A comrade has written the following and at their request I’m publishing it here to facilitate further disco. Write dr.woooo[at]gmail[dot]com for moar.
Reflections on AWOL and the WEF protests, Melbourne, September 2000
The ‘Autonomous Web of Liberation’ (AWOL) was a Melbourne based ‘networking hub’ that brought people together to share skills, network and exchange ideas in preparation for protests against the World Economic Forum in September 2000. This experience does not have the recognition it deserves, not only in terms of the blockade, but also the later networks that sprang from people having come together at this time, and the wider effects this experience had on their subsequent political practice.
For a long time I’ve been thinking about relaying my experience. I’ve hesitated because I’ve not felt that one person’s perspective can do justice to this subject. Many of us were involved in this experience: at times, up to 100 participated in the meeting/doing/happening that was ‘AWOL’. I’m hopeful that others will seek to collaborate on a larger piece, comment on this one publicly, or write their own story, in order to develop our history and our theory.
I have so many comrades that I still have some contact with who were involved in this project, but also those that span off from it at later times. It is rare I think in political movements over time to have such a sense of shared experience. I still feel that many of you out there got my back, that I can rely on many of you, that I share levels of affinity with many of you that I could not have anticipated at the time. That said, there is a fair bit of hate still around from people who felt left out, or who didn’t have great affinity to begin with, or that grew apart as time went on. There are yet others that I have no idea where they are or what they are up to now, and some I should try to catch up with more. I hope that some of what is said in this ramble will get us asking question about relationships of affinity and questions of organisation, then and now.
There was a sense among us – well, I can only speak for myself really – that the organising method of the ‘S11 Alliance’ was really problematic: it was too slow, it tried to speak for everybody, and meetings didn’t achieve much but rather served as a space for the pursuit of various agendas belonging to various little political parties, fighting about the demands appropriate to a united front. This had very little relationship to my politics, or those of the Seattle events that it claimed to be building on. The authoritarian left really did not get it. Or maybe they did, but wanted to use the rhetoric of Seattle for other ends – mainly building the parties and personality profiles of select others.
Back in early 2000, a number of ‘direct action folk’ – anarchists, autonomists, forest blockaders and other ratbags – had started attending the organising meetings for the protests against the WEF. Many of us found the authoritarian politics of the Alliance impossible to work with, and called a meeting for an alternative networking space. This became S11 AWOL.
Precisely when S11 AWOL began is debatable, as a number of people with roughly the same ideas had meetings at around the same time, but at the first meeting I attended (held in a little tin shed) we wrote ‘Who We Are’, and with some further brainstorming came up with the name AWOL. (“I want the word autonomy to be in it.” “Er, um what about ‘network’?” “Can we use the word web instead?” asked one beloved, bearded forest blockader. Bingo! ‘Autonomous Web of Liberation’: AWOL.) I thought to myself, how funny, this is exactly what we’ve done: gone AWOL from the traditional left.
I was pretty happy with the name and statement of ‘Who We Are’: it focussed on practice and not names or political identities but rather how we organise and what we are against, rather than ‘we are anarchist’ or ‘we are autonomist’ or we are this or that group. In so doing, and with some hard work, it became a very efficient, practical space for getting stuff done for a broad section of largely anti-statist and anti-capitalist types that avoided shit fights between people with very different politics. It changed how I saw things in a big way, and I think for many people in it, the relationships that went onwards into other projects are something we should not forget.
Who We Are
S11 AWOL is non-hierarchical, decentralised and autonomous. It aims to facilitate actions, hold skill-sharing workshops, and empower peoples with information and knowledge, to enable us all to most effectively shut down the World Economic Forum and say NO to global corporatisation and capitalism…
S11 AWOL gives a big thumbs down to those with racist, sexist, ablist, homophobic or nationalistic agendas.
I’d been involved in some stuff when I lived in London – the G8 protests, the ‘carnival against capital’/J18 protests – and we had all been surprised by Seattle. It really felt like something big was kicking off and for several years it did. Then came the slow recuperation and decline of the movement, as well as many of its limitations being reached in the changing times of the ‘war on terror’, the shite politics of the anti-war movement, the rise and fall of the detention centre actions … WorkChoices, followed by global recession, the pseudo-left ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, and now bio-crisis, climate change and the rest.
I’ve had a number of years where I haven’t been involved in much, and I’ve had little new to say: I’ve felt ideologically and practically stuck. For some of the people I still have contact with from this time, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Maybe some joint reflection will spark some debate and action!
What I took from the experience of AWOL into later stuff, and what I saw carry forward or be altered in later stuff…
• May Day ‘Reclaim the Streets’ action (May 2001)
• Genoa solidarity action (July 2001)
• ‘Media Circus’ conference (July 2001)
• Tent City (October-November 2001)
• Woomera (March-April 2002)
• Baxter (April 2003)
• ‘State of Emergency’ conference (May 2004)
• Anarchist and autonomist conferences (2001-2005)
Questions Regarding AWOL And The Revolutionary Struggle, Intended To Be Discussed, Corrected, And Principally, Put Into Practice Without Delay…
• Hanging on to the AWOL ‘brand’ after S11. • Falling back into big ‘A’ politics: brand ‘Anarchist’ versus brand ‘Autonomist’. • Anti-media / radical media: questions of representation versus self-imposed silence, infodesks, media-spin games, multiple-name games… • Burnout and networked politics. • ‘What’s my new project?’ activism. • Yoof activism. • Giving up activism. • Where are we now? • What I reckon now / stuff I’d like to be doing now: workers’ enquiry, climate justice, how the experiences of AWOL shaped my current trajectory…
See also : REFLECTIONS ON JUNE 18: discussion papers on the politics of the global day of action in financial centres on June 18th 1999 | Review of ‘Reflections on J18’ – Undercurrent | Reflections and strategies 10 years on from J18 and Seattle 1999.
For those not afraid of travel and the recent flooding…
Someone else who may be interested is John in Ballarat (0431 554 354). This weekend he’s organised a 10th anniversary BBQ picnic. It’s on Sunday 12th September from 1pm @ Eureka Park in Ballarat (cnr Stawell & Eureka Streets, near the old Stockade Memorial).
I think a lot of people of the libertarian socialist stripe as well as those who perhaps don’t give themselves a label but know they want a more democratic life in places like Australia, England and the US feel stuck – politics is something that is done to us, not something we do.
I follow the good dr. on delicious, always manage to pick out some things I haven’t come across before.
The anarchists went AWOL at S11. No kidding. The lamest black bloc of any of the global meeting demos/riots of the early noughties.
i only ever went to a handful of AWOL meetings from memory — I was pretty shy and didn’t like meetings.
i hung around a lot of people from that scene though and i was heavily involved in s11 and projects that had roots in it for some time. I have mixed memories and perspectives. It was an exciting time and balls were rolling, no one knew where they might fall. The power of the internet was a big unknown, there was nimbleness of action and thought and much of the activism had playfulness, style and danger. Some good pranks. There was press hysteria (and so many outrageous freaking lies, I can never take media the same again).
It was often fun and sometimes infuriating, but I never really felt very grounded in what my or other’s frameworks / values were. We discussed it surprisingly little, in retrospect. I guess there was a big bad that wasn’t us (and a little bad — we defined ourselves as much against the socialists as the forces of ‘globalisation’), and there was plenty to organise, we were young, sort of hip and that seems enough to know sometimes. There was a lot of self-reflective celebration of activism itself, which i guess is fair enough if you’re trying to create a self reinforcing culture — but damn, video of protests is really tedious. The process of ‘struggle’ was celebrated to the exclusion of almost everything else. We wanted to feel like we were righteously on the side of struggling indigenous peoples, but there was minimal interest in their ideas and values for instance. It’s also one place the diverse protestors’ interests overlapped almost by definition. Some of the common autono-intelligentsia textbooks i found impenetrable or didn’t bother reading when people couldn’t really explain to me what they were about (Negri, Deleuze). So at the end of the day, I’m not exactly sure what we were about.
I used to talk to people from the scene about peak oil. I found several people (not all), when i explained my view of how tenuous mass globalised capitalism seems in the face of slowly losing its energy lifeblood, were totally unpersuaded and argued that the system of globalised capitalism is so powerful, so creative and so adaptable that really nothing can unseat it. (Like they agreed it was the ‘End of History’).
I guess, like me, they were afraid of the system they were opposed to actually failing when they had very little idea of what an alternative might look like. It was/is that same globalised capitalism that was literally putting food on our plates (even if via the dumpster).
We/they thought the US, trade institutions, the global markets were all powerful, and secretly we had very mixed emotions about this. If you can’t acknowledge fear in ‘winning’ (whatever that might mean), I think you’d be kidding yourself. Was this impulse expressed in ways that made certain groups of protestors sabotage their own hopes of reaching any wider acceptance for instance by creating exclusive cultural / fashion ghettos?
I could get real pop psych and draw this point out but I wont. Most people involved in s11 I found to be intelligent, and it was as much about the process and experience and what it could lead to — no one thought a few protests would bring down global capitalism, and we were finding our feet, exploring, so I’m not saying most of us were actually deluded, but there was nevertheless this underlying tension that never got resolved, can’t be resolved in a purely protest movement.
(I have rarely felt ideologically or practically stuck since then. I didn’t know enough yet for that to be an option.)
In the last 10 years the global capitalism system has been showing some major fault lines. Perhaps informed by the tension I mentioned, many people are now putting their energies into building resilience so that as cheap shit from China and global currency stability and the energy equivalent of 300 slaves each starts to unwind, there are some working examples to fall back on. We’re trying to do it in ways that are inclusive, see values in people and places that as hip young activists and largely reactionary, we weren’t prone to see them. The experience of working in collectives has been very valuable in helping us organise. The sense of dynamism, excitement and messing with what is supposed to be possible, all remain.
Hey, what’s with that image @ndy?
Is that the guy from ‘The Proclaimers’?
Black bloc advice guy.
Stuff I remember most is: the propaganda war preceding The Event; wondering if anyone was gonna rock up; the cold and the wet; being needlessly shouted at by Trots armed w/ megaphones (and Messianic zeal); the contrast b/w the attit00d of The Kids on the blockade / picket lines and the unionists on the march (S12); feeling vewy angwy and upset at the cop who punched my g/f in the face, fracturing her cheekbone; spending most of my time while @ the hospital and at home looking after my g/f feeling guilty about not being at the blockade — and feeling guilty while running around Crown thinking ‘I should be @ home looking after my g/f’; the guy who sat on the bed of nails.
And being quoted by Bolt in the run-up. And the Pacific Islander (?) guy what done the awesome don’t-fuck-with-me, my-people-have-been-fighting-yr-imperialist-war-machine-for-centuries warrior pose while staring down the cops. And the AMWU/CFMEU/ETU guys who snuck onto the pickets despite being told by Brian Working Class Discipline Boyd that this was Bad and Wrong and would make everyone at T/H vewy vewy upset ’cause blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. And watching the black bloc run around. And the looks of outrage on the faces of the innocent as they discovered that Yes Virginia, there is a ruling class, and their media lies, and their cops punch kids and OAPs in the face and yes they’re gonna get away with it. And watching Guy Rundle introduce the rough cuts of video footage @ T/H and being outraged — outraged! — that a Guy who’d only several mths previously denounced ‘S11’ for being organised by pea-brained students and the like should have become an overnight expert — just add platform!
And lots of other stoopid shit.
On a vaguely-related note…
I came to Melbourne for the protest but was living in another state so didn’t get any real idea of what was happening in the lead up. It was some of the most amazing and inspiring few days in my life.
At the time I was in one of the socialist groups. I have to say that in hindsight I think that there was always a very hierarchical, authoritarian and dogmatic streak in those groups. Although I think some anarchists over state it. I remember all the arguing against “consensus” decision making we did. But in reality that was completely the norm in the socialist groups most of the time too – including most of the bad aspects of it. I always resented all the little petty bureaucrats and “leaders” and their inflated egos and the micro-managing they did of activities they weren’t involved in or understood. In the end I decided that I don’t want to be leader or a follower and there doesn’t seem to be a place for people like that in these groups.
However, I was never entirely convinced about the anarchists either. To me the way black bloc behaves just seems macho and stupid and every bit as inward-looking as the worst of the socialists. I also always felt that some of the anarchists could be very personally bossy and self-righteous. I was physically attacked by individual “anarchists” on two occasions for the crime of having a stall on a public street.
Ok I guess I’m talking about the worst of both sides here and the vast majority of socialists or anarchists seem like good people. But these things wear people down over the years, and I guess I hope someone has some idea about solutions to these problems.
I’m also curious about the internal workings of AWOL. I heard lots of stories at the time about using “clicking” and “winding up” rather than voting. This all just sounded silly and possibly very irritating to me. I also heard about the spokes-council which apparently was made up of representatives from different affinity groups – which doesn’t sound too me as good as anybody being able to rock up who wanted to. Given that this was not from people who were very involved or supportive of AWOL I’d be interested to hear the other side.
I take all your criticisms about the s11 Alliance. I’ve been to enough similar groups to know exactly what you are talking about. But they did seem to get things working well enough in the end. I’m not saying that to argue with anyone I guess I’m hoping people can help me to understand it from a different perspective.
I gotta biblio somewhere or other: it collates scores of writings on S11, drawn from both the state/corporate and independent media, activist and academic scribblings. From what I can remember, John Birmingham wrote some funny shit about S11; Owen Gager contributed a cracking essay to an # of Jack Grancharoff’s Red & Black, while overland done a special issue on it as well.
A decade since the S11 protests: What will victory look like?
Time: Thu, 23/09/2010 – 6:30pm – 8:30pm
Location: Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Melbourne Rising video screening
Time: Sat, 2/10/2010 – 7:00pm
Location: Melbourne Anarchist Resource Centre, 62 St Georges Rd, Northcote
Our s11, Elizabeth Humphrys, overland blog, September 11, 2010.
‘Beating Up: A Report on Police Batons and the News Media at the World Economic Forum, Melbourne, September 2000’, Dr. Bernard Barrett, November 15, 2000.
Pt’chang also got words via downloads.
Beyond that, I mean, I could rabbit on about S11 quite a bit — I gots opinions on what ag and anonymous written — but I’d rather someone else do it for now.
I am glad comrades have started this discussion. I find it hard to write about, I guess because in many ways I feel that I am still there, that the debates are still going on. Many of those who were close comrades at the time, especially those in Revolutionary Action are still my close comrades and the discussion we were having then we are still having now. Indeed some of us are organising a conference – From Empire to Commonwealth: Communist Theory and Contemporary Practice which in many ways is a continuation of these conversations.
One of the clear, one of the very few, lessons that I do think I learnt from S11 was that attempts at ideological recruitment is opposed and harmful to class re-composition. The attempts of the socialist groups and anarchist milieus to direct the wave of enthusiasm in a way to swell their ranks ran counter to the project of increasing the solidarity and autonomy of those in struggle. Important questions about how to make decisions, what kind of actions to take, the rhythms of the struggle became subsumed into a very different and toxic debate. Also it seemed that as the wave of struggle receded this intensified ideological rigidity. But many of us have slipped away from that now. The intellectual atmosphere in and around the Black Rose/Mutiny scene in Sydney (for example) always seems very healthy to me and free of the rigidity that so many were caught in at that time.
This is an important lesson it would be a shame to forget it.
I was on the extreme periphery in those days; just getting involved. The hand signals thing was pretty weird, but hindsight is 20/20. The “clicking for agreement” was meant to counter person after person getting up and agreeing with what the previous person said. In reality, it became a layer of enculturated behaviour that some found repulsive rather than attractive. Any benefit of speedy meetings may have been lost in the hurdle that had to be jumped to participate in them effectively. Overall, though, I thought the meetings were amazing.
“Winding up instead of voting” is a strange way of putting it; they were never, as far as I know, equivalent actions. “Wind up” meant “you’ve had your turn, move on” or “you’re talking shit”. Voting wasn’t necessary. AWOL was a meeting of affinity groups and individuals who met to exchange information and to make proposals to other groups. There was opportunity to argue against certain proposed actions. Someone would get up and say “I’m doing this, if you want to get involved, meet over here later” or “We think blockading such road at such a time is a bad idea and we should do X instead. Meet here to help us do blah blah”.
You didn’t need to vote on anything that I can think of in an AWOL meeting: AWOL was a forum, not a group, if that makes sense. Decision making (i.e. voting) would happen at the level of affinity groups or clusters of affinity groups, not in a meeting designed to get these groups to work together.
S11 Alliance and AWOL were completely different models and not comparable in many ways. I went to both meetings and found S11 Alliance depressingly boring and devoid of the excitement of AWOL. That level of enthusiasm and possibility that I felt in AWOL meetings is something that sustains me through until today.
Less Party, moar party.
Thanks for taking the time to respond. I do appreciate it.
“Winding up instead of voting”
I probably should have put a comma in there somewhere. I understand what the winding up meant – it just sounded kind of mean. But then again voting not to give someone an extension on their speaking time is just as mean and probably more time consuming. I get your point anyway that these were creative attempts to deal with old problems with meetings. It makes more sense now that you say it was a forum for different groups to meet and didn’t make decisions – I had been under the impression that the decisions were made by clicking or something.
“One of the clear, one of the very few, lessons that I do think I learnt from S11 was that attempts at ideological recruitment is opposed and harmful to class re-composition. The attempts of the socialist groups and anarchist milieus to direct the wave of enthusiasm in a way to swell their ranks ran counter to the project of increasing the solidarity and autonomy of those in struggle. Important questions about how to make decisions, what kind of actions to take, the rhythms of the struggle became subsumed into a very different and toxic debate. Also it seemed that as the wave of struggle receded this intensified ideological rigidity.”
I very much agree with you there.
“But many of us have slipped away from that now. The intellectual atmosphere in and around the Black Rose/Mutiny scene in Sydney (for example) always seems very healthy to me and free of the rigidity that so many were caught in at that time.”
I’m glad to hear that.
It seems to me that in the last few years many on the left have softened in their views but others have hardened and retreated further into their own schema and ideology. What I find frustrating is that a lot of friends talk like they have had some kind of revolution in their thinking but go on behaving in the same kind of ways and building the same kind of groups. Maybe their actions will follow their words in time. Or maybe the old shit will just be replaced by new shit.
Funny but reading this thread (especially Andy’s “Stuff I remember most is…”) has made me realize that ever since S11 I have slowly been moving from having all kinds of ideological beliefs to becoming politically agnostic. I mean still a socialist, but a very-small-s socialist; I wouldn’t see myself particularly as a communist, anarchist, autonomist or anything else any more. I guess I saw something at S11 – maybe the people starting to wake up and for a few moments and show some tiny hint of the power we really have – that no explanation or ideology really does justice to.
But there is a sense of security in having a set system of beliefs and a label, so more and more I’ve been looking to people – people I once agreed with or ex “little enemies” – for answers. Maybe it’s time to accept that there aren’t any.
…something i stumbledupon while searching for some other stuff…
i’m surprised you posted that bit andy. introspection isn’t a virtue commonly associated with the far left. it’s bloody spot on though.
the s11.org website archived
I know I’m a bit late to the party on this discussion…but just found it when I was searching for the s11 thing on Overland I wrote linked above. I have just submitted a Masters thesis on the global justice movement in Australia and the impact of 9/11, and although I know my theoretical trajectory will be quite different to many here it is available if people want to seek out s11 related information and references (including the refs mentioned up the page). I did interview some AWOL people as part of the research also. Contact me through my email on the linked website. E
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