What is 'Self-Organisation'? A Basic Introduction

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What is 'self-organisation'?

Listen to anarchists for long enough, and you'll hear us praising the 'self-organisation' of various movements or groups and insisting that political activity needs to be more 'self-organised'. But what does this mean? Why is this important?

It can be an odd-sounding term, but basically 'self-organisation' is doing stuff without relying on or waiting for external leadership or a central authority. A 'self-organised' movement doesn't wait for parties, unions, or whatever leader, to give it orders. A 'self-organised' group isn't controlled from the top-down. Self-organisation – like a related idea, 'self-management' – is at the core of anarchism. It makes us more effective, and gives us an opportunity to practice real democracy.

What about an example? The struggle against the water charges can largely be described self-organised. It wasn't an idea cooked up by a central committee of lefty activists, who then went off and stirred the masses into action, giving everyone an instruction manual to follow. From early 2014, people – overwhelmingly not from political parties - in different communities across the country got together and decided 'we're going to stop meters being installed in our area'.

They formed non-party political anti-water charge campaign groups, where everyone had an equal say, and helped people in other areas to do the same. After a thankless slow burn for months by relatively few people, this organising model spread like wildfire.

The struggle against the water charges has been largely, but not entirely, self-organised. The Right2Water/Right2Change committee – consisting of political parties and slightly more militant but conventional unions - and We Won't Pay – a Socialist Party front organisation – have been the main elements in the struggle which are not self-organised, i.e. which are hierarchical.

While both groups have made useful contributions to the struggle, they both have consistently tried to establish a leadership position over the movement as a whole, deciding the content and direction of the movement essentially from the top-down. Despite this, impressively, the anti-water charges movement has managed to retain most of its self-organised, de-centralised, character.

Why is this impressive or noteworthy? Well, because it makes the movement stronger and more effective.

Firstly, when a movement is centralised, it's easier to control and attack. There is a 'head of the snake' to cut off. You can get at the whole movement by getting at the leadership. Think about big unions like SIPTU. The union leadership can be effectively bought off by the government, and then the government can sit back and watch the union leadership do their dirty work, of de-mobilising workers, for them.

Contrast this to a de-centralised movement (think of scores of locally organised water charges groups). In a more extreme example, imagine trying to quell a riot. Where do you begin trying to control that? Who gives the 'stop!' order?

But this is equally true for the left. If a movement is self-organised, it's much harder for left (or sometimes not so left) political parties to put a movement to their own ends, which inevitably leads to a worse outcome. It usually means more votes for them at the expense of activism that matters.

Secondly, self-organisation is empowering for people. Struggles are schools of politics. It is a hugely important opportunity for people to learn about how the world works, learn the practical skills necessary for making change, and learn that they as much as anyone else has the duty and capability to make that change a reality.

We need to not just think of the immediate goal of the particular campaign, but of the big picture: how to build towards a new, free society. If a struggle is ridden with hierarchy, it will be like actual school in this society - we'll doss off, learn fuck all, and leave it with low self-esteem, ready to take orders from authority figures.

Look, for example, at how much people have learned by participating in the struggle against the water charges. How many people didn't even consider themselves political at all, and are now hardened community activists, who feel confident organising meetings, protests, confronting police, creating media, strategising, and so on? How many now identify as anti-establishment, have rejected and distrust the mainstream media, the police, politicians, and have become politically aware well beyond the water charges?

Think of the value of this moving into the future, for example in the struggle against the housing crisis. Think of how lesser this would have been if people had just waited for the usual line-up of lefties to set everything up and tell people what was going to happen.

We live in a society bogged down by hierarchy: leaders and lead, command and inertia. But really no one has been divinely appointed to direct others. We are equal as change-makers, and so anarchism emphasises taking responsibility and taking the initiative because nothing less will make a better world.

Every person can be a 'leader' in their own right. Every person can decide now to act to make a new society. Screw the leaders, the professionals, and let's look to ourselves: 'I am the change'.

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