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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Question is not 'Organisation or no organisation?' but 'what sort of organisation?'. And the same goes for structure (1975)

This essay was presented as a paper at an Anarchist-Feminist Conference held in Canberra, Australia in October 1975. It was published in the Sydney anarchist newspaper, Rising Free Number 1, March 1976. This essay approaches the question of organisation from feminist practice and anarchist theory. It was written at a time of heightened activity of the women's movement and a resurgence of anarchist ideas and groups in Australia in the 1970's.

Most feminists are opposed to bureaucracy and hierarchies, at least within the women's' movement itself. Those who have typed or made tea or sat silently while usually male friends fought over power know only too well how authoritarian organisation intimidates the less confident encourages passivity and crushes independence. So at larger general meetings, formal meeting procedure is rejected in favour of free flowing discussions, usually with an agenda and chairwoman. Most activity takes place in smaller groups which are called collectives.
At various women's meetings in Sydney in the past months, there have been reports of difficulties being experienced by feminist collectives. One or two women have been seen as trying to gain control over the rest of the collective; or women are leaving because of conflict between collective members; or nothing seems to be getting done. Descriptions and direct experience of these various crises are leading to a more general interest in what collectives are and how they function or don't function and in what collectivism has to do with feminism. During these discussions, the words 'structure' and 'organisation' are often raised .... usually apologetically, by a woman who believes, that irksome as it may be, we do need more "organisation". The issue seems to be that you are either for organisation or against it - as if there is only one form of organisation. If you are for organisation, it is automatically assumed that you are for some women having power over others .... even if the source of power isn't immediately obvious, any suggestion for organisation is treated, therefore, with suspicion.
If there are any anarchists (see Footnotes) around at these meetings, it seems to be expected that they will be "anti-organisation". However, far from being opposed to organisation, anarchism is itself in part a theory of organisation - a sort of organisation which consciously attempts to counteract tendencies to hierarchy and bureaucracy and to ensure that the individual can retain her independence.
Whenever a group of people get together in a group to do something they are organising themselves. Relationships exist between people in groups - and when these relationships form a pattern, then you have a "structure". This structure can be formal, informal or both - recognised or not recognised.
In these notes, I want first to comment on some of the structures which I think often operate in feminist collectives - some of these I believe are consequences of not having a consciously worked out alternative theory or practice of organisation. Then I'll briefly outline some of the principles of anarchist organisation - with some examples of how they apply and could apply to feminist collectives. This is not, of course, a plea for all feminists to start calling themselves anarchists. Many of the principles of organisation - which anarchists hold, they share with libertarian communists, syndicalists, self management groups. These ideas, too, have been increasingly arrived at through practice by some feminists and black revolutionaries as they confront the difficulties of breaking with established forms of organisation.

Structure in Feminist Collectives

In as much as it is made explicit, the use of the term 'collective' may express nothing more than a group of women who are working together in what is supposed to be equal relationships, i.e. no-one has power over anyone else.
That the relationships are equal is assumed from the fact that:
  1. There are no formal hierarchies - but power relationships do not have to be formalised (See "The Tyranny of Structurelessness") e.g. Those who have been in the collective the longest may have information and contacts which if not made accessible to others could lead to them dominating newer members of the group... and/or
  2. All people in the collective are women - and women are not interested in control over other people. There is evidence all around us that this is not true - not even true of all women who call themselves feminists (or necessarily true of women who call themselves anarchists - for that matter).
To imagine that in order to get rid of patterns of submission and domination all we need to do is physically remove ourselves from male hierarchies is to underestimate the extent to which the authoritarian (patriarchal and capitalist) system reproduces itself through individuals.
To get rid of hierarchies does not necessarily get rid of power relationships(although it is a big start). It seems to me that in the women's movement two things tend to occur -

  1. Informal elites emerge
  2. - this process has been discussed in the pamphlet "Tyranny of Structurelessness". With the exception of those who write books and those who get special jobs outside the women's movement, those feminists who do have more influence or 'pull' (in the sense of getting things done which other people can't) are usually women who have been around longer or who pout in a lot of time working on women's movement activities. Quite often they are women who have gained confidence through experience in political organisations like the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). That some women do have more influence than others is recognised now and criticised within the movement. Unfortunately rather than examining the process by which some women do gain power and finding ways of minimising it, many of the criticisms are personal (attacking women for being on 'power trips' but still expecting them to do all the work) or paranoid visions of Communist takeovers (understandable in light of the history of Communist Party movements but based on no evidence that I've heard in this case). Could it be that one of the main reasons for the emergence of informal elites (probably too strong a term) is that there is no effective organisational means of encouraging active participation by more women? And also many people seem to have an ambivalent relationship towards these women of Influence. On the one hand deferring to them, on the other hand wanting to knock them down. Not surprisingly, and especially given our conditioning as women, we often feel the need for leaders - and if this is true, it needs to be talked about too.

  3. The other tendency could be called the Politics of the lowest common denominator. When there is no conflict, and everyone agrees, of course it appears that everyone is equal. There is a style of talking which goes with this sort of politics ....you listen to what another woman says ....take what you agree with, ignore what you don't and go on from there. (Which often suits us emotionally anyway, since most of us are still frightened of conflict, especially with those whose approval we seek). In this sort of discussion, a woman who argues is frowned on as 'male oriented', 'aggressive'. If a woman takes too much initiative, she is suspected of power seeking. All this can be a pretty effective form of social control.... encouraging conformity rather than independence.... it is especially effective because of the residue of guilt which women have, anyway, about seeking their own personal fulfilment. There is something going wrong, if in the process of trying to avoid oppression, individual initiative is being crushed. However, while I think these tendencies do exist in the women's movement, all this sounds gloomier than I actually feel. As crises occur and conflicts flare up, we are being forced to make more conscious decisions about the way we want to organise ourselves. I agree with Peggy Kornegger, in her Second Wave article that in many ways, within the women's movement, these issues are being resolved in the direction of libertarian forms of organisation. It may be helpful to look more explicitly at what these forms are.

Anarchist Organisation

Anarchists recognise that it will only be with a total revolution - economic, social, political, sexual that patterns of dominance and submission will slowly disappear. Rather, however, than organisation being opposed to that revolution, it is the means by which that total transformation will become possible. Organisation is also the means by which we can achieve the maximum amount of freedom in our lives now.
This all sounds very well but what is this organisation that is so different.

  1. All anarchist collectives, cooperatives, communes are free groupings of individuals.

  2. While individuals within these free groupings will divide activity amongst themselves - each informs the group of what she is doing. The group may choose delegates to undertake particular tasks but delegates' powers can be revoked at any time by the collective. The role of delegate (or even administrator)is never left with one person, but is rotated amongst all members of the collective so that all are acquainted with the processes involved.

  3. Anarchists are opposed to centralisation when it is imposed from above. Anarchists are federalists - i.e. the cooperation and communication between autonomous groupings but always from the bottom upwards. e.g. Monthly Cycle, a newsletter circulating between health centres has begun. Each health centre, in four states, will take it in turns to produce the newsletter. Recently also the NSW Women's Refuges formed a federation.

  4. No person in the collective gets more money because of holding a special job. There is a concept in Anarchism of each according to her needs which could mean where dependants are involved or a person has extra expenses, some people get more money. But all of this is worked out and agreed to by the collective.

  5. Anarchists are opposed to the division between intellectual and manual labour - intellectuals are separated from the producers and become ideologues for the ruling class. Meanwhile, the worker is deprived of the knowledge of the production which she needs if she is to join with other workers in taking control of production. Open access to all information is part of getting rid of the division between intellectual and manual labour. The notion of intellectuals and non-intellectuals implies and certainly makes us feel that some people have knowledge and others do not. This raises the question of how theory relates to practice in the women's movement, e.g. how restricted or accessible has Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism been to most feminists. Who had the few available copies... meanwhile many feminists are still bewildered to find that Freud is not such a dirty word in the women's movement any more. How can these ideas / this knowledge be shared with other women who do not have the time or the training? Do the universities separate theorists from the practice? In the health centres, we all learn to do pap smears, administration, talk at schools (unless we really don't want to) meanwhile in hospitals where the majority of workers are women, nurses still have to accept their orders from a God male doctor. The ABC Women's Broadcasting Unit is open to all women workers in the ABC - not just "creative" workers - producers etc.

  6. Anarchism is experimental and flexible.
  7. Exactly what form organisation shall take depends on those involved, the actual situation. All this can be worked out in practice. For example, the extent to which powers will be delegated to individuals (always temporary and always revokable so there are no career politicians) will depend on the situation. Compare consciousness raising where each woman is trying to understand where her own life fits in, with working in a health centre where delegates might have to go to meetings, or with sections of a guerilla underground. In some situations, one might be prepared to delegate more decision-making always providing that one is free to go and free to dissent. These guidelines to anarchist organisation are very broad but unless these sort of issues are discussed within collectives, we won't even know if we have a basis for cooperation, let alone in what directions that cooperation can lead us. As is only too obvious from my examples, most feminist collectives are concerned with changing the social relationships which determine our health and sexuality (women's health centres, rape crisis centres, women's refuges) and our communications (newspaper collectives, women's radio, etc.). Anarchism, as do all communist theories, emphasises the seizing of the means of production and of consumption and exchange - without which there is no revolution. In theory it can be shown how the family and sexuality relate to capitalism; how feminism could relate to socialism....how does feminism relate to production, and to those women who produce as both house workers and workers outside the home, in practice at the moment, and in the future?

When I talk about anarchists here, I am referring to that brand of anarchist who is also a communist and social revolutionary - anarcho-communism, it is sometimes called.


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