We’ve been joking about it for a while now: the different power blocs in the Wellington and national activist scene, the different levels of social power individuals and blocs have. It’s kinda funny, but also extremely worrying, especially considering the anarchist commitment to horizontal structures is being undermined by these developments.

In her classic 1970s article The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Jo Freeman argued that the near-total lack of structure in the early consciousness-raising feminist groups she was involved in allowed for informal leadership and hierarchies to develop among, for example, those heavily involved in organising, or those with social power on the outside of the group, or even just among close groups of friends.

Freeman proposed as a remedy (!) not the abolition of this leadership and power, but rather its formalisation within “democratic” structures of power. Of course, to anarchists this is unacceptable and not a solution in any sense whatsoever. Instead, we have since attempted to create processes that actively undermine informal power: clear and open lines of communication within groups, clearly structured consensus procedures, equalisation of talking time at meetings, rotation of jobs (eg. media spokes), sharing of skills, etc.

In the groups I’m involved in, informal power, as far as I can tell, is arising in at least two main ways. The first, and most dangerous, is the blatant bypassing of group process: media releases are written and approved by only a few, meetings between close friends are bypassing open group meetings, quiet and shy people in meetings aren’t being encouraged to speak, people’s opinions are being ignored by central group members and consensus processes are being smudged. These are just a few examples, but they are also the most easily fixed, and this must be done.

The far more difficult informal power is the social power that exists within the anarchist and activist community in Wellington and across Aoteaoroa. This is the power of influential people, influential tight-knit groups of friends (“power-blocs”), sociable people versus unsociable people, people with university degrees, charismatic people, etc. And this can’t be fixed with careful processes: the activist community is not a coherent organisation, there are not and cannot be clear boundaries of membership, groups of friends can’t be forced to hang out less and charisma is not something one can learn or unlearn.

It seems, as far as I can tell, the only way to deal with this latter instance of informal power is to blatantly and explicitly acknowledge it. We need to blatantly acknowledge the power blocs, the charismatic people, those whose intellects gain them respect (or fear), those who are sociable and have their fingers in many pies. And once we blatantly acknowledge this, perhaps we can more clearly combat it. This can’t easily be a formal process by the nature of the amorphous activist community, but it could become a conscious ethic. There are also formal things that can help: the Magnetic Fridge Diary is a good one, and open and constant reports of activities could also help.

I feel something needs to be done soon. I’d hate to see the sort of power-mongering and ego building of the old NZ left — the likes of Matt McCarten, CORSO, Arena etc. — repeating itself amongst the anarchist and anti-Power left of today. And I’m serious about this last bit. I know that recently I have been feeling more and more competitive with other activists to get my day in the sun, stroke my ego, and its not healthy — it’ll tear our community apart if we’re not careful.