The Movement Must Organise, But Formal Leadership Will Fail Us
Matt Hall: The last weeks of 2010 have been the most exciting politically for a long time. The tuition fees vote was lost, as we know, but this is just the beginning. One of the main achievements was how spontaneously, creatively and energetically a ‘student movement’ was formed. It is the beginning of our fight, but it is also the beginning of our movement, and we have important decisions to get right; one of the most important being how we organise.
If we do not build and grow actively within and beyond the student base in 2011 we will stagnate, and to build and grow we must organise. Our actions so far have been radical and our ideas for the future equally so. We need to channel these ideas and actions into something more powerful. However, if we organise conservatively from this point, we will kill off much of that radicalism. To centralise and bureaucratise what we have created these past couple of months, replacing one defunct and restricted representative system with another, will be anathema to most people’s anger and energy, and again, we will stagnate. Apart from the initial Millbank demonstration our only obstacle to escalation thus far has been the bureaucratic and conservatively organised NUS, with one man at the top dictating direction. To seek a replacement of such a structure, or something similar, would be alienating and de-motivating for many. Not many people seem to be seriously suggesting such a centralisation of the movement, which is encouraging, and I would add my voice to that opinion with a suggestion below about how we view the movement and some initial practical proposals, wishing to add to the important contributions on this blog so far from Guy Aitchison and Jo Casserly.
Occupations are vital to this movement nationally and still exist in networks, email lists, friendships and on campuses, and we must still consider these campus based groups as occupations, albeit adjourned for now. They provide scores of dedicated activists in disparate geographical locations and environments and are by their essence dissipated power structures, preventing centralised hierarchies from developing thus retaining the innovation, energy and autonomy that has so far ensured this movement’s success nationally. We cannot rely alone on this kind of spontaneity in itself to get us where we want to be however, but we must also not dampen it.
To focus our energies on electing sabbatical officers to be our representatives, formalising leadership within the movement or embedding some kind of hierarchy, as Jo seems to be suggesting below, I believe, would be a massive mistake. This will kill both the energy and legitimacy of the movement that has arisen through its autonomy and we have already seen how this approach has failed catastrophically, both in Parliament and with the NUS. Holding people to account every few years with an election is no accountability at all. This revealed fact is an integral part of the movement’s anger. True accountability for this movement is doing it for ourselves and holding ourselves accountable. We should continue and improve upon the alternative democratic vision created in occupations that has been successful so far and take it to a national level. The occupations presented an imperfect yet inspiring version of what true democracy is. Consensus decision-making, autonomous working groups and daily opportunities to influence strategy served us exceptionally well in occupation, albeit with inevitable problems. I sympathise with the problem of ‘unofficial leadership’ developing through force of personality and commitment that Jo astutely highlights below in this blog, however we should not discard this attempt at true participation in favour of a defunct and conservative alternative by electing leaders and creating hierarchies. This approach has already failed us and would be antagonistic to many people’s newly found energy and anger. We should be aware of the limits and issues of our existing approach and continue seeking its improvement, but solving issues of leadership and increasing participation is not achieved by formalising hierarchies.
I want to suggest that we view the movement as a whole as a collective of overlapping concentric circles of influence, ability and responsibilities (autonomously adopted), containing groups, individuals, organisations, activity and ideas. The occupations are circles of influence at the heart of this with the responsibility and ability to pull a wide range of people and groups onto campus and into the movement. They are not centralised and nor are they the grassroots proper, but should be seen as a conduit between the local and the national. Middle ground cells that have the advantage of geographical permanence and the ability to reach both downwards, outwards and upwards to the national level. The occupations should take a leading, but not leadership, role in developing the movement, by viewing themselves in this central position.
Each occupation, I believe, should take a building and organising responsibility and look outwards and towards the grassroots – to other students on campus, school pupils, community groups, Trade Unionists, workers, the general public and other universities not occupying – to bring them into contact with one another and the collective movement through free and open occupation assemblies held on campus regularly (which has already happened at a number of occupations mentioned by Guy Aitchison below). All people fighting for an alternative, not just students, are legitimate members of this movement, no matter their status, position or politics and should be seen as such. These assemblies should then influence regional and national open occupation assemblies held regularly on the same model. These open assemblies will again be a place for all to influence action and direction, from community anti-cuts groups to individual Trade Unionists, autonomous anarchists to occupying students. This will not dampen the autonomy, innovation and energy of activists on the ground, new and experienced alike, but will provide the organisation we need to increase our power on a national level.
In addition, a proper national network of occupying universities should be established to exchange ideas, build relationships and make proposals for strategy. This occupation network should seek to actively engage with students at universities who did not occupy to give help, assistance and advice for organising on campus and advice on occupying. Getting more universities into occupation is vital to keep the growth of the movement spreading, particularly outside London. These new university occupations could then adopt the same model in their area of free open assemblies and continue to build and spread the movement.
The national assemblies should be organised in conjunction with other existing groups that have been essential so far, and that should also be viewed as hubs of activity, influence and responsibility within the movement, such as NCAFC and EAN. These organisations have done exceptional work in organising national demonstrations and walkouts and will be equally integral in 2011. However due to the nature of the occupations as free hubs of collective organisation I believe they should be central to organising the national assemblies proposed.
Organising in this way will give the movement the collectivist order it requires, whilst maintaining autonomy of ideas, strategy and action at local levels. We have the online tools to do this like never before and we can organise, act and communicate throughout the movement with ease. Having this collectivist order; disparate but organised, autonomous but with unity, will maintain our strength. Our collective intelligence, through assemblies and networks, will ensure we are not all organising conflicting demonstrations and actions on the same day and diluting our strength, yet neither do ideas for demonstrations and actions need to come from, or be filtered through, one central authority. We need to link with one another in an organised way for strength, but our strength so far has come from the ground and we must keep it that way.
To realise our power we must become a genuine ‘movement’ rather than disconnected and separate groups across the country with no common voice and direction. However, what we have seen so far is that our strength comes from unity of purpose not centralisation and hierarchy; it comes from autonomous actions not hierarchical decision-making. To win we must organise, but organisation must not be imposed upon us.