The Golden Barley School

an anarchist, a communist & a feminist walk into a bar…

On ‘community’


Thank you to friends and fellow keepers of this blog Princess Mob and Sourdough for edits, ideas and support.

I’ve recently been accused of being part of the ‘Sydney anarchist community’. Fair enough, this is a shorter way of saying ‘she’s one of the Sydney people who call themselves anarchists, collaborate on political projects, dress the same and drink in the pub together.’ But this accusation has caused me to reflect on what a radical or anarchist ‘community’ is, what it might do and look like. Reflecting on this idea of a radical ‘community’, one of the most overused and meaningless words in the radical lexicon, I am talking about the way in which people such as myself and my friends and comrades who I work on political projects with should organise our lives to support each other and continue to engage in struggles for the rest of our days. I’ll use the term ‘community’ to describe this even though I don’t think its quite right.

To me this means offering a level of emotional and material support to each other which is prefigurative in terms of the way we would like to see society operate. While modelling this on a small scale, we facilitate and support each other to take part in the kind of collective action that actually takes us closer to a better society. We should be able to respond to problems in our community as they arise in order to maintain a level of diversity and functionality amongst those of us who are working together, taking part in these struggles. What this way of organising our lives would mean would be broader and deeper than dressing the same and drinking in the pub. It would entice people to join with us, and enable those who were already around to stick around for longer.

What I’m talking about are the ways we can organise our lives with each other to both make our lives better in the immediate moment and to enable us to take part in collective actions of a type that take us closer to a time in which more of our lives are better than is currently the case.

We need to take the community building and sustaining practices that already happen now, and celebrate and make them explicit as part of a revolutionary project. We need to develop new, more radical community building and sustaining practices that might help us get where we’re going quicker. Doing these things is not some work-like chore or obligation, as its simultaneous aim is to make our lives in the here and now easier and better.

There is a danger of seeing talking about the organisation of our lives as a ‘lifestylist’ practice. The type of organisation I’m interested in is that which is closely tied to struggle on a collective level. The way we organise our lives and the relationships we have with each other both enable us to take part in struggle, and are deeply influenced by our involvement in them. Therefore, talking about ways to support and live with each other does not have to be ‘lifestylist’ but can be a very real and important part of revolutionary practice.

>We aren’t starting from nothing

In talking about building and strengthening a community which is supportive, and which enables us to take part in the kind off struggles that take us closer to our goals, and make our lives better, we aren’t starting from nothing.

Being part of this ‘scene’, for all its faults, has already made my life better than it was before. (I understand that this isn’t true for everyone. A bunch of people have found the anarchist scene sexist, for example, which is no surprise given the insidious sexism of wider society. Maybe these ideas about what kind of things would turn a ‘scene’ with its myriad problems into a supportive community to be in, would address some of these problems incidentally. But really, that is another article altogether…).

Its not a surprise that the main thing that a lot of us get out of the scene is spending time with people we love dearly in a sponteneous, unorganised and deliberately unproductive way. This isn’t something unique to the radical community, of course. But still, this stuff is a marked break from the aspects of our lives in which a lot of our relationships are based on obligation and formality. There is also something special about spending time with friends who are also our comrades, in that we have a shared analysis of this shitty society and some shared experiences of trying to fight it.

This ‘spending time’ is prefigurative. The kind of world I want to live in is one in which I share my life with my friends and comrades not in some kind of way in which my life is in a straight line and the straight line of other people’s lives cross over it every now and then, but when our lines are parallel, like train tracks.
This spending time supports our involvement in struggle as we debrief, drink, holiday, dance, sleep and party together.

These things obviously should be cherished and the informal nature of these is part of their importance to us. I don’t think we need to ‘formalise’ the way we spend time together, far from it. But can these relationships grow stronger if other elements of supportive community were made formal, more explicit or celebrated? Knowing that friends always have your back makes spending time with them that much more joyous.

I’ve seen people make up a roster of friends to look after someone when they’re sick, I’ve seen people lend friends thousands of dollars, I’ve seen people try to consider friends and comrades in their decisions about their lives, I’ve seen friends who lived in a share house try and move together to somewhere safer for their health. These are things that are as important as ‘spending time’ which might entice people to stick around when things get tough or change, to continue to struggle together and enable us to struggle better. I’m interested in talking about making care and support explicit and expected in these and many more ways.

A life-long commitment

It seems like some people in the scene view being involved in radical politics and friendship circles that develop around this involvement as something that is only possible or desirable before you hit 40 (or even 30).1 The problem with this is many-fold. People can’t see what their future involvement in radical politics could be like if there is no-one over 40 around, therefore they leave, and the problem is replicated. We are offered many other imagined futures, for example through family relationships (my older brother moved to the country and had kids), work (perhaps those senior people in your ‘profession’ who have worked their way to the top) and pop culture. Few of these presentations in my experience encourage me to imagine a life-long commitment to revolutionary politics. (Maybe this isn’t as true as I thought? The recent Brisbane Anarchist Summer school had a wide range of different ages from 18 up present and participating. Comrades who are about my age in Brisbane, though, said that they hardly ever saw older people from the radical community who were at the summer school).

As others have argued, the community is out of touch with the people who aren’t present.2 It’s imperative that we ‘struggle for our own reasons’ but having a depth and breadth to these reasons is positive. It makes us harder to isolate and more likely to win. Its not like there aren’t people with kids or who are over 40 who want to abolish work, or need secure and affordable housing, like some single people who are 26 do.

There is a serious lack of transmission of knowledge and skills from people who have had a lifetime involvement in radical politics, to those who are just starting out. This is not to say that radical movements follow some narrative of progress where we get better and better at fighting the state, rather that we need as much information as possible about what has worked and what has not in different situations. This problem is linked to a lack of cultural life and institutions which are able to pass on the histories of struggle (history collectives, discussion nights, people who keep archives, etcetera). It also shows that the scene has to some extent internalised wider ideas about what older people have to offer (that is, not much).

The disappearance of people over 40 points to the fact that this scene doesn’t have enough to offer in terms of material aid, cultural life, and emotional support to maintain involvement with in the long term.

Our ‘community’ is disposable

The lack of emotional and material support, diversity and support for participation in struggles is exposed when people decide it is better and easier to leave than to stick around when things get tough. An example is people being called out for sexual assault. Here, the community becomes disposable as the perpetrator decides to stick around and face the music, or throw out their relationships and connections to those who now know about their behaviour, like nothing much more than old trash.

The point is that we are not disposable. In this situation we are owed something, but it seems difficult or impossible to exert the kind of social pressure necessary to get what we are owed when serious material and emotional support, and engagement in meaningful struggles to improve our lives, are not part of our day-to-day experience. After all, there are plenty of people living in the trendy inner city suburbs to go to parties with who don’t know about the perpetrator’s history.

(Of course, this question of how survivors of sexual assault and their communities ‘get what [they are] owed’ is a huge question which has been taken up time and time again by those interested in restorative justice and community accountability. Do communities which materially and emotionally support each other, including who offer support to engage in meaningful struggles, have more success in these efforts than people who are part of a scene which is more based around hanging out and some shared radical ideas which we put into practice in a mainly symbolic way? My guess would be yes.)

A lack of functionality, a lack of diversity

Our lack of ability to deal with sexual assault is a reflection on the meaninglessness of the ‘community’ tag. Comrades writing about violence against trans folk have written:

‘Due to currently lacking a movement here in Australia, we are … unable to protect ourselves using the necessary organisation, collectivity and solidarity. Although we are not there yet we can build and work towards this through struggle. We want self-determination and liberation, not to further give up our power to the police and state. We recognise that due to the intense levels of violence trans people experience that there is at times a physical need to resort to the police. We are kept so weak by the violence and oppression of the state that paradoxically we sometimes have to turn to the state as it currently holds a monopoly on our ‘protection’, and so violently criminalizes our attempts to defend ourselves.’ 3

We can’t be expected to build infrastructure to perfectly deal with sexual assault when the state has a monopoly on the resources that might help us to do this and may ‘violently criminalize’ our attempts to create alternative forms of protection (eg girl gangs beating the shit out of a rapist would be ‘violently criminalised’, ten people having a long exhausting meeting about dealing with an assault are not). Being so unable to deal with these issues while we profess to be anarchists and radicals who are awaiting the coming ‘social war’ is something that daily breaks my heart.
People know that assaults happen in radical communities, because they happen everywhere, there have been a billion examples, and we can’t do enough to stop them. Therefore, our struggles lack the full input of those who are too fearful, uncomfortable or pissed off to join us. This means women and other people who are more likely to be subject to intimate violence.

Providing inclusion and safety

The contributions of people who have organised to address these issues of inclusion and safety in radical communities have been invaluable in terms of creating space in movements to discuss (the political implications of) how we relate interpersonally and in suggesting ways to behave better. Some evidence suggests, however, that current attempts to create a more functional, diverse and safe community rely on sets of rules rather than a shared culture.

We cannot promise that following rules will mean everyone is safe. One such rule would be, for example, that asking for consent verbally will always ensure that you don’t ever cross anyone’s boundaries! At best, these rules are helpful beginnings to conversations about creating safer spaces. At worst, these rules are lies that mask difficult realities and allow people who have mastered the ability to approximate the ‘right’ way to speak and act, to hurt others.

We need to build a culture of resilience and constructive challenge as opposed to sets of rules or uncritical expansion of ideas of ‘safety’ into more and more areas. Also at the Brisbane Anarchist Summer School, someone said that members of Socialist Alternative were making younger or more inexperienced people feel unsafe by trying to recruit them or sell them their paper. This was quickly taken up by several members of the conference who objected to the rhetoric of ‘safety’ and argued that use of the term in this case diminished its meaning.

In other situations, ‘safer spaces policies’ have changed from a 1-10 list of things to avoid, to a discussion of the difficulties of behaving well in this society and a call to further discussion, reflection and challenge. This is such a welcome move towards a more frank and strong informal culture of challenge, a long term project which may be more sustainable and sustaining in the way it addresses interpersonal behaviours. There are no short cuts to respectful engagements with each other. A supportive and fighting community would involve moving with people to more transformative ways of approaching the world and other people in it, not the requirement of unwavering adherence to rules. This would offer people in the scene another reason to stay for the long term and an incentive to join. I am talking about the promise of personal and political growth through being part of a community.

To link this back to the lack of age diversity in the community, we can’t solve this problem by adding ‘ageism’ to a list of ‘isms’ to be avoided simply by speaking the right way. The solutions to this are much less simple and they involve social and material support as well as younger people and people without kids challenging their own ideas about older people and people who have families and being welcoming of these folks on an individual level in speech and behaviour. (People have identified use of the term ‘breeders’ as offensive, for example, but stopping using this term is a tiny step towards creating a culture in which people feel comfortable to bring their kids to conferences). 4

Activism or relationships?

The type of ‘activism’ that anarchists and other radicals are often engaged in may actually prevent strong supportive links to develop amongst us. A lot of activism that happens is ‘for’ other causes and issues that aren’t based on where we live. As such, people tend to travel around for this or that activist happening or conference. People may feel like ‘nothing happens here’, so they travel to where things are happening. My view is this can create a sort of cycle where peoples’ upping and leaving prevents things happening. (Its true that when people go other places with stronger cultures and histories of radicalism, they bring exciting things back- when they do come back. Its also true that a limited sub-section of people are able to do this- people without family ties in town, people who have or are able to work to save up enough money, people without crippling travel anxiety…)
People in the scene adopting demanding ‘roles’ such as convenor, officer, (accountability team?) etcetera in groups and collectives they are involved in can also inhibit community building and strengthening work. Is any ‘activism’ really more important than our relationships with each other? Some of the types of struggles we become involved in (removed from anything that could make an immediate difference to our own lives) and the ways they are structured actually prevent us from building and strengthening a sense of community.

If we decide to start focusing on the things that have a personal or material bearing on our own lives, it might become easier to put less pressure on ourselves to be “active” and allow relationships to develop, or to spend time nurturing those that exist. When we struggle for our own reasons, if we need not to go that meeting or protest to attend to our relationships and the needs of our community, we are only ‘letting down’ ourselves and people like us; not letting down some oppressed other or noble cause. In this context, does caring, spending time, searching for a new house together, cooking food, doing someone a favour, talking about our needs in our personal lives, become just as important as our ‘activism’, because our ‘activism’ is also for ourselves​? Or even better, does our ‘activism’ and our ‘community building work’ become the same thing, where going to a meeting actually becomes a real action to care for others in our community? Can you imagine a situation where the most pressing task to support a friend or loved one was doing some ‘political’ organising? The fact that this seems ludicrous, aside from perhaps court/arrestee solidarity, is of concern.

This leads me to my next point, about how we might strengthen existing community building and maintaining practices, and develop new and better ones.

Ways to build community

As we engage in the kind of struggles that are about everyday issues that matter to us, we might build and strengthen the support around us, which might help us to struggle better, and so on and so on. An example could be struggles around housing. A campaign around affordable housing in the place where most of us live, means that if we won, we would get to keep living there, near each other and the places we go, rather than individuals randomly staying or leaving an area depending on rooms that come up. Through struggle, we get to know other people who live where we do, and maybe they become part of our community and vice versa. This is opposed to involving ourselves in the ‘over there’ struggles that mean we keep running into (the same) people who are exactly like us, just in different parts of the continent/world.

To continue to talk about housing, the arrangements people make for their housing could be one way to address this question of concrete material support. Share housing should be a way of life and of sharing our lives together, not a phase to be passed through into proper adulthood. We can think of ways of formalising these arrangements or taking them seriously without relying on conventional forms of ‘commitment’ like property ownership. What if I made a pact with my three friends to find and stay in a house for as long as possible and challenge a landlord if they tried to raise the rent? What if we started a discussion group about strategies to deal with landlords and learn from those who have encountered these issues before us?

People have looked to cooperatives as a way of formalising arrangements for housing with friends and comrades. We have to be aware that property ownership is vastly inaccessible to a lot of people, and aware of the massive power that comes with throwing one’s personal wealth at ‘community’ projects. Discussions about property ownership in the ‘community’ in my experience have hinted at completely replicating within the scene the social capital and other types of power (power to choose housemates, power to choose what type of political projects go ahead) that the richest members of our ‘community’ have access to in wider society. These people are often seen as ‘creative’, ‘making things happen’, ‘hardworking’, ‘generous’; when any of us could do what they are able to do if we had the money. Talking about attempts to cement commitments to each other and to the community can’t fall into these patterns. Attempts that do will only alienate people, both in and out of the scene.

How do we make our commitments to struggle together and care for each other more explicit without falling back on the professionalisation and division of labour that can be involved with care and ‘activism’? I don’t think a ‘community team’ who respond to mental health crises, for example, would be a solution. The first thing to do is to start having the kinds of conversations which would help us answer these questions. The community is not constructed through an aggregate of individual actions but is constructed collectively.5 To collectively construct a community is to first discuss what we want. It is to not be embarrassed to say, I’m scared about the future, or, I need something from my friends. We need to create space and time for discussion about what we need. This discussion itself will start to build solidarity and commitment- as well as a shared understanding of what terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘commitment’ mean.

1Full disclosure: author is in her mid-twenties with about 5 years of involvement in political groups/organisations/scenes etc.
2Lara Daly, Interview about ‘Building Blocs’: Parenting, Movement and Little Folk, Mutiny #65.
3‘Unicorns Against The Existent’, writing in response to ‘a recent police propaganda campaign and ‘out reach’ program targeting transgendered people.’
4Lara Daly, Interview about ‘Building Blocs’: Parenting, Movement and Little Folk, Mutiny #65.
5Lara Daly, Interview about ‘Building Blocs’: Parenting, Movement and Little Folk, Mutiny #65.

4 thoughts on “On ‘community’

  1. Thanks for writing this article. Not having lived in Sydney I can’t speak on the accuracy of these critiques on the so called ‘community’. But I want to thank Sydney comrades for being so welcoming and open to my baby and I. I have more hope than the Author and believe that Chances are we will all grow old together and continue to support each other without home ownership and sporadically doing housing campaigns that may or may not improve material conditions for our neighbours and ourselves. Such solidarity does not exist in the Melbourne anarchist scene, least of all within melbourne anarchist organisations.

  2. thanks for the comment! im hopeful too, and i agree that housing campaigns may or may not improve our conditions… there are other things to try and we may also try a lot of things and they won’t work. i dont think many of these issues would be specific to sydney, necessarily, though i haven’t lived anywhere else.

  3. Pingback: Casting Spells: on structural sexism in ‘the movement’ | The Golden Barley School

  4. Ways to build community: I am hopping for a welcoming work of other feminists from different cultural background. Nicky Danesh

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