Ten Years on the Turn
This is the first in a series of posts aimed at deriving some political perspectives from one development on the left in the last ten years: the so-called institutional turn. By this is meant the shift from a direct action oriented ‘anarchistic’ common sense, to a power oriented ‘institutional’ emphasis within activist circles, exemplified by involvement in Podemos, the Labour Party, the Democratic Party etc.
My perspective on this development derives mainly from my own experience rather than any extended research — I was living in Spain in 2011 during the ‘15M’ square occupations and returned to the UK in summer 2012. I take as a starting assumption that the institutional turn has been an undesirable and disorienting development for anarchists and anti-parliamentary socialists. Rather than hoping to turn back the clock to before the institutional turn, I think its success in changing the orientation of many activists should be taken seriously and lessons drawn from this experience.
This first post recounts some of the positive aspects of the 2011 square occupations. Given that the institutional turn derived much of its raison d’être from the supposed limitations of that cycle of protest, returning to the possibilities opened up at that time could be fruitful for a renewal of the non-institutional left.
A time to cast away stones
2010–11 saw promising developments in the street-based politics of Britain and Spain that operated like a shot in the arm to grassroots solidarity networks in both countries. The anti-fees movement in Britain and the Arab Spring-inspired indignados in Spain saw levels of enthusiasm and imagination that caught the establishment in both countries on the hop, generating new and unlikely alliances and acting as a catalyst for initiatives including anti-evictions, migrant solidarity and base unions.
In some respects, the politics and practices of 2010–11 were informed by the previous twenty years of street-based, direct-action oriented activism, which had coalesced around the anti-capitalist movement at the turn of the century. These practices were associated with anarchism, or as the late David Graeber put it, with the ‘new anarchists.’ A feature of the institutional turn, particularly among its more visible and prominent proponents, has been a critique of the limitations of these politics and practices, particularly as they relate to the square occupations of 2011. Namely, that consensus-based decision making, the assembly form, a ‘direct action’ orientation and the reluctance to adopt permanent organisational structures were undemocratic, off-putting to non-activists, conducive to burnout and unsuited to the enactment of lasting change.
Although it is common for such politics and practices to be identified as ‘anarchist’, little attempt has been made to mount a robust defence of them from within anglophone anarchist circles in response to the institutional turn. As far as I can see there are two probable reasons for this. Firstly, there is justifiable impatience with the tendency to label as ‘anarchist’ the practices of heterogeneous movements, most of which were not inherently or explicitly anarchist, and therefore an unwillingness to rise to the bait by engaging with critiques made in bad faith. Secondly, there is a kernel of truth in some of the charges listed above. Notwithstanding these factors, the failure to produce a public defence of the 2011 cycle of protest has weakened libertarian opposition to the political parties proposed as the solution to its shortcomings.
A time to gather stones together
What was worthwhile about the ‘movement of the squares’? Firstly, it provided an alternative, insurgent model of democracy. Where its take-up was most widespread, the debilitating and alienating nature of representative, parliamentary democracy was thrown into relief by the open, participatory quality of the assemblies. Rather than seeing disaffection with the electoral merry-go-round as a problem to be overcome, the assemblies took it as a starting point from which to experiment with alternatives. Secondly, it was self-consciously internationalist. The occupation of squares in Spain followed the example set in Egypt and was clearly intended to provide one more link in a chain with a potentially global reach. This is connected to a third point: the prohibition of flags and political insignia, which to a great extent prevented the assemblies from being co-opted by nationalists or political parties. Fourthly, the provision of an open forum allowed seasoned activists and the newly enthused to come into contact with the day-to-day concerns expressed by assembly participants at the sharp end of the crisis. This convergence gave a practical orientation to the direct action and working groups that emerged out of the assemblies and in the short to medium term gave an important boost to struggles around housing and migration that helped prevent many evictions and deportations. Although the assemblies in Spain did not (and could not) last as physical occupations of central public squares, their continued virtual and neighbourhood presence helped coordinate and animate such struggles, as well as providing the means for the organisation of road blockades and roaming pickets in support of the general strike of 2012.
Long threads on libcom and the Spanish site alasbarricadas attest to the enthusiasm these developments generated on the libertarian left at the time, so why haven’t the same circles been able to produce a retrospective defence of the practices that led to these developments in the face of institutional critique? Such a defence need not be an uncritical celebration. It is true that the political content of the assemblies often left much to be desired. The vision of democracy they projected remained vague, class was rarely invoked, and a simplistic understanding of the financial crisis gave cranks and conspiracy theorists an easy ride. But it is clear that none of these issues were resolved by the institutional turn — they were merely imported into the parties. While the distinct but connected problems of conspiracy theories and vague politics were already a problem in the assemblies — among activists and in the broader left — once channelled into a left-populist party-political project, they became structural and endemic.
To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose
At the risk of generalising from personal experience, the shift towards Corbyn’s Labour Party among extra-parliamentary acquaintances was experienced as a feeling of sudden and unexpected alienation. Following the decline of the anti-capitalist movement I had spent a long time cynical about the possibilities of activism. This cynicism had been shattered by my experience of the square occupations and the subsequent levels of organisational ingenuity, patience and self-sacrifice put at the service of, in particular, no borders, anti-eviction and base union activities. While I didn’t think of myself as one of Graeber’s ‘new anarchists’, I was enthused by the possibilities of connecting the insurgent democracy of the squares with transformative direct action that had concrete and worthwhile results. At the same time, I hadn’t considered the possibility that this horizontally organised energy could be put at the service of a statist project, and that the activist imperative to stop debating and act when faced with imminent deportations and evictions, could be translated into a similar level of argument-bypassing urgency at the service of an electoral campaign.
In future blog posts, I want to think about the limitations of that ‘anarchistic’ common sense that stresses the importance of action over debate and reflection. For now, I want to record a learning experience of the institutional turn: for many people involved in anti-deportation, base union or anti-eviction groups, there was no obvious connection between the practical imperatives of that activity and anti-state politics. That connection, between direct action and insurgent democracy, had been established in the squares of 2011 but could not be sustained under its own momentum or by activism alone. Something else was required to hold that connection in place as a minority perspective and revolutionary hope — it still is.
Danny (with thanks to Joey and Liz for comments)