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Organising in Australia

Making social change in Australia isn't easy.

The Australian system of capitalism and government offers a range of comforts and opportunities to the exploited in order to keep us docile. At the same time, vast resources are channeled into an all-pervasive and self-sustaining system of thought control, disseminated through schools, universities, workplaces and mass media. The persistent message is that life in Australia is as good as it gets – or will be as long as we keep shopping. The whole edifice is underwritten by a ferocious exploitation of the planet and its people, and by the brute force of the State when necessary, with its administrative, surveillance, policing, and military apparatuses.

A number of other factors combine to create the Australian context: the society’s origins in dispossession and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people; the wilful ignorance and suppression of our history of oppression and resistance; the dispersion of a small population over a vast geography; the sense of exceptionalism and isolation from the rest of the world; the tight control of migration to strengthen reactionary forces; the political culture steeped in passivity and representative disempowerment; and the heavily bureaucratised union movement that frequently accepts the morbid embrace of government and bosses.

It’s not easy to organise in this context. We often try to impose tactics and strategies that worked in other times and places, but are ill-suited to our present needs. Instead, we need to understand and develop our own models of organsing.

Why organise?

Most of us actually agree on what that better world would look like. A world based on freedom, equality and dignity, where people control their own communities, work is meaningful and productive and human beings coexist peacefully with each other and sustainably on the earth. But how do we achieve this vision?

It’s deluded to think that we can achieve this world through gradual reforms enacted through parliament. It’s deceitful to argue that we can achieve it by seizing control of the government and using its essentially authoritarian apparatus to force people to be socialists. And it’s a dream to think that the entire population will wake up one day, realise they’re insurrectionists and spontaneously and instantly create the anarchist society.

We need to build a sustained revolutionary movement. A movement grounded in long-term, politically-conscious, mass-based organisation that can achieve social revolution.

What is organisation?

Organisation is a type of relationship between people. A relationship of solidarity, mutual aid, and common purpose. Organisation also implies a degree of structure, permanence and formality. Organisation does not have to be a political party.

Who is an organiser?

There is widespread discontent and resistance among millions of people in Australia. They talk to each other and build networks and take a variety of political actions. In this sense many people (who don’t think of themselves as such) are activists, agitators and organisers.

However I believe there is a role for those of us who have developed a particular interest in political activity.

Being an organiser doesn’t mean appointing yourself as the leadership, intelligence or professional arm of the movement. Instead it means fostering the capacity of participants in the movement to manage their own struggle, to build organisational relationships with others, to develop their political ideas and communicate those ideas with others, to participate in the revolution.

Those who see any sort of organiser role as authoritarian or elitist might enjoy their purist critique from their armchairs. But it’s extremely destructive to tell the few people in this world who are willing to commit themselves wholeheartedly to social change that they shouldn’t do so because it’s hierarchical. It is important to recognise our privilege as activists, but that’s precisely why those of us with anarchist ideas should work to be organisers who devolve power and increase the participation of others.

The union organising model in Australia

The union movement is the largest and arguably the most significant political force in Australia. It’s worth considering the union approach to organising, with its strengths and weaknesses.

Over the last fifteen years, a strategy know as ‘the organising model’ has gained popularity in Australian unions. Most unions in this country now either embrace or at least acknowledge the organising model as a whole or in part. The organising model was developed in order to reverse the crisis in unionism – the steep decline in union membership worldwide. Most would agree that this crisis is interconnected with the low state of political consciousness and organisation among the working class.

The organising model is usually contrasted with the ‘servicing model’. In the latter, unions are basically insurance companies that charge members a fee in exchange for industrial advice and other services (from movie tickets to funeral plans). Notionally, this model was prevalent in the 1980s under the Accord, where unions bargained centrally through legalistic, government-controlled arbitration with almost no involvement from members. Not surprisingly, members grew to see little value in their unions, and left en masse when closed shops were abolished. Many unions continue to function in whole or part with a servicing mentality – whether or not they adopt the rhetoric of organising.

The organising model draws a great deal on the union experience in the United States, where the union movement (although smaller and beset by many problems) is often more militant and connected organically with working class communities.

The Australian union organising model is characterised by a range of tactics and structures. The focus is on growing and building power in existing and new areas of membership. The union runs large, well-funded campaigns in areas significant for membership, economic, or tactical reasons. Specialist roles are created such as ‘lead organisers’ (who manage other organisers), corporate researchers, communications officers, and political (ie electoral) campaigners. Organisers work to develop activists and leaders amongst the membership who can solve problems for themselves, rather than organisers solving problems for members. Conversations with members are carefully structured and often scripted.

The organising model is a significant improvement on the 1980s when unions were virtually subsumed into government. It’s also better than the 1990s when they scrambled to make sense of haemorrhaging membership and conservative attacks. It is the more progressive elements within the Australian union movement who champion the organising model. They have had some success transforming some unions from zombie-like institutions into active, growing, social movement organisations.

However the Australian union organising model has a number of failings. It is very hierarchical and centralised in it’s structure. Although it seeks to activate members and develop member leaders, the high level of professionalisation and specialisation of an elite union bureaucracy works to exclude members from deeper participation. Another fundamental plank of the organising model is higher union dues – to fund the glitzy campaigns and expert roles. This leads to a greater disjunction between rank-and-file members whose main contribution is funding, and the paid organisers and communications experts who run campaigns as a substitute for mass action. Higher fees can also reinforce a servicing mentality.

However the core problem with the organising model is that it is set of tactics that doesn’t challenge the fundamental approach unions have towards capitalism, politics, and members. Organising model unions have been known to do deals with bosses that help the union grow, but at the expense of members involved. Even the best deals deliver only a small increase in pay or conditions, while strictly avoiding any deeper challenge to capitalism. They also talk about ‘doing politics differently’ but continue to get ALP politicians elected who do nothing for workers, and in fact channel workers into the disempowering system of parliamentary democracy. And ultimately, the unions continue to function without real internal democracy – members vote once every few years (if at all) for the leadership instead of regularly participating in setting the union’s direction.

The organising model is a step forward, but if unions continue to operate as a special sort of business, they will not reach their revolutionary potential. I would argue that we activists and agitators should join our unions and work to democratise them and bring anti-capitalist politics into the organising model.

Anarchist organising in Australia

Anarchists in Australia have a varied approach to organising. Some of us spend a lot of time doing it, others reject it altogether. There are very few actions organised by anarchists, and very few organised political interventions by anarchists. This is partly because there aren’t very many of us, but more because of the hostility towards conventional methods of organising that is fashionable with some.

The anarchist hostility to organising originates, I believe, from our experience of authoritarian forms of organising, such as the union model described above, and Leninism. Leninist groups in Australia spend a great deal of time putting up posters, handing out leaflets, selling newspapers, doing ringarounds, talking to strangers and holding public forums. As a direct result of this work, Leninist groups have the widest reach of any leftist organisation in Australia (second only to unions) – connecting with thousands of people in every part of the country, in our cities’ outer suburbs and even in smaller cities and country towns. Anarchists rightly criticise Leninist organising as authoritarian, opportunistic, instrumentalist, and dishonest. Leninists often approach organising as if they are an elightened, professional vanguard. They build the party at the expense of the movement. They treat people as numbers or sheep, to be recruited and then managed and used. What they say and write is often dogmatic, repetitive and mechanical. But the question is, are these problems inherent to organising itself? I would argue no.

It is possible to put up posters, hand out leaflets, talk with people, genuinely listen and engage with a willingness to change our approach. It is possible to involve strangers in the movement without seeking to rule them and use them. It’s possible to organise without being authoritarian. And this is what we need to do. It is the task of conscious anarchists to develop these non-authoritarian forms of organising.

Small-scale, temporary, friendship-based organisation is important, but it’s not enough. If we actually want to make change, we need to do the hard work of building accessible, formal organisations, linked into larger networks. This doesn’t mean creating layers of bureaucracy, but rather creating active organisations that can facilitate ever-widening spheres of action and participation.

We need to develop a anarchist model of organising that is relevant to Australia today. We need to get out of our spaces and communicate about our ideas. We need to distribute material and put on discussions at times and places that are convenient for people we don’t already know. We need to get out of our comfort zones and into our communities – broadly imagined. We need to learn from the methods of organising used by unions and others and reclaim what we can for libertarian purposes. Above all we need to talk to people. It’s difficult, but immensely rewarding and powerful.

In the Jura Collective, we’ve been trying to put these ideas into practice. Over the last year we’ve organised about 30 stalls in suburbs all over Sydney and distributed approximately 13,000 flyers on anarchist ideas. We’ve organised dozens of publicly advertised political talks at Jura and other locations. Our last three forums on Chomsky attracted 60, 80 and 100 people (at the University of New South Wales, Sydney University and University of Technology Sydney respectively). We’ve hosted dozens of gigs and other social events. We’ve made over 300 phone calls to our supporters and talked with them about what’s happening politically and asked them to get more involved. We’ve put up thousands of street posters and published regular updates on our website, facebook and via email. We’ve built an email list of 1,200 people who receive our monthly anarchist newsletter. We’ve been open to the public five days every week, 5 hours each day. We’ve sold $16,000 worth of anarchist books and pamphlets to members of the community. We raised over $7,000 entirely through donations so that Jura could install a collectively-owned solar power system. Through all of this work we’ve managed to communicate anarchist ideas with thousands of people and begin to put anarchism on the political agenda. We’ve begun to create a social community around Jura. We’ve done all this with the aim of building a social revolution. The events we organise are democratic discussions, rather than dogmatic lectures. And all of this has been achieved by a small group of people – a collective of 10 to 15.

We can and must organise as anarchists. We must talk with people and build relationships based on solidarity and common purpose. We must create non-authoritarian organisation. It is absolutely vital that we continue to organise and develop anarchist models of organising. The circle A says it all – anarchy is organisation.


Jeremy, March 2012.