Text from the UK reflecting on anarchy, “democracy”, coronavirus, and responses to the pandemic…
Originally published by The Road to Hell on 325 (PDF File).
Read The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: COVID19, Corbyn and ‘Crisis’ as PDF File:
We started to write this text last December, just after the general election in England, as a response to the huge number of anarchists who voted (and some who went canvassing). We didn’t realise what we were embarking on, it started out as an article, then became a zine. We
really wanted to finish it before the new Labour leader was announced at the beginning of April 2020, then COVID-19 hit.
Struggling to make sense of the new context we are in, we wondered if our critique of “democracy” (and the surge of Labour voting
anarchists) in the UK was appropriate. However, there are unfortunately many important similarities and related issues running through the huge popularity of Corbyn and the responses of many to coronavirus. So, we decided, on reflection, that it was in some ways still necessary to create a space for discussion on these issues.
We planned to get this text together and then publish and distribute it when stuff “returned to normal”. But, the reality is: there is no going back to what was “normal,” so even though some may read this text as an unsympathetic distraction from a global “crisis”, and an unhelpful poke in some festering wounds (when we should be focusing on “unity”), we hope our humble but fiery reflections will spark some much needed discourse. We are living in a hostile environment, but it was important to us not to shy away from our beliefs in these dark times, and to respond accordingly.
Better Late Than Never?
Like coronavirus, the paradox of anarchists engaging with democracy on its terms (voting or pressurising people to vote), does not seem to
be a passing phase, and it is also a global phenomenon. As well as in the UK, some anarchists have been advocating for similar behaviour in the US, Catalunya, Greece and Germany. It wouldn’t surprise us to hear of more places experiencing the same thing.
Everyone is fried. Switching between feverish anxiety and smacked out sleepwalking, endlessly oscillating between apathy and anguish.
Within this landscape, the Labour party is reinventing itself, distancing itself from the policies and priorities of Jeremy Corbyn and entering a new era with Kier Starmer at the helm as ‘Leader of the Opposition.’
Many people who voted for Corbyn have been bewildered (or down right hostile) to our continued determination with this project, arguing that no one we know would vote for Kier Starmer so the discussions around Corbyn are history. Again, to us, this only serves to strengthen our critique of parliamentary politics and those who engaged with it.
It’s as if everyone who got caught up in the social media frenzy and the cult of ‘JC’ has carried on scrolling, quietly moving on to the next bit of click-bait, forgetting their own browser history. Now the corona pandemic has hit, it has reminded many how fucked the system is. Anarchists who voted are now returning to the ideals they long held up as ideals (mutual aid, solidarity etc) and the electioneering frenzy many perpetuated seems like a distant dream (or rather, a nightmare). Many people are organising mutual aid through unions such as Acorn and the Peoples Momentum party (the ‘radical’ arm of Labour).
We are not trying to undermine the importance of organising in this situation, but as we have tried to demonstrate in our voting critique, it is also important to think outside the box, and be aware of all the possible ways these ideas can get co-opted.
Concern or Compliance?
Like many other schemes, we set up a Whats App group a while ago to keep everyone aware of anything suspicious in the neighbourhood. This has worked really well and we have quickly made people alert of any activity. It is also a great way to bring the community together.Merseyside Neighbourhood Watch
Already many mutual aid groups have become channels for gossip (who knows where this will go in the next few weeks… comrades in Italy warn us of neighbourhood snitching and people using these channels to do the work of the police). Already over half the police forces in England are co-opting the mutual aid groups and using them as an extension of their surveillance mechanisms. The divisive mentality that emerged with the growth of social media (the idea that you are inherently dodgy if you don’t engage; as you must have something to hide) has spiked, and like the virus, it seems unclear when it will “peak”.
Fuck, I hate having spoken this much about it, but I’m so passionate about it. I saw people sell themselves for fucking bullshit. That’s the shit I hated this year.Skepta on the elections and ‘Grime4Corbyn
Just as Skepta put his head above the parapet to cuss Grime artists who queued up to endorse Labours dismal and token attempts to make itself more popular, so we respectfully ask anarchists who voted: what now? where next? These questions feel especially important in the current context… there are choices to be made, and positions to be taken:
Fire can arise from the plague. And fire can bring freedom… we want to avoid that this moment of crisis leads to a restructuring of the current system. Because it could only happen in a more authoritarian and security-minded sense.The Plague and the Fire
To those who say that now is not the time for “civil unrest,” that division is unhelpful, that we must keep going… we say: now is the time for it all. Mutual aid and solidarity can be no more than acts of charity if they are not combined with resistance in this current context. Carefully, whilst being safe and thinking of others… rebel, resist, and plan. Find the gaps, use the skills and networks you have. Keep yourself sane and your rebellious heart burning, because when the virus eases, the police state will continue, and food parcels and lending books are not going to dismantle it. Stay sharp.
COVID-19 is in many ways a global gift to all leaders and politicians seeking to ramp up social control. After the virus eases, we will see unprecedented changes on a global scale as legislation that was rushed through hangs over us like a spectre and people obediently go about their business, terrified of Covid-20. We hope that we will never be too scared to resist. Corona shows us that the system is fucked. Will you kick it while it’s down?
The NHS (National Health Service)
In the run up to the 2019 election in England, the NHS became a convenient electioneering tool for Labour and this will be discussed at length later in the text. Boris Johnson is now parroting his tired rhetoric also about saving the NHS. All too quickly the Labour slogan has been picked up by the Tories. Johnson in front of a banner in a grotesque photo-shoot. Or now after being in an Intensive Care Unit saying he owes his life to the NHS. Do not mistake us: we have full respect for health care workers right now, and we are not trying to diminish the strain that they are under. However, to us, the coronavirus also exposes a huge opportunity for the Tories… rushing through emergency power after emergency power, whilst suspending parliament. But it is clear that the NHS has become a facade to mask unprecedented level of social control in this country. The COVID-19 outbreak wont stop us from kicking off and focusing on the fact that behind the immediate situation is a whole apparatus and arsenal of repression.
In these times of rainbow flags (for the NHS) and weekly street clapping, it may seem inappropriate to be discussing the NHS as a political institution. However, it is impossible to discuss recent events in the UK (and globally as the pattern is repeated elsewhere) without mentioning it.
We reiterate once again our respect for all those working in health care (not just the NHS, but in all forms) during this pandemic, and cannot imagine the stress that people are under. But if we cannot call out the political machinations behind institutions, and highlight their role in legitimising a host of other legislation and proposals (from both the Tories and the Labour party) then we are lost. Our respect has a critical edge, and it is vital now more than ever that we are aware of the bitter-pill we are often asked to swallow in the name of national health.
We want to highlight the mass-surveillance system that is being developed by the NHS. People will be “voluntarily” encouraged to sign up and become part of the “digital herd”. ‘NHSX’, the tech arm of the National Health Service, is developing an app that will give the government unprecedented access to both health and location information. People will be given a dubious “health status” that is publicly visible: ‘Potentially Infectious Persons’ (PIP)… The rationale is that this new app will help “vulnerable” people. This is clearly a nonsense, as thousands of people are literally waiting to die with the pandemic in prisons, detention centres and migrant camps. The government is only concerned about the “vulnerable” when it suits them, when their reputation is on the line and when it enables further repression.
The Coronavirus Act 2020
It is a totalitarian coup by a right-wing government which has already shown it’s utter contempt for the judiciary, for parliament and for the people. Many of the provisions of this Act are already experienced by those on the margins of society, by dissidents, those in the prison and criminal justice system, the poor, and ethnic groups consistently disposed of by the police and the system, through poverty, imprisonment and death. Now the grand experiment is whether the kind of control infrastructure and total suspension of rights already administered to particular groups can be rolled out to the entire population.Prison-state UK comes into Law: Coronavirus, Anarchists
The ‘Coronavirus Act’ will be in place in the UK for at least 2 years. As with the NHS app, the Coronavirus Act uses infection as a way to stratify society and legitimise an unprecedented (but not unexpected) wave of social control. The Mental Health sections of the act mean that any unruly prisoners can be transferred to mental institutions and hospitals. The state has used psychological control for a long time as a way to silence prisoners (several people convicted during the 2012 riots were incarcerated in psych wards, many of which had more repressive regimes than “normal” prisons). We are highlighting these measures here to show how fast paced the changes in legislation have been, and how silent the Labour party (and Jeremy Corbyn) has been on these issues.
People are finally letting go of the idea that we will return to “normal” after the pandemic. We are interested to see how those who voted Labour will respond when the draconian powers that have been rushed through inevitably stay in place long after the “peak” has past. The act means, amongst many other things, that volunteer health-care assistants will hold the fate of many in their hands, as they can arbitrarily sign off peoples “status” (and compliance) on a whim.
The New Brexit?
People have called corona virus ‘the new Brexit’. As with Brexit, Corbyn failed to challenge the Tory government in any meaningful way. When Johnson announced the ‘The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020’ (an impenetrable set of powers covering pretty much every aspect of existence) Corbyn remained mute, despite still being Leader of the Opposition. Visits have been stopped in all prisons, the Navy are being drafted in to control the incarcerated population, trials have been suspended meaning people on remand are held indefinitely, and any court appearances are being made via video-link. The borders have been closed, everything has been shut down. It is unsurprising to us that Corbyn and Labour have commented on none of this, not to even make some token gesture for those who are affected.
Every measure that the state proposes in this time is as concerned with the maintenance of the economy as it is with public health. Even now, as governments implement packages that might bring a bit of relief to some of us, the main purpose is to keep the economy ticking over and the property market viable – that is, to ensure that we can keep paying rent.
Some old things to live by, some new things to live by[…], Au$tralia
In his final letter to the Prime Minister on the 14th March, Corbyn talked about workers and renters rights and benefits, but he seems indifferent to the potentially lethal risk that many people mainstream “society” forget (prisoners, migrants and homeless people). We cynically note that as many of these people do not have the right to vote, it is perhaps not surprising that their voices and needs in these corona fuelled times do not get heard.
In Bristol (as with many other parts of the UK), anarchists were first convinced to vote on the Brexit referendum. This seems to have been a kind of gate-way drug, a stepping stone into full blown engagement with parliamentary politics, culminating in the past two general elections for the Labour party (lead by Jeremy Corbyn). Initially we were naive in thinking that the Brexit referendum was unique in its nature and that when anarchists chose to vote on that occasion they really were doing it just the one time. And so, two years ago, with roughly one month of warning before the elections, we were caught off guard. We found ourselves asking old friends and comrades if they had voted, something we had previously felt confident was not necessary.
The intention of this text isn’t to be snide, or sneaky. We have had many of these discussions in person, but we remain frustrated that our perspectives get lost in those talks or are not available to those who think that voting anarchists is not a contradiction. We want to use this medium to articulate our position more clearly in order to contribute to a wider conversation.
While many anarchists who read this text will find that not all of it directly relates to their position, we decided to include most of our thoughts that were sparked by this recent debate. There is so much published anarchist criticism of democracy we couldn’t possibly read all of it in researching this text. We have included a lot of it in a bibliography at the end in case people want to get into it all a bit deeper. All of the stuff we reference or take influence from was written by much better writers than ourselves, but we still felt compelled to put our thoughts down in order to engage specifically with our own context and time here in the UK. If it was harder to find this wealth of information it might be less disappointing that people turned so easily to democracy. We believe that it highlights a wider problem in the UK anarchist/radical milieu: of not reading or engaging in critical analysis, and instead participating in sub-cultures with little substance beyond identity signifiers. When social tensions increase these sub-cultural signifiers dissipate and the actions of individuals become contrary to them.
We particularly want to engage more thoroughly with some of the arguments that were levelled at us around the time of the 2019 general election. Our research has led us to understand that this debate has been ranging for a very long time and that we are not alone in our feelings.
What’s The Meaning Of It All?
Many anarchists maintain that voting “doesn’t affect their core beliefs”, and after we got over our naive incomprehension at how antithetical and hypocritical it sounded, how much it reminded us of Orwell’s doublethink, we finally realised that they were right! Engaging with the democratic process merely serves to reveal a different social analysis and projectuality that many anarchists in the UK hold and which we define as leftist (or radical leftist when the same people advocate for tactics more extreme than voting to achieve similarly progressive aims). It all helps to remind us that it is indeed possible to fight alongside someone in the street who identifies as an anarchist, and yet have an entirely different analytical reason for doing so.
The whole debate could be left right there, a simple difference of nomenclature. After all, the purpose of this piece is not inspired by a desire to have any purifying effect or quantitative impact, especially not on the political process, that would be totally contradictory. However, we do have a strong desire to clarify our position so it is not recuperated and so we can understand who our comrades are.
In the UK, there has rarely been much of a distinction between anarchists and the radical left. Obviously there are many exceptions to this generalisation, but it doesn’t serve our purpose to discuss those here. However, in this text we will refer to those anarchists who voted or canvassed simply as anarchists… not as the radical left, voting anarchists, so-called anarchists or “anarchists” because we do not want the content of our perspectives to be lost behind a veil of perceived arrogance. We also want to recognize that even though all voting leads to the same place: the limitations of the ballot box; there are many different motivations and reasons for voting, and we don’t want to tar everyone who disagrees with us with the same brush.
The purpose of this piece is to engage in conversation, not to suggest that we have all the answers, but to offer our critique and if we have misunderstood peoples motivations, then to engage with them. We don’t think we are “right”, nor do we aim to be. We know that anarchists are “as varied as mankind” (Fredy Perlman). We all make compromises, and we are all hypocrites. But for us, voting is not consistent with our critical analysis. Sadly, we are a minority, a few pariahs in a rapidly changing social context.
Anarchy Under Attack?
We have no interest in defending anarchism as an ideology or sub-culture. If people want to call themselves anarchists and vote, so be it. Language is always evolving and perhaps the word anarchy is coming to mean its exact opposite as we understand it. If it has become stretched so far from it’s original conception to become ultimately meaningless to us, we will leave it behind. However, as a friend said recently, saying “anarchists who didn’t vote” is like saying “vegans who don’t eat meat”. It feels pretty incoherent to deliberately use language completely back to front, and so below we clarify our understanding of the word anarchy up until this point in time.
A is for Anarchy… The word Anarchy literally means “without rulers”, “without leaders”, or “without masters.ABC of Anarchy, Hegarty
The word anarchy comes from the Greek an (meaning without) and arkhos (meaning leader or ruler). To quote Galleani: “In anarchy only one domination is justifiable, legitimate and desirable, and it is the domination each one exerts on himself. To exceed this is authority, command, despotism and, as anarchy is by definition absence of authority, anyone who calls for or sustains domination, that is authority, places himself, by his own action, against and outside anarchy.” (male pronoun used in the original text, which was published in 1925 and we feel is still very relevant today).
Our anarchy is anti-political, and incompatible with any form of leadership, any form of representation, regime changes, any form of democracy (direct or otherwise), or anything that merely shuffles around the makeup of alienated power.
Unfortunately, we have begun to feel that anarchists voting shouldn’t come as a surprise. In a time when everything is flexible, dissent is so quickly recuperated, and contradictions existing side by side become socially accepted, even normalised. The Identitarian’s have made fascism hipster, “ethical consumerism” means KFC are selling vegan burgers, the #MeToo movement exists under the rule of Donald Trump. Home Secretary Priti Patel, the daughter of Ugandan-Indian parents, maintains Theresa May’s “Hostile Environment” policy, and the beer mats at the pub that encourage us to stop smoking are sponsored by one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco (Philip Morris).
Nothing makes sense any more.
It is not the first time (neither will be the last) that anarchists have engaged with the left and party politics. We feel that our position is largely justified by the legacies of such failures in his-story. However, to write about these examples would take a lot of time and research and fill many books. A lot of people have written (and acted) against democracy, from Élisée Reclus in 1884, Galleani and Malatesta in the 1920s to Bonnano in the 1990’s, and many contemporary anarchists that we quote throughout the text.
The sentiment they all present is that it is common sense to learn from the mistakes of the past so as to not repeat them. One of the most famous examples in anarchist history is that of the Spanish Civil War, in which the Popular Front killed the revolution, long before Franco swept into Catalonia and Aragon.
In the UK, the last time Labour were in power, Tony Blair was responsible for the deaths of 10 thousand civilians in Iraq. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn has a very differing world-view to Blair and his acolytes, he still promised thousands more police on the streets than the Tories had, and perpetuated the New Labour project of UK prison expansion.
We can understand peoples hatred of the Tories. It should be obvious throughout this text that while we focus our critique on the left, we have no love for the right. We hate the Tories too. However, it is the whole spectrum we stand against. We don’t hate the Tories because we love (or even like) Labour. We hate them all. We hope this text is able to articulate what we perceive to be the negative effects of participation in democracy and the problematic dynamic of suggesting that one knows what is best for others.
Where do you draw the line? 2 metres? This has been one of the problems of this project: when to stop researching, poking, arguing. Are we fiddling while Rome burns? Like a late night drunken argument, we hope that there are some valid points among our tired ramblings.
We are aware that now, more than ever, we live on shifting sand and the ground beneath us is changing constantly. We are in information overload and the air around us is dense not just with the virus, but the heavy weight of data. However, it feels important to continue publishing our critiques, no matter how quickly they may get outdated, as without this, we will never articulate ourselves on our terms… swept along in the tide of clicks and scrolling.
It is worth noting, that we draw the line under this project at 14:32 on the 15th April 2020. We are being this specific, so that it is clear when we have stopped researching. We hope that people will comment and we welcome feedback on this text.
Please email email@example.com with your thoughts.
Between November 2019 and the leadership elections that happened on the 4th of April, there were many arguments presented by anarchists who voted. Sometimes we didn’t react well to them… our frustration and shock too strong to be able to engage with the convoluted attempts of people to reconcile their new world view with anarchist ideals. All around us, anarchists desperately tried to fit a square peg in a round hole, and tried to legitimise this shift. Below are some of the key arguments that we heard after Labour’s crushing defeat in the 2019 general election.
A Vote For Jeremy Corbyn, Not For Labour
Sometimes a candidate appears who says everything people have been saying to each other for a long time— he seems… to really be one of us. By persuasively critiquing the system within its own logic, he subtly persuades people that the system can be reformed— that it could work, if only the right people were in power. Thus a lot of energy that would have gone into challenging the system itself is redirected into backing yet another candidate for office, who inevitably fails to deliver.The Partys Over, Crimethinc.
Before the 2017 election, Corbynmania exploded. It was hard to imagine that the weird hysteria could increase, but it turned out to be a rolling storm; and the clouds were just building for the main event: the general election in 2019. The cult of Jeremy Corbyn reached epic proportions. The Left (and many anarchists) were convinced that their beloved ‘JC’ somehow transcended the Labour Party, existing in some kind of vacuum. In expressing solidarity with Palestine and with the well-documented love of his allotment, he was portrayed as some kind of benevolent character, seemingly impervious to critique by his followers. Whilst the right-wing press and the tabloids predictably turned him into ‘The Grinch’ who wanted to “steal Christmas”; the left desperately turned him into some kind of anti-establishment outsider, (much like the right did with Trump in the US). As if being rejected by the right-wing press was a badge of honour enough to warrant being endorsed by anarchists and anti-authoritarians. Both of these visions of Corbyn are problematic, and both only represent a fraction of what he stands for.
Even if it were plausible that someone who wanted to control all aspects of the state could hold radical views, electing radicals into powerful positions immediately disarms and traps them because the democratic system is part of a wider, all-encompassing political and economic system that does not permit legitimate avenues for the deconstruction of power relations. History has consistently demonstrated that leftists will sell out and cling to power rather than dismantle it.
Simply put, party leaders do not exist in isolation. A person cannot be nominated to lead a political party without having a strong historical connection to it, and alliances within it. Even before they can be considered, they must appeal to those above them in the hierarchy of power. This process is dependent on compromise.
Using voting as a strategy towards some kind of “transition” can only ever lead to superficial change, because the leaders are always part of a huge repressive apparatus that is bigger than them and inherently opposed to even the most basic concepts of freedom. Democracy is intrinsically linked to, and dependent on: a nation state with its borders, detention centres (immigration prisons); a judiciary system with its police, courts and prisons; and a capitalist economy with its property ownership, banks, debts, disparities and exploitation. So, when someone goes to vote, this is what they are voting for. For example, let us not forget that in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn publicly (and repeatedly) condemned Theresa May when she was Prime Minister for not expanding the police force. In May 2017 as part of the campaign trail, Corbyn vowed to put 10,000 more police on the streets if elected. As recently as 2019, he promised to go further than the Conservatives on the issue: “We will re-establish neighbourhood policing and recruit 20,000 more frontline officers than have been planned for by the Conservatives.” (Labour Manifesto 2019)
It is also important to remember that the current wave of prison expansion was drawn up under so-called ‘New Labour’ and in the lead up to the 2019 election, under Corbyn, they promised that “the next Labour government will restore prison officer numbers to 2010 levels,” and went on to say that “the Tories must commit to doing the same.”
Songs And Selling Out
In 1972 Stevie Wonder released ‘Big Brother’. It’s lyrics still ring true today… “I live in the ghetto, You just come to visit me ’round election time”. Four months after the most recent election campaign, the grime artist Skepta commented that politicians “don’t give a fuck about us again… They used them [other Grime artists] for what they wanted to use them for and they’re back doing their bullshit. They need to understand we’re human beings. Whatever they do on the TV or whatever, they never change in my eyes.” The ‘Grime4Corbyn’ campaign was a cheap ploy to widen the Labour electorate. Jeremy Corbyn followed the same paths and patterns of those who came before him, using people as political pawns in a game to win power.
Now Corbyn has stepped down (less of a bang than a whimper) Keir Starmer won the poxy leadership elections with a landslide victory. Cue an overnight shift within Labour towards more centralist policies. On the day that Starmer was elected, did he celebrate Labour’s involvement with mutual aid? Or try to promote some bullshit sense of community cohesion in this time of “crisis”? No. He swiftly highlighted the issues of anti-semitism within the Labour party (an obvious low-blow to Corbyn’s struggles over Palestine, and a quick way to distance himself from JC, and all his followers). This is the game of politics: one second Corbyn is elevated to a hero, the next he is denounced as a villain.
But every day has its to-morrow. As soon as the conditions alter, likewise do men change. To-day your candidate bows humbly before your presence; to-morrow he will say “pish” to you. From a cadger of votes he has turned to be a master of yours.Why Anarchists Don’t Vote, Reclus (1884)
We are for attacking the left, not being assimilated by it.
The new social conflict brings together a broad left to fight a dangerous right in a way that does not question any fundamental aspect of the state. On the contrary, the new terrain is shaped in such a way as to funnel our efforts towards the renewal of the state… [When] we have become so scared of the right that we begin to support the projects of the left, we are digging our own graves. It is vital to articulate specifically anarchist positions with regard to social conflict rather than flocking to lowest- common-denominator stances, precisely because those stances are formulated to favour the interests of social control.Diagnostic of the Future:[…], Gelderloos
Neither Boris Johnson’s clumsy racism or Jacob Rees Mogg’s fundamentalist Catholicism, are sufficient to drag an entire country into fascism. For a government to change its fundamental structures, a whole host of structural and societal elements need to be in place. None of those elements are currently in position. Even in the new pandemic, police-state fascism is not (yet) here. Now, more than ever, it is important not to “dig our own graves” as Gelderloos describes. In the face of repression; creativity and solidarity are key, not playing their rigged game.
But this is besides the point. Fascism is ultimately a tool of the same elite that profits under democracy and a more obvious manifestation of the same white supremacy that infuses all of society. The democratic state inherited the past successes of the old fascism, and, like coronavirus, democracy is reinventing itself to become more resistant in the face of parliamentary politics and state legislation. As we highlighted in the introduction, organised fascism in the UK today is increasingly a slick, social media savvy machine, luring students, hipsters, and a myriad of others into its murky world. Of course, there are many old-school networks with die hard supporters still, but neither of these ends of the fascist spectrum are occupying 10 Downing Street and it’s related institutions right now. This is not to undermine, or downplay the horrific, systemic and inherent racism of the Tory government and many of it’s members, but it is a gentle reminder that it is not fascist, and that falling into this trap merely strengthens both the right and the left.
For power, crude fascism such as has existed at various times in history under dictatorships, is no longer a practicable political project. New instruments are appearing along with the new managerial forms of power.What Can We Do With Anti-Fascism?, Bonanno
By not voting for Labour, it was suggested that we were implicitly in league with the Tories and therefore fascism. This argument is a red herring. As with COVID-19, power seeks the path of least resistance and is becoming more complex. At present, in the UK, democratic recuperation seems to be a more useful tool for power than authoritarian eradication. Labelling Tories as fascists “could represent an unconscious desire to avoid a deeper analysis of reality, to avoid getting behind that dense scheme of power which is getting more and more complicated and difficult to decipher” (Bonanno). In brief: Tories bad, labour good (or better), never touches the heart of the problem.
Universal Suffrage? Or Suffering?
It is well known that in ancient Athens, the “cradle of democracy,” scarcely an eighth of the population was permitted to vote, as women, foreigners, slaves, and others were excluded from citizenship. This is generally regarded as an early kink that time has ironed out, but one could also conclude that exclusion itself is the most essential and abiding characteristic of democracy… What if democracy arose in Greece not as a step in Man’s Progress Towards Freedom, but as a way of keeping power out of certain hands?The Party’s Over, Crimethinc.
Any votes, legitimize the authority of the victors. Under democracy, a “majority” victory does not mean a majority of the population, not by a long stretch of the imagination. It always means the largest of all the minorities, which in this case is old white British people. By legitimizing the process by voting, the victors already have their justification for oppressive actions that in many cases go against minorities who voted and yet didn’t stand a chance of actually wielding any power in the process. As they say, “voting only encourages them!”
It is old news that parliamentary politics, governments and nation states operate by offering very limited choices, to a limited range of the population, who then choose between these options, and give over all their autonomy for another four years.
England is the only country in Europe still persevering in causing what has been termed “civil death” (ie. not allowing most prisoners to vote/the loss of “civil rights” as the result of imprisonment). Convicted prisoners still can’t vote in any election, but after a 12 year long legal battle with the European Court of Human Rights, England reluctantly allowed those on remand and “civil” prisoners (ie. those complying with the system) to vote if they are on the register. The fact that under 18’s cannot vote was discussed at length in the run up to the last election. ‘Foreign Citizens’ without UK Citizenship are also not allowed to engage in the farce of general elections.
Do not mistake us, we are not lobbying for electoral reform, even if “Universal Suffrage” would be a reality true to it´s meaning, it wouldn’t change our views on democracy. Alienation is at it’s heart and it is impossible to have it any other way. Power has made law and reason collide, and this is explicit in the crude category of “citizens” and “civil society”. As mentioned above, in a majority-takes-all democracy, the “majority” is never the majority of a population, and leads to minorities having no more power than whats granted by despotism or dictatorship.
Corruption, privilege, and hierarchy aside, majority rule is not only inherently oppressive but also paradoxically divisive and homogenizing at the same timThe Party’s Over, Crimethinc.
The government doesn’t need to directly control the media, and the corporations do not need to directly control the government, because they are all in the same boat, and they are all serving the same interests.What Is Democracy?, Gelderloos
While the anarchists we spoke to were vocally critical of traditional media platforms, we experienced no critical sentiment from those same anarchists towards social media. Anarchists used social media platforms such as Facebook to organise around voting. This is deeply troubling to us, so while the following information is a bit of a tangent, we believe it is important. Bare with us.
Cambridge Analytica are a company who we will use as a case study to demonstrate how social media platforms such as Facebook are now used to influence the behaviour of individuals and therefore affect wider society. They were a company who rose to fame during the Republican presidential candidate race (preceding the 2016 Presidential elections), for the relative success of their campaign with Senator Ted Cruz. With Steve Bannon as a former Chief Executive, they were a self described “behaviour change agency”, providing “a full service propaganda machine”. By harvesting data from social media platforms like Facebook, they used artificial intelligence to build up psychological profiles of individuals in order to target undecided/first time voters whom they called “persuadables”. One of their senior employees said “our creative team designed personalised content to trigger those individuals. We bombarded them through blogs, websites, articles, videos, ads, every platform you can imagine until they saw the world the way we wanted them to… until they voted for our candidate. Its like a boomerang: you send your data out, it gets analysed then comes back at you as targetted messaging to change your behaviour.” They called themselves a “global election management company,” and global they were. Before informally claiming credit for the last US election result (they worked with the Trump Campaign), as well as the Brexit referendum result (they worked with leave.eu), Cambridge Analytica had been honing their techniques by strongly influencing the elections for national state leaders in dozens of countries, always working for the highest bidder.
Cambridge Analytica were a subsidiary of SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories) who were founded on their experience in psych-ops (psychological warfare). They had contracts with the British Army, the British Navy, the US army, US special forces, NATO, CIA, the US State Department and the Pentagon. Once it was understood that this information warfare could be used against their own population to influence elections, it was simply a matter of collecting then selling data to whoever paid them the most. Their success is one of the reasons that data itself has become a trillion dollar industry, larger even, than oil. It all makes the US governments Counter Intelligence Program of the civil rights era (COINTELPRO) look like a nursery school project.
Clearly, social media has a become much more powerful tool than old news media platforms. It literally manufactures opinion and sells it. At the same time, it gives its user the false sense of independent thought and freedom of choice. With a wealth of information about this publicly available, why do anarchists risk such manipulation?
While the case study of Cambridge Analytica is clearly a story of how the right wing has utilised these tools of data harvesting and social manipulation, the important point to take from this is what constantly advancing technology has deemed possible and how social media platforms are now viewed by capitalists and politicians alike. Besides, one of the founders of Cambridge Analytica was originally hired because of their work on Obama’s presidential campaign, so it’s not a far stretch to think the left are also capable of this kind of thing. It’s clear that now these tools exist they will be used. Cambridge Analytica is gone, but its important to understand that if you are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to name a few, then your personal data is out there and being used in ways you don’t understand.
[…]this is not about one company, this technology is going on unabated, and will continue to go on… In some senses I feel that because of the ways in which this technology is moving so fast, and because people don’t really understand it… there was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica, it just sucks for me that it was Cambridge Analytica.The Great Hack, Former Chief Operating Officer of Cambridge Analytica
To be clear… using data collection as a premise… any organisation with the resources, can use social media platforms to strategically encourage an emotionally driven, confined realm of debate in a way that leads the user to feel as though they are having independent thought, but which is actually based on the calculated manufacture of desperation and fear. It targets those most likely to be influenced, and those individuals are not aware they are victim to highly targeted content. Embarrassingly in this case, “anarchists” fell within that potential demographic, that of the “persuadable’s”. It all begs the question, why were they convinced they were making headway, that the movement was strong and that “change” was close? A clear example of this was not only the repetition of the idea that the Tories were going to sell off the NHS, but the manner in which the message was delivered. Both the right and the left are clearly capable of this. Anarchists should be the best equipped to call out this process.
Remember, if you use a social media platforms and you are sharing photos, likes, personal info, comments, updates etc., well, its going to get analysed, then come back at you as targetted messaging in an attempt to to change your behaviour.
We don’t pertain to be able to outsmart this trillion dollar global industry based on unimaginable data collection, research and military expertise. We feel pessimistic about the ability of others to experience any success in this endeavour.
Corbyn Could Win
It was interesting in the run up to the election to observe how many people suddenly seized upon the idea that they could invoke real change by desperately trying to get Corbyn in. The social media “echo chamber” that so many exist in, and the popularity of the left in Bristol, combined to create an atmosphere where people advocated for Corbyn with a sense of feverish desire. Despite the overwhelming evidence before the election that there would be a Tory landslide, people threw their lot in with Labour anyway, whole heartedly signing up to, and perpetuating, the liberal position that voting is a common sense position.
The question for anarchists, then, faced with a resurgent right and the even greater possibility of a triumphant left, is: what are the positions that cut to the heart of the problem, no matter who is in power, while also speaking to the specific details of how power is trampling people down?Diagnostic of the Future:[…], Gelderloos
It all leads to the conclusion that there is a gross poverty within the anarchist scene (in the UK) of genuinely independent critical analysis which simply cannot exist using the medium of manipulative social media platforms. Does it stem from burnout, from the realization of our irrelevance to affect wide scale social change, from fear?
There seems to be a strange paradox at play: if one suggests that anarchy doesn’t work/isn’t realistic, or, that in a voting scenario it makes sense to pause the anarchist analysis… then why is it still important for you to identify as an anarchist? If anarchy is inherently some kind of fad tied up in teenage angst, then why not just let it go?
We Are Tired
The concept of recuperation is also a prophecy, revolt is an expression of youth whilst the corruption of giving in belongs to age and experience.”Democracy, Monsieur Dupont
We are all tired, now more than ever in these pandemic times. The confusing, infinitely shifting world of recuperation and assimilation is a many headed hydra. Without wanting to sound like a bunch of dinosaurs: we are tired, most of all, we are tired of the preoccupation with social media crazes, of armchair organising and “likes”. We view Corbynmania and the thirst for the ballot box as a bleak expression of this juggernaut… a logical conclusion in today’s climate where people willingly give all their power over to a list of mediated options they can passively complete. It is no surprise to us that Extinction Rebellion and Jeremy Corbyn got so much coverage and momentum last year. Both phenomenons are symptomatic of a new language in which “resistance” is less about throwing bricks and more about mindless clicks. This is happening on the left and the right, and the language of protest and defiance is being endlessly co-opted. Anyone fancy a vegetarian “Rebel BurgerTM” at Burger King?
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has seen the Leviathan of civilization lurching in even bigger ways, technology has now become at the heart of many forms of “organising”; and many anarchists have wholeheartedly embraced digital platforms, allowing their horizons and options for resistance to once again become mediated by what mainstream society dictates or allows. Do not mistake us, we are aware that there are some pros to engaging with technology, and that for many who are self-isolating it is a life line. However, our concern is when these limited options are utilised without critique, and peoples thirst to “communicate” and “share” over rides any possibilities or energy for attack or genuine systemic change. As we have said previously, we are not interested in telling people what to do, but it is important, in some weary way, to engage with these different approaches critically and create a space for discussion, if we are in any hope of having some semblance of resistance moving forwards.
As civilisation grows, the domain of death grows while the individuals living within it die.Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!, Perlman
Maybe in these times it shouldn’t be surprising that anarchists are now advocating for parliamentary politics, everything has become lost and meaningless. The ground on which we stood together has become cracked and shifted, moments of struggle reduced to anecdotes to tell in the pub. Relationships that were built on shared ideas and experiences have become damaged. This isn’t some teenage angst ridden over dramatisation, it is a genuine reflection, a question about what remains.
Like an unused muscle, our ability to take care of ourselves, make our own decisions, govern our relationships with others, create voluntary associations and build communities, solve our disputes, and above all trust ourselves, has atrophied.What Is Democracy?, Gelderloos
In discussions with various comrades before the election it became clear that the concept of wilfully not voting as a rejection of the system was seen as outdated. There was a generational disconnect, where many younger people were unaware of the discourses around the rejection of parliamentary politics. People viewed it as a failing of anarchists that there wasn’t a solid opposition or alternatives to the Labour party for people to engage with. Corbyn and Labour became popular because of the failure of anarchists to provide an “alternative” to parliamentary politics, to be accessible, and to promote some kind of “community” resilience or response to Tory rule and austerity.
It is sad that the concept of rejecting parliamentary politics is seen as old-fashioned, and hasn’t been articulated as much as it could have been outside of our bubble. However, that doesn’t legitimise throwing your lot in with the enemy! It also smacks of a gross form of activisty arrogance to assume that all actions must be transparent, visible and accountable.
On the topic of more visible and formalised methods of anarchist organising, we agree that there was a collective failure to shout out alternatives to the act of voting, but let’s reflect on that, understand frustrations, and move forward, on our own terms… not the ones forced upon us by those in power, it can be better late than never!!
Critique For It’s Own Sake
What is lacking today are adequate projectual hypotheses – ideas and methods – for the new conditions of the conflict; but maybe above all what is lacking is that sense of defiance that is ethical tension and dreaming combined, that great passion for free discussions and for resolute action.Diavolo in Corpo, Marin
The “new conditions of the conflict” outlined by Bleu Marin are changing and evolving as quick as the pandemic. There are obviously many amazing examples of mutual aid within this context, and it is not our intention to sound entirely doom and gloom or critical of those participating in these networks; we are too. However, we are still holding our breath hopefully for the “sense of defiance” to emerge (this is inherent to our concept of anarchy, and to us, without it, it is meaningless). The pandemic will peak and pass, claiming thousands of lives with it and we are fully aware of this. But the Coronavirus Act 2020 will be in place long after the ‘lock-down’ ends, it’s impacts far reaching, enshrined in law for the next 2 years (at least). Many countries have taken repressive measures to tackle the virus, but with the length of time of the act and it’s rigidity, they are much further reaching here than in many countries. Yet there is little dissent, or even questioning, around it. Once we are told we can leave our homes; the stop and search powers, the imprisonment without trial, the snitching will continue. As Marin wrote, we have a “great passion for free discussions and for resolute action” and we hope that this text will create a space, however challenging, for some of this, and shift away from the lack of critical discourse around the new world we are in. We must be able to critique concepts such as ‘immunity passports’, bracelets giving people a ‘health status’, telephone apps that encourage people to report the location of people “breaking the law” to the police, and the unprecedented access the government will have to peoples contacts and data. Despite it feeling difficult, and maybe antagonistic, to us, we have to find ways to create an anti-authoritarian response to this pandemic, because we cannot swallow their antidote, when we do not know what the “side effects” will be and how long they will last.
There is much we do not know about coronavirus. But most people are aware of the police state we are now operating. To quote Monsieur Dupont again, to challenge democracy, you “first make power explicit, then human beings can organise themselves accordingly.” Even the mainstream press are full of column inches about the new state legislation in the UK (and the rest of the world). In many ways it is already explicit. The question is, what now and what next?
We believe there is importance in this conversation so we are not blinded by labels and symbols and so we can identify those who hold power today. Our struggle is against all power, “even when it wears the permissive and tolerant guise of democracy” (Bonanno). We hope that the experience of COVID-19 and the networks that arise around it will put some fire in the bellies of those involved in such groups but we also hope that among what is “permitted” and deemed “socially responsible” there will be moments of rebellion, and that cracks are turned into crevasses. For us, the ‘peak’ is only the beginning in a battle far-wider reaching than this pandemic. “It’s a marathon not a sprint” and to us, whatever the race, we don’t know its rules, where the finishing line is or who is participating. We must remember this at all times, and keep ourselves alert to this rigged-game.
It is time to remember our own power and desert their lines. There is so much to be done and it is in our hands to turn our desires into possibilities.Anarchist flyer from Galizia, (2019)
We aren’t trying to find a solution, and we are alright with this… Just because we don’t have all the answers, doesn’t mean we will resort to their questions. We want to create a space for discourse, discussion and reflection, to dig around in the filth… whilst looking to the stars.
It’s like that feeling of disillusionment you get when, after running to catch a bus you realise that the driver, although he saw you, has accelerated instead of stopping.What Can We Do With Anti-Fascism?, Bonanno
Now that voting is not only being employed but also promoted by many anarchists as legitimate tactic, what will come next? If the argument of the ends (avoiding a Tory Government) justify the means (canvassing/voting) then where is the “new line” drawn?! Who knows where we will be in two years time when they revisit the ‘Corona Virus Act’, and how much damage will have been done by their relentless and unchallenged attack on (and manipulation of) people’s sense of “duty” and “social responsibility”? Indeed, is it possible that the shift from critique and rebellion to political participation is actually helping to smooth the transition for more blanket repression even if those participating are supporting the so called “opposition”?
Contrary to how this text maybe received, we don’t thrive in division; but we do feel a need for critical discourse. In the midst of this pandemic, more than ever, is the time for difficult questions. We hope this text may create a space (albeit an uneasy one) to explore the frayed edges of false unity and dissonance, whilst trying to find ways to form some kind of fragile solidarity. Our dignity is important to us, and we recognise that we are all hypocrites within this system; but voting (and especially canvassing) is a step into enemy territory that is very hard to come back from. We have lost trust and affinity, and the shared experiences that we felt forged strong bonds have been re-calibrated and re-imagined to create space for a political system that is abhorrent to us.
We do not seek adherents, but accomplices.
Election related texts
Baeden, Against the Gendered Nightmare: Fragments on Domestication, 2014
Luigi Galleani, The End of Anarchism?, 1925 2016 edition re-printed by Elephant Editions
(including interview with Francesco Saverio Merlino, Merlino 1856-1930)
Fredy Perlman, Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!, 1983
10 part series of texts and podcasts all focused on anarchist critiques of democracy. We aren’t too sure about a lot of CrimethInc stuff, but this is very relevant! Resources covering many aspects of democracy, from Rojava to Syriza.
The Anarchist Critique of Democracy, 2016
The Party’s Over, 2016
Ain’t No PC Gonna Fix it Baby: A Critique of Ally Politics, 2014
Brian Heagney, ABC’s of Anarchy, 2010
Ward Churchill, Jim Vander Wall, John Trudell (Forward by)
The Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, 1990
Anarchists Must Say What Only Anarchists Can Say, 2003
Originally published in ‘Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed’ #60, Fall/Winter 2005-06, Vol. 23, No. 2.
Bleu Marin, On Behalf of the Barbarians (translated from ‘Il Diavolo in Corpo’ reprinted 2009)
What Is Democracy, 2004
Worshiping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation, 2017
Diagnostic of the Future: Between the Crisis of Democracy and the Crisis of Capitalism: A Forecast, 2018 (CrimethInc)
Long Term Resistance: Fighting Trump and Liberal Co-option, 2017
Élisée Reclus, Why Anarchists Don’t Vote, 1884
(and various authors) This Is What Democracy Looks Like, 2006
From Politics to Life: Ridding Anarchy of the Leftist Millstone, 2009
Alfredo Bonnano, What Can We Do With Anti-Fascism?, 1994 https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-what-can-we-do-with-anti-fascism
Sam FantoSamotnaf, Cop-Out: The Significance of Aufhabengate, 2013
Chile: An Anarchist Perspective on the Coronavirus Pandemic
London ABC, Prison Makes Us Sick!
The Plague and the Fire
Third Time Lucky
Greece: Some Anti-Authoritarian Responses
Some Old Things to Live By: Anti-authoritarian ideas to hold onto in these times of virus and crisis (Au$tralia)
Prison-State UK Comes Into Law: Coronavirus
Should Revolutionaries Back Corbyn? The Case Against by The Other Left
CrimethInc. (see above for links for podcasts)
Lethal Bizzle, Corbyn Leader
VOTE FOR NOBODY
NOBODY WILL KEEP ELECTION PROMISES
NOBODY WILL LISTEN TO YOUR CONCERNS
NOBODY WILL HELP THE POOR & UNEMPLOYED
IF NOBODY IS ELECTED,(GRAFFITTI)
THINGS WILL BE BETTER FOR EVERYONE
NOBODY TELLS THE TRUTH
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