Published in Weekly Worker, 4th August 2011
“Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to the local police” – that is what the good citizens of Westminster were being urged in a notice recently issued by the Metropolitan Police. After all, they are told, “anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary and harmful”. Yes, that’s right – one year into the coalition government and several months into the Con-Dem austerity programme, the cops have staged their first clumsy attempts at neo-McCarthyism.
However, the Met’s ‘counter-terrorist focus desk’ got more than it bargained for: anarchists bombarded it with, quite literally, “any information” relating to their political philosophy – including leaflets, pamphlets and printouts from Wikipedia.
Following an article in The Guardian, the humiliated thought police retracted the “unfortunate wording” – anarchism is now deemed a “legitimate political view” – but they did not go so far as to amend the basic thrust of their original notice, urging aspiring block wardens to grass on those who may have “caused criminal damage to business premises and government buildings in Westminster” on March 26 2011.
Much though the Met’s ham-fisted appeal to betray thy neighbour may have prompted ridicule among Londoners, the matter should not be taken too lightly. Calls for increased powers to supervise whoever the state considers ‘extremist’ are crescendoing all over Europe these days, with the bourgeois right predictably exploiting Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway for its own ends.
In contrast to anarchists, we communists identify the state as an outgrowth of class society, not the other way round. That said, we cannot think of anything more “legitimate” than the desire to abolish the “undesirable” and “harmful” capitalist state – and we are prepared to defend any section of the left against its tentacles.
I spoke to Donnacha DeLong, anarchist and new president of the National Union of Journalists, who had just returned from a picket line at BBC studios.
How seriously do you take the ‘anarchist scare’ incident – is this the prelude to something more sinister or just a few clueless cops churning out a leaflet that barely anyone reads?
I think it reveals a level of ignorance in the police that’s unsurprising, but worrying. The police have been acting for years as a political force – since the miners’ strike and, in terms of the Met, the Wapping dispute. The right to freedom of assembly has been violated again and again, so it’s a short step from saying that you’re not allowed to do something to saying that you’re not even allowed to think it and freedom of opinion disappears as well. It didn’t start with anarchists: Muslims have seen the criminalisation of much of their community before this – not just Islamists, but a variety of political activity by people who happen to be Muslim: eg, the sentences following the arrests at the Gaza demo last year.
How did anarchists react to the news, and why do you think the Met’s statement was retracted so swiftly?
Social media exploded with this story as soon as it was confirmed. It started circulating on Twitter, I think, on Saturday night, and by Sunday it was all over Twitter and Facebook. Anarchist groups like the Solidarity Federation and Alarm [All-London Anarchist Revolutionary Movement] have put structures in place to deal with the media and that showed through strong and accurate quotes from the former in The Guardian and, fairly surprisingly, the latter in the Daily Mail.
As to why it was retracted so quickly, I can only guess the law of unintended consequences came into effect – they didn’t realise how quickly this would spread and what kind of reaction there would be. A front-page story in The Guardian was undoubtedly unexpected. Also, when you ask for “any information relating to anarchists”, there are people who are only too happy to cooperate. I’m guessing a lot of people had very full inboxes on Monday morning – there’s a lot of information available about anarchists.
Anarchists are often associated with the black bloc, whose spontaneous actions are regarded as merely notoriety-seeking and undemocratic by the bulk of the labour movement: mass protests are derailed and broken up because of the actions of a tiny minority. Is this a misleading stereotype?
Yes, any generalisation based on the activities of an obvious few is a stereotype. There are hundreds, if not thousands, more anarchists in the UK who are active in a variety of different ways who never mask up and never smash windows or anything else. Anarchism is a very broad movement, and includes ideas drawn from pacifist Christians, like Tolstoy, as much as insurrectionists like Bakunin.
I’d also quibble with the idea that black bloc actions derail mass protests – that didn’t happen on March 26, for example: the main march walked all the way from A to B and then went home. The actions of others had minimal impact on the march itself. Other mass protests, like the G20 protests in 2009, were largely organised by anarchist groups.
I neither support nor condemn the actions of the black bloc – it’s not my chosen form of activism, but it’s not up to me to criticise the actions of others in the movement.
The ‘circle-A’ has long become a part of pop culture and seems almost cuddly these days. How likely is it that a moral panic can be created by evoking an ‘anarchist threat’ in 2011?
I think states have long had difficulty maintaining anti-anarchist panics. They’ve tried; probably the earliest one specifically about anarchists was around the Haymarket affair in the US in 1886. There were quite a few around the wave of assassinations at the turn of the 19th century – particularly the assassination of US president William McKinley in 1901.
However, to maintain an anti-anarchist panic requires a high level of disinformation that’s difficult to keep up. The fundamental idea of anarchism – that people should be free to control their own lives without interference – is an attractive one. The more common reaction is one of pessimism – ‘It’s a nice idea, but it’s never going to happen’ – which hardly sustains a moral panic …
Also, the Met are making a fundamental mistake. This island has a long and proud tradition of freedom of speech and thought that goes back to the origins of the modern British state. People will accept controls on actions, but start trying to criminalise ideas and you’ll run into opposition – not just from anarchists, but from a broader base of opinions.
Following the massacre in Norway you tweeted: “Finally the Met’s national domestic extremism unit starts looking at real extremists”. Why do you welcome measures which are bound to be directed against us in the end?
I didn’t – these measures have been used against us for years. The unit has existed for quite a while and has, up to this point, focused far too much on animal rights, environmentalist, other leftwing protestors and journalists. The comedian Mark Thomas was on their domestic extremist spotter card, and every protestor in recent years will be aware of the Forward Intelligence Team and their cameras.
The reality is that the concern of the forces of the state is, and always has been, more focused on protecting property than on protecting people. Thus, protestors who attack commercial property or disrupt the normal functioning of the capitalist economy are seen as dangerous enemies of the state. On the other hand, groups like the English Defence League have largely slipped under the radar because they march in relatively unimportant places from an economic point of view and, when they attack property, it’s small, independently owned shops and the like that are not important in the grand scheme of things. The fact that they present a serious danger to people doesn’t seem to have mattered up to this point.
I don’t support the measures. I think the national domestic extremism unit is dangerous, but I’m just glad that, if it does exist, it focuses on an organisation that is actually posing a threat to innocent people.
Marxists and anarchists have some irreconcilable political differences. However, if the capitalist state comes for the anarchists, we will defend you unconditionally. Will you do the same for us?
Absolutely. Any attempt to criminalise ideas should be resisted. What’s needed now is greater cooperation and organisation between all groups opposed to the current government. I’m under no illusions that we’re in a pre-revolutionary situation and we’ll either get a socialist state or no state at all in the next few years, but I do think it’s conceivable that if we organise together in our local communities, cooperate to take the trade union movement back to where it was in the 70s and build a mass movement to disrupt the normal functioning of this country, we could topple this government.
I think the Met have given anarchists a great opportunity to engage the public and show people what anarchism is really about.