Alternative Editorial: Evolving Anarchy

If you’re into genuine political Alternatives, the place to be yesterday was Rye Bakery in Frome - where the "Accidental Anarchist" Carne Ross met the town's Radicals, in the home of Flatpack Democracy. Localism meeting globalism through the prism of human geopolitics. Or to put it more simply: how self-organising answers everything – if only we could do it sustainably.

The Rye Bakery was no accidental venue: it's a reclaimed church building offering vegan food, community and socio-political gatherings. We saw Pete Lawrence, founder of Campfire Convention and Jo Berry of Building Bridges - both of whom are now Frome locals. And of course Annabelle and Peter MacFadyen, co-initiators, with others, of Independents for Frome. Settling down to the BBC Documentary “The Accidental Anarchist” seemed a natural choice for a Friday night out. 

For those who haven’t seen it before, we recommend it as evidence that the pennies that have been dropping around the inadequacy of our political system at a local level, have their clear equivalent at the global level. Both within small regions in other countries – he uses the example of Rojava in this film - and for those, like Carne himself, who have been active and agentic in the bigger picture of how it all hangs together. 

Briefly – and crudely on my part – this is the story of Carne’s early complicity in, and later rebellion against, the system of British government. As a career diplomat, the film tracks his growing awareness of Foreign Office operations that instrumentalise regular citizens – us - in the pursuit of control over the global sphere. His awakening to system complexity makes it clear to him that no form of top down governance will ever deliver its intended outcomes. Agency does not operate in straight lines; human beings are not machines. 

As this realisation takes hold of him, Carne begins to explore the logic of anarchism – popularly portrayed as a revolt against all forms of order, and often violent. But in reality, anarchism is more of a pulling back from an alienating authority - and, crucially, a stepping up to personal and collective responsibility. Borrowing from Murray Bookchin he muses that ‘we are all secretly anarchists’: that is, we seek control over our own lives and a manageable community with access to resources. And from Orwell who, on visiting the Catalonian Anarchists in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War said he “didn’t even like it, but knew it was right”.

Towards the end of the film Carne visits Rojava, Northern Syria, where a relatively isolated region on the frontline of the war against ISIS organises itself without help from the central government. His experiences of fully participatory processes of decision making, in the face of the extreme tension of war, change him forever. 

One significant part of this complex new system is the equality of women, who not only participate fully in the councils but also in the guerrilla forces. Although Carne later expresses his regret at the use of the pictures of young girls with Kalashnikovs which have become iconic. While feminism does take that form in what is in effect a war zone, it distracts from the more profound effect of women bringing their holistic capabilities to the decision-making table. Off stage, Carne said to me “for change to happen, the leadership must come from women now”.

The discussion that follows in the room is exploratory – how can these insights help us build a real response to the multiple crises we face? For a brief moment, the attention stays with the status quo – the Syrian war, the plight of the embattled revolutionaries. What will the US do? Can this settlement survive? At another moment, the familiar question of whether or not we need an extreme threat – like the settlement in Rojava have against both Isis and the Syrian government – in order to organise (a question we tackle in our editorial What’s ‘The Enemy’)?

But threading his way through this maze, emerging slowly from the shadow of the present day, Carne eventually revealed the steady core of a kind of new political behaviour and structure that is very distinct from the status quo. And one that is already, pretty much, being modelled by the Independents of Frome - but with the limited agency that the current system offers. 

By this is meant participatory decision making and budgeting, with a leadership structure that serves rather than leads that process. But as long as it is operating at the relatively small town level, some of the bigger questions do not arise. For example, when asked about the need to set up a safe socio-political space that might encourage the rise of more self-reliance – as might be achieved, for example, by a Corbyn government - Carne demurs. Anarchism isn’t interested in a regulatory framework: we need to maintain a fluid system, with responsive – not rigid – structures. (The legendary British anarchist Colin Ward used to say that, for anarchists, organisation should be “(1) voluntary, (2) functional, (3) temporary, and (4) small”).

In this ecology, no charismatic leader – including Corbyn – can create the system from the top. It has to be driven from the grassroots, the people themselves have to guarantee the culture and structure by stepping into it fully. 

This vision is very similar to the picture that Hardt and Negri paint in their book Assembly, when they switch the roles between strategists (formerly the politicians) and tacticians (formerly the citizens). Yes, it’s an inverted pyramid – but one that recognises complexity. So even from the bottom up, the relationship with the servant or post-egoic leaders is not direct. But closer to the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. 

Most challenging is Carne’s claim that no anarchist would attempt to paint a picture of the future – because all is emergent. As soon as you fix your eyes on a goal that must be achieved, you constrict your freedom. It reminds me a little of the Buddhist ‘goal’ of ridding yourself of desire. It’s a conundrum that puts the smile on the Siddhartha’s lips.

So I’m not sure how good an anarchist I am being when I hold that, despite the dangers, temporary goals – imagined futures – are crucial in freeing people up from the traps they are in. Without the energy that comes from collective dreaming, we will be forever trapped trying to lift the table while we are standing on it. 

We do have a dream, here at The Alternative UK. We are beginning to envisage the rise of autonomous political cultures from the grassroots, that realise individual and social potential and re-shape national and international politics from the bottom up. It looks richer and healthier than what we are witnessing in the present.

But if something better than that emerges… who could complain?