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ESF: hacking networks of power

Dan | 17.10.2004 10:50 | Analysis | Free Spaces | Social Struggles

Hacking networks of power:

Report on the contrast between the 'official' ESF and autonomous spaces; and a coffee-fueled analysis of the ESF process, and what happens next...

I'm sat in the Camden Centre - the European Forum On Communication Rights / Indymedia / Schnews - at a computer screen, getting what's happening down. For anyone who doesn't want ranty analysis, skip to #2. Here's #1. I'm afraid #1 goes on for a while…

There's this really daft word I read in a book once: antinomianism. It sounds like some kind of crazed 'tough on gnomes, tough on the causes of gnomes' thing. In fact, it's simply the belief that the end justifies the means.

Originally, the concept was used by religious scholars to justify doing whatever they wanted - if the ultimate goal was salvation, that any crime - it was claimed - would be retrospectively absolved by God. Monks could slaughter at will, and all for the glory of god! "All Christians are necessarily sanctified by their very vocation and profession," as one website says.

"What's that got to do with the ESF then?"

The first paragraph of the 'Autonomous Spaces' programme says, "we believe our ways of organising and acting should reflect our political visions."

Which is to say: walk the talk.

The ESF is a great, tangled mess - but somewhere in there can be discerned two opposed ideas of how to 'make another world possible'. These visions are manifesting themselves on to the streets and into a hundred rooms and spaces. Those of us who want to walk the talk, and everybody else.

For those many many people who have come to the ESF and only seen the ‘official’ side – this is not walking the talk! As the protest last night showed, there are those who are willing to fight to return the principles of social forum organising back to the centre of the process.

Apologies in advance for picking on the Socialist Worker’s Party; the GLA and Unions who have excluded so many from the process this year should also be in the spotlight. But, for me, it’s the SWP who have done so much to keep the moat guarded around those who have dominated. During the preparatory process in Britain, for example, they set up a network of local organisations called ‘ESF mobilising collectives’ – never bothering to contact already existing local social forums. Of course, this is because social forum principles are utterly opposed to SWP methods of working… And so:

In the minutes of ESF process meetings, you will not find the words ‘Socialist Worker’s Party’. The leader of the SWP, Alex Callinicos, appears in minutes as a participant in ‘project K’ – whatever the hell that is. And there are many people from ‘Globalise Resistance’. Equally, in my local ‘ESF mobilising collective’, there were apparently a number of union reps… who turned out to be selling the Socialist Worker. No-one from the SWP, it seems, has had anything to do with it!

Why focus so much on the SWP? Well, aside from the stark fact of how dishonest it is to participate in a movement using another organisation’s name, let’s read some of Alex’s own words:

"The role of a revolutionary party is not to substitute itself the different forms of democratic self-organization that emerge in the course of mass struggle but *to help them to develop the strategic focus required* actually to replace the existing structure of society with a better one... Revolutionary organization needs to be ideologically coherent. Leninists believe that the Marxist tradition is the best basis on which to achieve this coherence."

Now, going back to antinomianism, he says of the SWP method of 'democratic centralism' - basically, top-down paramilitary decision-making:

"... revolutionary socialists in my tradition don't see democratic centralism as the organizational model either for the present movement or for the future society as it emerges from anti-capitalist struggles. The Leninist party is an instrument in the process of self-emancipation that will make it obsolete."

(All from )

Like most old-left language, the meaning is obfuscuted, and so needs two or three reads to get the real point: authoritarian methods (sorry, 'democratic centralism') are necessary evils on the path to revolution, and the party is merely an 'instrument in the process of self-emancipation' that will simply disappear once we arrive in our socialist utopia! Wahay!

These methods exemplify everything we must cut out of the social forum movement – and all of our relations to each other. We do not need anyone to help us achieve 'ideological coherence'. We do not need help developing our strategic focus. Speaking for myself, I *will not* accept that we need to become 'sanctified by our profession' of making another world possible. Otherwise, we might as well be saying -

"Another world is possible. In fact, I have the blueprint right here! There'll just be a temporary interlude, where we dispense with niceties like accountability, democracy, rights and individuality, and we may have to shoot a few reactionary elements of the working class when it comes to the crunch - but in no time, we'll be frolicking in our dream utopia! What do you mean, you disagree? Wrecker! Out of the meeting!"

It's antinomianism at its worst. F**k that! F**k it up it's stupid ass! It's not not NOT what the social forum movement is about. If another world is possible, we have to make it moment by moment. We have to *be* it - otherwise, what are we doing? You n me can use the demonstration effect - we can talk, network, struggle; persuade and protest; we can sing, laugh, dance, love and party. We can speak truth to power, at the same time as we're hacking those networks of power and building webs between us that will bring that power down, down, down.

On how to hack networks of power – have a look at the following paper, prepared to address the ‘terror’ threat. Note how applicable it would be if a government wanted to, say, shut down a decentralised network of activists and activist websites… -


So what's out there? Well, I've seen three fantastic autonomous spaces, been to Ally Pally and gone briefly to set up a European local social forum meeting space. And what of them?

All the autonomous spaces I've been to have one thing in common: stuff is being done there. Actions planned, banners painted, structures made, food collectively cooked n stuff collectively washed up. They all seemed like emergent creative molluscs that had oozed out of the interactions of a menagerie of wonderful and mad minds. The 491 Gallery is - again - the demonstration effect writ large. "Live this way!" A beautiful space, people arguing and discussing, creating, film-watching, making popcorn, having open poetry readings... the walls (and much of the floor and ceiling) covered with a stack of art n love.

As for Ally Pally - very impressive building! But mainly lots of people in rows. Oh, and lots of really expensive, non-fair-trade goods. “Getcha anti-capitalist t-shirt here! Make a great gift! Only £10.99! Made by Fruit of the Loom, who use sweatshop labour!” (I bought one, by the way. Oh, the irony.)

Of course, if your building for a revolution, there’s no point in bothering with fair trade or food sovereignty or any of that nonsense – why, no! Just wait til the revolution, and everything’ll be perfect then…

I went to Ally Pally for a seminar on local social forums (managing to sneak in without paying - was that a bad thing to do, I dunno?) Many lsfs from all over Europe, including the one I'm a member of, had already got together for an hour that morning to plan it.

We had intended to break into groups to get more of an informational free market of ideas going. When it came to it - and this exactly nails the difference between the official and the autonomous ESF - we were all in a funnel. At the tip of the funnel, people got up to the platform to speak; about a hundred and fifty others had to sit obediently facing the front.

If that had been the European local social forum’s only chance to get together, we’d have been no better off than before. As it was, a wonderful person in the autonomous zone had booked us an all-day space in the LSE. We spent Saturday pow-wowing on the future of local social forums, comparing experiences and celebrating the fact of our disagreements, diversity and autonomy – as well as our commonalities, which were many. (More on this another time.)

What was that about two opposed ideas about how it's done? It ain't done by getting us all facing the front in lines. That ain't my idea of a seminar: that's a lecture session. (But good on the translators! Stonking work...)

I don't think any local social forum is gonna be needing any Leninist party to help us with our ideological coherence…

Many folk - SWP, workers power, and a commenter on the WSF - have said that the claim to be 'not a locus of power' is nothing more than an 'ideological mystification' that hides true power relations. This is true, to an extent: so those of us in the social forum movement, local, European or World, need to find ways to make sure that any focal points of power are visible, transparent, democratic and open: exactly the opposite of what happened during this year's SWP and GLA dominated ESF organisation. It's not rocket science, and these criticisms can lead the social forum movement forward into a little more maturity - *without* ossifying into just another vanguardist group. If this happens, the social forum movement will have been hijacked by those who want to use the social forum movement's momentum as a fig leaf for their revolutionary plans, who want to use us as their foot-soldiers - and it will be dead.

So here's to the Greece ESF in 2006...

That's quite enough of that. I think I've had too much coffee and not enough sleep.

Love and hope.



Hide the following 2 comments

SWP revolutionary? - ..."not since Cliff died"!

17.10.2004 12:10

As the joke goes that you don´t have a match "since Errol Flynn died" the SWP is no longer revolutionary since Tony Cliff died - the SWP has degenerated into a right-centrist organisation. It´s soaks up activists and engages them in activities to affirm persons and structures like Red Ken, trade union bureaucrats and the ESF and altermondialist - yes - beaurocrats per se. Yes, world wide the movement itself - without the "help" of the SWP needed - has developed structures that beginn to degenerate into a - nomenklatura! There are the ants who do all the postering, bannering, placard-holding - and there are the little middle-class student "experts", or "press officers" and so on. Go into ure local group or branch and look who´s doing the work - and see who is rushing forward to grab the "higher" "responsible" work. It´s always the same persons. It´s not Trot tactics - it´s people ye know! Nowt is funnier than folk. But what comes out of it, is that the SWP and there satelites - and that the movement itself - has degenerated into structures which stabilize the capitalist system. The SWP sell this to us as "broadening" the movement. bollocks.

By the way - oh the irony! So Callinicos was involved in a ESF activity called "k" - hahahaha: not probable - but a good one:

read this from

"MI5 – the Security Service

1. Officially known as the Security Service
2. Involved in the fight against terrorism
3. Chief of MI5 known as "K"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
4. Recognised under the Security Service Act
5. Identifies threats to national security"

But, Who needs MI5 agents with a movement like ours obviously at hand for the bosses?


antinomianism and utopia

18.10.2004 09:23

I'm so glad to see people thinking in these terms. Every idealism seems to succumb in the end to that kind of thinking: the end justifies the means, any barbarity is excusable if the end result is utopia.

But as becomes increasingly clear, the antinomian mindset ensures that we never get there - we destroy utopia in pursuing it. Instead of the new society, we just get a new 'Nomenklatura', a new set of brutalities, a new set of victims. The same old power relations prevail. But to do as the powers that be would like us to do, to say wearily 'It's just human nature', is bollocks too. We're trained to think a certain way, but we can struggle against that, struggle within it, struggle to change it. We just have to learn to love the journey.

I took part in the Autonomous Spaces over the weekend and was full of admiration for what has been achieved. Sure, in places it was grubby, disorganised, whatever. But it got tighter and easier as the weekend went on, there was collaboration and goodwill instead of empire-building and exclusivity, and next time will be ten times better.

Practice makes perfect. If we're to get out of the bureaucratic/hierarchical/antinomian mindset that perpetuates old injustices, we have to learn new ways of doing things. That means trying things out, allowing space to learn as we go along without losing sight of the principles that got us out of bed to try for change. That means enabling actions that swell from the ground upwards, rather than merely driving an elitist notion of change from the top down.

In turn, this means honouring the process and accepting that there will always be things that can be improved, which in turn means taking responsibility for our own emotional baggage and learning to transform ourselves as part of transforming society. What excited me about the Autonomous Spaces was precisely how they combined planning and hard work (thanks so much, everyone!) with a real respect for autonomy: nothing there took place unless there was a critical mass of people that wanted it to take place. Whether it was sweeping the floor or undertaking an action, everything happened on that principle.

And for that reason, I couldn't care less if it wasn't utopia yet. The point is that the event walked the walk. All those who took part were there for the journey, not just the after-party. I believe that as a result everyone there will be be better equipped to continue in that spirit next time. Or in between. Or whenever. What matters is that the process was honoured, that people were doing their level best to be the change they wanted to see, to put aside the arrogance that sets them 'above' the utopia they claim to believe in. I was glad to be able to participate. Next time someone claims competition and hierarchy is just 'human nature' I'll have something to tell them.

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