If you struggle you can lose
If you don’t struggle you are lost
On a wall in Cordoba
Ruymán Rodríguez‘s “neighbourhood anarchism” is the child of his militant experience in the Federación de Anarquistas Gran Canaria (FAGC). It is an effort to think through the implications of this militancy for the understanding of anarchism, pushing the latter beyond more traditional, and exhausted, ideological and theoretical oppositions, and this without any intellectual or moral arrogance.
The ambition is simple, but far reaching: to invent and clarify a broader and more militant notion of what it is to be an anarchist.
If the concept of a “neighbourhood” is itself vague, Rodríguez’s “neighbourhood” has both historical and social depth (it refers to relatively small human spaces of shared ways of life, bound by common experiences and forms of activity), while remaining sufficiently malleable to capture ways of life that are not exclusively expressive of urban life, or of any particular activity (for example, factory labour). It points then to spaces of commonality, of what has been and what might be. What a neighbourhood can be is that space from which autonomous ways of being gain form.
Neighbourhood Anarchism. A Surmounting Thesis
I have had occasion to comment that for me, the opposition between social anarchism and insurrectional anarchism is artificial. I concluded that there is only contemplative anarchism (exclusively theoretical) and combative anarchism (principally practical). However, I recognise that this may be insufficient for some.
Recurrent conflicts become more acute, and spaces of confluence become scarce precisely when we need them most. The vices of the so called “ideological ghetto” are many and well known: elitism, hermeticism, sectarianism, endogamy, moral superiority, disconnection from immediate reality, etc. There is no reason to go over them again. What has not been so often discussed, at least in a reasonable way, are the vices of supposedly “serious and responsible anarchism”. The criticisms have come from dogma or inactivity, not from any engagement or street militancy. The greater part of sensible anarchism has led us to believe that what is mature and practical is to lower the level of criticism in relation to certain institutions occupied by specific political parties. They speak of transversality when in reality they seek to whitewash these institutions and aspire to get their feet in the door of a few of them. They have sold surrender, along with the maturity of anarchism, and have refused to accept that they are defeated and finished, at least as a transforming alternative. Their tough, harsh, severe, intolerant anti-ghetto discourse does nothing more than imprison the ghetto in their own positions. When the squires of the embellished councilors of authority accuse you of promoting “useless” campaigns of abstention, they take away from you any desire to leave behind the related spaces of comfort. The anti-ghetto discourse sometimes moralises as much as the pro-ghetto one, it forgets that militancy is also a personal process and that the comrades who begin to implicate themselves should try different alternatives before they find their own. We all go through our own stage of belief. If all goes well, it will be something temporary, but if your hand is forced by censorship and reproaches, it can last a lifetime. The ghetto leaves one adrift in fruitlessness, while aspiring to self-marginalisation and the culture of failure. Yet to criticise it, it must be done from below, and not from the comfortable position of office mates or that tries not to destabilise certain municipal governments.
Between reformism and the ghetto, there are many worlds and also a thesis that breaks with this dichotomy: neighbourhood anarchism.
Neighbourhood anarchism could be the proposal that puts an end to the false disjunctive between social and insurrectionist anarchists (and of both with autonomists, very often tired of the weight of the anarchist label). In the same way that anarchism without adjectives cleared away in its time the conflict between communists and collectivists. I will develop the concept in a deliberately simple way and without a need for references.
Neighbourhood anarchism is not a new proposal; it is but a forgotten proposal. It is based on recuperating what once made anarchism great and converted it into a popular weapon; to work with what is concrete and to center oneself on basic necessities.
Neighbourhood anarchism is not rhetorical, it gives no importance to the theoretical tendency assumed by those who practice it. Its terrain is not that of ideological debate. Neighbourhood anarchism does generate narratives and ideas, but it does so on the basis of its activity. It is not a quantifiable resource for abstract theory.
Neighbourhood anarchism is eminently practical and its strength resides in its capacity to labour, in its faculty of resolution and efficacy. Its seeks tangible results that change peoples’ lives here and now.
Neighbourhood anarchism does not lose much time in organisational conflicts, nor does it define itself by the type of structure that it chooses. It is not an identitarian and excluding anarchism, but rather open and available to anyone. It is characterised by its activity, its labour, centred on issues of housing, work, subsistence agriculture, free literacy, etc. It focuses itself on what is primary because without the satisfaction of vital necessities, there is no space for philosophy.
Neighbourhood anarchism labours in the immediate environment, without shutting itself off in what is local, but also without ignoring the most urgent surrounding reality. Its field of action is the common neighbourhood space, neighbourhood street struggles, the immediate. It does not exile itself to its own small redoubt. Yet it also does not ramble on obsessively about distant and macro goals while being incapable of acting with those close by and addressing issue at hand.
Neighbourhood anarchism ignores no struggle, though it is an anarchism principally for the poor, thought for and by the marginalised, excluded and precarious. Its principal battle field are the most pressing necessities: bread, a roof and shelter. It does not subordinate to this all the remaining struggles, nor does it deny the multiplicity of oppressions. But it is by labouring in this field, working with neighbours, that the themes of migration, racism, child birth, gender oppression, ethical food sovereignty, etc., are approached with depth, from the asphalt of the streets, and not from the laboratory or the library. There is no struggle beyond the real people who should initiate it, and many of them are to be found in the neighbourhoods, where the different facets of oppression, hierarchy and inequality show their cruelest and least sophisticated face.
Neighbourhood anarchism is not thought for anarchists who want to envangelise to the poor. It is thought for the poor disposed to generate anarchy. The dividing line between militants/activists and recipients of the said militancy should die in neighbourhood anarchism. It is neighbours defending the neighbourhood, poor people battling poverty, us solving our own problems.
Neighbourhood anarchism does not need to idealise the poor. It does not exploit the myth of the “good poor person”. It does not believe that people without means are immune to base passions, vile acts and perpetuating oppression. It knows however that in spite of the millennial effect of the principle of authority, only those who have nothing have in turn some motive to change things. It also knows that no one can lead our struggle for us and that no one can give us anything that we do not take ourselves. Any system that organises itself without our participation is condemned to failure.
Neighbourhood anarchism is honest. It reflects for all to hear on its own failures, yet without the need to contribute to the myth of defeat. Nor is it triumphalist. It does not sell victories that are mere truces. It is humble and realistic, and it knows that a small conquest is but the antechamber of a new effort.
Neighbourhood anarchism makes no pacts with political parties, nor does it have anything to do with existing institutions. They are the enemy and they are there to be watched and combated, to take from them what we can. Not to pay them with smiles, photographs and headlines. Neighbourhood anarchism is ferociously independent. It constructs itself from below and has no interest in ballot boxes nor in who is sustained by votes.
Neighbourhood anarchism is the means to take back the street, to struggle for collective space, to reconquer buildings and squares, to take what is common and return it to neighbours. It is based on the collective management of resources and territory, the fight against the degradation of neighbourhoods, forced evictions, the increase in the cost of living, and doing this without the protagonism ever leaving the hands of those effected. This way of the street can be used by all libertarians: by the “insurrectionists”, without weakening the discourse and without renouncing their presuppositions; by the “social anarchists”, doing truly practical things with real people, beyond books and articles on social inclusion. Side by side with a homeless family, a building can be expropriated without ceasing to be radical and without falling into practices of aid and assistance. A barricade can be erected against an eviction, to generate conflicts and disturbances so as to paralyse it, without being an irresponsible vanguardist and without turning one’s back on popular action.
Neighbourhood anarchism is not based on what one says but on what one does.
I earlier noted that this was to be a simplistic proposal. Many will say that all of this is already done and others do it directly without giving it this name or any other. I thought however that it would be useful to develop the concept a little, to give it minimal substance, however modest, simple and humble it is, and perhaps begin to identify the activities and projects that can be articulated around this thesis; criticisable and modifiable, but which can be taken on by all of us who are fed up with the wars of ideas, because we have the need to war in the streets.
An anarchism of neighbourhoods and streets today takes on new forms, and without the need for any particular denomination, extends itself to different parts of the country. Perhaps the politics of on high crushes it, perhaps the dynamics of ideological self-maintenance do not allow it to grow, perhaps it is an isolated and passing phenomenon, or perhaps it is an illusion that only I see from my ultra-peripheral Canary island. Whatever the case, before such overwhelming and expanding processes like gentrification, touristification, evictions, unemployment, the growing precariousness of the working class, the persecution of migrant populations, social exclusion, extensive women’s and child poverty, chronic indigence, the imprisonment of whole generations, the drastic modification of the urban environment and the destruction of our spaces of socialisation, it is clear that we have no other option than to take back the neighbourhoods, if we want to resist the offensive and be capable of returning the blows. The coming social struggles will issue forth from neighbourhoods and if we do not wish to be expelled from them and give them over freely to the speculators, we have to put our feet down and prepare ourselves to cede not even a bit of territory. If we do not develop a neighbourhood anarchism, others will impose their neighbourhood fascism and will pass over us. The struggle for this small space is also a struggle for survival; to die should not enter our thoughts.
(The FAGC’s website/blog can be found here)