Introduction: a few definitions and explanations
Any potentially liberatory struggle among the exploited and dispossessed must be based on autonomous self-organization. As anarchists, who are also usually among the exploited, we have every reason to participate in and encourage these struggles. But since we have specific ideas of how we want to go about our struggles and a specifically revolutionary aim, our participation takes the form of an intervention seeking to move the struggles in a specific direction. Having no desire to be any sort of vanguard or leadership or to be caught up in the joyless game of politicking, we find ourselves in a tension of trying to live our conception of struggle and freedom within the context of an unfree reality, of trying to confront the real daily problems we face with our own refusal to play by the rules of this world. Thus, the question of autonomous self-organization and anarchist intervention is an ongoing problem with which to grapple, refusing to fall into easy answers and faith in organizational panaceas. To begin exploring this question let’s start with a few definitions and explanations.
When I speak of autonomous self-organization, I am speaking of a specific phenomenon that tends to arise whenever people, angered by their conditions and having lost faith in those delegated to act for them, decide to act for themselves. Autonomous self-organization therefore never manifests in the form of a political party, a union or any other sort of representative organization. All of these forms of organization claim to represent the people in struggle, to act in their name. And what defines autonomous self-organization is precisely the rejection of all representation. Parties, unions and other representative organizations tend to interact with autonomous organization only in the form of recuperators of the struggle, striving to take over leadership and impose themselves as spokespeople of the struggle – usually with the aim of negotiating with the rulers. Thus, they can only be viewed as potential usurpers wherever real self-organized revolt is occurring.
Autonomous self-organization has certain essential traits that define it. First of all it is non-hierarchical. There is no institutional or permanent leadership or authority. While someone who proves particularly knowledgeable with regards to specific matters relating to the struggle at hand will be given the attention she deserves for such knowledge, this cannot be allowed to become the basis for any permanent leadership role, because that would undermine another essential trait of autonomous self-organization: horizontal communication and relationships. This is a matter of people talking with each other, interacting with each other, expressing needs and desires openly, actually discussing the problems they face together and in practical terms, without any leadership to conform this expression to a set line. This brings us to another trait, one that may be controversial to collectivist ideologues, but that is the only way of guaranteeing the first two traits: the basic unit of autonomous self-organization is the individual. Otherwise, it could be argued that all states and businesses are autonomous self-organization, because on the institutional and collective level they do organize themselves, but the individuals who comprise their human component are defined by these institutions and placed in accordance with the institutional needs. So autonomous self-organization is first of all the individual organizing his struggle against the conditions this world forces upon her on her own terms, finding the means necessary for carrying out that struggle. But among the means necessary are relations with other people, so autonomous self-organization is also a collective practice. But that collective practice is not based upon conforming individuals to an organization imposed on them, but rather on the development of relationships of mutuality between them in which they discover the areas of commonality in their struggles and need, affinity in their dreams and desires. One could say that autonomous self-organization is the development of a shared struggle based on mutuality for the full realization of each individual involved. To further clarify this point (and to quickly counter a false dichotomy often made in revolutionary milieus), one can look at it in terms of revolutionary class struggle. While the details vary, anti-state, anti-capitalist revolutionaries generally agree that the “revolutionary task” of the exploited class is to abolish itself as a class as it abolishes class society. What does this mean and when does it happen in the course of struggle? It seems to me, that this means precisely the rediscovery of oneself as an individual with one’s own desires, needs and dreams which have no relation to what capital has to offer, desires, needs and dreams best fulfilled in free association with others based on mutuality and affinity. When, in the course of struggle, the exploited begin to find the methods of organizing their own activity together, this process of abolishing themselves as a class has already begun since they are beginning precisely to talk and act with each other as individuals. Finally, autonomous self-organization is practical. It is not the setting up of any formal organization to represent anything. It is rather the bringing together of the elements necessary for accomplishing the various tasks and activities necessary to the particular struggle. This will tend to include the development of ways to communicate, ways to coordinate actions, ways to gather necessary tools and so on. As will be seen below, in large-scale struggles, assemblies tend to develop for discussing what is necessary; these are not formalized structures, but rather specific methods for dealing with the problems at hand.
We anarchists are ourselves often among the exploited and dispossessed. Thus, we have an immediate need to struggle against this social order. At the same time, we come to these daily struggles with a conscious revolutionary perspective and with specific ideas about how to go about these struggles. Thus, it is inevitable that our participation as anarchists will take the form of intervention. So it is worthwhile to consider what makes our participation an intervention.
First of all, as anarchists, we come to every struggle with a conscious revolutionary perspective. Whatever the specific cause that provokes a struggle, we recognize it as an aspect of the social order that must be destroyed in order to open the possibilities for a free and self-determined existence. Struggles and revolts are generally provoked by specific circumstances, not by mass recognition of the need to destroy the state, capital and all the institutions through which domination and exploitation are carried out. Anarchist intervention, therefore, attempts to expand the struggle beyond the circumscribed cause that provokes it, to point out, not just in words, but through action the connection of the specific problem at hand to the larger reality of the social order that surrounds us. This would include finding and exposing the commonalities between various struggles as well as the differences that can enhance a broader struggle of revolt.
Because we anarchists come to any struggle with a specific revolutionary perspective, it is in our interest to propose a methodology of struggle which carries this perspective in it, a principled methodology which provides a basis for our complicity in any struggle. The methodology of which I speak is not just a methodology for struggle, but something to apply to all of life as far as possible. First of all, the struggle must be carried out with complete autonomy from all representative organizations. We need to recognize unions and parties as usurpers and determine our specific activities in any struggle for ourselves, without regard for their demands. Secondly, our practice needs to be that of true direct action – figuring out how to accomplish the specific tasks we pose ourselves on our own, not demanding any authority or any “representative” of the struggle to act for us. Thirdly, we need to remain in permanent conflict with the social order we oppose with regard to the specific matter at hand, keeping our attacks up in order to make it clear that we have no intention of being recuperated. Fourthly, we need to be on the attack, refusing to negotiate or compromise with those in power. This methodology carries within it both the principle of self-organization and the revolutionary necessity to destroy the present ruling order.
Because of the nature of our anarchist aspirations, our intervention in struggles will always express itself as a tension on several levels. First of all, as I said most of us are ourselves among the exploited and dispossessed of the current social order, not part of the ruling or managing classes. Thus, we face the same immediate realities as those around us, with the same desire for immediate relief. But we also have a desire for a new world and want to bring this desire into all of our struggles not just in words, but in the way we go about our practice. Thus, there is the tension of willfully moving toward autonomy and freedom under oppressive conditions. In addition, we have specific ways in which we desire to go about our struggles and live our lives. These methods are based upon horizontal relationships and the refusal of hierarchy and vanguardism. So there is the tension of striving to find ways of putting forth our conceptions of how to go about struggle that encourage already existing tendencies toward self-organization and direct action that do not fall into the methods of political evangelism. We are, after all, seeking to relate as comrades and accomplices, not leaders. And then there is the tension of wanting to act immediately against the impositions of this society upon our lives regardless of the current level of struggle while again avoiding any tendency toward vanguardism. In a sense, anarchist intervention is the tightrope between living our own struggle in our daily lives and finding the ways to connect this struggle with the struggles of all the exploited most of whom do not share our conscious perspectives, a connection that is necessary if we are to move in the direction of social insurrection and revolution. A misstep in one direction turns our struggle in on itself, transforming it into an individual radical hedonism without any social relevance. A misstep in the other direction turns it into just another political party (whatever name one might give it to hide this fact) vying for control of social struggle. This is why we have to keep in mind that we are not seeking followers or adherents, but accomplices in the crime of freedom.
Anarchist intervention can occur under two circumstances: where a self-organized struggle of the exploited is in course, or where specific situation calls for an immediate response and anarchists strive to encourage self-organized methods of responding. An example of the first situation would be a wildcat strike movement in course in which anarchists could express solidarity, encourage the spread of the strike, expose the betrayals by the union, share a broader critique of the union as institution and share visions of a different way of encountering life and the world than that of working to maintain a certain level of survival. We will look at a variety of other examples below. The second sort of intervention would be something such as the building of a nuclear missile base in the area where one lives or police murder of poor and minority people. These call for an immediate response, and anarchists facing such situations will want to carry out and encourage autonomous responses using direct action rather than making demands of those in power. The precise way in which anarchists might intervene in such situations would vary depending on circumstances. But the point is always to encourage the tendency toward autonomy, self-organization and direct action rather than to push a political perspective.
Some Historical and Current Situations
Fortunately, since those whose lives are stolen from them frequently reach a level of anger at their condition and distrust for both the rulers and those who claim to represent the exploited, it is not difficult to find examples of the practice of autonomous self-organization. In some of these circumstances, we can also find some examples of intervention by anti-political (if not always specifically anarchist) revolutionaries in these struggles. In addition, I have found one example of an anarchist intervention in response to a specific situation, where they acted to encourage self-organized direct action against the installation of a nuclear missile base in Sicily. Let’s look at some of these instances.
During the 1970’s, Italy experienced a massive social movement of revolt involving workers, students and poor and exploited youth, with women playing a major role in much of the activity. One of the outstanding characteristics of this movement was precisely its autonomy from the usual organizations that claimed to represent the struggle of the exploited. Neither unions nor parties led the movement and suspicion of these organizations was high and became higher as blatant attempts by parties and unions to recuperate or discredit the struggles exposed their real nature.
In the course of these struggles, a variety of different forms of wildcat strike, massive demonstrations, sabotage, massive occupations of housing and other spaces, street battles with cops and fascists and a great number of other forms of direct action took place throughout the country. In addition, armed struggle began to develop in a variety of forms, often lacking the spectacular and specialized form of groups like the Red Brigades. In order to communicate the realities of this struggle with each other and to coordinate activity, spontaneous assemblies developed in factories, occupied universities and neighborhoods. The often vehement discussions and debates raised questions of the nature of this society and of how to fight against it to very high levels, including questioning of work as such and not just of specific working conditions, of marriage and the family as sources of oppressive gender and age relationships, of the technological apparatus and the nature of production and so on.
Of course, there were many anarchist and other anti-political revolutionaries involved in this movement. Their interventions took a variety of forms of which I will mention just a few. There were the myriads of publications for spreading anarchist and anti-political analyses of the insurrection in course. A large number of pirate radio stations come into existence helping enhance the spread of information about specific struggle within the area in which they were located. In addition, many anarchists (and others) would come together in small affinity groups to carry out specific attacks and acts of sabotage relating to specific aspects of the ongoing struggle. Most of these groups were temporary with the aim of a completing a specific action. One specific armed group, Azione Rivoluzionaria (AR) also grew out of an anti-political, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist perspective. In reading its communiqués and theoretical texts, it becomes clear that the group was largely influenced by Vaneigem. For all practical purposes, it was an informal federation of affinity groups that carried out various armed attacks against the institutions of power. Unlike the stalinist Red Brigades, which definitely intended to be the armed party leading the proletariat to victory, AR simply saw itself as a step toward the generalization of armed struggle. Nonetheless, it carried out its attacks in a fashion that allowed it to be spectacularized and separated from the larger struggle, thus on a practical level becoming specialists in one particular tool of struggle.
The insurgent struggle of the 1970’s in Italy advanced quite far. Certainly many smelled revolution in the air (including, unfortunately, the authorities). It would be impossible to know to what extent the specific activity of anarchists or other anti-political revolutionaries actually influenced the direction of the general revolt, but certainly much of the intervention (from pirate radio to sabotage and beyond) was useful. And the ways in which many of the autonomous struggles – particularly small-scale actions – were organized are reminiscent of ideas and practices of the anarchists influenced by Galleani’s ideas. If groups like Azione Rivoluzionaria fell into a specific role, thus blunting the usefulness of their activity, many did not, and there was a capacity for serious critique in the midst of struggle which allows us to learn from the events.
Ultimately, severe state repression combined with the sowing of misunderstanding among those in revolt led to the dissipation of this movement. When the state hit, the movement was not prepared to defend itself. Although hints of the possibility for generalizing armed struggle existed (individuals who were not part of any specialized armed group were beginning to arm themselves for defense purposes), the combination of statements from certain left groups saying that the time was not ripe for armed conflict combined with the media’s spectacularization of specialized armed groups to prevent any clarity on this question. Nonetheless, a great deal of anarchist analysis of these times does exist examining the questions of how insurgent struggles develop, of anarchist intervention, of armed struggle and so on. And a great deal of experimentation and exploration along these lines continues in Italy to this day.
In December 1975, Franco, who had been dictator of Spain for more than 35 years, died. As a new regime tried to reestablish order in the form of a democratic state, a wildcat movement broke out opening possibilities for a new society in which states and bosses would have no place. The wildcat movement reflected several aspects of the times: the opening provided by the fall of the Franco regime, the restructuring of Spanish capital desired by the ruling class at the expense of workers, the kowtowing of the unions and the various parties of the left to the demands of the ruling class in the hope of legalization, the readiness of the exploited to grasp this opportunity to act in their own interests.
The struggle spread through a large number of cities in Spain. Workers blockaded streets, went on flying pickets to spread news of the strike elsewhere, set up barricades, battled police and occupied factories and other spaces. The various actions of the strikers were organized through daily factory assemblies where real decisions were made and bi-weekly joint assemblies which only had a coordinating function. In addition, as the movement spread, neighborhood assemblies also formed, spreading the struggle against exploitation throughout the terrain of daily life. Interestingly, it was the spread of the assembly movement beyond the factories that led to deeper critiques and the questioning of wage labor itself.
The greatest weakness of this movement seems to be its tolerance for union and party hacks within the assemblies. These servants of the various oppositional bureaucracies were, of course, always calling for moderation and negotiation, and attempting to gain control of the assemblies. Though they were usually ignored, they were not driven out of the assemblies and in several incidents, they undermined struggles in course by usurpation and negotiation with the rulers. This played a major role in the eventual dissipation of this revolt.
Since Spain has such a strong anarchist history, anarchists undoubtedly played a significant role in this struggle. But not through any of the well-known organizations. The best known “anarchist” organization in Spain, the CNT, proved again that it is first of all a labor union, that is to say, an organization that represents the struggles of workers in negotiation with the bosses. Like all of the other unions, it was seeking legalization in the new regime, and so played the same role as they did – one of trying to manipulate the struggles in the direction of moderation and compromise.
On the other hand, there were anti-political revolutionaries involved in the wildcat movement in various ways. During that time anonymous writings were spread analyzing the situation from an explicitly revolutionary perspective and exposing the manipulations of the unions and parties. One group, calling themselves “Uncontrollables”, using the derogatory term that everyone from republicans to CNTistas used against those revolutionaries who would not obey the compromising leaders in the 1930’s, offered ongoing analyses of the situation.
In addition, there were the “autonomous groups” that were active later in the movement. These groups were made up of individuals from the exploited classes with a revolutionary analysis who decided to cease working and live outside the law, taking part in the struggles form this point. Their practice started from their own needs and desires, but since these included solidarity with others, their acts of expropriation, vandalism and sabotage would reflect this complicity. They did not see themselves as any sort of specialists, but simply as individuals who had made a choice about how they wanted to live here and now in battle with this social order, and acted on that choice. Their interventions were precise and targeted so as to be understood in terms of the wildcat movement in course.
Comiso, Sicily 1982-3
In December 1979, the US made an agreement with the Italian government to house Cruise missiles in Italy. The agreement was made in secret, but in spring 1981, the news began to leak out. An airport near the town of Comiso in southern Sicily had been chosen as the base in which to house 112 nuclear missiles. Immediately, there was anger over this obvious intrusion into the lives of the people of the area. People began discussing the matter and anarchists took part in these discussions, distributing leaflets and attending meetings about the base.
The usually recuperators were on the scene right away, with the parties of the left forming peace committees aimed at symbolic protest to influence the decisions of the rulers. But anarchists and other revolutionaries, interested in the radical potential of the angry people of the region, formed an Organizing Group aimed at an approach based on direct action and attack.
While the peace committees organized massive symbolic demonstrations demanding “peace”, the anarchists and other revolutionaries of the Organizing Group debated on how to develop and concentrate the struggle in Comiso and other areas facing similar intrusions with specific objectives for struggle. Anarchists from Catania said the struggle should take place on a social and revolutionary basis, using a methodology of attack aimed at striking the people and structures responsible for the decision to install the base. In 1982, due to irresolvable contradictions, the Organizing Group split.
In April 1982, peace committees organized another peace march in Comiso. It was the usual pacifying bullshit, reflecting the opportunism of the leftist parties. So in May, the anarchists of Ragusa and Catania decided to intervene in order to bring together the massive opposition to the base, with the aim of occupying the base site.
Throughout the next few months they held a series of public meetings and distributed leaflets and other literature on the topic. Anarchist women went door-to-door in order to talk with the women of the region who rarely left their homes due to the extreme patriarchal nature of the regional culture. There was a positive response from the local population, so the anarchists proposed a method for organizing the struggle in an autonomous manner. Sicily has known insurgence in the past, and one of the common forms self-organization took was the self-managed league. Anarchists recommended that people consider adopting this form again for this struggle. An anarchist conference took place on July 31/August 1 ending with another open-air meeting in which the struggle against the missile base was connected with refusal of militarism as one anarchist destroyed his conscription papers.
Self-managed leagues began to develop and anarchists set up a coordinating office for technical assistance and to facilitate communication between the leagues. Anarchists continued to hold public meeting and distribute leaflets. As leagues were forming among workers, students, unemployed and so on, various actions, often aimed at taking the time and space necessary for discussing the matter took place. In particular, high school students in Vitoria carried out strikes, using the time to discuss what to do.
In the meantime the effects of the base became clearer and clearer as local peasants were evicted from their land to make room for missile test ranges, as American and NATO officers reserved use of various hotels and other services and as the Mafia* used intimidation and terror to try to frighten those who opposed the base. Anarchists continued to contact workers, unemployed, students and housewives in the area, but the forces of repression acted to obstruct their activity through intimidation, false information and so on.
The occupation itself never occurred. As the project went forward a large number of anarchists came to Comiso, and most felt that the occupation was much too risky at that time. Nonetheless, the ongoing activity against the base during this time did lead to a number of explosive situations and certainly indicated the openness of many people in the area to self-organized struggle. The initiative ended with a huge demonstration that went to the missile base. The cops made several violent attacks against the demonstrators that lasted for several hours. The cops, in fact, pursued demonstrators for kilometers. The missile base went into operation in the mid-1980’s, but was taken out of operation in 1992.
What is interesting in this initiative is not its success or failure, but the attempt to encourage a self-organized revolt against the base as opposed to the symbolic protests that the Italian Communist Party and other parties of the left were promoting. To this end, anarchists showed the connections between the missile base and the realities of exploitation in the area – the eviction of peasants from their land, the worsening economic situation for workers, the transience of the jobs promised during the period that the base is being built, etc. They also referred back to past insurgence in the region, bringing up methods of self-organization that developed in this instances. Beyond this, they simply helped to provide necessary tools. Did they escape the practice of politicking in the way they went about this? It seems to me that they did, but this is a matter for debate.
Bolivia 2000 – present
Well before the uprising of December 2001, there had been unrest in Argentina. A crumbling economy was having devastating effects, and with an unemployment rate of more than 25%, the jobless, among others, were already involved in massive protests involving blockades and other forms of direct action. But in December 2001, the Argentine economy began to collapse. People started to withdraw their money from banks and the Economic Minister placed a limit on how much could be withdrawn. The response was immediate. On December 20, rioting and looting began in Buenos Aires along with massive demonstrations. Banks and government institutions were attacked. Though often portrayed as a “middle class”* movement, it in fact encompassed all of those outside of the political and economic ruling class.
The rioting, looting and demonstrations spread far beyond Buenos Aires, involving all major cities and large portions of the country. In demonstrations, people often called for the complete dismantling of the government, and in fact during the first several weeks of the uprising, several presidents were forced to give up power.
Already in December, the first neighborhood assemblies began to appear in Buenos Aires with the aim of providing space for people to discuss the problems they faced and how they wanted to go about their struggles. The assemblies took place on street corners and in parks. Being open assemblies, of course, the vultures from the political parties and unions came in hopes of taking over the movement, but their attempts to proselytize were not tolerated. As the uprising spread, so did this method of self-organization, adapted to the specific situation.
While demonstrations, attacks upon government institutions and businesses, blockades and even attacks on specific politicians (one despicable fellow was beaten in a restaurant where he was eating) continued, the assemblies began to take other kinds of actions as well. Spaces were occupied in order to develop various activities and projects. Workers also occupied factories and held factory assemblies. There were several meetings between workers of occupied factories, people of the neighborhood assemblies and those in unemployed groups to discuss where to take the struggle. This was a significant question, because the various occupations meant that more and more of the tools through which the present society functioned had been reappropriated by insurgents. The question really was what to do with them.
The places occupied by the neighborhood assemblies were already looked upon as spaces for those involved to carry out activities and projects they found desirable. The workers at occupied factories seemed less clear about creating something truly new. In fact, a number of the workers simply started production back up under “workers’ control”. In one factory, the demand was “nationalization with workers’ control”. There has been no new news from Argentina since word of these occupations. It is possible that the “realism” of the workers, or the simple difficulty of trying to live differently when the world continues to follow the path of exploitation and domination has cooled things down for now.
Argentina has an old anarchist history, so it should be no surprise that there are several anarchist groups there. What is surprising is how ill-prepared they were for this uprising. In fact, the first statement I saw from Argentine anarchists was distancing itself from the looting and rioting, very nearly speaking of it as mere hooliganism. Of course this changed, but nonetheless, the anarchists there seemed to take their time catching up to the movement. Once they did, they were active participants in neighborhood assemblies, occupations and the like, and one can assume they played a part in maintaining the suspicion of politicians and leaders that was such a healthy part of the revolt.
Basilicata, Italy, November 2003
The governor of the region of Basilicata had the unwelcome surprise last November of finding out that sometimes people don’t just sleep through the decisions that are being made over their lives. The governor had made an agreement to build a nuclear waste deposit site in the region, near to the town of Scanzano Jonica. The people of this town did not just sit back. Nor did they go out with petitions to beg their governor to change their mind. Instead they decided to take direct action, blockading the roads of the entire region and shutting it down.
There were no political groups of any sort involved in the organization of this activity. Rather people met together in assemblies to discuss the question and to organize the blockades. Apparently one small-time politician did try to get involved, but found no welcome. For several weeks in November, the movement kept the region blockaded. By the end of November, the governor took back his plan to building nuclear waste deposit site. Although the people of Scanzano Jonica stopped the blockades then, they have continued to hold general assemblies to discuss the realities of their lives. Their distrust for those in power is obvious, and the continuation of the assemblies provides a potential basis for further struggles.
I have not heard of any anarchists taking part directly in this struggle, but if there are anarchists living in the region, I assume that they participated. The movement itself expressed in practice the essential elements: a practice of direct action, the development of a method for direct, horizontal communication and coordination, a distrust of political solutions and a refusal to negotiate or back down.
Wildcat strikes in Italy, Winter 2003-4
On December 1, 2003, the streetcar drivers of Milan went out on a wildcat strike for the day. The day was a good one for such an action, because it was also the first day of an official summit on the environment in Milan – a summit in which political and economic leaders would discuss how to minimize the damage and depletion of resources while continuing to maximize profit and power. The immediate reason for the strike was the loss of real wages due to inflation and the betrayal of previous contracts. However, from the beginning the strike reflected a broader anger at the outrages of the bosses and the complicity of the unions in these outrages.
On December 15, there were wildcat actions by streetcar drivers all over Italy. In Turin and Brescia, the drivers went on strike and many of them burned their union cards. In several other cities there were massive sick-ins by the drivers. A few days later, airport workers in Rome staged a wildcat strike, blockading the entrances to the airport, to protest impending lay-offs.
On December 19, the unions signed a new agreement with the transit bosses over the heads of the transit workers. The response was immediate as transit workers throughout Italy staged wildcat strikes, sick-ins and “work-to-rule” slowdowns over the next several days. Spontaneous assemblies were created in many stations and more and more workers were burning their union cards.
On December 22, despite a government back-to-work order, the strikers chose to continue the struggle. Police were called in to force them back to work, but in some places, such as Brescia, workers were able to repel police attacks.
Various wildcat actions continued, with a few strikes in January. On January 9, the base unions (COBAS and other legally recognized rank and file organizations) called a nation-wide legal strike to protest the union agreement of December 19. Because these unions, despite their relatively decentralized form, are nonetheless essentially organs for negotiation like the large confederal unions, this can be seen as a recuperative event. Nonetheless, in Genoa, the transit workers chose to make the strike illegal. On January 12, workers in Milan staged a surprise wildcat strike. The government issued another “back-to-work” order. The Milanese workers defied it, extending their strike through January 13 as well. And on January 19, airport workers in Rome once again shut down the airport for eight hours.
In addition, there have been struggles going on against Alfa Romeo, protesting layoffs. In some of these actions, the laid-off workers and those still employed have acted together. In addition, it appears that workers in the metal industry, fed up with the complicity of the union with the bosses, have been taking note of the wildcat actions of transit workers. However, the Alfa-Romeo struggles seem to be largely under the control of the base unions, and beyond the expression of dissatisfaction, I have heard of no specific action taken by the metal workers. So It is hard to say where this might lead. In fact, for now it seems that things have calmed down.
The assemblies in the stations and the blockades of public ways that were the main method of these strikes provided a space for some direct communication between transit workers and others. In some of the strikes, other workers and supporters of the strikers took part in blockades. By the end of January broader assemblies were taking place, but they seemed to have come under control of the base unions. At one such assembly, workers promised to hold meetings in their workplaces to increase support for the transit workers and those of Alfa Romeo. If any transit worker is touched by repression, a mass response would be organized in all the workplaces. But the control by the base unions makes this seem rather suspicious, especially since from the time of their first direct involvement (January 9), there has been no autonomous action outside of the two day wildcat in Milan and a half day in Genoa.
In February, the hand of repression began to fall. Solidarity committees were formed. Although I haven’t heard details, there have apparently been continuing actions by laid-off Alfa Romeo workers and others throughout Italy, though all under the control of the various base unions.
So the situation has calmed. It is hard to know how long the calm will last or what the precise role of recuperative forces was in cooling off this struggle. Certainly without spreading in a truly self-organized manner, the struggle could not have lasted. Most transit workers have families, work under precarious conditions (many as temporary workers or on a probationary training status) and have fairly low wages for unionized workers. The confederal unions were enemies of the wildcats from the start, and the base unions also have their legal status as intermediaries in labor disputes to protect. So the workers cannot count on either. The insurgence of the 1970’s in Italy was largely sparked by wildcat activity, but circumstances are different now. So it is hard to make any predictions.
Anarchists and other anti-political revolutionaries involved themselves in this struggle through flyers and direct communication, expressing solidarity and encouraging people who have been getting free days off school and work due to the strikes to use the time to discover different ways of encountering each other and the world. In addition, sabotage of ticket machines and other transit company property in solidarity with the strikers occurred.
A few significant features
There are a few significant features that stand out in these situations:
1) Riots, uprisings and insurrections are not generally inspired by grand ideas, utopian dreams or total theoretical critiques of the social order. Often the spark that sets them off is quite banal: economic instability, bad working conditions, betrayal by those who claim to represent one’s rights, police brutality. These seemingly minor details spark revolt when rage combines with a distrust in both the ruling and oppositional institutions. This fact calls for anarchists to avoid an ideological purity that calls for participation only in total struggles. It also calls for the a keen theoretical development capable of immediately understanding specific situations in terms of the totality of domination, exploitation and alienation, and at the same time capable of making a practical application of this theory. This requires a willingness to constantly examine the developing realities around us, making connections that show the necessity for a revolutionary rupture, while at the same time singling out appropriate areas for intervention and appropriate targets for attack.
2) When an uprising or spontaneous struggle moves beyond the initial stages, the exploited recognize the need for horizontal communication. Assemblies or something similar are spontaneously developed. The rejection of politics and representation express themselves in these methods. At the same time, there are always party and union hacks, along with other predators, looking for the weak spot where they can “offer their assistance”. Here again, anarchists and anti-political revolutionaries need to have their shit together to keep an ongoing attack against these recuperative tendencies in play, as well as constantly pushing the struggle in a plainly anti-political direction in which negotiations and, thus, representation have no place.
3) Spaces which have tended to bring people together for purposes that are not their own are transformed to the extent possible into spaces for people’s own projects. This aspect is of major importance, because the ruling order is doing all it can to shut down or control public spaces. In the 1970’s factories could actually provide space for assemblies and other insurgent activities. With changes in the ways production is carried out, this is not a real option any more. Other public spaces are being designed to extend surveillance and limit the possibilities of gathering. This is an area where immediate resistance is necessary and where imagination needs to be focused.
4) Where there are traditions and known histories of self-organization, these can often provide a basis for the self-organization of revolt. Indigenous traditions in particular often provide such structures. On the other hand, where no such traditions exist, imagination and the capacity to be able to create from nothing are essential. This points to another area where immediate resistance is necessary: the increasing degradation of the capacity for creative thought needs to be fought tooth and nail. The standardization of thought into mere calculation and the rote recital of commonplaces must be rejected and countered, so that the capacity to really grapple with situations continues.
The Situation in the US
The absence of a social movement
None of the examples that I have used come from the United States. This is not because there have been no examples of self-organized struggles and revolt in this country, but most of them are more distant in time and didn’t go nearly as far as the events above. There was the wildcat movement among coal-miners in the ‘60’s. Although there were plenty of political hacks around, the anti-war, black liberation and other movements of the ‘60’s also had significant self-organized aspects. The mutinies among American military personnel in Vietnam were self-organized revolts. And in more recent times, apparently in one or two of the cities to which rioting spread after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, spontaneous assemblies actually took place to decide how to go about the rioting and looting effectively.
But in significant ways the situation in the United States now is not the same as it was in the 1960’s (and even then different movements and struggles seemed to have trouble connecting), nor is it like Italy or Spain (where, even now, wildcat strikers get support from others, including revolutionaries), Algeria or Bolivia.
Perhaps, the first thing we have to face as revolutionary anarchists in the US is that presently there is no social movement in this country. Collective social revolt only occurs in sudden explosions in response to immediate situations and quickly dissipates as repression and recuperation move in to defuse the situation.
The illusion that there is a movement in this country (to the extent the illusion exists) is the result of specialized activism, the myriad of groups, organizations and networks that publicize this, that or the other cause, issue or ideology. But specialized activism is in fact the very opposite of a social movement for a variety of reasons. First of all, it is essentially political rather than social in nature. The various activist groups represent the cause, issue or ideology that is their specialty. This representation can only occur through the reification of whatever reality stands behind the cause of the group, its transformation into a spectacular image (the clear-cut forest, the dead Iraqi baby, the cat with the electrode in its head, …). And this process of spectacularization guarantees that these matters will continue to be perceived in a fragmented manner which maintains the specialized role of the activist groups and prevents any revolutionary analysis or practice in relation to the particular matter they specialize in. The protests of these activists groups can give the image of resistance, but they do not spring from the daily lives and lived experiences of those involved, and so do not constitute real social resistance.
The specialization of activism around spectacular causes also transforms those involved, at least potentially, into representatives of struggle. In the US, this is not a minor matter. The number of times that activist groups and religious leaders have quelled a riotous situation by playing the role of “representatives” of the oppressed before the authorities is truly telling. With cries of “justice” and “rights”, they move an immediate response of rage against this society away from the area of social rebellion and into the area of politics and petition to the authorities. Those who play this role have to be recognized as the enemies of any social movement of rebellion, the guarantee that every immediate rebellion will remain a mere fragment, an event without past or future and without any relationship to rebellions elsewhere – the endless now of the media in which meaningful activity becomes impossible. We can’t let some ridiculous politically correct morality prevent us from exposing their role fiercely.
Specialized activism is itself a symptom of deeper problems. In all of the situations described above, there were levels of social cohesion that do not currently exist in the United States. Without trying to trace all the reasons here, it is necessary to recognize that ours is one of the most atomized societies in existence. Although there have been some significant workers’ struggles in this country since World War 2, these have tended to be isolated, because class consciousness has nearly disappeared in America. To a large extent, workers in this country have acquired “middle class” values of consumption: the desire for the single family house, at least two cars, fancy home entertainment centers, a personal stereo, etc., etc. So many of the products that are deemed desirable, in fact, act in a practical manner to separate people, to prevent communication with those around us. In addition, the well-paid union worker has been so ingrained with the bourgeois work ethic as to see anyone without a job, even the homeless street person, as a leech “living off his taxes”.
In the United States, the question of race cannot be ignored in dealing with this problem. The way this question is often dealt with in anarchist circles, with mental self-flagellation, p.c. moralizing and guilt, is useless from a revolutionary point of view. It is essential rather to note that, on the one hand, the social creation of race was developed through the use of very different methods of exploitation and oppression on people of different skin-colors and cultural backgrounds, and, on the other hand, that the rulers have used these differences in experience to create and maintain deep separations between those of different backgrounds, to guarantee that the exploited continue to be blind to the need to interweave their various struggles in order to more strongly attack the ruling class. It is not a matter of a melting pot, but of a weaving together of different strands of struggle. But as it stands now, in the United States, consciousness of race tends to be far stronger than class consciousness and this plays a major role in enforcing atomization and preventing significant struggles from coming together in a way that could be the basis for a real social movement.
Another factor enforcing alienation and preventing the development of a social movement here is the use of a propaganda of fear as a major factor in social control. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the rhetoric of fear has greatly expanded, but it has always been an important tool of the ruling class. The specter of crime is constantly raised in the media – before September 11, lightly spiced with terrorism, since then heavily spiced. The various modes of policing and real or (more often) apparent surveillance help to reinforce this message of fear. Others are not to be trusted. This is the basic message. The “never talk to strangers” of our mothers or teachers turns into the standard for adult behavior as well. This is reinforced by the various technological apparatuses that make communication between strangers difficult: personal stereos, cell phones, handheld computer games and the like. In the midst of the crowd, we each remain in our own little world, afraid to come out. Even within the anarchist milieu, the rule of fear finds its place. The very real need for security is often transformed into a paranoid distrust of anyone who doesn’t have the right appearance, thus reinforcing ghettoization in a subculture. If we have any desire for social transformation, it is safer to stay within the confines of the specialized activist milieu. Of course this will guarantee no such transformation occurs.
It would be easy to despair in the face of American social reality. It is difficult to see how any social movement can be revived out of such extensive atomization. And yet, there has been some evidence that among those at the bottom some awareness of a need to actually communicate is developing. The recent economic decline has pushed more people into precarious positions, opening some, at least, to examining deeper questions. Nonetheless, the creation of any real social movement here will have to involve a real and concrete practical rejection of activist politics and exposure and fierce confrontation with the recuperators it fosters. Since we desire a radical social transformation, one of our tasks as anarchists is precisely to encourage those who are becoming outraged at the conditions of their existence in this society to think and act for themselves rather than relying on the various ideologies and organization that will offer to represent their rage and resistance.
Two examples of the problem
When the Bush administration started to talk of the “necessity” of the current war in Iraq, there was some protest immediately. As the claims of the administration about the reasons for the war became increasingly suspect, the questioning of the war moved far beyond any activist milieu. From January 2003 through the beginning of the war, one saw huge demonstrations in which the vast majority of those involved were not activists. But most of the marches and demonstrations were organized by specialists in activism, petty politicians of the left with their own agendas. In L. A., the activist coalition that organized the demos was dominated by ANSWER (a front group for one of the multitude of ABC-socialist parties) and Not In Our Name (a front group for the Revolutionary Communist Party). The demonstrations were well regulated marches ending in rallies with the typical boring rhetorical speakers – the preachers to the crowd that activists love. Perhaps the most absurd thing was the competition between ANSWER and Not In Our Name for the attention of the crowd. ANSWER would call for a more reserved approach to the protest, while Not In Our Name would call for a more militant approach, but both were obviously seeking to establish their leadership over the movement. I would not be surprised if there were similar dynamics in many other cities. So it comes as no surprise that the anti-war movement has dwindled back down to a mainly activist movement, and not a particular energetic one. Undoubtedly, with the increasing exposure of the extent of the dishonesty of the administration, there is still a great deal of questioning, but no outlet. Since the morale of American soldiers in Iraq is extremely low and the desertion rate high, it is clear that there is potential for resistance among soldiers, but without a social movement of resistance to the war effort, soldiers may feel that they would have no support if they rebelled.
Another example of what can happen when the representatives of struggle take control happened in the neighborhood where I live. In May 2003, three blocks from the house where I was living, a cop murdered a woman who had been in a car they pulled over. There was an immediate response of outrage throughout the neighborhood, with a spontaneous memorial at the place she was killed, and demonstrations and rallies. The woman was an African-American, and in this area religious leaders play a central political role in the African-American “community”. So religious leaders immediately imposed themselves as representatives of the outrage, and immediately directed any potential struggle into the “proper channels”, calling for nonviolence. A few anarchists wrote and distributed flyers about the nature of the police, but got little response. The trajectory of this particular “struggle” had already been set by the religious leaders who had set themselves up as its representatives, and that direction was toward appeal to the ruling powers to reform their practices, an appeal that proved worthless, since the murdering officer is back on the streets with the authorities and the media protecting his identity.
Autonomous self-organization would have to be the basis both of a truly free existence and of the struggle to achieve that existence. It is the very opposite of politics and in practice either rejects it or is destroyed by it. The practice of self-organization seems to develop spontaneously when people rise up in revolt. What distinguishes it from politics is its opposition to representation and compromise – not just with the ruling order, but within the self-organized movement itself. Thus, rather than seeking to impose collective decisions involving compromise, it seeks to find a method for interweaving the desires, interests and needs of all involved in a way that is actually pleasing to each. This is not just a minor aspect, but is essential. Once the aim of organizing our struggles and our lives together ceases to be that of finding the ways for interweaving our differing desires, interests and needs so that all find fulfillment and instead becomes that of finding compromises, positions, programs and platforms start to take the place of desires, dreams and aspirations. Then, the representatives of the various positions, programs and platforms can find their place in the situation and transform self-organization into politics. It has happened before in revolutionary situations with horrible results.
This gives an indication of the way anarchist intervention is best carried out. We do not need to create any sort of political organization to represent anarchy. To do so would, in fact, be to work against self-organization. Instead we should start from ourselves, our own condition as individuals who have had our lives stolen from us, our struggle against that condition and our desire to be the creators of our own existence. From this basis, anarchist intervention would not be evangelism for a political program or for true revolutionary consciousness. It would rather be the search for accomplices, the development of relationships of affinity, the intertwining of our desires and passions, of our destructive rage, our ideas and our dreams with those of others in their struggles and revolts. Such a search can find its way in the midst of social movements of revolt, discovering the spreading affinities that offer an informal federation of complicity. It can also find its way where no social movement seems to exist, discovering the hidden veins of other individual revolts seeking complicity, and in these hidden veins perhaps finding the embryo of a new social movement.
In any case, this intervention, in refusing politics and its methods, becomes a tension toward revolution and freedom in life and struggle, perpetually pushing against the grain for the destruction of all domination and exploitation, for the end of every practice of specialization and representation including that of specialized activism. It is the tension that springs from knowing what one desires and at the same time knowing that one is facing a world that is designed to prevent one from realizing that desire – knowing, in other words, that one’s life is a battle. It is, at the same time, the tension of the complicity of desires in which the differences between individuals create the interweaving harmonies of affinity that indicate the direction for a new truly free way of living. It is in this tension that the specific self-organization of consciously anarchist revolt can find the way to intertwine with the daily struggles of all the exploited at the points where those struggles begin to experiment with direct action and self-organization. A new world based on joy and the exploration of our desires is possible, it will begin to grow wherever the self-organization of revolt against this world flows into the self-organization of life itself.
* In Sicily, the Mafia remains a significant part of the power structure. It also clearly recognized several areas of profit in the coming of the base ranging from its “legal” operations to prostitution and drugs.
* This term is relatively meaningless as it is used today. In the context of this uprising it refers to the fact that among those effected by the collapsing economy were people in occupations that paid moderately well, not just the poor.