Radical media, politics and culture.

autonomous politics and organising in australia

Aggy k & And writes "Recent years have seen the large growth of northern social movements resisting capital and corporate globalisation - often focusing on international trade regulation bodies and increasingly on borders and freedom of movement. In much overseas commentary these movements have been regarded as demonstrating a marked shift from 'traditional' methods of organising. This shift is from hierarchical and bureaucratic methods of organisation to more decentralised and participatory models.

The goal of autonomous movements is to transcend nation states, not capture them. - George Katsiaficas

In Australia, whilst an autonomous tendency has always existed, the s11 protests in September 2000 marked a more overt shift. Whilst many people were involved through the traditionally organised s11 Alliance others opted for more radical methods, this organising coalesced predominantly around and was inspired by the Melbourne based 'autonomous web of liberation' (AWOL).

This shift and subsequent growth of autonomous networks, both in Melbourne and around Australia, can be seen to have inspired and enabled the upcoming Autonomadic Festival of Freedoms to Woomera at Easter (Woomera 2002) as well as a variety of other forms of action and projects such as squatted social centres and independent media events. Unfortunately this emerging tendency and the growing number of events organised in a decentralised manner are overwhelmingly ignored by independent press, the academy and those engaged in the more traditional and entrenched modes or organising such as the union movement and political parties.

One of the disturbing characteristics of mainstream culture and media is the invisibility of genuine diversity and dissenting voices. It is a discredit to any outlet, person or organisation professing to be progressive to perpetuate this culture of invisibility by ignoring, denying or simply being unaware of, the existence of the flourishing and wide ranging autonomous grass-roots networks.

It may seem that addressing the coverage of s11 is passe, drenching up some long gone event, but these unaddressed issues remain equally, if not more so, pertinent today. This discussion is particularly important given that the same tensions and lack of discussion played out after the May Day 2001 rally and seem to be emerging around Woomera 2002 - despite the fact that the fundamental assertion of the call to action for the event is a commitment to autonomy.

This essay is not intended to speak on behalf of the various groups and tendencies involved in the broad and diverse networks of autonomous organising. Rather it serves to start a dialogue and pose some questions. One of the key aspects of autonomous social movements is their multifariousness, making it impossible for any one person to represent the movements as a whole. The opinions herein are solely ours.

Where have we come from?

Whenever there has been power there has been resistance to it. From the centuries of struggle against feudalism, to the resistance to colonisation and militarisation, the many paths and inspirations of today¹s social movements can be traced.

The energy that has inspired so many disparate groups to join together in mass actions - is a sentiment of resistance drawing inspiration from autonomous movements and struggles around the world. 'The movement' is often traced back to the counter WTO protests of Seattle in November 1999, whilst of course an important event, its roots go much deeper; to the resistance of indigenous peoples and marginalised communities in southern countries around the globe such as the 1994 armed uprising of the Zapatistas Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico or the 1996 demonstration of over 130,000 Philippinos against the Asia Pacific Economic Summit (APEC).

Of course inspiration also comes from movements in the north, from the May 1968 uprising across France, radical art movements such as Dada, the influential works of The Situationists, anti-roads campaigns in the UK, movements such as Earth First!, Germany¹s autonomen, Italy¹s autonomia and social centres, Reclaim the Streets (RTS) parties, feminist and queer politics, techno and punk culture, and underground publishing. These threads place great emphasis on individual empowerment through notions of D.I.Y (do-it-yourself) politics.

Locally, events such as the 1998 Jabiluka blockade and direct action campaigns, often against environmental destruction, have been influential in building a network outside institutionally based social change models. Indigenous struggles from the Tent Embassy, to the Walk for Peace have also informed and inspired threads of these networks. Similarly independent media groups such as SKA TV, whose videos have screened nationally and internationally for just under a decade, and the birth of Sydney and Melbourne IndyMedia in 2000 have given visibility to and thus networked and encouraged these groups further.

Another key characteristic, demonstrated most articulately recently by the Woomera 2002 campaign, is the rejection of single-issue politics and an encouragement to 'draw the connections' between different campaigns, to discover the root causes of the present malaise. These links and more sophisticated networking has also been facilitated by the advent of networked and decentralised communications such as e-lists, email and websites.

Autonomous from what?

Their collective form negates atomization, their activism transforms the passivity of the consumeristic spectacle negating the reification and the standardization of mass society. - George Katsiaficas

Autonomy has become quite the buzzword of late, which in some instances seems to have become divorced from its original meaning. When we speak of autonomy we are not speaking of Autonomist Marxism, a theoretical thread that includes the likes of Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, Delueze, Guatarri et al, although they have been influential in many circles and no doubt inspired strands of these networks.

Autonomous organising is extra-parlimentry, is free from control by the state, bureaucratic unions, churches, political parties and capital. Obviously it is not possible to make ones-self autonomous from omnipresent factors by merely organising separately from them, rather autonomous organising attempts to carve out a space, free from commodification, ideologies - but not ideas -, the domination of work and the cooptation of political parties and pop culture. This carving out of space is explored and realised both through the modes of organising and meeting structures used at sites such as RTS parties, squats and blockades.

Autonomy means self-management or self-rule. Moving away from passivity to self-activity, encouraging participation and a d-i-y ethic, not following a preformed model for social action; autonomous social movements aim to stimulate self-organisation as part of the function of enabling direct democracy. They aim to subvert the traditional political roles of - leader/follower by fostering a highly democratic and egalitarian culture of organising. It is a radical rejection of constructed roles and a questioning of the legitimacy of the authority that teachers, parents, governments, experts, activists, organisers (etc) hold, which is so rarely challenged. By its very nature autonomous organising disrupts the ability of the authorities to isolate leaders, instead a decentralised multifarious web with no single command structure is created.

Autonomy does not mean hyper-individuality where the common is dismissed to make way for the rights of the individual. Autonomy is much more challenging; it requires each person to radically assess their own needs, desires, roles and responsibilities in any given situation, and the intersection of theirs with those of others. Of course autonomous organising hits bumpy terrain where the intersections of these desires, needs, roles and responsibilities must be negotiated. The point is not necessarily to arrive at a single point, a single model of organising, a correct way, but rather to start a process and, as the Woomera 2002 call to action suggests, 'make the journey'.

The re-writing of history

After s11 some groups scrambled to take the 'credit' for organising the events. The DSP and s11 Alliance seem to claim they were solely responsible for the event, the Green Left Weekly proclaiming 'Victory'. In Socialist Alternative member Jeff Sparrow's Overland account of s11, AWOL doesn't even rate a mention, in the recent book Dissent Events AWOL is again noticeably absent. The author also claims that the s11.org website was the s11 Alliance's website, parroting the mainstream media line - in spite of the fact that the site's creators asserted they were an autonomous affinity group.

The willingness of the Alliance to position itself before the media and AWOL's complete rejection of the corporate media on principle resulted in the Alliance being positioned to take all the åcredit¹ and the most vibrant and original activities being undocumented. Some blame here does rest upon AWOL's rejection and lack of organising around the issue of media and information dissemination. A large space opened up potentially for the discussion of autonomous politics was forfeited.

The idea of blanket non-representation may have to be readdressed and explored if those involved are to take the space they deserve. The idea of delegation is obviously used within spokes-councils so it is curious why this is not expanded to encourage a greater diversity of voices within the media scape. This is not to suggest that groups should run around chasing corporate media. You cannot fundamentally change society through the medium of mass media, even if the corporations didn't own it, the medium is too impersonal, too superficial. There are however many alternatives to the one-way transmission and spectacular culture of the corporate media, which flourished in the networks formed through AWOL and again through Woomera.
AWOL¹s rejection of media was perhaps linked to a broader suspicion of all forms of mediation be they parliamentary representation or corporate media. The emphasis instead was on direct action, direct democracy and unmediated collective action.

In some cases it is clear that the lack of recognition of autonomous groups by other 'progressive' groups is due to a vested interest in ignoring, and often discrediting such modes of organising. The tensions within the autonomous networks regarding media representation have allowed for an easy capitalisation by more media hungry and obedient groups. This exclusion is tiring and clearly based on political difference and a dismissal of the legitimacy and size of autonomous networks.

In other cases the misrepresentation of autonomous groups, or their absence from articles about the very movements that they inspire, can be attributed to a lack of research and knowledge of or connection to those networks. For instance a recent article in Free NrG: Notes from the Dancefloor suggests that the s11 Alliance was organised as AWOL was. This amusing confusion of the often fiercely defined difference between the two groups is a common example of the events surrounding s11 being misreported. This kind of misrepresentation demonstrates lazy research, but furthermore supports the criticism that there is a sheer lack of genuinely analysis of the events in question.

Writing this in the lead up to the Woomera 2002 protest camp, which is being organised autonomously on a model of affinity groups and spokescouncils, is a curious time. Woomera is one of the first events where the split between the traditional modes of organising and autonomy has not yet played out - groups, even those coming from a more traditional position, seem to be committed to organising horizontally.

This article only scrapes the surface of a much larger discussion which is happening in many places, in pubs after meetings, on email lists, in squats and social centres, at benefit gigs and in zines and some underground media. Although it is happening, we would like to see it acknowledged more, outside the realm of those actively involved. We hope that this essay throws down a challenge both to those failing to address the existence and legitimacy of autonomous organising and networks and to encourage those people engaged within to make more effort to express themselves outside their own sphere.

We hope for a time when more voices fill the media and political scape, when we have a society where difference is celebrated, not invisible."