Understanding anarchism through the veil of misinformation: follow-up on the G20 in Toronto

Émilie Breton, Anna Kruzynski, Magaly Pirotte and Rachel Sarrasin. Published in Le Devoir, August 24th, 2010.

As members of the Research Group on Collective Autonomy, we join our voices to those who are speaking out against unprecedented State violence and police repression in the wake of the G20 Summit held in Toronto in June. This violence has affected our friends, our colleagues, our comrades, our partners, our communities. In the same vein, we wish to denounce the misinformed and sensationalist discourses that have been emerging in the media.

Repressive forces deliberately targeted those dressed in black. The media, also seemingly concerned with anarchist dress-codes, broadcast, over and over, images of supposed “young thugs” and focused their analyses on the now famous Black Bloc tactics. This kind of media coverage gives the impression that the acts in the streets of Toronto were void of political content and that anarchists are scary individuals who should be placed behind bars for the protection of all.

Troublesome values?

Lack of understanding of what is happening in the field, intellectual laziness or priority given to news that sells? Maybe. However, it is clear that one of the main reasons underlying the criminalisation and intimidation of those who identify with anarchism is the fact that these people are part of a growing movement that is built upon values that are contrary to those held by proponents of capitalism. Cooperation versus competition; mutual aid versus individualism; self-determination versus hierarchy; respect versus racism, (hetero)sexism, ageism; liberty versus control. Liberty, central to anarchist thought, cannot exist without equality. In stark contrast to liberal connotations of this value, for anarchists, liberty and personal fulfilment cannot be dissociated from collective well-being. Collective well-being and equality become possible when people take charge of all the aspects that affect their lives: political decisions, production of goods and management of health, education and social services.

Yet the State, close ally to capital, is determined to put a stop to the circulation of ideas and practices based on these positive values. Sensing that ever growing segments of the population are feeling powerless and overwhelmed by increasing injustice, the State uses all the means at its disposal to muzzle voices that are proposing alternative paths to a better world. In an effort to maintain its legitimacy, the State seeks to interfere with the building of a mass movement founded upon anarchist values.

These values in practice are at the heart of the research conducted by our group. For five years now, we have been working with collectives and networks espousing anarchist values to document their ideals, practices, tactics and organisational forms. What emerges from our work is that this movement is much more than those actions we see on the news from time to time. Here in Quebec, at the margins of an institutional system that is at an impasse, several hundreds of activists work without pay, sustained only by their outrage and their hopes, setting-up and managing spaces of political reflection and action. They seek to apply the values that they hold dear to their daily struggles: they engage in advocacy and support for immigrants and refugees, lesbians, gays and queers; they take a principled stance against war, imperialism, colonisation, ecological destruction, gentrification, sexism, the food industry or police repression, to name but a few.

Creating a better world, here and now

These anarchists, treated like terrorists on the streets of Toronto, study in our colleges and universities, are involved in parent committees at their children’s schools, take care of their loved ones, work in community organisations, sell us our bread and serve our coffee in the neighbourhoods they seek to transform. These people set up self-managed cafés and bars, independent bookstores and libraries, alternative media, neighbourhood committees, anarchist zines… They recycle old bikes, circulate and invent freeware, create groups dedicated to food sovereignty (via buyers clubs, seed sharing, organic agriculture)… They reclaim vacant lots and buildings to organise housing cooperatives, guerrilla gardening, film screenings and street parties. They set up skill-shares and free-schools for children of all ages…

The activists involved in these projects are experimenting with organisational forms that are coherent with values of direct democracy and autonomy. Every person involved in a project participates in the decision-making, management and accomplishment of tasks. There are no leaders, no bosses, no representatives. Mechanisms exist to facilitate discussion and decision-making, skill-sharing, participation in meetings and the development of equal social relations. In order to limit their dependency on capitalist exchanges and State funding, these groups Do-It-Themselves, finding their materials in garbage containers and engaging in barter with other like-minded groups or individuals.

In other words, grounded in their communities, these groups seek to set up autonomous political, social, economic and cultural projects that break with the logic of domination that underlies capitalist interests. These initiatives promote another form of politics, of cohabitation, founded on anarchist values and physical proximity. In their attempts to put their values and ideals into practice in the here and now, these groups are engaging in tiny, everyday revolutions, very often behind the scenes. In doing so, they show by example that people are able to get organised without depending on economic or political elites. And every time a neighbour, a friend, a family member decides to get involved, he or she participates in the building of alternative institutions and projects, that one day will, we can only hope, render redundant and obsolete those of the dominant system.

Putting up road blocks to the capitalist machine

But those in power will not sit back and let this happen. That is why along with these slow-moving long-term tactics activists also engage in actions that target the symbols of global capitalism, as was the case during the G20. These kinds of actions shed some light on the often hidden contradictions of this unjust system and interfere with its smooth running and consolidation. History has taught us that movements that have successfully contributed to social change have used an array of different tactics, from popular education, to civil disobedience, to sabotage. These tactics then are complementary to those prefigurative initiatives founded on anarchist values, and, as a whole, make up the contemporary anarchist terrain of struggle.

So when the media focus on the movement’s confrontational tactics, without revealing the breadth and scope of its ideas and practices, they create a skewed image of the politics that underlie contemporary anarchism. Moreover, by engaging in mass repression during street actions, in the name of preserving security and peace, the authorities are in fact attempting to silence a movement whose ideas and practices ring true to ever growing numbers of people. But history has also shown that in situations of flagrant injustice, the people will not be silenced and always find the courage to rise up again…