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UK Uncut, responsibility and the logic of networked activism

Much of the critical rhetoric attacking UKUncut's choice not to denounce the violence on March 26th fails to understand the organisational make-up of the UKUncut network and, more generally, of the national anti-cuts movement.

Much of the critical rhetoric attacking the choice of UKUncut  to not denounce the actions of other protestors on March 26th fails to understand the organisational make-up of the UKUncut network in particular and much of the broader anti-cuts movement more generally.

While the actions of UKUncut on Saturday 26 seem to have remained within the confines of the law (at least according to this chief inspector) it is clear that the actions of many in the same area did not. Much criminal damage was caused to nearby commercial premises as well as some graffiti to the edifice of Fortnum and Mason, UKUncut's main anti-tax avoidance target that day. The issue of criminal damage is however not the concern of this piece. Indeed it is this author’s contention that the issue of any vandalism should be held in contrast to the violence and consistently incompetent policing of public order situations by the London Metropolitan police on the day, manifest in the outrageous mendacity of senior officers at both Fortnum and Mason (as clear on this Guardian video) and the later brutality at Trafalgar Square.

It seems increasingly probable that the choice to arrest so many of the peaceful and law-abiding UKUncut protestors was a political reaction by a senior milieu within the London Met to appease the Home Office and domestic media, subsequent to failing to come to terms with a block of several thousand masked protestors earlier on in the day. By wrongfully incarcerating these peaceful protestors the Met retained a semblance of being on top of the situation. Had they not done so and finished the day with only a dozen or so protestors facing charges we can be sure that Bob Broadhurst would have received a rather ‘interesting’ call from the Home Secretary Teresa May on the Sunday morning.

Hence we have seen a conflation of the Uncut bloc with the black bloc by the police and political class in order to save face and maintain a semblance of authority and control. The point is that neither of these groups - be it UKUncut or the mass of protestors who broke off from the main march that we saw on Saturday - can be seen as organisations that condone or condemn the actions of other participants within their own groups. These are not organised factions that monitor participants behaviour but rather networks that group together around common purposes, sharing resources and space as and where appropriate. Indeed it would appear that UKUncut is the very essence of such an organisational model.

Networked Activism and QARNs

In his recently published @ is for Activism, Joss Hands discusses a new kind of agent within collective action and social movements, the ‘QARN’ (Quasi-Autonomous Recognition Network). It is the QARN as organising unit that supposedly captures the practices of micro-coordination and the role of communicative action in the context of the fluidity of ‘networked activism’. These QARNs, while frequently sharing commonalities identified by their shared validity claims, identities and practices, do not have permanent borders or hierarchical secretariats.  Instead they remain porous and frequently overlap with other ‘fluid’ quasi-autonomous recognition networks.

What bonds the QARN to any one moment is ‘the shared cluster of validity claims that all members redeem’. In the case of UKUncut this validity claim has been that the coalition government’s agenda of budgetary austerity is not necessary in light of the fact that tens of billions of pounds of tax is successfully avoided every year by large corporations such as Vodafone and high-worth individuals such as Philip Green. Were this money to be recouped, the argument over the neccessity of public sector cuts would be greatly, if not totally, nullified.

QARNs with large, ‘oppositional’ mantras such as UKUncut tend to be more successful than those with ‘propositional’ tendencies (Manuel Castells would call them ‘resistance’ and ‘project’ identies respectively - namely being against or for something). Hands himself gives the example of a QARN that is organised around a range of anti-imperialist claims that would enjoy quite broad support. He goes on to say that were  this oppositional discourse to be posited alongside a collection of ‘propositional’ claims pertaining to a commitment to democratic control of the economy, another set of of intersecting validity claims would be employed, perhaps shrinking that network.

As Hands puts it:

“...if certain individuals are commited to one discourse but not the other, that would describe the boundaries of that network for those persons, yet it would not prevent them from acting within the latter network, as long as it did not undermine their position in engaging with the former. Any individual can thus be a member of any number of interlocking QARNs and at points of overlap will be likely to share a number of associations with multiple clusters.The network is defined by the recognition of overlapping and shared, validated discourses and identites.”

In his recent article for OurKingdom, Hands discusses how UK Uncut is an example of just such a QARN and perhaps one of the best yet:

“...indeed to call UK Uncut a movement, or a party, or even really an interest group, is actually rather inaccurate, in that it exists outside many of the standard definitions for a social movement. Neither, however, is it a militant particularistic bunch of NIMBYs tying to protect a nice view – but rather a concerted response to a general assault on the welfare state...it is rooted in a gut reaction to something that is just downright wrong. This necessarily makes, and also rests on, a claim about broader social justice: that is, a basic fairness principle”.

UKUncut is a QARN with a distinct discourse that is built around an opposition to tax avoidance. However to ask that a cadre of leaders condemn or condone the acts of a mass membership simply misses the point, which is why Lucy Anderson was not being evasive when answering Emily Maitlis on Newsnight recently. Anderson referred to Uncut as ‘an idea, as a piece of inspiration’ clarifying that she was ‘not a spokesperson for Uncut but only herself'. It is this position, that of a participant or node within a networked movement or QARN such as Uncut, that flabbergasts a mainstream media that is only accustomed to bureaucratic and hierarchical organisations. In a co-produced movement like UKUncut there seem to be no leaders or members, hence no-one to condemn or be condemned. It is because of this very ontology, that of a networked, leaderless movement (where some nodes may still be more influential than others) that UKUncut has grown and achieved so much, so quickly.

As Niki Seth-Smith points out UKUncut is a “banner” around which a network of individuals (including herself) have formed that is open to interpretation, appropriation and transformation. Until now the discourse or banner had been one against corporate tax avoidance and public sector cuts and had not at any point articulated where it stood on issues such as aggravated trespass or indeed damage of property. This was because such issues had not yet become pertinent  and UKUncut actions had been consistently peaceful. The network will now have to re-orient itself around the same discourse and refine the realm of the possible with regards to tactics on particular direct actions. My guess is that given UKUncut’s autonomous inclinations, tactics appropriated will be decided by individual participants on the actions themselves as and when they occur -  I would also imagine that the vast majority will be like all the actions we have seen hitherto and will steer away from any form of vandalism or criminal damage.

The point, however, remains that UKUncut as a QARN can not condemn acts of vandalism or minor criminal damage where its actions take place. Its participants are inherently amorphous and come from a diverse array of demographic, economic and ideological backgrounds and constitute the very network itself - and no node in that network is vested with the power or organisational legitimacy to condemn any other node. My guess is that this issue will find resolution in the most deliberative and participatory way possible, through the network both within Uncut and alongside other anti-cuts resistance movements and out of the glare of the mainstream media. The QARN will re-arrange itself to accomodate participant preferences with either certain norms being internalised such as a collective position on acts against property and persons (a distinction too frequently missed when the media deploy the term ‘violence’) or perhaps that different collectives will adopt different strategies on the day.

What you can be sure of is that all of this deliberation will be done in a participatory and consensual manner away from the ‘pantomine auditorium’ of the mainstream media. Emily Maitlis won’t be best pleased.

About the author

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media and Silke Digital. He is an expert on digital media, protest and political communications and has published with, among others, the Guardian, Vice and the LRB. He is currently completing a Ph.D at the New Political Communications Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can follow him on twitter @aaronbastani


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