The TUC March for the Alternative in London resulted in a story that’s all too familiar. You’ve heard it a hundred times: a minority of anarchists spoiling an otherwise peaceful, law-abiding march attended by up to half a million families, teachers, football supporters and students.
At least that’s how much of the media reported what happened. Yet this dichotomy created to divide ‘anarchists’ from ‘peaceful marchers’ reflects a hopeless misunderstanding of anarchism, a political movement I am researching as part of my Ph.D.
The folly of dividing up people into fixed identities is exposed by the fact that I am an anarchist: but I am also a family member, a teacher, a football supporter and a student. My march on Saturday was the very model of the polite anger that Ed Miliband and Brendan Barber are trying to claim for the non-anarchists (this was ‘the voice of Middle Britain’, said the latter).
I was peaceful, good-spirited and made sure I put my empty couscous tub in the bin. I didn’t wear a hoodie, nor have a bandana over my face. I damaged no property, was not aggressive to a single police officer and remained on the main route of the TUC march. I was indeed the very model of ‘Middle England’- a polite young man brought up in privileged comfort in South Staffordshire. Yet I was still an anarchist, and I resent that my actions as a ‘peaceful marcher’ have been co-opted by those whose agendas I do not fully support.
That others have sought to use my actions on Saturday for their own ends is not surprising, however, and is nothing more than the logic of liberal democratic representation in action. As Gilles Deleuze – a theorist who I draw heavily upon in my work – has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.
That I am an anarchist is, in part, born of a desire to overcome such a way of doing politics. I do not authorise Ed Miliband or Brendan Barber to speak on my behalf; I wish to speak for myself. Through a tolerance of difference and consensus decision-making, anarchism allows for individual differences to be heard and respected, without collapsing into a politics of wanton individuality. It is a diverse, creative philosophy which – in my Ph.D. thesis and my forthcoming book for Zero Books- ‘The Shape of Utopia to Come’, I apply to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel ‘We’ and musical improvisation. I believe it offers us a new way to think about the kind of world we wish to live in: something I am experimenting with through the Eastside Island Utopia project, which I am curating. To those who remark that such a politics is impractical in organising ‘real life’ communities I point to the successes of the Zapatistas, to free schools, to climate camp and to the proliferation of autonomous social centres.
This is not the vision of anarchism that you will get from reading mainstream accounts of the demonstration that took place on 26 March 2011. What you find there is a cartoon construction: anarchism as empty violence- the pathetic actions of ‘unemployable layabout scum’.
I do not claim that anarchism is inherently non-violent. Many anarchists believe that violence against the property of oppressors is a justified form of ‘propaganda by the deed’, directed against companies whose actions form part of a far greater structure of violence. Still others would go further and argue that violence directed against agents of oppression – the police – is justified; certainly when the police are using violence themselves to defend the interests of those anarchists see as oppressors. Many anarchists believe that there is a qualitative difference between the violence of the weak and the violence of the strong, though they certainly don’t all endorse the former on all occasions.
Anarchism is a mature philosophy which contains numerous viewpoints on these issues, but which is honest enough about the world in which we live to have frank, open and dissensual discussions about if – and when – violence might be justified.
It is this maturity and complexity that gets lost in the representation of anarchism in the mainstream (with occasional exceptions) and especially in the media where – like everyone else except the ruling elites – anarchists are to be seen and not heard.