Anarchism and the Politics of Affinity Groups

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ABSTRACT

Anarchists have been active in the movement for global justice since it began. The influence of anarchism upon the movement consists in large part in the diffusion of egalitarian forms of organisation and actions such as those of the affinity group, an autonomous militant unit of about 5-to-20 individuals. The decision-making process is anarchist, that is to say, it is egalitarian, participatory, deliberative and consensual. After a discussion about the historical origin of the 'affinity group' in anarchist Spain at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as its diffusion via the new social movements of the 1970s through the 1980s until the movement for global justice, the text analyses the political potential of this kind of militant organisation and advances the thesis that it permits a mass movement to function during street actions in a rational, egalitarian and free manner.

Key words affinity groups, anti-globalisation, social movement, anarchism, deliberation

ANARCHISM AND THE POLITICS OF AFFINITY GROUPS

Anarchists have been active in the movement for global justice since it began. We find them in Chiapas at the side of the Zapatistas soon after the insurrection of January 1, 1994. We find them in Geneva in May 1998, amongst members of the Peoples' Global Action celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by shattering the windows of businesses emblematic of global capitalism. Nevertheless, it was not until the Batde of Seatde on November 30, 1999 that the anarchist presence at the heart of the movement was more widely recognised. The 'affinity groups' of the Direct Action Network (DAN) blocked access to the conference centre and, using tactics of non-violent civil disobethence, resisted assaults by the police. Approximately four hours after the first DAN action, members of a 'Black Bloc',1 masked and dressed in black, targeted the windows of MacDonald's restaurants, of Nike and Gap stores, and of banks.2

The diversity and depth of the anarchist influence in the 'anti-globalisation' movement, also known as the movement for global justice or rhe movement of movements, is evident not only in the streets, but also in the global structure of the movement,3 its alternative media,4 its artistic output,5 as well as the autonomous campsites set up alongside social forums and counrer-summits.6 The discourse of the movement for global justice is saturated with references to 'participatory democracy'. Yet it is those who identify themselves as anarchists, as well as other anti-authoritarian activists commonly labelled as 'radicals', who more than anyone else encourage rhe participation and the autonomy of militants. Within the global movement, anarchism expresses itself through horizontal, participatory, deliberative and consensual decision-making processes.

The affinity group is one of the organisational structures that allow anarchist principles to be embodied in practices and actions. An affinity group is an autonomous militant unit generally made up of between five-to-twenty individuals who share a sense of the causes worth defending and of the types of actions they prefer to engage in. The decision-making process is anarchist, that is to say, egalitarian, participatory, deliberative and consensual. Political or social organisations can - in principle - adopt and adapt this militant form of organisation. In the context of the end of the late 1990s and the early years of the twenty-first century, it has been used most notably by anti-authoritarian militants - whether selfproclaimed 'anarchists' or not. The spread of this mode of organisation located at the heart of the movement has enlarged the influence of anarchism, even if those who have recourse to it do not necessarily identify themselves as 'anarchists'. In this study, I will first examine the historical origin of the 'affinity group' in anarchist Spain at the end of die nineteenth century, and its diffusion via the new social movements of the 1970s, through to the 1980s and the movement for global justice. …