Research Diary: Sheffield Anarchist Book Fair (April 2016)

We held the first of our workshops on constitutionalising anarchy at the Sheffield Anarchist Book Fair at the end of April. Throughout the day we’d had a stand at the book fair inviting attendees to suggest principles for anarchist politics and think about how these principles could operate as rules within anarchist organising. We hadn’t had much response to this and while a few people had stopped to talk to us, no one put any principles or rules up on the board we had at the stand.

As a result, we were a little bit nervous about how many would turn up to the workshop. It was scheduled right at the end of the day and the risk that people wouldn’t stick around that long, added to the low level of participation at the stand, made us somewhat worried that we’d have a very small group to work with and that the conversation wouldn’t flow as well as we were hoping.

Waiting outside the room as the previous session finished up, these fears were quickly allayed, with a decent and growing number waiting with us. In the end the workshop involved twelve participants (thirteen at the start but one person left after the first few minutes) and we certainly hadn’t had any need to worry about the discussion being inhibited.

Format

After a brief intro the participants were split into three groups and given time to read through an information sheet we had prepared. As well as outlining some of the aims of the project and suggesting an example of a principle and a corresponding rule to help organise according to this principle, this information sheet provided an example as a prompt to try and motivate the discussion. The following quotation was taken from a US-based anarchist group and anonymised for the purposes of our workshop:

An ugly precedent has been set by the episode of crude authoritarian behaviour at the *** Anarchist Book Fair. The screaming, the threats of harm, the physical intimidation directed at us personally, as well as the vandalizing of the books and magazines on the *** table by a dozen or so people associated with *** social center was out of line. Such bullying, harassment, and intimidation should not be tolerated at anarchist events or in anarchist spaces merely because other anarchists might have unpopular ideas and use words that may not align with a particular perspective.

One thing we hoped this example would do would be to get the participants thinking about the kind of behaviour that was problematic and even unacceptable in anarchist spaces and to focus on principles and rules that would help structure appropriate responses.

The groups started their discussions and in different ways turned their attention to the task at hand. One group quickly structured their discussion around an example raised by one of the participants that highlighted the issue of autonomy in an organisation and how sub-groups can and should be held to obligations decided on by the organisation as a whole. The other two groups discussed a range of examples and the questions these raise for the scope and very nature of the rules we agree on.

In the portion of the workshop that followed the group discussions saw the participants raise a number of important points in relation to rule-making and constitutions. The groups had the option of getting some of their ideas down on paper and these helped give the discussion some structure and focus it around some key themes.

Discussion

Unsurprisingly, the discussion focussed at certain points on whether rules are needed at all or whether the processes of anarchist organising (e.g. consensus decision making) do enough to realise anarchist principles. Concern was raised that rules (‘with a capital R’ as one participant put it) might operate to close down the space for diversity in sites of anarchist organisation. Another participant highlighted the role of constitutions in structuring the way individuals think about their relations to one another and in promoting an individualist tendency. On a related note, it was suggested that constitutions shouldn’t operate in anarchist organising except in cases of extreme violation of anarchist principles. For the most part, processes of decision making will be able to deal with conflict and disagreement.

A second important theme that emerged from the discussion was the way we speak about rules in language. As well as ‘Rules with a capital R’ perhaps being distinct from ‘rules with a lower case r’, participants spoke of the language of anarchist rules needing to be different from the language of the state’s rules. One example of this kind of rephrasing of rules could make a crucial distinction on negative rules or prohibitions, which aim to stop a certain kind of behaviour, and positive rules, which aim to channel behaviour in ways that are appropriate in the context of anarchist organising.

The contingency of rules and constitutions also played a role in the discussion. Several participants pointed out that whatever the form and status of anarchist rules and constitutions, there shouldn’t be one set of rules for all possible contexts. Instead, a constitutional pluralism should hold whereby different situations have different sets of rules regulating them. Along similar lines, it was suggested in the discussion that a distinction should be made between the rules that govern the internal organisation of anarchist groups and those that govern how such a group relates to non-anarchist groups.

Reflections

On the point that processes rather than rules or constitutions will be able to deal with conflict except in extreme cases, it isn’t accurate to say that rules and constitutions should, therefore, never be used. Rather, they need to be considered for precisely those extreme situations that processes can’t cope with. It is in those situations where rules and constitutions potentially become so important.

In terms of rethinking the language of rules in anarchist organising, perhaps responsibilities and obligations could be at the centre. Nonetheless, examples such as safe spaces policies were brought up in the discussion and these contain clear statements on prohibited behaviour.

For the constitutional pluralism suggested by some of the participants, more would need to be done on thinking through how different sets of rules would operate beside one another. This could be an important aspect of future discussions on the topic.

Crucially, what an anarchist approach to rules and constitutions suggests is that the limits on autonomy such structures realise need to occur within a framework of anarchist principles. Autonomy may be constrained in anarchist organising but while traditional constitutions may suggest a top-down approach whereby some govern over others, an anarchist set of rules or an anarchist constitution would need to be framed in terms of governing together, in a collective and participatory way.

A recording of the workshop is available on Indymedia

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