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(en) Red & Anarchist Action Network Praxis #1 (Summer, 2003) - ON FEDERATIONS AND NETWORKS - An interview with Robert Ebright

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 1 Jul 2003 05:54:49 +0200 (CEST)

A - I N F O S N E W S S E R V I C E

Author's Note: The inspiration for this interview came after RAAN's
Principles & Direction was rejected by a gathering of Columbus
anarchists from Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and my collective at the
time, Columbus Anti-Authoritarian Media (CAAM). I was puzzled as
to why some anarchists were wary of federations and networks, and
developed these questions based on that experience. Wanting as local
of an opinion as possible, I targetted Robert. His home is Chicago,
though he frequents Columbus on occasion. Since this interview, he
has begun work with the newly-formed RAAN collaborative CircleA,
which is putting together a multi-media CD-rom project of the same
name that will feature RAAN's "Collective Knowledge" project, local
music, and some other features.

High Priest Wombat: Approx. how long have you been an activist?

Robert Ebright: I suppose I first got interested in activism around my
going to the 1996 ARA national conference almost by chance.

HPW: If anyone knows you, it's because of the Autonomous Zone in
Chicago, how long have you been with them?

Rob: Three years.

HPW: What projects of interest would you like to talk about that
you've done in that time?

Rob: Well I've worked mostly with the Autonomous Zone collective
which operates as the administrative body for keeping the infoshop
open. We have experimented with various methods of self-organizing
and have always strived for a fully involved consensus basis for
decision making. I've helped organize various protests and
conferences such as the latest TransAtlantic Business Dialogue
protest in Chicago and Matches and Mayhem. I have also done a lot of
computer work and web development for the Autonomous Zone and
helped run the freeware collective.

HPW: What is a federation as opposed to a network?

Rob: A federation is more of a overhead operating body, almost a
composite of the groups or individuals involved, whereas a network is
more decentralized and functions as more of a communication body
than an actual organization.

HPW: Have you ever participated in a Federation or Network?

Rob: Well I have observed many networks in operation, from going to a
few Anti-Racist Action national conferences, and I went to a few
attempts to form a Midwest anarchist federation that initially failed to
collagulate, eventually I believe FRAC- the Federation of
Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives sprung from one of them.

HPW: Many local anarchist activists seem to be wary of Federations,
and is there a historical reason why?

Rob: I can only speak as a Columbusite and Chicagoan, I think that the
reason people are wary of Federations is that it involves a certain
amount of sacrifice to a greater whole. It means that people are going
to have to hold their actions underneath a banner and that others are
going to have the chance to criticize or otherwise attempt to influence
their actions. It could be people just prefer decentralization.

HPW: What federations and/or networks have existed that you know

Rob: Well, in Chicago there are a few different types of federations
and networks. There is the FRAC affiliated collective who tend to
operate within their small group of friends within the greater anarchist
scene. You have the Autonomous Zone which is more or less an open
collective, that is they invite people and encourage participation from
people who are just getting involved in activism and do everything
above ground, meaning no illegal activities. They kind of sit in their
own bubble. A few people have tried to set up a network of musicians
to organize shows and operate as a record label/union but last time I
checked this was still in the formation stages which people just start
to take on tasks.

Many of the formal organizations operate as cliques of people who
know each other, where as the groups that blatantly say they are a
crew or clique of people like the Anarchists Skins and Punks or ASAP
actually tend to do more outreach and accomplish tasks.

HPW: Do you think people should organize according to historical
circumstance, that we should strive for the most ethical of organizing
structures or both?

Rob: I think that people need to build in the present, I believe that we
can definitely accomplish very ethical structures of organization but I
don't believe we should get caught up in trying to create the most
egalitarian superstructure to the point where we lose sight of our
immediate goals. I have seen too much debating and ideological
bickering over minute details in attempts to try and create consensus
among anarchists when really people just want to see things happen
their way.

As far as historical circumstance, if you mean that we should consider
the real world when we plan our activities I think that is essential if
we are to have a real impact, in order to get out of a self-created
political ghetto we need to be approachable by everyday people. That
means that we aren't all scary leftists who constantly talk about
smashing the state every other sentence, and we encourage
participation and involvement from people of varying levels of political

If our organizations are to succeed they need to be flexible and
accomplish the goals they focus on. I think that decentralization is
important because people will many times spend too much time
worrying about other peoples actions if they are given authority to do
so, even in the smallest scenario. We need to allow individuals to
focus on their autonomous actions and then network this to build a
composite sketch of our world. We also need to start supporting each
other financially if we are ever going to get past the starvation level of
activism and start altering the course of capitalism. Basically people
just need to agree on their goals beforehand and then focus on
accomplishing them. Anarchist worker cooperatives are a good hybrid
organization that could work to enrich the lives of the participants
while providing a much needed example for other people considering
the radical lifestyle.

HPW: Do you think there is an ethical decision making model?

Rob: I think that basically ethics breaks down to are you considerate
in your actions? Do you think about the effect they will have on a
immediate and long-term scale? Do you agree with how they make you
feel and other people feel? As far as decision making models go,
consensus is utilized far too often without the realization of its
implications and potential for abuse, but it is a good model for
tight-knit group involvements. I think that coming together to organize
in which individuals are given autonomy to organize and contribute on
whatever level they feel is good for them is essential. I think that
whenever diverse groups come together we need to quit trying to illicit
agreement upon abstractions and start working on real life decisions. I
think that far too often anarchists are striving for ideological purity
when really we need practical autonomy, which means that some
people are going to do things that you might think are fucked up, but
you can't operate from a level of social arbitrator but instead from the
simple level of someone who wants to communicate. Of course
accountability for negative actions is essential but it should be
facilitated in a way that isn't disrespectful to the people involved.
Basically if you want to break it down, the golden rule, do unto others
as you would have them do unto you, is an essential anarchist ethic.
Or the wiccan rede, Do as thou wilt if ye harm none. Anarchist ethics
are pretty essential to human social interactions, they say respect
other people and operate from your point of view.

HPW: What are some positive aspects that federations seem to offer?

Rob: Federations offer cohesion in presentation, they are sort of the
corporations of anarchism, it allows disparate groups to form a bigger
bubble from under which to operate. They can be good for promotion
and growth for people who like organized structures. They also can
help create a kind of collective will among groups.

Networks are good for people who want to communicate and share
information without losing any of their autonomy. Networks tend to
take up less time than federations and involvement with other groups
is up to the individual member. They are more loose knit and thus more

HPW: What are some negative aspects that federations seem to
offer? Networks?

Rob: Federations can allow people or groups to get bogged down in the
bureaucracy of running a large group. Many times individual efforts
won't get the support they need and people potentially could go to the
federation looking for approval rather than acting. Many times informal
hierarchies will become established with people more or less running
things even if they are against that in general.

Networks can be too fractured for their own good. Without individual
group initiative many networks will fall apart, or else have member
groups that contribute very little to the greater whole. Without a group
purpose or operating structure it can be hard for networks to make
decisions as a whole and thus to pick projects or ideas to contribute.

HPW: Are there benefits that are overlooked that may point to
avoiding both federations and networks?

Rob: Well they are both methods for communication and facilitation,
and also human created organizations. Sometimes people need to
operate outside of the social role that human groups create in order to
be effective. Things are always easier to stop and control or monitor
by opposition when you have a visible structure, whereas if things are
more personal and done on a level of spontaneous collaboration then it
is near impossible to stop people from doing what they want to do.

HPW: Where do federations seem to help where networks don't? Vice

Rob: If you want to work on huge projects or facilitate something that
would involve a lot of agreement to certain principles then a federation
could accomplish it. Right now some people are forming a tech
federation for anarchist technology groups, this sounds like a good
idea because it could allow various individual groups to collaborate on
bigger projects and sort of focus their attention on certain ideas.

HPW: Where do federations seem weak where Networks aren't? Vice

Rob: Federations can be taken down more easily due to a central
decision making body. It is easier to fuck with everyone by fucking
with that body, this can happen from the level of individuals to actual
state repression. They are also more isolationist in my experience
because they allow such a level of control to all participants they tend
to not want to let just anybody in, thus many potentially interested
people will not hear about it, or if they do not be sure how they could
actually join. But that has more to do with open vs. closed organizing...

Networks can be too easily scattered if there isn't an actual purpose
to them. Individual groups have a tendency to operate autonomously to
the point of not communicating or sharing information with other
people. Sometimes by being too open they don't really allow any
security or automatic trust relationships between groups.

HPW: Any specific federations you would care to comment on as to
how they were flawed or how they were beneficial?

Rob: Well I've seen a few federations operate in the background,
NEFAC and FRAC both seem to be very tight-knit ideological groups
that put out some decent publications but are also very much centered
upon the creation of rules and regulations. Of course my involvement
is from the sidelines so I can't really say how their day to day
operation is accomplished or how the people involved feel about it,
which I believe is the ultimate judge of how effective an anarchist
organization is. I think that Love and Rage, the big anarchist
federation in the early 90s fell apart because of ideological conflict and
a lot of its founders went on to be socialists and work on the Freedom
Road Socialist Organization.

HPW: Do you think federations harm the revolutionary potential of our
collectives and affinity groups? If so, how? Networks?

Rob: I think that if someone takes a superstructure they have created
too seriously or allow their initiative to be dampened by other peoples
hang ups or inhibitions then yes they will crush or sap the
revolutionary potential of the participants, but at the same time this is
totally up to the people involved. Some people do better with a very
organized working environment with directives passed down and ideas
collaborated on a larger scale where they can take a small part in
decision making and thus concentrate on action. If everybody wants to
make decisions all of the time then you will probably find a rather
ineffective organization. This is really the downfall of many anarchist
organizations, in that everybody wants to be the head but nobody
wants to actually do the work involved in getting things accomplished.
This of course doesn't have to be that way if people view federations
or networks as a simple tool to facilitate collaboration rather than as
an entity all upon themselves they will be able to retain their autonomy
and individual identity while working with others.

HPW: Do you think federations help the revolutionary potential of our
collectives and affinity groups? If so, how? Networks?

Rob: Well like I was saying before, they can be a useful tool for
sharing information and coordinating action. They can actually create
an infrastructure to replace corporate and government inherently
authoritarian structures, but I think we need to retain our own
criticisms of the state and capital when we are working with any
group. If we don't allow these groups to become bigger than life then
they will still be easily accountable to the participants. If we keep
enough personal autonomy to stay comfortable making our own
decisions primarily and then sharing our skills and labor for greater
projects we can probably see our organizations actually accomplishing
the lofty ideals of transforming society. I think that if we realize that
both are social tools for engineering our communication and realize
that they both have drawbacks and limitations when starting them we
will get more out of it. I think one of the real functions of federations or
networks right now is they give us a social identity, they make our
individual efforts seem and feel to be a part of something much larger
and thus this gives us confidence in our actions and allows us to look
at a bigger picture then our individual lives. This would be the function
of society in a better world, the world we are fighting for.

By High Priest Wombat, KSC (CircleA Collaborative - RAAN)

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