REPRESENTATION AND VISIBILITY

Monday 13 June 2005

Often, in order to attain some visibility, a libertarian organization or its members must struggle to be represented accurately when confiding in journalists. Certainly, anarcho-syndicalists are not hiding underground. We are not trying to infiltrate other groups by misrepresenting our ideas, but how do we represent ourselves and get some accurate media visibility? That is what we are going to try to analyze here.

Anarcho-syndicalism and the problem of representing syndicalism

In its brochure « WHY ANARCHOSYNDICALISTS OPPOSE TO PROFESSIONAL ELECTIONS ? » , the CNT-AIT raises the question of the « problem of representation » without ever really describing the problem. One way to clarify is to point out that it is above all in the public sector where anarcho-syndicalism has had a rebirth in France. Union activity and the right to strike in the public sector are subject to rigid regulations. Representation is an issue only when a union is calling for a strike. In the public sector, a union representative must file advance notice of a strike. Such is not the case in the private sector, where the main advantage is, in fact, being represented in the first round of professional elections. Therefore, the most important issues (the actions of workers and their right to strike) are not dependent on representation. Even better, in the private sector the concept of power supplants the idea of representation. And the question of power is the business of anarcho-syndicalists.

This question of union representation works on the politicians of the republic more than one thinks. Right now they are preparing a bill to expand the rules. The large national unions would lose their monopoly of representation in the first round of professional elections. Candidacy would be open to all legally constituted unions. To be more specific about what that means, power needs representatives, mouthpieces, to control the eventual actions of workers it anticipates will come in response to the « social » measures it has in store for them. And to rule is to anticipate the worst! However, their traditional henchmen are not only burned out, like the CFDT, but often absent from private companies. The capitalists will have to console themselves with knowing that half a loaf is better than no bread at all in this case. There are plenty of small unions, alternative unions, autonomous and even revolutionary syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist ones with two or three members and some sympathizers in this or that company. They could do business, playing the role of buffer between the direct action of workers at the end of their rope and increasingly arrogant bosses.

Representation is therefore the problem of the powerful, not anarcho-syndicalists. However, for 30 years, what energy we’ve wasted worrying about representation in the private sector!

Recently and significantly, a CNT-Vignoles local (at Le Havre) with only thirty members, in its call for solidarity, passed workers’ concerns on to the next level. Why didn’t they start by leading the struggle in regard to working conditions directly, along with other workers if possible? Then they probably would have seen their boss, who contested their role as representatives beforehand, ask them to become go-betweens for him now (in which case, incidentally, he would refuse their demands anyway!). The bosses’ goal for representation in the class struggle is to replace everything-collective action, the General Assembly of Workers (not to be confused with a central labour federation!)-with one party (as bargaining agent/s). This means the rapid liquidation of the General Assembly and then the gradual weakening of the party (through institutionalization or repression). Sensing the trap, the St-Etienne CNT local (also part of Vignoles) declared that « the CNT is a representative through its union activity and financial independence. » This seems wiser to us than looking for legal recognition because it is only possible to represent members and sympathizers anyway. A CNT union only exists through its actions and philosophy. That de facto existence is our objective, not representing anyone besides ourselves.

Member visibility

All revolutionaries try to join up with people who think as they do, so it is natural that they should make their politics known to others. Although there are different ways to do that, for ten years one theory has been predominant, and that is that we can use the media more than they use us. This theory has not been debated much, if at all, but just seems to have imposed itself.

However, this brutally, directly repressive society also disseminates a huge amount of « information. » The fact that we are programmed by information is denounced on a daily basis and rightly so, but information can be used for outright repression as well. What could be simpler than repressing a desire to do something (have a revolution, let’s say) by informing us that others are against this desire? Even worse, if these same others each repress that desire by relying on collective and normative information? Then information and disinformation are intertwined. The massively propagated and artificially produced norm created becomes the truth when enough people become convinced of its reality. That is the whole story of the phenomenon called the « sense of insecurity. »

Despite this inhibiting process, we still need recognition. The desire to be accurately represented or visible too often is rooted in the need for social recognition, which is a mechanism well-known by psychologists to be exacerbated by our society. Power depends on this psychological mechanism. It is common to see that an individual who « does something » thinks that his action should be « recognized » by others. Power has the means to allow him to satisfy this need by putting cameras and microphones in front of him. Then no one ignores him, although his involvement with the media is only acceptable by the system if the subject is sanitized and the form is « media-savvy » enough. Very quickly, to get on TV, our revolutionary militant in need of recognition will use, while self-censoring, a discourse not his own to begin with but acceptable to the media if he puts on an adequate show. And also very quickly, that subject and that form become his own, that is, his way of thinking and the basis for how he tailors his actions. Not to mention the creation of celebrity « leaders »! They’re the ones who move frantically in front of the cameras, who want to have a heavy influence on events, who are always the media spokespeople. They should ask themselves how true are the messages they are sending to others and their strategy’s consequences for themselves!

# The Invisible Man

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