Leveling the playing field: horizontal politics, technology and activism in 2011 (part 4)

A normative view of marches might see them as the proverbial gateway drug for a lot of disaffected people. Smaller direct actions, such as those perpetrated by UK Uncut, are usually a lot more fun, and a lot more empowering. It is also in these types of action where the real benefits of horizontal organisation and networking come to the fore.

Conversely, in the context of a huge demonstration like the ones this winter, you are awash in a sea of other people, and either disempowered by virtue of being stuck in a police kettle, or because, amidst the crush of bodies, it becomes almost impossible to fight against the tide -the direction of which has been pre-determined by an organising committee somewhere, with stewards to facilitate the movement from point A to point B. They do offer flashes of spontaneous collective decision-making –as with the somehow unforeseen decision to break off from the main route in November, and occupy Tory HQ in Milbank. Nonetheless, the whole dynamic of marches precludes any serious exploration of alternative organising and decision-making praxis.

Referring back to my previous article, about how size does not, and should not directly correlate to success, I would argue that the January 29th march was arguably more empowering in some respects than its numerically superior counterparts of November and December 2010. Once arrived at the Egyptian embassy, a large portion of the group decided to sit down in the street, host a bring-and-share meal, with a few people going so far as to get out a game of Twister. In doing so the space was transformed temporarily into a carnival-like atmosphere completely at odds with its usual exclusivity and officialdom. In this sense it moved well beyond the organisers’ initial intentions.

Creative spontaneity, albeit quite a modest example in this case, must play a large part in our resistance. It is a valuable component in what John Holloway describes as the “negation-and-creation”, wherein an “initial refusal begins to open towards something else, towards an…activity that not only resists but breaks with the logic of capital.” (Crack Capitalism, Pluto Press, 2010). Without digressing much longer, for one could quote Holloway all day, the prefigurative dimension of such action should be emphasised:

the original No is then not a closure, but an opening to a different activity, the threshold of a counter-world with a different logic and a different language. The No opens to a time-space in which we try to live as subjects rather than objects.

A bit of light summer reading

Marches are problematic for other reasons, though. Success, understood narrowly as a large turnout; the achievement of a public airing of the issues; and influencing policy, often hinges on the centralisation of far-flung groups, descending on a single location, usually London. Even if a given demonstration were anarchistic in essence, it would still require a philosophical contradiction: the privileging of one geographical location over all others, recreating a core-periphery dichotomy.

You could argue that the seat of power, both governmental and commercial, lies in London, and therefore it makes sense to focus our energy on this location. This, however, merely serves to reinforce the notion that ‘they’ hold the power, and we must react to it, and make demands of it. In fact, if anything, we should try and build our own concepts of power, and do our utmost to ignore their hierarchies.

Moving away from the January demonstration, then, it’s worth taking a minute to look at a direct action at Heathrow, on February 12th. The Heathrow action was organised by a group called ‘Take VAT’, responding to the claim that the aviation industry pays no VAT, thereby managing to dodge around £9bn a year through tax exemptions.

The details emerged in a very secretive manner, with two meeting points revealed a couple of days before the action. The ultimate target was not told to anyone, even the accompanying legal observers, of whom I was one, until we were lurching out of Earl’s Court tube station on the Piccadilly Line.

Planning potentially illegal actions in the open is a luxury that even the most committed activists to the causes of free and inclusive decision-making cannot afford. Climate Camp is perhaps the highest-profile example of ‘secret location’ direct action, where prefigurative, non-hierarchical organising is only truly in place once the first tent pegs are hammered into the ground.

Take VAT are a new group that have emulated the tactics of UK Uncut. The Heathrow direct action was supposed to involve mass stickering, and moving any objects not nailed down within Terminal 3 to a central location. People with megaphones would then shout out the rationale of the action to the bewildered public.

Given that this didn’t go off as planned, one gets the sense that they are comprised of the new breed of inexperienced activist drawn from the ranks of the student movement. For example, no one seemed to be aware that special bylaws exist at airports making protest severely punishable. Furthermore, once sat down on the tube, a few young members of the group began to talk loudly about politics and their own personal experiences. The police, having been with us from the start, were sat amongst us, often engaging the activists in conversation. Despite the legal observers’ warnings that the police would be gathering evidence from every word they said, some continued to let slip their status as students and Londoners.

At Heathrow, once the demonstrators managed to find a way into Terminal 3, via a car park basement, they were surprisingly quick to listen to and obey police authority in the form of Superintendent Morgan, who verbally served the group with a Section 14 dispersal order, and told them that if they stayed they would be arrested for Aggravated Trespass. Everyone was merrily escorted back onto the tube, whilst blowing whistles and chanting occasionally.

None of this is problematic if the group learns from its mistakes. It was certainly fun and not scary enough to deter these people from coming back and taking part in future direct action. The element of celebration is definitely crucial: bringing an air of mischief and carnival to our alternative spaces and revolutionary activity does not diminish them. If anything they are enhanced.


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