2000s >> 2000 >> no-1151-july-2000

How RTS neglects need for democratic control

Reclaim the Streets’ neglect of the need for democratic accountability just leads to the tyranny of structurelessness.

For the Mayday event in London, Reclaim the Streets, the shadowy group which organised it—shadowy because it doesn’t appear to be an open organisation with democratic structures—produced a spoof edition of the free daily paper Metro which they called Maybe. In it they set out their ideas. Some are not bad, others are mistaken and yet others are, frankly, pathetic (such as the ostensibly serious idea that “guerrilla gardening”, or clandestinely growing food in public parks and railway embankments, is somehow subversive of capitalism).


Reclaim the Streets’ spoof paper Maybe. Who made the decisions?

The front page article “KEN PULLS OUT” (reproduced here) is very clever. We’d have liked someone to have written it for us. There would not be too much we would disagree with in another article “Ecology and the Social City” which contrasts life in cities today under capitalism with what life in a “free city” could be like once the global market system and nation-states have been ended.

And we can go along with the following criticism of the passivity that capitalism encourages:

“We are forced to spectate by capitalism. We watch TV, movies, news, celebrities—the ‘other’ in the ‘other’s world’ in which we do not feel threatened or truly involved. We are encouraged to vote, be it for governments, councils or mayors, to ask them to represent us, to decide for us. We have no connection with the production of our daily needs, of our food, clothes. We have become so accustomed to assuming the position of spectator in our own lives, that active participation in events has become like a muscle atrophied through lack of use.”

And with the following assessment of the wasted 20th century:

“20th century history is a tragic lesson in the dangers of trusting ‘anti-capitalist’ politicians or of just being against one aspect of capitalism, like ‘globalisation’, rather than for a complete transformation of society.”

Obviously, we can’t be anything but pleased if such ideas are growing. But how does RTS see capitalism being ended? By what they call “direct action”. This is an anarchist catch-phrase but it means different things to different anarchists. To those anarchists who believe in organisation (and, contradictory as it may seem, some do, the anarcho-syndicalists for instance) it is meant to convey the idea that any action that any group of people take to try to improve their lot should be under their direct control. We don’t have any objection to this idea—in fact, it’s the form of organisation we have always urged workers to adopt for waging the struggle against employers for better wages and working conditions—only we call it “democratic self-organisation” (and, contrary to all anarchists, don’t see why it can’t, and shouldn’t, be extended to embrace organisation on the political field to win control of the state with a view to dismantling it).

RTS, however, are not in the tradition of anarchists who believe in organisation. They openly describe themselves as a “dis-organisation”:

“Reclaim the Streets is non-hierarchical, spontaneous and self-organised. We have no leaders, no committee, no board of directors, no spokespeople. There is no centralised unit for decision-making, strategic planning and production of ideology. There is no membership and no formalised commitment. There is no master-plan, and no predefined agenda.
The direct action movement is an organic network of people taking responsibility for their own lives, expressed through local interventions, chaotic global connections and friendships. Reclaim the Streets spontaneously and temporarily emerges from a shared dissatisfaction with the way our lives are run for us, with the rat-race and a society based on exclusion and enclosure, profit and control. As a dis-organisation, RTS is mobile and furtive. It is there when people decide to intervene in public spaces, evoking the utopia of a better society.”

For such anti-organisation anarchists, “direct action” means the supposedly spontaneous action of small groups acting on their own initiative without being answerable to anybody. Thus, when they use the word “self-organisation” they don’t mean the same thing as people like us, namely, structured, democratic organisation, certainly without leaders, but not without some central decision-making unit such as a conference of mandated delegates nor without elected committees to plan and co-ordinate particular spheres of activity. Nowhere in Maybe does the word “democratic” occur, neither in relation to how capitalism is to be ended, nor as to how anti-capitalists should organise today, nor even when describing the sort of society to replace capitalism. This is clearly deliberate and will reflect the fact that RTS rejects the idea of democratic control because this involves formal rules and permanent structures which they will see as bureaucratic restraints on the freedom of autonomous activists to act as they please.

Informal elites
This is the “ideology of structurelessness” so brilliantly dissected by the American feminist, Jo Freeman, in 1970 in her essay on The Tyranny of Structurelessness (http://www.tigeren.com/~berios/tos.txt). In the Women’s Liberation movement of that time the same emphasis was placed “on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main focus of the movement” as RTS does today. Freeman showed that there was in fact no such thing as a structureless group, only formally and informally structured groups:

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion . . . This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy. A ‘laissez faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of structurelessness does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones . . . Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power . . .
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision making must be open and available to everyone and this can only happen if they are formalized . . . A structured group always has a formal structure, and may also have an informal one. An unstructured group always has an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites . . . When informal elites are combined with a myth of structurelessness, there can be no attempt to put limits on the use of power. It becomes capricious . . . [I]nformal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group.”

This suggests some embarrassing questions for RTS. OK, perhaps it has “no committee”, “no centralised unit for decision-making”, but there must be some process by which decisions are made. Who decided that the theme of the Mayday event in London should be the joke idea of “guerrilla gardening”? Who decided to publish Maybe? Who organised its production? Who collected the money to pay for it? Who authorised its expenditure? Clearly, there must be individuals or a group of individuals who did make these decisions, but as there is no formal structure they are in practice answerable to no one. They will be an unaccountable, self-appointed group of activists. Whoever they are, they will be, as Freeman pointed out, an informal elite, de facto leaders making decisions, in RTS’s own word, in a “furtive” way.

In preaching that we don’t need formal decision-making rules and structures RTS are propagating a dangerous illusion, dangerous because it opens the door to groups of discontented people being manipulated by some self-appointed and non-accountable elite or vanguard. We insist that, on the contrary, “self-organisation” is only possible as democratic self-organisation, involving formal rules and structures, precisely to prevent the emergence of unaccountable elites.

We’re not talking about the sort of structures advocated and practised by Leninist organisations such as the SWP, where the rules and structures are designed to enshrine control by a self-perpetuating elite (in the SWP, as in other Leninist organisations, supreme decision-making power rests in the hands of a central committee which is self-perpetuating in that it is elected as a slate—whose composition is chosen by the outgoing committee).

We are talking about structures that place decision-making power in the hands of the group as a whole, along the lines of the seven “principles of democratic structuring” listed by Freeman: <

  1. Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures.
  2. Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to all those who selected them.
  3. Distribution of authority among as many people as reasonably possible.
  4. Rotation of tasks among individuals.
  5. Allocation of tasks along rational criteria.
  6. Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible.
  7. Equal access to resources needed by the group.

This in fact is more or less the basis on which we, as a smallish revolutionary organisation, have always organised ourselves. It is also the basis on which we have always advocated that the mass movement to replace capitalism by (as the front page article in Maybe describes it) “a stateless, moneyless society where goods [are] produced not to make profits but simply because people needed them” should organise itself—a democratic self-organised mass movement of people who want and understand such a society (we call it socialism, but which people can call what they like). An anti-capitalist movement organised and co-ordinating its activities on this basis need have no fear, contrary to what all varieties of anarchist claim, of contesting elections to win control of political power from the supporters of capitalism who currently control it and who use it to maintain the economic power and privileges of the capitalist class.

In fact, the anarchists’ advocacy of either taking on the State head-on by “direct action” against it or by trying to ignore it and proceed as if it didn’t exist is foolish in the extreme. It increases the chances of violence. This is even more so when the anarchists concerned also reject, as RTS does, the idea even of organising on a permanent basis with decision-making conferences, accountable delegates, voting, reporting back and, yes, binding decisions.

A supposedly spontaneous, unorganised anti-capitalist revolution such as advocated by RTS would only end in disaster out of which either the present rulers would succeed in reasserting their control or a new set of rulers would profit from the chaos to seize power. If we are going to get rid of capitalism the majority is going to have to organise itself to do so—in a permanent organisation with a democratic structure.


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