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Anti-Mass Collectives As Anarchist Organisation

By Richard C. Fields - March 1990

A paper presented at a conference on Anarchist Organisation held in Melbourne during 1990.


  1. Definition of Anarchism as Anti-Hierarchy
  2. The Model of Organisation which this suggests for the Movement (i.e. Anti-Mass style Collectives)
  3. How this is different from Political Parties and existing "Anarchist" forms of organisation
  4. Problems in spreading the Anti-Mass approach

1. Definition of Anarchism as Anti-Hierarchy,

To begin, I think it is necessary to see if we agree on what we mean by the words "anarchy", "anarchism" and "anarchist". The definitions which I work from are as follows:

There are two alternative definitions which are put forward which I would reject. The first stresses "freedom" as the key ingredient of anarchy. This is problematic because freedom is itself a concept whose definition is difficult and controversial. At the same time, all social theorists who have proposed the ideal of freedom as the end to be pursued have ended up recognising that the freedom of each person has to be limited by and for the freedom of each other. That is, to pursue freedom as an absolute unqualified end in itself is impossible.

The second, alleges that "anarchy" has no intrinsic meaning and that it can mean anything the speaker wants it to. I think this notion is simply absurd.

Both of these definitions seem to arise as defensive reactions to the existing oppressive social order. However, they can be (and usually are) used to cover up or justify the most outrageously oppressive behaviour on the part of those who adhere to them. "Don't criticise me" they say. But, if we want to completely change the social order then rigorous criticism is going to need to be the order of the day. And not only criticism of the social order which we have opted to oppose, but also self-criticism because we must realise that we come to anarchism ourselves as products of that same social order.

The definition which stresses opposition to hierarchy is in agreement with the traditional theorists of anarchism. Bakunin stressed that the anarchist notion of "freedom" must be combined with one of "equality" and this necessarily implies an absence of hierarchy because only if there is no hierarchy can we say that none of us is restricted by the imposed rule of anyone else and we are equally able to pursue our desires. Where we come into potential conflict situations, e.g. over access to resources, a commitment to end hierarchy requires us to find an equitable and non-oppressive outcome; which is another way of saying (along with Kropotkin) that we will need a positive commitment to voluntary co-operation or mutual aid, and (along with Stirner) that we must uphold the right to free association.

If we agree on this basic commitment to voluntary co-operation, the right to free association and an absolute opposition to hierarchy as the essential ingredients of anarchism then not only will we end up with a common vision of the ideal anarchist society but we should also be able to agree on a particular critique of the status quo and a particular strategy for moving from this towards realising our ideal future.

The existing social order is permeated with hierarchy. Co-operation is virtually impossible when we are constantly forced into situations where we are mostly order takers and less frequently order givers and where notions of "freedom" of association and "voluntary" co-operation are rendered impractical for most of us by virtue of the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth.

We must ask what it is that perpetuates these all pervasive hierarchies. The social-darwinist ideologues of the status quo tell us that the hierarchies are the result of natural differences in strength, intelligence and willingness to work. But individuals of varying strength. wit and industry seem to be scattered indifferently through the class structure. Furthermore, there seems to be something in the way society is organised which licences indulgence amongst those at the top of the social hierarchy whilst encouraging submission on the part of the rest regardless of their native abilities or inclinations.

What keeps this ongoing situation intact is the "mass" nature of society. In the context of the mass we exist only as isolated individuals. We are cut off from the people around us, unable to form authentic relationships with anyone. And, however strong we may be as individuals, this isolation keeps us powerless. The mass is like a flock of bleating sheep or a swiftly flowing waterway and once we are caught up in it, it is virtually impossible to stand our ground or pursue our own direction.

The institutions of the mass society tell us what to do, what to think and even what to feel. Despite rhetoric in the capitalist world about freedom of choice, the pressures to conform are overwhelming. We become mere consumers, passive spectators and we do what we are told. Because we are not allowed to participate in making any significant policy decisions we end up feeling powerless and not responsible.

If we try to change this situation in any way, we inevitably run up against the overwhelming pressures ("hegemony") of the status quo. So, thinking about how to improve things comes to be seen as a waste of time. The frustration which results means that people become apathetic and irresponsible; our alienation increases, our self-confidence declines and the whole process becomes self-perpetuating. Ordinary people therefore see themselves as powerless and become resigned to fitting in somewhere near the bottom of a very hierarchical structure or else they see the only way to change their lot is to climb up the hierarchy.

The capitalist system employs a huge propaganda machine to maintain this system. In a society where depression is depressingly commonplace, we are told the dominant culture is fun, rewarding and meaningful. The result is that we learn not to trust our own feelings. The less adept just block them out with the mind numbing spectacle of television, drugs or some other form of addiction. The "well adjusted" citizens become expert in double-think.

Furthermore, we learn to see some of the worst symptoms of mass culture as the answers to all our problems. As a result we actually work at aggravating our dis-ease. The insecurity of the nuclear family comes to be seen as the only security we have ever known. "Freedom" is the name we give to the slavery of the factory and the threat of unemployment. Waste, environmental destruction, sexual exploitation and the like used to be foisted on us as the "inevitable price of progress" but now they have come to be seen as the very symbols of what we are striving for. Sales of Playboy and Mills and Boon go through the roof, forests are converted into parking lots and we try desperately not to notice how unhappy we become. Meanwhile, alternatives are carefully excluded from the mass media.

It is impossible to change this situation by organising a mass movement in opposition. Such an initiative may bring about minor improvements of a superficial nature. However, the fundamental processes of alienation and manipulation can only be changed by new forms of organisation. We need to get away from the situation where a tiny minority make all the real decisions and the rest are shunted about and manipulated like so many sheep. We need to create new structures and processes whereby we can all begin to exercise real control over the decisions which affect our own lives. Then we can learn to take responsibility for the decisions which we make.

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2. The Model of Organisation which this suggests for the Movement (i.e. Anti-Mass style Collectives)

The way to do this is through the creation of "collectives" or "affinity groups". These are small, autonomous groups with a clearly delineated membership. The members of the group need to have a clear commitment to each other and to the ongoing project of the group. This project needs to be of a reasonably specific nature and aimed at challenging some aspect of the existing mass social structure. At the same time, there must be commitment to breaking down hierarchy within the group - to use the group as "free space" for developing more authentic, fulfilling and egalitarian ways of relating to each other. The group will also need a commitment to theoretical discussion and development and to developing and implementing methods of consensus decision making and other power sharing processes like job rotation, information sharing, etc..

Groups like this can become the building blocks of a truly liberatory social change movement and eventually, the building blocks of an anarchist society. Therefore, the formation of such groups is the process of the revolution.

The collective needs to be small enough for each member to have an effective and meaningful relationship with each of the other members. This obviously becomes harder as the size of the group increases. The size where it becomes impossible depends on the time pressures, outside commitments and the enthusiasm of the members for the group.

Factionalisation is often the most dramatic indicator that a group is becoming too large. If people reproduce the behaviour they have learnt in society at large, and no action is taken to forestall this danger, factions will tend to emerge as the size of the group increases above seven or eight. By the time that membership reaches 12 or 13 factions are inevitable. This will severely inhibit communication across factional boundaries and cause a breakdown of consensus decision making processes. It may be possible to develop and adopt techniques which will prevent factions forming and possibly expand the potential size of collectives to as many as 20 people. However, this would require an exceptional commitment from the members.

The collective needs to be an ongoing project. We need to create a life-style where we accept and exercise full responsibility for how we live our lives and how we relate to each other. This will require us to challenge deeply ingrained behaviour pattens and attitudes. These have been building up unchecked throughout our lives so we should expect that they will take time to understand and longer to change. The collective can help us in coming to an understanding of our behaviour and help us work out which aspects we wish to change. It is a particular set of people with whom we can share our established attitudes and practice and the new ideas and behaviour to which we aspire. It is the place where we can get the all important feedback we will need to illuminate the process of personal growth and change. In doing this we learn to trust each other and ourselves and this is one of the greatest rewards of working in this kind of affinity group.

To make this whole process possible, the collective must have a clearly defined and stable membership. It must be unambiguous about who is a member and who is not. The processes by which people join and leave must be clearly laid down and subject to the control of the group as a whole (with the obvious proviso that no individual should be pressured in any way to remain within the group against their will). And, the rights and responsibilities of members should be clearly laid down. There also needs to be a stated purpose of the group which all members fully agree with and are genuinely committed to.

The members of the collective must have a commitment to each other. They must aim to create a space where they can learn new and better ways of relating and then go on to use these personal changes as a basis for challenging and changing the existing oppressive social structures. As part of this, each member must have a commitment to learn more appropriate behaviour and ways of relating. They need to get away from what our everyday experience in capitalist patriarchal society teaches us. We need to learn to co-operate rather than compete, share instead of hoarding, and go beyond our limiting, alienating and oppressive stereotypes. In other words, the members need to have a commitment to develop good group processes as an integral part of pursuing the projected aims of the group.

There needs to be an up-front recognition of the need to analyse and face up to issues of power and conflict within the group. The aim is to develop interactions which are characterised by equality and the breaking down of any internal hierarchies which may exist. This will need to involve a commitment to sharing skills fully amongst the membership and to equality of access to all relevant information.

There also needs to be a forthright commitment to consensus decision making processes. It needs to be stressed that the use of consensus must go beyond the mere making of an academic decision. The point is not for the group to agree on the neatest way of describing a problem and on what might be a nice thing to do about it if people feel so inclined. The process advocated here is one of forging an agreement to act together - to find out what the group wants to do and how they can do it - and then to follow through with appropriate action.

Along side the recognition of the need to analyse and face issues of power and conflict within the collective we need to bring the same critical perspective to the way these processes work in society at large. That is, the anti-mass collective must be involved in "political" as well as "personal" change.

Anarchist political action involves us in taking responsibility ourselves for solving the problems that we feel are most pressing. Obviously we can't each do everything ourselves. We will need to evaluate our feelings carefully and then focus on a particular project where we think we can make the biggest impact. In choosing this we need to weigh up which problems we see as most important and which ones we have a real chance of finding other people to work on with us. Having selected a problem to work on and a group of people to work on it with we can set about forming a collective which will have a real impact.

The collective which results may then campaign on a particular issue or combination of issues, organise an event (like Confest, the Anarchist Organisation and Strategy Gathering or The Women's Alternative Music Festival), provide a service (like a creche, refuge, bookshop or magazine) or experimenting with alternative ways of doing things (like organic gardening, multiple relationships or co-operative work practices). Consciousness raising groups (CR groups) can also fit this definition of "politically active" in so far as they empower their members to take on and sustain the struggles involved in changing their relationships outside of the group.

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3. How this is different from Political Parties and existing "Anarchist" forms of organisation.

We are all aware that an effective revolution will require the carrying out of many different tasks. In the party style of organisation the one structure is responsible for everything and will order its members to carry out those tasks deemed necessary or useful. or, it will hire people to do the work or set up sub-committees or commissions to entice people into action. The anti-mass approach requires us to shift from this attitude of wanting to do everything ourselves and needing to control everything or even ensure that everything is being done. We must develop the maturity to decide our own priorities and act on them for ourselves and the trust in other people to expect that when they do the same, the broad spectrum of needs faced by a growing anarchist movement / society will indeed be satisfied.

People are inclined to look at one isolated collective and say it is not doing much compared with a large party organisation like the Labour Party, Australian Democrats or Socialist Workers Party. But, compared with an equivalent number of members out of any party, the collective can be seen as far more productive. If all the people currently active in left wing or progressive political parties were in anti-mass collectives they would no longer find themselves vainly lobbying for a better society and being constantly betrayed by politicians as they achieve political "success". Instead, they could be out setting up and running alternatives themselves. There could be collectively run shop fronts or meeting spaces in every town or suburb - comprehensive child care facilities - preventative medicine - refuges - improved public transport - better access to wholefoods and renewable energy technologies - etc.. The list is as endless as the imaginations' of the people involved.

Members of anti-mass collectives will no longer be learning the politicians' skills of dominance and subservience, lying, trickery and back stabbing. Instead they will be learning what it feels like to accomplish something - to fulfil a need that they themselves have recognised. Through this they can learn to value, respect and take responsibility for themselves and the other members of their collective.

From my observation of the Australian anarchist movement throughout the 1970's and 80's the tendency on the most part has been to vigorously criticise the political party as a mode of organisation whilst continuing to imitate it in many significant respects.

The "Federation of Australian Anarchists" (1975/76) was essentially a mass organisation. Despite being called a Federation it accepted individuals as well as groups as members. It made no attempt to examine the credentials of member groups or individuals. Joining it simply meant saying "Rah! Rah!" to a very loosely defined set of lowest common denominator aims and principles. Direct action was claimed as part of this agreed perspective but it was not understood as "we shall take steps to solve a problem ourselves" but rather as proclaiming our agreement or opposition towards existing things through demonstrations, illegal stunts and so forth as opposed to letter writing and lobbying. So the approach that was taken still focussed on "They should..." or "They shouldn't" statements:- "They should maintain Medibank", "They shouldn't mine uranium", "They shouldn't vote", etc. Rather than a "We will..." approach:- "We will make and install solar panels", "We will set up a community health centre", etc.

In all this, the F.A.A. maintained the traditional perspective of the mass oriented political party because the members were so convinced of their own potential to solve problems for themselves or of finding ways to work effectively together. Their disgust with pre-existing political parties from the Spartacists to the left of the A.L.P. was reflected in rejection of any notion of internal organisational discipline, and even of any national policy agreements.. But, nothing was put in their place, so the federation ended up - not as an alternative to the party - but rather as a weak, chaotic and ineffective variant of the party form.

For the most part, where the activists in the federation were involved with local groups, those groups were even more chaotic and ineffective than the overall federation. The federation itself was an attempt to disguise this lack of grass roots coherence which failed dismally. Those who were involved in more coherent local processes - like the Self Management Group (S.M.G.) in Brisbane or the Latrobe Anarchists - tended in the end to adopt the most reserved and disappointed attitudes towards the F.A.A..

The Libertarian Socialist Federation (est. 1976) was an attempt to overcome the frustrations of trying to work in the F.A.A. by reintroducing elements of the party structure, like nationally agreed upon policy statements, nationally coordinated campaigns, a national newspaper, etc.. These were supposed to be organised by the Federation as a whole through appointed secretariats overseen by conferences of "strictly mandated delegates". But the principles of mandating and delegation were not understood at all and the actual practice involved the sending of poorly briefed representatives who made decisions as they went in meetings with most of the members of which ever group lived in the city hosting the conference.

Much of the impetus towards the return to overtly party style structures came from two Libertarian Marxists recruited to the anarchist movement from the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party and its youth wing. Effectively, these people brought their old practices with them whilst thinking they were getting away from them by changing the names used to describe them and the faces of the people they were doing it with. The result was an organisation that was even more "They should..." oriented than the old F.A.A.. Indeed the only areas where F.A.A. militants had practised anything like direct action - squatting and sexuality - disappeared from the agenda of the new Federation altogether.

At first glance, the Brisbane Self Management Group may look much more in keeping with the anti-mass proposal because of its tightly knit cell structure. However, its founders had emerged from the break up of the new-left "Resistance" group and the Marxist orientation of that grounding can be seen reflected in the rigid concern of the S.M.G. with controlling the cells and their members. The decentralisation that did occur ended up being more a matter of preserving security than anything else. Policy initiatives often originated from the centre and flowed out to the cells, and when they did come from the cells they were rigorously vetted by the central council. Like the L.S.F. the S.M.G. was primarily concerned with "They should..." oriented pronouncements, and if you talk to veterans of the S.M.G. today they recall most enthusiastically exactly the same criteria which would be held as the hallmark of a successful party - large membership, ability to mobilise large numbers of people quickly and resistance to infiltration by state security police and other hostile agents. Despite their considerable strength and organisational coherence they never thought of doing things for themselves - their cells were struggle oriented rather than project based and the power elite within the S.M.G. bitterly opposed the setting up and operation of the Learning Exchange.

So what of the two main groups which aim for mass membership in the anarchist movement today, the Libertarian Workers for a Self Managed Society and the Anarcho Syndicalist Federation?

The Lib Workers say they are organised purely around their platform. That the only criterion for membership is agreement with their criticisms of the status quo. That is, a total commitment to the "They should..." approach to politics. Most remarkable in this is the Lib Workers' actions with regard to elections. They have taken on board the anarchist critique of parliament and elections as irrelevant to the practice of a true participatory democracy. But, they still can't break away from the fascination with elections as an occasion to air their platform and measure their own popularity or "effectiveness" by the peculiar notion that an abstention, spoiled ballot or refusal to vote can be counted as a notional vote for anarchism. So they behave just like a political party at election time by going into campaign mode. In fact, a failure to vote is in itself only an act of apathy. It is the positive projects which we build instead of voting and campaigning at election time which demonstrate our commitment to anarchism. But from the point of view of mainstream politics this is invisible, doesn't get counted and feels like failure. Ironically, whilst the anti-election campaign is quite sterile from the anti-mass perspective, from the point of view of the party mentality it is the only time anarchist politics becomes tangible and able to be validated. So, instead of setting up alternative health facilities or building adventure playgrounds, the Lib Workers end up putting huge amounts of energy into the electoral charade which they claim to recognise as irrelevant.

In the case of the A.S.F., although it claims to be anarchist and syndicalist, its practice is in many respects a mirror of the party style. Most significantly, as a general membership organisation it sells its members (along with their membership card) a vicarious sense of being able to claim responsibility or credit for all the activities of the federation. The members pay their $x per year and can then say "I am part of an organisation which produces Rebel Worker, is active in the tram depots and light rail campaign, plays a major role in running the A-House project, etc., etc."

And yet, many of these members don't actually do anything towards any of these things. Just like in a political party, an activist minority end up deciding what projects and campaigns will be set up by each branch and then trying to motivate the membership and sympathisers from outside to carry them out. Many members attend branch meetings only rarely, avoid working out their own priorities for action for themselves and, in the final analysis, vote on the policy prescriptions of the activists by continuing to pay their dues or letting their membership lapse.

From the anti-mass point of view the passive card carrying membership is a facet of the status quo which we want to get away from. Yet a large membership has often been stated as a desirable aim in itself by those who founded the A.S.F..

The separation of individual projects into autonomous collectives, as proposed by the anti-mass approach, will prevent activists from indulging the "need" to control everything which we have learned from mainstream culture. After all, if I am in a bookshop collective, there is no need for me to control a magazine collective or refuge collective, nor for them to control the bookshop. However, if these projects are all run under the auspices of a party or federation then all the members suddenly acquire a need to have a say in the running of "their" magazine, "their" bookshop and "their" refuge.

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4. Problems in spreading the Anti-Mass approach.

The anti-mass idea has been around since the early 1970's and yet there have been remarkably few groups which have consciously taken up the model. In pondering why this might be the case we should not underestimate the difficulties involved. I will finish by listing a handful of the more obvious ones.

Firstly, it requires us to adopt new measures of success which not only differ from those of the status quo but at times actually contradict them. For example, the individual collective is not more or less successful according to the size of its membership. It actually aims to remain small and to hold together as a stable collection of people. Moreover, its real measure of success is whether it provides a space and processes whereby its members can gain confidence, self-respect and the skills to work with each other in a co-operative and non-hierarchical way - aspects which are ignored or actively discouraged by "normal" straight society.

Also, the anti-mass collective does not aim to take on an ever increasing range of tasks (i.e. it is not "growth oriented" in the capitalist economic sense) but rather to do the chosen task better and in a manner increasingly in harmony with anarchist principles.

Secondly, the development of anti-mass structures demands a lot of energy and attention to be applied to the internal workings of the collective and it is often hard to find the extra energy to then go out and propagandise the approach amongst the movement or society at large.

Also, the practices of the anti-mass collective can be so different to those of mainstream society that it is hard to communicate them effectively. I have had several experiences where I have spent a long time explaining the workings of an anti-mass collective to someone who has been obviously attentive and keen to indicate their agreement and then at the end they have asked a question or made a comment which seems to indicate that they haven't understood a word of it.

Also, conversation with outsiders is a distraction for those working at establishing an anti-mass practice. As indicated in the anti-mass pamphlet it is more rewarding to talk to other anti-mass collectives where they exist or to keep one's collective selves where there are no others. I guess the hope is that eventually, the practice will catch on by example if people see an anti-mass project survive under conditions where other approaches fail. And, there does seem to be a feeling that this is happening though it has taken a very long time.

Thirdly, the sheer extent to which the anti-mass collective swims against the existing cultural tide can be incredibly wearing. For a start it promises no more back than what the member puts in - in contrast to the consumer spectacle which constantly tries to sell us bargains and promises big returns for little effort or expenditure. In the words of Melanie's song we expect a dollar song every time we put a nickel in. We easily lose sight of the fact that capitalism, patriarchy, church and state are massive structures, deeply entrenched in society and even in our own consciousness. To challenge this is going to take a huge effort on our part and this effort will need to be sustained over a long period. Yet the dominant culture tells us if something is hard work or will take a long time then we've got no hope and are better off finding something easier and more instantly gratifying to distract ourselves with.

Lastly, we must remember that the dominance of the status quo is not just contained in the immovability of existing institutions but also the way it has shaped our thought processes and limited our imaginations. Developing an anti-mass culture means that almost everything has to be invented from scratch as we go. Consensus decision making, power sharing, conflict resolution, trust building, ..., the works. And, this requires a capacity for giving and taking criticism and affirmation which are quite alien to mainstream culture and a capacity for conceptual analysis and theoretical development which capitalist socialisation and education processes suppress in most people from a very early age. So, not only do we have to reinvent culture but also we have to reinvent ourselves. On the bottom line this is bound to be the crucial element of the revolution but we should not underestimate how difficult and frightening it is.

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