Recently, as a participant in the Sweets Way Resists campaign, I took part in the 4th Radical Assembly, a series of participatory events initially called by the Brick Lane Debates crew, after the Tories won the national elections earlier this year. I reckon at least 100 people from across London came along and shared ideas about where we’re at, and what we need, as a broad progressive movement in the city. It was good to see a lot of friendly faces, particularly having been submerged in some pretty challenging stuff at Sweets Way in recent times. But I’m not totally sure of its approach…
The Radical Assembly builds on the global assembly movement, in which neighbourhoods, communities and cities around the globe have been organising around a range of intersecting issues, using directly democratic means in particular geographic areas. The assembly movement is an attempt to make democracy a fundamental part of local life, and to link up people and groups in a particular area. At their best, assemblies can draw together the common themes between housing justice, hospital closures, police racism, fossil fuel extraction, immigration raids, and so many other interrelated struggles, to build a stronger network of social movements.
And though this was my first experience of the Radical Assembly in the UK, I wasn’t left with the strong impression that it was adding something to the organic networks that were already there. In fact, in some ways, I was left wondering if it may have been pulling resources away from those naturally-emerging networks. I don’t intend this with any disrespect to the wonderful organisers involved, many of whom are friends, colleagues and comrades – but I wanted to put an alternative perspective out there, to see what others thought, particularly – as was raised on Sunday – given that similar assembly-based forms seem to be popping up all across London at the moment, many likely facing similar pitfalls.
To explain why I feel an alternative might be valuable, I want to look more closely at the concept of networks. There are different kinds of networks. For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on two types:
1) centralised, and
It seems to me that the RA is trying to be a centralised network, in that it is still coordinated around a main London-wide assembly (though it has regional assemblies that fall within it). The regional hubs obviously make it less-centralised, but it is still based on a small number of coordination points, rather than countless interdependent, massively-interconnected nodes that could be any of the people or groups doing radical organising across the capital. It seems this is the pattern, to varying degrees, with most of the assemblies London is producing at the moment, from the old left ‘People’s Assembly,’ to the still hypothesised ‘Momentum’, which is emerging from the Corbyn Labour leadership campaign.
In a centralised network though, networking is independent of action. It is a organised by the relative few and even the role of hosting/coordinating/facilitating a meeting directs a level of power to a limited few organisers, even if they/we do all we can to avoid exerting that power. This is not to say that it is wrong, just that it needs to be acknowledged.
As a model, a centralised network is still far more distributed than a traditional hierarchical coordination structure of say, a political party or big NGO, which starts from a centralised office/meeting/agenda, and then sends orders out to its satellites (local groups), which exist to do its bidding. A centralised network allows communication to flow in two ways – in and out of the centre, strengthening its democratic possibility considerably. Yet the centralised network still has some of the same pitfalls as the traditional hierarchy, namely:
1) that it requires its own infrastructure (organisers, meeting spaces, budget etc),
2) that communication is disproportionately filtered through a central hub (the assembly), rather than moving directly between those involved in the network, and
3) that it can be shut down by shutting down the relatively small number of groups and individuals that actively bring it together.
Alternatively, a distributed network has no hubs, only nodes, connected (ideally) directly to one another. Those who do the networking are those who are doing the action; there is no distinction. The networking tends to happen through the action, rather than through independent meetings or assemblies. The autonomy of each group or node is maximised, while the resource involved in maintaining the network is non-existent, as it is a deeply integrated part of how all the groups involved organise themselves.
That’s the theory bit. But the good news is this: I think the practice of distributed network-driven movement building is already happening in London and beyond. We’ve got the tools and the platforms – they are the internet, they are all of our own groups’ events and actions. The networks form as we support one another, across themes and geographies, through the action we are taking. We are networking by doing. It’s not always easy to track and observe, but it is there, and it has several advantages over more centralised forms of network.
Let me explain in practical terms, via Sweets Way Resists. We are a housing campaign in Barnet, North London. We’ve been around for seven months, and beyond everything we’ve been able to do as a campaign, we have developed or rekindled links with other housing groups (Focus E15, Barnet Housing Action, Our West Hendon, Camden Resists, HASL, the Radical Housing Network, Islington Park Street, to name a few), as well as non-housing-related groups that have had overlap with elements of our campaigns (Black Dissidents, Sisters Uncut, Disabled People Against Cuts, UKUncut, for example).
In most of these instances, within our campaign, several of us have personal links with several people from each of these other groups. Even our distributed network nodes are distributed, in that our connections with other groups rarely rely on just one individual who knows one other individual in another group. If I was to get hit by a car the day before an action I had been primarily coordinating with Our West Hendon, several others within the campaign would be able to pick it up and keep the coordination alive without me. Our distribution makes us stronger and more resilient.
Beyond these more formal groups, we are also well linked with a number of squatter crews, members of local churches and synagogues, and people in some of the local schools. When this part of our networks is working most effectively, it helps us to transcend the isolation of the activist left, and stay connected with the people around the area who may not be at all involved in radical – or even progressive – politics. This is critical, in order to make sure we’re not just talking to ourselves.
From my previous involvement in Focus E15, I know that similar distributed networks are at play there.
There are several advantages to distributed networks:
1) They require no additional infrastructure/cost beyond the people and groups involved,
2) They allow everyone involved to focus on organising where they are,
3) Power remains with all of those involved in the nodes/groups taking action (rather than with a coordinating group), and
4) They are resilient to people and groups disappearing or becoming less active, as others connect/link-up with one another around what needs doing.
What they don’t offer is a ‘birds-eye view’ of the whole system. I’ve often felt that those (like myself) who have made conscious efforts over the years to break with the centralised nature of Marxist-Leninist organising structures, can sometimes still struggle to acknowledge that the necessary things are happening across a network, if we are not able to see all the things that are happening. An assembly allows those who want to see all the connections between groups to do so. They become visible at the very least through chats and conversations happening in a single place, if not through more coordinated workshops or networking sessions. But how do the benefits and costs of making these links visible stack-up? To even just look at the costs, for some perspective, the budget for yesterday’s Radical Assembly is between a third and half of what the Sweets Way Resists campaign has operated on for over seven months.
There is definitely nothing inherently wrong with larger-scale network events, as I think at a basic level, a chance to say hello to like-minded activists can help build our confidence and give us energy for the many struggles ahead. In this sense, I see them as much like a big central London march or rally. I also think if the RAs – or the other assemblies – can really become inroads for people who are not otherwise engaged in organising efforts, than there is a strong case for them as a clearing house for progressive energy and effort. But I am left wondering if the resource and effort they require is best placed, if the aim is to enable more effective and more joined up local action that can challenge the wider systems? Instead, as a distributed approach to movement building, why don’t we (those of us already active) each get a bit more plugged to a fight happening where we are, or start our own local groups, and then next time, make sure we bring a friend along?
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