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(en) Ireland, WSM, Red and Black Revolution #8 - Summit Protests and Networks

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 27 Dec 2004 11:23:56 +0100 (CET)

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With the emergence of the summit protest movement into the public eye
after J18 and Seattle, anarchism gained an influence way beyond what the
numbers of anarchists and the level of anarchist organisation might have
led you to predict. Quite quickly in the English speaking world, anarchism
emerged from being a fairly obscure and historical critique of the left to
become one of the main poles in the globalisation movement.
It was not the long-existing anarchist organisations that achieved this. For
the most part it was a new generation of activists using much more
informal methods of organisation and communication. Rather than
seeking to build one powerful and united organisation, they built
thousands of small, informal and often quite short-lived ones. In fact 'built'
is probably too strong a word for a process that in many cases consisted of
a few friends coming together to travel to a protest and act together during

The Internet and why this form of organisation came to the fore

Revolutionary politics has always been strongly influenced by new
technology. The emergence of the mass democratic rebellions in France,
American and Ireland in the closing decades of the 18th century were
linked to the advent of widespread literacy and access to printing. This
allowed the rapid spread of quite complex republican ideas around the
world. At the start of the new millennium it was the internet that allowed
for a model of organisation of highly decentralised networks. Previously
both international communication and one to many communication
needed significant resources and so required mass organisation and a
centralisation of resources. The web and email meant that for first time
huge numbers of people could directly communicate internationally on a
day-to-day basis.

This allowed the coming into being of very large and informal networks. In
terms of debate and organisation these could be no more formal than an
email list. A single mail sent to one list could be picked up and forwarded
to many others so the ideas of one individual or small collective could
spread rapidly to large numbers of people whom they had never met. This
tended to bypass existing organisations many of whom tended to see the
internet as a threat rather than an opportunity . For a time it also threw the
various state spying and police forces into disarray as they were used to a
model where infiltration of one or a small number of centralised
organisations could give them a very accurate picture of how many would
attend something and what they were likely to do.

Simply put these new methods initially allowed activists to seemingly
appear from nowhere and either shut down summits as in Seattle and
Prague or, as in Quebec, force the state to imprison itself behind high
walls and fences. It was suddenly possible for a small and poorly resourced
group to communicate with and seek aid from people all over their
continent. It was possible for those thinking of travelling to a protest to get
quite detailed local information in advance through web sites and email
lists. After a decade where the only thing of significance happening on the
left was the Zapatistas the initial success of the summit protests seemed to
represent an enormous leap forward.

The advantages of this form of organisation

The major advantage of this form of organisation is that it allowed the
rapid development and growth of a movement of tens of thousands from a
tiny base without significant resources. Almost without exception groups
formed spontaneously, copying what they perceived as the success of what
others were doing elsewhere. Their knowledge of the process was obtained
not from individual contact or even books but from what people were
writing on a multitude of web sites and email lists.

In the first years it was also possible for network organised summit
protests to have a real impact on the various global capitalist summits. The
business of both the 1999 World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit in
Seattle and the 2000 World Bank summit in Prague was disrupted, in the
case of Prague leading to the abandoning of the entire event as delegates
fled the city. This was possible because initially the various state security
forces who are used to dealing with top down, centralized organisations
didn't know who to watch and what to take seriously. On a more local level
the initial Reclaim the Streets events that were held in many cities around
the globe also caused confusion amongst police forces unused to such
organising methods.

Of course the state has enormous resources at its disposal and after some
pretty disastrous experimentation - the Quebec NAFTA (North American
Free Trade Agreement) summit, also in 2000 - it adjusted to these new
forms of organisation and developed new policing methods to deal with
them. These new policing methods included an intense level of repression
which saw the shooting of protesters at the Gothenburg and Genoa
summits. Many of the Summits were also moved out of the big cities
where protesters could easily gather to isolated locations and in the case of
the World Bank to Qatar, a dictatorship!

In particular, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, when security
became a very plausible excuse in the mind of the general public, the
effectiveness of attempts to actually shut down or disrupt the summits of
global capitalism plummeted. Protests and confrontations still occur at
many summits but the summit delegates now see these on Sky News
rather then right outside the buildings in which they meet. As such, the
protests have become purely symbolic even if there are often frequent
scuffles with whatever police force has drawn the short straw of protecting
the world's elite that month.

The network form of organisation is effective but also rather ruthless when
it comes to experimentation with new methods and tactics. Each local
group is free to go out and try out new ideas without consulting with
anyone else first. If something obviously works then it is reported on and
can be rapidly replicated elsewhere. The ruthless element is that this
freedom to experiment without consultation also means that obvious
failures that would have been spotted at the discussion phase in a more
formal organisation slip through and people have to learn the hard way all
too frequently. And the hard way can mean jailings or losing all local
support for an action that was never going to make any difference anyway.
In contrast a formal organisation would first need a formal geographically
widespread debate over strategy and tactics before they could be
implemented. While this may eliminate repeating the mistakes of the past
it may also result in missed opportunities and certainly limits the number
of new strategies that can be tried at any one time.

In the 1990's, with the bankruptcy of the old authoritarian left, it was
precisely this space for experimentation and replication that allowed the
rapid appearance of a new movement with new tactics and a new strategy
created through 'walking the road' rather then studying the books.

What are the limitations it faces?

The state may be slow to respond but it is a massive structure of power
with billions of dollars of resources and hundreds of thousands of
dedicated personnel. So no single form of organisation, unless it is one that
involves the majority of workers, will ever be able to take it on in a straight
fight. This includes not only formal organisations but also informal
decentralised methods of organisation.

Many of the things that make network forms of organisation useful are
also disadvantages in other respects. Their informality means that
'members' have a relatively weak commitment to them so for finance and
resources they are often dependant of donations and loans from more
formal organisations. The ease of getting involved (perhaps no more then
signing up to an email list) also means they are easy for police, journalists
and fascists to infiltrate and, if they are smart about it, to disrupt by
carrying out provocations in the name of the network or issuing statements
from what claims to be a node of a network designed simply to discredit
the network as a whole. In the recent past we have an example in this in
the letter bombing campaign carried out by an Italian group that nobody
had ever heard of but which used the same initials as the largest Italian
anarchist network, the FAI. In a network that has no formal structure it
can be very hard to even issue a statement pointing out that such actions
are not part of the network.

Beyond networks and protests

Network methods of organisation have proved to be very effective at
organising one off summit protests. They have also played a vital role in
building international solidarity, in particular with the Zapatista struggle in
Chiapas in the mid-1990's. But the experience of those organising the
summit protests suggests that in the aftermath the networks proved fragile
and were unable to sustain a local impact.

In Argentina network forms of organisation proved capable of getting
several presidents out of power and were able to help organise the
occupations of dozens of factories but appear not to have made much
progress towards overthrowing capitalism. The slogan was 'they all must
go' but the reality was that there was always another candidate in the
wings to fill the president's chair when it became vacant.

This does not prove that the network form or organisation is useless, nor
that there is an alternative form of organisation that is better in all
circumstances. But it does suggest a need to look at models of
organisation beyond networks. Or rather at models intended to
complement the network form of organisation and address those areas
where it is weak.

The old left often took the attitude that there was one ideal form of
organisation that could be scaled down to fill all needs and all
circumstances. For the Leninists that was often democratic centralism, the
idea that putting a smart leadership in charge was the way forward. For
some anarcho-syndicalists it was syndicalism but most anarchists have
always favoured a plurality of organisational forms.

From the late 19th century anarchists have advocated a number of forms
of organisation. Sometimes given the nature of the debate these were put
forward as polarised alternatives to each other. But some, like Bakunin,
argued that all these forms of organisation should exist side by side and
that anarchists should be involved in all of them.

What is needed is that committed anarchists also organise in anarchist
political organisations that seek to provide the continuity, theoretical depth
and tactical unity that networks, because of their advantages, lack. The
main goal of networks is to organise lots and lots of people around a
limited project (e.g. a single day's protest). Trying to develop any agreed
theoretical depth in such a project would just limit the number of people
who can be involved.

The role of anarchist organisations

Anarchist organisations have the resources to develop theoretical depth out
of their experience across a range of networks and then take these ideas
into individual networks and argue for them. Anarchist organisations also
have the time to enter into the sort of historical and theoretical discussion
that are not possible in a broad meeting that seeks to sort out the concrete
organisational details of a specific event.

This sort of analysis is needed if we are to move from confronting the
worst aspects of capitalism as they arise to building an alternative to
capitalism. The creation of an alternative is a long term project that needs
to be able to deal with capitalism in all its different phases from social
democratic to neo-liberal to fascist. In the past capitalism has been able to
disband or suppress protest movements by simply shifting phase and either
giving an apparent, if limited, victory (with a new social democratic
government) or imposing repression that people are not prepared for (with

When it comes to doing work in trade unions or in communities where we
can expect that many of those we are addressing and seeking to involve
will be around for many years there is a real advantage in having a stable
formal organisation. This can build up credibility and trust amongst those
it wants to work with in a way that an informal network that comes and
goes simply cannot sustain in the long term.

There is something of a false debate facing the anti-capitalist movement.
At one pole some put forward tight organisation. The Leninists of course
want tightly centralized parties but even some libertarians see the answer
to increasingly effective policing of protest in a turn towards more
disciplined and perhaps semi-clandestine organisation. At the other pole
most activists continue to put forward loose organisations as a solution in
themselves, with some 'post-leftists' even arguing against any form of
more co-ordinated organisation.

Both see the two organisational methods as in competition with each
other. This need not be so, in fact for anarchists both forms should be
complementary as the strengths of one are the weaknesses of the other
and vice versa. The rapid growth of the movement has strongly favoured
the network form, it's now time to look at also building its more coherent
partner. That is to build specific anarchist organisations that will work in
and with the networks as they emerge.

by Andrew Flood strong yellow (maybe 6,000 people) and weak pink one
(maybe some hundreds of people) and this lead into an incomplete
blockade of the Congress center.
This article is from Red & Black Revolution (no 8, Winter 2008)
Read more articles from this issue

Print out a PDF file of Issue 8
Back issues of Red and Black Revolution

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