Strolling out of the bookfair yesterday in search of a Veggies burger I happened upon the tail end of a slanging match between Ciaron O'Reilly and a gang of what, semiotically at least, were anarcha-feminist and queer types.
Ciaron, it is fair to say, has confined himself to the fringes of a fringe movement by attempting to square the circle of being a practising Catholic and an anarchist. He's a long term peace activist and his main mission at the moment revolves around Assange, Manning and their persecution following the Wiki-leaks revelations. If one thing came across yesterday it's his frustration that anarchists as a whole have done little to support either Manning or Assange.
Currently of course Assange is living in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden where two allegations of rape have been made. His supporters allege that that this is merely the first step towards an eventual extradition to the U.S where he will suffer the same fate as Manning. Given the nature of Realpolitik and the global reach of U.S power this seems likely.
Outside the bookfair however the consensus among the crowd haranguing Ciaron was that to stand up for Assange was tantamount to being a 'rape apologist'. (I actually intervened when one said “We should just get up there and give him [Ciaron] a slap”. When challenged on this threat of violence his immediate response was “I've got mental health issues” as if that was some kind of excuse). Certainly Ciaron was given no chance to speak and was unfairly abused – one woman was screaming “Have you got any idea what enthuisastic consent is? I bet you've never experienced it in your life” - a grotesque slur.
I managed to speak with a couple of the group shouting. Their position seemed to be that if Assange had been accused then he must be guilty and that he should be deported to Sweden a.s.a.p to face charges. This was based on the idea that a rape survivors narrative should be privileged above all. Obviously I was told that as a man I would have no understanding of the issues involved in any case 'cos of patriarchy. I was given assurances that there would be a fair trial and that Sweden would be in breach of its own laws were it to allow extradition to the U.S. I found this faith in fair-dealing at the level of international diplomacy to be breathtakingly naïve. That's without the contradictions inherent in anarchists demanding that someone submit themselves to a judicial system.
There is actually a really good piece here by Women Against Rape that points out exactly why the rape charges against Assange are being pursued with such zeal by powerful nation states. The US military or the British Foreign Office do not care about rape victims unless it is strategically useful for them to do so. Many liberals have been coaxed into supporting wars of aggression (with their attendant murders and rapes), especially in Afghanistan, by an appeal to feminist principles. It is sad to watch anarchists marching into the same trap.
However if I'm honest it was really the manner in which the dispute was conducted that disturbed me. It seemed emblematic of a new dogma which is spreading through our movement, a dogma that does not tolerate debate and is almost entirely inwardly focused. It revolves around personal identity politics and the creation of safer spaces. What you do or don't 'identify' as has become more important than what you do. Feelings are absolutely paramount and must not be challenged. Anarchists don't think anymore – they feel.
I'm not the only one to have spotted this cultural shift. The anarchist movement I haphazardly joined twenty years ago was characterized by its rough and ready “have a go nature”. It was outwardly focused – we tried to effect change in the mainstream world. Some of it was no doubt crudely optimistic – ten crusties in a transit van were never going to throw down global capitalism- but it was vibrant and outward looking. It earned the nickname DIY culture and did, with Reclaim the Streets and J18, strike a chord with thousands if not tens of thousands.
A substantial section of today's anarchist prefer to sit around in their local social centre arguing about how to turn it into an even safer space. You've got to watch what you say or do as comments can readily be misconstrued and if someone 'feels' upset then there will be no gainsaying their 'survivors narrative'. Everyone's a victim, everyone has a handy psychiatric tag to excuse their behaviour. Needless to say this creates a space that is effectively unsafe for everyone not already schooled in the cutting edge language of trans-queer white privilege theory. Not an attractive shop window for an ideology that hopefully still aspires to become a mass movement.
The shouting down of Ciaron yesterday was an example of how inwardly focused some sections of our movement have become and if we are not careful we will suffer an even greater disconnect with the society we are trying to change.