Remember, Remember… The Wombles and the European Social Forum

The WOMBLES were an anti-authoritarian group based in London during the early noughties. Originally published in May 2010.

The relationship between the WOMBLES and the ESF process has been complex. Our involvement in the social forum discourse started when we were invited to participate in the first London Social Forum (LSF) in October 2003. The LSF had taken a critical position towards the various leftist parties (like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and their front group (Globalise Resistance), who had sought to dominate the ESF mobilising process while actively opposing local social forums. It was clear to us that there were progressive attempts to go beyond the hierarchical characteristics of traditional left politics and engage with the rise of anti-capitalism and its subsequent radicalisation on a grassroots level.

Despite our continued scepticism over the origins of the WSF and ESF leadership dynamic, we saw it as a positive step forward, it at least meant that we were engaging with other parts of the political spectrum we had previously been wary of. During this initiative we came into contact with many people who had a passion to organise using consensus and collective decision-making, something in the past that had only existed as a reality within anarchist/anti-authoritarian direct action movements. Though their methodology was different, the experience educated both sides.
Initially enthused by the political openness and direction of the LSF we [as individuals from the WOMBLES] fought hard within the London ESF organising assembly for an inclusive, accountable & transparent process. We had argued in Paris (ESF 2003) that the UK had no grassroots support for a European social forum in 2004 and would be dominated by the retarded political agenda and reactionary forces of the UK Left. This turned out to be prophetic & ultimately true.

We officially left the London organising process when the position of compulsory affiliation fees was imposed from above by the ESF leadership. We have never sought the approval or recognition of the ESF as a body and we make no apologies for our continued critical assessment of the role and function of the ESF as a whole.

The WSF/ESF did not advocate anti-systemic change. It merely asked for “capitalism with a human face”, “a new social contract for global justice”. So, we can see the WSF, and also the ESF, as a new “reformist International”, as “extra-institutional social democracy” which has adjusted itself to the new internationalised politics of capital (and the simultaneous decline of parliamentary politics at the level of the nation state).

Practically, the ESF, as an extra-governmental agent which tries to influence EU policies, must present itself as “a legitimate negotiator”. Therefore, it acts within the limits of present institutions without challenging them at all. Its co-operation with institutions of the status quo, such as national governments and parties, and its condemnation of any anti-systemic movement that radically breaks the imposed limits of social control are manifestations of its compliance.

The synthesis of the ESF is quite problematic. Its main characteristic is “plurality/diversity”, as it results from a drive for inclusivity. This plurality/diversity helps the circulation of different experiences, ideas, struggles. Moreover, it manages to attract people who are starting out in their political activity. So, it seems to have positive aspects. Yet, it unavoidably displays a lack of a comprehensive, common social analysis and common action of participating ESF groups, which in turn drives the ESF, as a body of power, towards minimalist objectives.

Let’s take this point further, differences in analysis suggest different goals in the social struggle. Very briefly, as anarchists/anti-authoritarians, we conceptualise capitalism as a system which develops through two dynamic streams - the first one has to do with “capitalists’ competition”; the competition between capitalist institutions (such as companies), which is grounded on the market economy and leads to “economic development”, to the commodification of every aspect of our lives (vertical expansion) and to the marketisation of every part of the planet (horizontal expansion). The second trend, and more important for us, is “social competition”, the competition between capital and society, related to the historical development of the state (i.e. from the liberal state and its crises to the welfare state/social-democracy and now to the “security networks”/neo-liberal state; from the society of discipline to the society of control etc.).

The lack of such analysis by the WSF-ESF as a whole leads it to the inclusion of organisations i.e. non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are a-critical and indirectly facilitate capital’s expansion, both in terms of commodification and marketisation (NGOs speak about “under-development” in North Korea and then Nike comes in) and social control (Amnesty International throws the “bombs of ethics” in Yugoslavia and then NATO intervenes). In other words, it leads it to the inclusion of groups and organisations whose actions are not against capitalism at all.

This is to me what we are faced with, an ideological perspective that goes beyond theory, that reaches right within the mindset of the mainstream majority and holds it therefore fearful for change - this is the issue, that change, the idea of change may give us reason to exist, to feel like we are going places, but reconciled with the fear that the security we have and the process of change will ultimately change the familiarity of the power structures we profess to despise. This is the Left, this is our involvement and connection with institutions - from horizontalism to diagonalism, the academic terminology machine launching a thousand PhDs, arguing that power is too complex to solely be classed a binary relationship, them and us- at this point we can only look at our own experiences, we can only know what is right and wrong, not from an analysis that has more to do with who is presenting it rather than what is presented, its neither Callinicos or Negri. When we reach the final hurdle, and are in the last straight, the superficiality of our movement, the subcultures, the terminology, the representation of who are allies and who are our enemies, the movement of movement slowly unravels. Through the facade of solidarity and ‘unity through diversity’ emerge the core deciding factor which dictates and enforces all others - the division between those who deem it necessary to use state and capitalist constituted power and those that seek to destroy it.

The energy and anger and momentum of this ‘movement’ came from the streets of Genoa, Prague, Nice, Evian, Gothenburg, where state forces were happy to teargas us, happy to break our bones as we slept in school buildings, happy to shoot us in the back as we ran away, happy to murder us in cold blood, the very same forces we now go to for funding to hold these Forums, the same forces that “welcome the anti-capitalists” (Jacques Chirac, Paris ESF). The same forces we allow to arrest and beat fellow ESF participants before our very eyes as we make political speeches from the stage under the watchful eye of government employees. The ‘movement of movements’ unravels itself and reveals an empty space.

If government leaders failed to stem the tide of mass anti-globalisation protest on the streets of Europe on a practical level, then it had to be contained by other means. The ESF can be seen as one of those means. In these terms it retains no political legitimacy. Indeed the ‘English exception’ becomes the blueprint.

We took a critical stance against the ESF/WSF not because of the way it was developing but because its central premise was flawed at its inception, incapable, or unwilling, of generating outwards beyond the contradictions that hold it together. When the façade slipped, like it did during those days of the ESF in London, it clumsily revealed the true nature and intentions of the ESF - a party political conference in a safe, controlled environment from which the ESF (through its leadership) could declare itself a credible negotiating partner, not the enemy, of both capital and governments.

The recent discussions on diagonalism represent nothing more than what the WSF/ESF were attempting to initialise from 2002, and therefore what the Leftist apologists of the state try to justify as progressive. Post-modern capitalism has existed due to these discussions of radicality being incorporated into an extensive network of reformist and assimilatory processes, as a mechanism which absorbs discontent rather than radiates it. Diagonalism continues this “proud” history of oppositional recuperation, when pushed hard enough the mask slips and we realise that instead of being a new transcendental force, its interests lie in the maintenance of hierarchically constituted power and the maintenance of the capitalist value system. Our struggle is difficult and risky, it’s best that if we are to risk everything then we should at least do so for everything rather than for nothing.

We leave you with a quotation from another black ski-mask wearing renegade: “I shit on all the revolutionary vanguards of this planet”

The WOMBLES group was started in the autumn of 2000 by a group of anarchists who were inspired and radicalised by a series of serious mass direct action demonstrations in London and around the world at that time. The WOMBLES promoted anarchist ideas, libertarian solidarity, autonomous self-organisation and humour. In 2004 the Wombles were involved with critiquing and organising against the European Social Forum conference held in London. Members were involved with organising an alternative space and occupying the main stage before Mayor of London Ken Livingstone could give a keynote speech. Whilst the Wombles are no longer active, a website is still regularly updated.