Order Within Chaos: Why Informal Anarchist groups still need formal meetings

The ideas of the ‘insurrectionalist’ anarchist theorists like Alfredo M Bonanno have influenced the direct action and anarchist groups in the UK a lot even though the majority of the anarchists who are involved have probably never even heard of these theories.

Lots of Anarchists in the UK try to organise in ways that Bonanno advocated without even realising they are doing it. They have just got involved in groups that already run like that and so just got used to it, without necessarily realising what the original point of it was.

There is a lot of confusion, ending up with a bizarre way of organising things that is actually the opposite of what Bonanno was advocating, at least as far as i understand it.

The main confusion that i can see is that people have mixed up the idea of organising in “informal” networks, with the idea of just generally organising everything in an informal way.

Bonanno was against having formal Anarchist organisations based on models like the Anarchist Federations in different countries. He thought that when Anarchists put too much energy into creating these organisations then they don’t have energy left to actually get on with working with other oppressed people to take action for liberation.

(Bonano talks about this in “Why a Vanguard” and “The Real Movement vs the Fictious Movement” available from Elephant Editions http://www.elephanteditions.net/.)

Anarchists can get so caught up in the day to day running of their organisation that they can start to think that somehow by helping their organisation they are helping the actual struggle.

When people start to think like this they are basically making the same mistakes as Marxists who think that the working class can only be free if they are organised by the Communist/Socialist Party, so put all their energy into making those Parties, and sometimes even do things which destroy real struggles for the benefit of the Party.

The same thing can happen with formal Anarchist groups like the Anarchist Federation. For example if there is a big riot or wildcat strike or other form of action that is illegal, then Anarchists can help the people doing it by explaining to the wider public why it is happening and arguing that it is actually a good thing by giving a critique of capitalism and advocating liberation.

But if people in the group are worried about what reputation the group will have then they might not do this, or might even say to the public that they disagree with it, which helps destroy the struggle by helping the State punish those taking action by cutting off public support for them.

Lots of Anarchists realize the problems of Formal Anarchist groups and so try to avoid them. But what often happens is that they just form informal ‘scenes’ of people which end up doing the same thing without even having the advantage of a formal way of making decisions.

In informal anarchist ‘scenes’ people often end up caring so much about the internal politics of the ‘scene’ that they also do not have energy to go out into the wider world to start real projects for liberation.

When they do go out into the world and try to do a project they often only work with other people in the ‘scene’ instead of uniting with other oppressed people and they often do things in a very ineffective way because they have no formal structures.

Formal Anarchist groups at least can get things done, such as printing regular publications and organising public events that are well advertised and run smoothly, because they have a structure to organise all the tasks and hold people to account to make sure they do them.

In informal anarchist scenes often people just talk about things really vaguely, then don’t really do the tasks necessary to follow through on their ideas, or just leave all the work to a few individuals who might happen to have a hard-working personality.

Actions, demonstrations and publications are often extremely badly planned and executed and therefore pointless. No-one does any serious work to think about what their goals actually are, what strategies and tactics will achieve them, but instead just do random actions when they feel like it.

People end up getting arrested, beaten and traumatized because they tried to do actions that were pointless anyway and then badly planned so that they are easily dealt with by the authorities. No one is inspired by these actions to fight for liberation and often the wider public have absolutely no idea that the actions even happened, or what they were supposed to be for.

Bonanno’s theory shows how informal anarchist scenes can do the same thing as formal Anarchist organisations. They can prioritize themselves above actual struggles.

For example an informal anarchist scene that is based around a social centre can end up just spending all its time organising things at that social centre that only appeal to other anarchists instead of using the social centre to reach out to people in the wider community.

Even if people in the wider community might be involved in real struggles against local capitalists and authorities, the anarchists in the social centre might not even know about it because they are too busy arguing with each other about minor theoretical points. They may even misunderstand the struggle and start to fear it, feeling that they have to protect their scene from local angry working class youth rather than uniting with them.

Bonanno and other people like him basically said that instead of organising big Anarchist organisations with a formal decision making structure, we should just stick to working in small affinity groups and that these affinity groups should network with each other.

(Bonanno talks about this in ‘Insurrectionalist Anarchism’)

An affinity group is just a group of people who share ‘affinity’ with each other. This means that they don’t just agree with each other on big political ideas (e.g. being against capitalism and for Anarchy) but also have the same focus for what they specifically want to spend their time on, and have a lot of trust and respect for each other.

When you are part of a group of people like this you can go out into the world and start trying to start projects with other working class people who maybe are not anarchists.

For example, if you have an affinity group of people who feel strongly that they want to put a lot of energy into workplace issues, they could go and find a workplace where the workers are trying to resist the bosses oppression in some way and try and link with those workers to support their struggle in whatever way seems relevant.

If the anarchist affinity group and some of the workers start to form a group together to organize the things they are doing as part of the struggle, then they have formed what Bonanno calls an “autonomous base nucleus” – which is a very weird phrase so i will try to explain it word by word.

“Autonomous” means “self-law making”, so an autonomous group is a group that has no power structure above it which can tell it what to do, how to organise or what rules or ‘laws’ it should obey. Instead the members of the group decide amongst themselves what the rules are going to be.

“Base” in this context means “the bottom of society”. The idea here is that people on the bottom of society, people who are poor and oppressed in various ways, are the ones who can change society.

By struggling for their own freedom, people at the bottom of society can change the whole system, because everyone at the ‘top’ depends on exploiting and oppressing those at the bottom, so their whole system would collapse if people on the bottom could free themselves.

Anarchists should completely reject the idea that you can change things in society without working directly with the people on the bottom who are struggling for their own liberation.

“Nucleus” means ‘a thing which other things rotate around’, like the planets rotating around the Sun, or electrons rotating around the nucleus of an atom, or chemicals in a cell of an animal or a plant being group around the nucleus of the cell.

So an Autonomous Base Nucleus is a group of working-class oppressed people who are organising by themselves, with noone above them telling them how to do it, and which other oppressed people might ‘rotate’ around in some way.

To go back to the example of the anarchist affinity group organising with some workers, the group they would form would probably only consist of the most radical workers, or the workers who had the most energy to put into the struggle.

But if a group like that exists then the other workers will know about it and probably help out with the activities of the group from time to time, even if they don’t go to all the meetings or participate in absolutely everything. That’s what i mean by ‘rotating around the nucleus’.

When you have an autonomous base nucleus then all those other oppressed people who don’t really have the energy to put into being part of the group can still end up being part of really amazing actions that actually change things in society, because the group does most of the work of organising things and then the others just have to come along at the right moment and be part of it.

But if there is no autonomous base nucleus then pretty much nothing is likely to happen, as the people who don’t have much energy will not just magically come together and make something happen without someone, somewhere, working hard to organise it.

So we can see here that lots of meetings, planning and organisation are involved at every step of this process.

First the anarchist affinity group needs to have meetings and conversations where they decide what their project is going to be. Who are they going to try and form and autonomous base nucleus with and why? How are they going to get in touch with those people? How are they going to make sure that they don’t get caught by the authorities before they’ve even done anything? What are they going to do if they do get caught? What are they going to do if the people they want to unite with are skeptical, or even hostile?

All these things take careful planning. Serious decisions need to be made. Lots of points need to be debated and consensus needs to be reached. Particular things that need to be done need people to volunteer to do them and they need to be accountable to the rest of the group if they don’t do what they promised to.

All of that will take a lot less time is people organise their meetings with some kind of formal structure.

Choose someone to be the chair or ‘facilitator’ of the meeting, who decides whose turn it is to speak so that everyone doesn’t talk over each other and people with dominant personalities don’t drown everyone else’s voices out.

Write an agenda for each meeting and put time limits on each point, for example: “we will try and finish this meeting in one hour. Lets spend ten minutes going over what things we said we’d do last time and seeing if they got done or not, then twenty minutes talking about new ideas, then half an hour talking about how to put those ideas into practice”.

Without organising what you are going to talk about in advance and for how long meetings can end up lasting for hours and going around in circles, which makes everyone feel bored and uninspired, possibly even making them want to give up the whole project.

Choose someone to act as ‘secretary’ to make a note of who said they would do what and then to check up on them later to remind them what they said they would do, and then make sure everyone knows when the next meeting is.

Without someone acting in this ‘secretary’ role people can forget what they said they would do, and if someone isn’t able to do what they said they would and then doesn’t come to the next meeting, no-one knows if it got done or not so it can be impossible to move forward.

All these are simply suggestions of things i have seen work well in the past, but the main point i am trying to make is that having formal meeting structures can actually help an affinity group begin a project to start an autonomous base nucleus.

Once the nucleus is formed and you are actually part of a struggle, then there is even more need for meetings and decisions to be made. You need to decide what you are fighting for and what strategies and tactics you are going to use to try and achieve it. Then as you are putting these plans into practice things can change rapidly and you may need to completely change tactics.

Lots of things need to be done and people need to be held accountable for doing them, so all these kinds of formal mechanisms like agenda setting and secretary roles become really important, possibly even matters of life or death depending on what kind of struggle it is.

For example, if you run the risk of being arrested or beaten up or killed if a particular action goes wrong, then all the people who volunteered to take on the different tasks of organising the action really need to do what they said they would do, and others need to know whether or not they have done it, not just assume they have.

I hope by now i have explained the importance of formal meetings and a generally professional attitude to the insurrectionalist anarchist project.

It is not enough to just “reject formal structure” in general, as an absolute rule that applies to everything and just sit around chatting shit with other anarchists in your little scene without ever being prepared to be serious and figure out how to engage with real struggles and conduct yourself in an appropriate way as a revolutionary.

If you fail as a serious revolutionary you will not be punished by any kind of Anarchist authority. You will be punished by the fact that you will continue to live in a system that oppresses you without you being able to do anything to effectively challenge it.

When you are doing serious revolutionary work, rather than fake bullshit for some formal organisation or informal scene, you feel great. You don’t feel oppressed, you feel like you are free and on the road to greater freedom.

You don’t feel the need to complain about things while being too depressed to do anything. You feel happy and inspired to be part of a real movement for liberation.

So please, think about what struggles are going on in communities of oppressed people around you that you could help to radicalize then form an affinity group and make a plan to form an autonomous base nucleus and get on with it.

Good luck, comrade.


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