Reflections on Successful Self-Organization

As we entered the gates of the Athens Fine Art’s School last Sunday it was obvious that the festival was winding down to an end. Beer cans and litter were being cleaned up by the all volunteer anti-authoritarian group. However, they weren’t cleaning to bring the thing to a final close yet. There was still that evening’s line-up of talks and late night activities to come. Overall thousands of people must have visited, eaten, listened to the music, watched the movies in the festival cinema, and taken part in the workshops and talks. Now, days after the conference, one organizer estimated that, over the 5 day period of the conference, 10,000 people came through, although there is no real way of knowing. I’ve also been told by many people that the festival was very beneficial both locally and organizationally—that many consider the self-organization of this conference, not only a successful achievement in its own right as a conference/festival, but a high water-mark for the anti-authoritarian movement here. (Many festival pics are collected here.)

This attitude has been communicated to me through meetings and interviews with many people here. Late Sunday night a friend came and sat next to me. I asked him why I didn’t see him all weekend until the last moments. I thought that he was only just arriving. He told me that he had been grilling souvlaki the whole time. There were 2 or 3 grills, 2 or 3 bars, along with 2 stages, and 2 or 3 other impromptu dance/music areas. My friend was very proud of the level of self-organization that had taken place.

Monday night we ate dinner on top of the roof of Nosotros with many others who helped with the festival in one way or another. It was a very positive, relaxed, and self-satisfied environment. And the warm night-time weather and tasty Turkish food added to the charm of course.
That last Sunday night, the final night of the conference, Andrej Grubacic spoke about the need for a "Balkan Federation" from below rather than one imposed from above. He outlined how the Balkans are viewed as the "door step of Europe" (Tony Blair) and he also sketched the radical history of the Balkans. The talk was exceptionally good I thought. It was easily accessible and he used good analogies that anyone from the west and the U.S., i.e. those most likely to suffer from "Balkanophobia" (stereotypes of Balkan backwardness and savageness) could understand.
Michael spoke afterward, this time on strategy. His talk looked at what he called the "insurrectionary path" and the "electoral path." Paraphrasing here, Michael outlined the differences and possibilities and problems for the success of each. For the former he sketched a picture where movements organize and build institutional power, make demands, win demands, build more movement power and confidence, begin to apply movement pressure to make small positive changes in society like increasing wages or decreasing the workday. Then, when something like last December happens, movements can take over more workplaces, students can take over more schools and universities, and all can begin to administer these institutions for themselves, and more importantly, begin to relate to one another, say factories negotiating inputs and consumers begin negotiating with producers. Once this begins and builds and spreads there will be a time when government forces will want to squash movement gains. The hope is that there will be enough gains for all to see and the gains will affect so many people throughout society that relations of un-equal relations of power will unravel—meaning it will become difficult for those driving tanks or occupying positions of state power to carry out repression. However, there will still be a moment when some state forces will oppress, and in this moment insurrection will be needed—an insurrectionary moment—to realize the final conclusion of our revolutionary efforts.
The second electoral path was outlined by drawing comparisons between the electoral experiences of Lula in Brazil, Chavez in Venezuela, and Nader and Obama in the U.S. Again paraphrasing, the point was made that Lula may have played it too safely with progressive reforms worrying about the U.S. reaction. The consequence was that the movements backing Lula may have grown skeptical about his intentions, tiring, and withdrawing support. Lula would then have to appeal upward for support rather than downward and the vicious cycle has already begun. Chavez on the other hand started his electoral career, not as a revolutionary, but as somewhat of a social democrat who wanted to implement reforms for the poor. The response to these reforms was hostile and the effect was to radicalize Chavez and push him to the Left.

Chavez began to seek new institutional changes and started developing institutions like schools, university and media counter to the dominant pre-existing ones, while also supporting worker takeovers and aiming to form 50,000 communal councils (there are currently around 30,000 in existence). Chavez has moved slowly with nationalizations of old industries, however has very recently sought to speed up the process, and is explicitly urging workers to take over factories and neighborhoods to form communal councils and all to begin administering their lives. Chavez, and the situation in Venezuela, has proven very unusual for the electoral path.

Then Michael looked at Obama, who began wanting to institute modest reforms, say taxing the wealthy, but has been very timid in implementation of these reforms. Michael outlined what an effective "shadow" government could look like by examining the Nader strategy of 2004 (I think that was the year). This was an opportunity for Nader to build a "shadow" administration in every state with financial backing from his supporters, and more importantly developing an activist base. Michael went on to outline this strategy in somewhat more detail based on thoughts and his personal experiences. Again, the above is paraphrasing from memory…
Overall there were once again many people present for the talk, with the room being almost full and lasting late into the night—a Sunday night… During the Q&A period there was very little participation from women so Michael decided that if there was any more questions they should only come from women, as women’s participation both as speakers and questioners in the event was lacking in the conference, or, everyone should wrap it up and put a close on the evening. Suddenly many very interesting questions emerged from the women in the audience, and there was only one male objecting, who, after Michael reminded him of systemic gender imbalances in broader society, also agreed with this approach. The Q&A carried on a little longer before coming to an end. Afterwards we went to a music stage and ate more souvlaki and drank some more beer.

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