportunity to promote anarchism or to
defend our views when misrepresented? Should we be talking as
often as possible to journalists and academics, or perhaps go even
further and try and get on Big Brother? I will argue that there are
good practical and theoretical reasons for shunning both the press
and approaches by academics.



The Media Monolith



The problem with media made and presented by professionals,
however sympathetic a particular writer or programme maker may
seem, is that it’s not going to promote the necessity of
destroying the State and capitalism, far from it. From Murdoch's TV
and newspaper empire (Sky, Times, Sun etc.) and the BBC, to
various smaller news outfits like the Guardian Media Group,
together with a heavy reliance on global news agencies like Reuters
and Associated Press, our mainstream media is very much a
corporate monolith in the hands of a small number of powerful
'barons' who are interested in both money and power, the kind of
power that claims to control the fate of governments (unless like
Berlusconi's Italy you also run the government!).



Media's other reasons for being are a greater or lesser mixture of
State control and 'public service' which effectively means either
presenting us with blatant propaganda or force-feeding us with a diet
of opinions on what makes a good citizen. These roles of the
mainstream media are good for propping up the status quo, and very
bad at taking seriously any attempt to destroy it, even if some of
them come out against the government from time to time, or may
themselves become victims of censorship (or even get bombed
during a war). The media will always act to defend democracy
however they define it, cannot go very far to expose its limitations
and failings, and in fact creates a facade over what is really a
ruthlessly anti-democratic underbelly.



Whilst the sacred cow of investigative journalism may claim to have
occasionally helped changed 'public' views on Vietnam and various
other nasty wars and atrocities, physical change did not come about
without sustained struggle domestically and, in the case of the
Vietnam war, by insubordination, desertion or mutiny of soldiers.
Furthermore, investigative programmes, rather than confront the
powers that be, more often aim to expose or engage in character
assassination of groups or individuals not liked by the mainstream
whether it's Fathers for Justice, members of the British National
Party, 'radical' Imams, Michael Jackson, or animal rights groups
engaged in economic sabotage against vivisectors.



Many more television hours are filled with programmes about civil
servants catching benefit 'cheats' or the outing of dodgy workmen or
petty criminals. It does not really matter whether we would support
or oppose certain groups or individuals (or not care either way), the
democratic approach will always be one of appeal to the legal process
of the State, never to encourage self-activity. It's more than a bit ripe
to hear them go on about defending free speech when the same
media cannot countenance direct action by anarchists, anti-fascists
or any working class person against those who seek to deny the
freedom of others.



Plus we know that investigations of big business corruption,
governments 'misleading the public', or military 'misdemeanours'
rarely change anything just on the basis of exposure, because there
are wealthy and powerful interests at play. The real nature of our
ruling class is rarely revealed, or if it is, only years after an event and
presented by the media as a shock surprise. A recently documented
example of selective media is press indifference to overt British and
US support for the bloodbath meted out in Indonesia by the Sukarno
regime in the 1960s and the subsequent invasion of East Timor, that
was vigorously campaigned against by activists at the time, but is
now presented only as a hard-to-find footnote of unsavoury history
rather than an atrocity that was perpetrated and covered up by
politicians that are still in power today (see Mark Curtis' book "Web
of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World"). Media reporting of
conflicts in the Balkans is another good example. Today this carries
on with the reporting of events in Iraq, which ever more quickly
become historical news items rather than current affairs, and are in
turn justified by a patriotic fervour continually fed to us by the press
to create support for whatever military action is going on in the here
and now.



Most seriously for activists, the mainstream media, if they bother to
mention us at all, will deliberately misrepresent the revolutionary
movement and try to identify and discredit the "extremist elements"
- that's us! The risk of misrepresentation is extremely high, whether
by misunderstanding or deliberate manipulation by editors and
producers, or by a journalist with a political agenda (as was
experienced recently by Noam Chomsky when he was smeared
through a Guardian interview as the denier of a massacre during the
Bosnian war, by means of creative editing). It can also be very
difficult to come across well in a live situation especially if you are
confronted with ‘hostile interviewer’ techniques. Never
mind that journalists are being paid to help a media business and its
shareholders sell papers or advertising space, and that they have an
interest in furthering their media careers. They are really not likely to
be sympathetic of our aims, so we should not be flattered by their
apparent interest in our principles.



Consumption of TV and newspapers alienates us in such a way that
the events we see and read about become detached from real life.
The more extreme a group is, compared to the cultural norm that
the broadcaster or newspaper editor is appealing to, the more it will
come across like an act in a freak-show (although played to
advantage by the Clown Army in “G8 – Can You Hear
Us”). For example, producers of "The Heaven and Earth Show",
mentioned above, made it clear to us that they wanted someone who
had dropped out of the 'rat-race' because of their politics - a
preconception if there ever was one and a clear message that the
narrative of the show had been decided in advance. As soon as
anarchists become the subject of debate rather than being seen as
active participants in a struggle, we become an easy target for those
who may wish to caricature us as naïve fools or violent thugs,
rather than rational opponents of a oppressive and violent social
system.



Fluffy vs. Spikey



Unfortunately, not everyone in the anti-capitalist movement agrees
with this analysis. Fluffiness, a non-violent approach to protest,
which has as one of its tactics the gain of favourable media coverage,
became quite prevalent in anti-globalisation actions from London
J18 onwards and especially since Seattle N30. These both took place
in 1999 preceded by actions around the time of the Criminal Justice
Act in the mid-1990s. Disagreements about the pros and cons of
fluffy vs. spikey have caused divisions in the wider anti-capitalist
movement. Although it's probably true to say that anarchism in
Britain has remained more on the spikey side of things, many
activists continue to be convinced that media-friendliness is the way
to go, or at least a useful addition to our own propaganda.



But we know from experience of past struggles that States can be
extremely violent against dissenting movements - think of Genoa G8
- never mind the reality of armed response and covert assassinations
that governments have used and continue to use in many parts of the
world. You don't have to be being violent yourself to get beaten up or
killed by the State, a situation that would become more and more
likely if mass uprisings or revolution started to look likely.



Once you believe that violence is an inevitable part of the class
struggle, knowing that the worst violence is perpetrated by nation
states and corporations, there is just no point trying to use the
mainstream press to justify your position. The experience of Class
War speaking on TV (BBC Newsnight if I remember rightly) after
the 1990 Trafalgar Square anti-Poll Tax riot is instructive. After
calling the rioters "working class heroes" the spokesperson was
immediately victimised by bosses at his local council workplace
(although happily defended by his workmates).



We should also be careful not to give away tactical info of any kind.
Confusion amongst the ruling class of our strength and aims can be
a great advantage for a small movement. Talking to the media
before, on, or after actions is always risky in this respect bearing in
mind that some journalists may have links to the cops, or could even
be cops. Especially beforehand, it's important not to hand the
media/police on a plate what we may or may not be doing, or even to
let them know we are supporting or attending an action. Even by
saying you are just speaking as a individual can still impart
information about your group's approach to an event. It's perhaps
better if they think none of us are involved and make it hard for them
to plan their response!



Many anarchists including the AF have also argued against bringing
any cameras or recording devices on demos even by do-it-yourself
(DIY) media outfits, because of the high risk of them getting into
police hands or confusing them with undercover police equipment.
Bravado remarks like 'the Special Branch know about us already so
why should we worry' are not well-founded. If that was the case,
why would police have used a court order to view and then seize TV
footage of last summer's anti-G8 actions from BBC Scotland (15
tapes) and Scottish Television (10 tapes) and obtained a warrant to
take tapes from Sky?



Academia



Study of the history of anarchist thought and practice has been
important for our movement and there are academics of anarchism
who are good comrades. Furthermore, anarchism modules in
university degrees seem to be more popular than ever. But does this
mean we should be engaging more with the academic community to
get anarchism talked about even more widely? Would it be useful to
have our aims, strategies and tactics discussed in academic journals
and specialist conferences, and perhaps infect the Zeitgeist with
positive features of anarchism? The answer must be found in the
audience of such journals. Not all academics who are interested in
anarchism will be committed activists and working within our
movement to make knowledge available to the masses. The
academic publications themselves are unlikely to be freely available
to the 'lay-person' who doesn't have access to online subscriptions to
journals. Even when printed versions of academic journals are
available, access is being made worse by restrictions of free entry to
university libraries.



Moreover, many academic studies are intended to gain and
disseminate understanding in order to control dissent. Just look at
papers devoted to protest, especially of violent ones like riots. Some
of these might be by those who claim to be well-meaning social
scientists devoted to understanding the motivations of protesters,
and may even paint protesters in a positive light. But these and many
much less sympathetic academic studies feed directly into State
policy, for example, informing crowd control strategies of the police
who both read and contribute to such journals. This specialist
knowledge is intended for an elite, does very little to contribute to the
struggle against the system, and more often than not will act against
our interests and security.



Lastly, many anarchist writers and translators, often self-taught,
have contributed to our extensive body of knowledge that is available
in libraries and freely available on the internet. Others have created
more accessible and cheaper versions of longer texts, or contribute
their knowledge to open meetings. This all helps to take anarchism
out of the academies so we have less need for them than we might
have otherwise.



Media by us, for us.



Anarchism is about self-activity and so, when we do use media, it
should be our own. DIY media is part of a process of active
participation in struggles. It involves people acting not as subjects
but as those making change, learning to demystify the process of
presenting news and ideas, and very importantly choosing if and
when it is useful to speak. For sure, the internet has transformed
communication in our movement, but again it's about
self-presentation. We could spend all day contributing to high-profile
online forums like those on the BBC News website and achieve very
little, when many of the same ideas can be found on our own
websites or other publications.



So anarchist communist organisation is about being involved with
and learning through class struggle. Revolutionary commitment isn't
going to be got across through media spectacle, but by meaningful
human interactions. To try to get 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) in
our celebrity-worshipping culture - perhaps 15 or more years with
the help of a massive marketing machine if you are rich and lucky -
involves impressing either an elite, or least a sizable number of
passive consumers. Even the new approach of 'viral marketing' that
involves active participation in social networks is only interested in
targeting an elite group of persuaders to sell a product or idea on its
'coolness'. These approaches are bound to fail to achieve the spread
of revolutionary ideas. Furthermore, complex ideas are best debated
when they have real meaning, not in the isolation of an academic
discipline. The ideas of Bakunin for example, had most meaning in
the late 1800s when the possibility of immediate social revolution
was real. Today they serve as a historical lesson of what happens
when other ideas like the Workers' State are forced on the masses,
and can now be used to warn against trusting the authoritarian left in
contemporary struggles.

It's also a matter of safety. A personal experience in a local anti-poll
tax group is relevant to this. At being denounced as a violent
anarchist after the Trafalgar Square demonstration by the local
Militant (now Socialist Party) hack, whose party had publicly
condemned the riot and whose leaders had promised to "name
names" to the police, other non-aligned members of our local
anti-poll group defended me knowing that I was a solid member of
our group involved in all levels of campaigning. Never mind the fact
that anarchists had, in reality, nothing to do with
‘organising’ a riot as was being portrayed in the media (a
view that was unhelpfully backed up by Class War's appearance on
TV in my opinion). The myth of an anarchist-organised riot was
dismantled by people's first hand participation in the demonstration,
and such was the strength of solidarity in local groups that a local
defence fund organisation formed in my town in addition to the
national one. This supported and raised money for all those facing
court cases after the riot, with the principle that there was to be no
judgment as to what they had been arrested for. This degree of
support came out of direct experience of a mass-participation riot in
the context of a sustained community campaign, something that
would never have come out of a press appeal. It’s also worth
stressing how far away this is from the tactics used by terrorists, who
go out of their way to advertise themselves using the mainstream
press in order to heighten the fear they want to create.

"The revolution will not be televised"

Anarchist communists do not wish to be seen as a group of experts
in insurrectionary principles. An organisation of less than 100
members is not going to change the world on its own and we have
no pretensions of leading a revolution, unlike the authoritarian left.
Even if we succeeded in getting across so well on TV that 1000
potential new members contacted us the next day just because they
liked our ideas, if they had no experience of revolt in their
workplaces or communities, an organisation like ours would surely
collapse! For the same reasons we don't spend every week on a stall
in town, trying to flog our papers or recruit new members.
Anarchism will only gain influence if it shows itself to be effective
through application of theory in practice (praxis) by people in the
course of struggle. If through this process a person finds they want
to know more about anarchism or join the AF we would consider
that a bonus.

Mainstream media is either about caricaturing us to a passive
audience, or explaining us to an elite, and we should not help them.
Why would we even want to be considered respectable in their eyes?
It's all to the better if they get it wrong or have to make it up so we
can laugh at them rather than get annoyed about being
misrepresented! To demystify and ridicule the mainstream media is
to weaken it, towards the day when it will be swept away with the
rest of the State and capitalism. At that time the grip of the State on
the media will tighten, as it does during a war. Anarchists should
therefore continue to prioritise production of our own media,
reflecting on real experience in workplace and community struggles,
rather than waste our efforts with broadcast and press. Further to
this, we should preferably rely as little as possible on big events to
spread our ideas, as these are here one day and gone the next (like
Make Poverty History whose media campaign was ended at the end
of 2005). And rather than getting too bogged down with academia
we would very much encourage students who are interested in
anarchism to join or form anarchist groups, to publish their own
papers, and get involved with struggles where people can work
together as equals. Our ideas mean nothing if we are not involved
with real people in real-life situations.

For a good set of online anarchist and independent news sources,
check our website News section:
http://www.libcom.org/hosted/af/news.html

If you don’t have access to the internet, you can also write to us
for printed copies of all of our publications including our monthly
news and views bulletin, Resistance.
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