“No Messy Politics Please, We’re Anarchists!”

A response to Darisuh Sokolov's article in issue 9 of Shift Magazine. Originally published in January 2011.

SHIFT provides a space for those of us defining as anarchists and based in the UK to ‘constructively’ critique ideas and movements. As the participants from the No Borders network referred to by Dariush Sokolov in his article Cochabamba: Beyond the Complex – Anarchist Pride (printed in Shift issue #9), who took part in the First World People’s Conference on Climate Change (CMPCC), we want to engage with the dialogue opened in #9. We agree with several of the points made, particularly the calling out of “economies based on the same model of petroleum, industrial agriculture, extraction, and growth before everything”. However, we reject a simplistic notion of relishing ‘our’ minority anarchist status. Here we reflect on the chasm we see between maintaining ‘purity’ of ideology and the reality of actually doing politics.

To be clear, we were always critical of what is going on in Bolivia and of other ‘progressive’ governments in Latin America. The glaring contradiction between Evo Morales’ anti-capitalist/eco saviour speeches and his ongoing extractivist industrialisation is just one of the reasons we wanted to attend, to hear what was going on and to report back. In all its complexity we felt that the CMPCC, coming as it did, hot on the tails of the fuck up that was COP-15, was an important event to engage with.

We spent a month in Bolivia participating in the summit working groups, workshops and panels on borders, militarisation, and climate migration, the autonomous parallel process known as Mesa 18, and various mobilisations. The booklet that we co-wrote on our return, Space for Movement – Reflections from Bolivia on Climate Justice, Social Movements and the State, is based on interviews with some of the people we met, and wrestles with big questions that the conference raises.

Dariush’s article suggests that we asked to go as delegates and that this was ‘ejected’ by the No Borders network meeting. The problems of representation in non-hierarchical groups is not our focus here. However, our perspective is that when we sought agreement to refer to ourselves as part of the UK No Borders network, at least some our comrades appreciated that we were asking for input, supported us going as individuals, and understood our reasons. To imply that we were ignorant of the power politics we were entering into was, to be honest, insulting.

The potency of serious political positions are too often trivialised in the mainstream, by reducing people to inaccurate categories (e.g. ‘layabouts’ or ‘violent thugs’ ). On the other side, ‘we’ seem all too ready to resort to equally lazy labelling, when we maybe want to make a real political point? We would like to ask, who are the white, English-speaking, privileged, careerists laden with middle-class guilt that Dariush refers to in his article? What if one of ‘us’ who went to the CMPCC was a working-class queer person of colour, fed up with being invisibilised and treated as a ‘minority’ both within the mainstream and the activist ghetto? For a generalisation to exclude the exception, to make this mistake even once, is to deny the political identity and positionality of all those who do not fit the stereotype. This creates yet another psychological border separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ within our very own movements.

These labels are powerful, isn’t that why we resist categorisations? For example, we highlighted problems with the term climate refugee in draft statements of the CMPCC, and pushed for the inclusion of references to repressive migration controls. A minor change yes, but these battles on the level of discourse are important, especially when we consider how political views are often formed, articulated and negotiated through written and spoken language.

Some of our strengths as anarchists include our refusal to be duped or easily seduced. Our critical minds question everything and, with apparently no positions of privilege to defend, we are willing to call out hierarchy and power wherever we encounter it. But, if the way we do this means that even people involved in anti-authoritarian groups and active in networks are called upon to doubt their political convictions, is it any wonder that others are put off from joining us in struggle? We will continue to honestly debate our actions, but we will also call out problems that we see within ‘our’ minority.

Of course we need shared values and principles but ‘we’ seem too quick to judge, without seeking to understand each other’s motivations. This can lead to a hyper-critical tendency that seeks to defend an imagined ideological ‘purity’. Who is the judge? Who sets the standards? Can someone be polluted by a particular action, the vegan who eats honey, the environmentalist who takes a flight, the No Borders activist who works with the local church-led refugee group? With our almost insurmountable mountain of radical positions, do we exclude those not up to the mark or do they simply choose not to participate? Unchallenged this rigidity inhibits our ability to create strong, diverse movements.

Climate change is here:
This brings us to the elephant in the room. The co-option of climate change discourses, by everyone from the BNP to consumer ad campaigns, seems to have led many anarchists to conclude that there is no point engaging at all with ‘the biggest threat to humanity and the planet’. We see that this position, although an understandable response, risks slipping towards collective denial or nihilism. Climate change is a real and current war on the world’s poor and whether we like it or not it does impact heavily on the global context we are working in. Increased militarisation of borders is just one state response to this reality that negates freedom and equality. We remain committed to fighting for climate justice, even though we are suspicious of how this discourse has already been framed and manipulated.

The Shift editorial made the valid point that fetishisation of carbon emissions associated with flights detracts from the real systemic cause of the crisis, i.e. capitalism. In this they concur with much of the discourse coming from Bolivia, as Evo says, it’s a matter of life and death; patriarchy, imperialism, capitalism are all threatening life on earth. Morales and other ALBA leaders propose their vision of global socialism as the only solution, and that’s where of course we differ. However, sharing some common analysis of causes, even at the level of rhetoric, we saw that it was important to enter into the sticky, grey areas of dialogue in order to distinguish our solutions.

Too often the millions of people that are expected to be displaced by climate change are referred to only in terms of ‘overpopulation’ and a threat to be managed. Statistics get bounded around, numbers of people, black numbers on white paper but what do they mean? At the first major international gathering of social movements which put climate migration on the agenda, we ensured that borders and increased militarisation were visible and argued that freedom of movement for all and freedom to stay are crucial to emerging climate justice discourses (see the article Freedom of Movement and Borders in an age of Climate Chaos on our blog).

As Dariush says, Bolivia does indeed still have borders, an army, prisons. In our work there, we heard different contextual understandings and certainly realised the Eurocentric basis of a No Borders position. For many it is the ability to keep out rich, Northern corporations and NGOs that was seen as the function of a border regime. But in a country where anti-capitalism seems to be the rule rather than the exception, with strong transnational solidarity and indigenous rejection of nation states, we found that what is often a freakish political position in Europe, for many, seemed uncontroversial.

There is much to be said for embracing the outsiderness of being an anarchist, especially in influencing power dynamics within and between movements. However, contrary to Dariush’s assertion that, “our desires and beliefs are largely out of step with those of just about everyone else we ever meet,” we found more in common then we had imagined. Many of the problems we encounter today have come about as a result of minority groups forming around collective ideologies, dreams and demands, which are imposed on the majority through coercion. Whilst the current anarchist movement is a minority in numbers, it is surely our belief in basic shared collective desires within the majority that calls us to organise, to act, to speak out, and to face the consequences. Movements will form, uprisings will happen, whether we are in them or not. But we believe that it is crucial that we locate ourselves in the wider struggle, and to do this we need to create relationships of mutual respect and spaces for dialogue.

Bolivia can be seen as an example of how movements are co-opted, how states can adopt radical rhetoric without relinquishing domination and control. We met with Bolivian political actors both within and against the state, who having fought side-by-side on the barricades now find themselves in very different political territory. There are ongoing struggles and attempts to expose the attacks on the social base that brought the ruling party, Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS), to power. However, for many Bolivians who were part of this process, there is no clear good/bad position when it comes to Morales and the MAS government. One compañera spoke passionately of her distrust of their socialist project, and a deep sense of betrayal from former comrades (see recent open letter to Evo Morales at http://narconews.com/Issue67/article4292.html). She was clear though that had we been from the right, she would have articulated her position differently to us. The threat from the European descendent oligarchs and the outside powers and financiers that support them remains strong. There is much to challenge, but also to necessarily defend. Bolivians we met didn’t seem ‘duped’, but repeatedly told us that it wasn’t about one man or one party, but about a wider push for change from below that would inevitably take many paths.

So how does this relate to what’s going on this winter on these islands? Who hasn’t asked themselves recently, why, when the system continues to expose itself; the banking crisis, MP’s expenses, police brutality etc, there isn’t more resistance? In an unfolding climate of coalitions and community organising in the UK against the cuts and the unprecedented attacks on the working-class, it’s crucial that we take ourselves to where politics is happening. This is what we call messy politics. This is also when our ‘ghetto’ can truly serve its purpose, providing nourishment, support, etc. Everytime we step out of our comfort zones, there is a balance to be found between staying true to our beliefs and actually engaging with people. Ultimately, each one of us has to reconcile these tendencies and we don’t argue here for any one strategy; however we echo Bristol Anarchists against the Cuts;

“For us at least is not about tunnel vision on the anarchist utopia and everything else can go to hell…If anarchists only involve themselves with the clandestine then they risk becoming even more marginalised at a time where we could be making headway.”

Despite mainstream media portrayals, the recent student protests were not an anarchist conspiracy shielding itself behind witless and innocent young scholars. They were however, in Bristol at least, infused from within and without with a little of that anarchist pride and rage, and have been practically, tactically and ideologically supported by local autonomous spaces and anarchist groups. Revelling in our minority status stands in contrast to seeing ourselves as part of a much broader struggle. The real work of building bridges, of developing true mutual aid and solidarity entails remembering that we’re not always right, being willing to admit our collective shortfalls and that we have things to learn too. To bring about real transformative, social change, exclusivity in our movements must be challenged, both in the global context of the bio-crisis, and in our locally based struggles. Once we accept that uneasy or unlikely alliances will at times be inevitable, we can begin the real work of how to build internally strong movements that can resist internal break down or external neutralisation. Or are we really more interested in dividing people into friends and foes?

Alice and Yaz live in Bristol and have been involved in the No Borders network for several years. The blog from their time in Bolivia is ayya2cochabamba.wordpress.com. The booklet they co-wrote on their return is downloadable in English and Spanish.