Article in Black Light: Organising Anarchy in Contemporary Australia

The following article was published in issue 1 of Black Light (which was actually the second issue, but just to be fancy they called the first issue Issue 0), released at the recent Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair. It’s an expanded version of this earlier blog post. Andy put a bunch of subheadings in the printed version that I haven’t reproduced here (because I am slack).

Organising Anarchy
in Contemporary Australia

by Kieran Bennett

The first task of any small political group is to understand the situation in which they seek to operate. Understanding the economic, political and social situation in a given society shows a political group the way forward; it allows us to identify what opportunities exist, what challenges we are likely to encounter, and what our capacity is likely to be in responding to these.

In issue one of Sedition[1], Jeremy[2] of the Jura collective presented an extremely optimistic picture of the current situation in Australia. In ‘Organising in Australia’, Jeremy correctly identified that the Australian context presents significant challenges for revolutionary anarchists; we face a “political culture steeped in passivity and representative disempowerment”. Persistent corporate propaganda informs us that “life in Australia is as good as it gets – or will be as long as we keep shopping”. The ongoing farce of reformism offers no realistic hope for achieving the radical change our society needs, and it is deluded to think “that the entire population will wake up one day, realise they’re insurrectionists and spontaneously and instantly create the anarchist society”. Any realistic assessment of what will be needed to achieve libertarian socialism directs us towards the task of organising, “we need to build a sustained revolutionary movement”.

Jeremy’s initial argument for organised anarchism is absolutely correct, but his assessment of the organising situation in Australia is utterly wrong. Jeremy writes:

“There is widespread discontent and resistance among millions of people in Australia. They talk to each other and build networks and take a variety of political actions.”

The available evidence on the organising situation in Australia suggests the opposite.

Apathy and Partial Discontent

In June The Australian breathlessly reported that strike days in Australia had reached a seven year high of 257 600[3], but when you step outside the ideological bubble of the Murdoch media talk of renewed industrial militancy seems farfetched. In 1996, Australia recorded 928 500 strike days, in 1986 it was 1 390 000, in 1976 it was 3 799 400[4]. In 1987 there were 223 strike days per thousand workers, in 2008 it was 21, and in 2007 at the height of work choices, it fell to an all-time low of five[5].

The decline in strike activity is mirrored by the decline in union membership:

From August 1992 to August 2011, the proportion of those who were trade union members in their main job has fallen from 43% to 18% for employees who were males and 35% to 18% for females. – ABS[6]

Australia’s working class remains in the trough of a thirty year low in resistance, as measured through strike activity and union membership. These measures are particularly relevant as Jeremy argues for anarchist engagement with those unions pursuing the ‘organiser’ model.

The discontent that does exist in Australia is expressed either as total apathy, or as discontent with the present head of government. Compulsory voting is still working for the Australian state. Voter turn-out in federal elections remains at or around 94%[7], and the informal vote in federal elections hovers at around 4%[8].

There is no evidence of millions of discontent Australians engaging network building or political action in statistics on civic participation. At the 2006 census [9]:

19% of adults reported that they had actively participated in civic and political groups in the previous 12 months. This level of involvement varied with age, peaking at around 24% for people aged 45-64 years. The civic or political groups that people were most likely to be active in were trade union, professional and technical associations (7%), environmental or animal welfare groups (5%), followed by body corporate or tenants’ associations (4%). Only 1% reported active participation in a political party – ABS, [10]

Anarchy and Formenting Resistance

All of this paints a grim picture for anarchists seeking to build a revolutionary movement in the current Australian context. There are however, limited opportunities for advancing anarchism in this context.
The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement of 2011 resonated with a small subsection of Australian society. For a short time ‘Occupy’ camps in major Australian cities provided an opportunity to advance anarchist ideas to those small groups of people who were inspired to emulate the actions of the Occupy Movement in the United States.

Indigenous discontent with the Northern Territory intervention continues, and the spread of welfare quarantining to the rest of Australia will affect Australians in major population centres for the first time.

The fortieth anniversary of the Tent Embassy in Canberra became the launching point for a renewed Embassy campaign by indigenous activists. The indigenous sovereignty movement argues that land rights are a poor substitute for indigenous sovereignty, a sovereignty that was never ceded. Limited space may exist for anarchists to make the links between land rights, reconciliation and capitalism. Land rights are about integrating indigenous communities more fully into Australian capitalism, co-opting indigenous resistance, and further opening indigenous controlled lands up for exploitation. Anarchists may feel uneasy about the statist sounding language of sovereignty, but we are surely for indigenous self-determination, and there is no self-determination under capitalism. In order to advance such a dialogue, Anarchists will need to actively engage in solidarity with the indigenous sovereignty movement, including the defence of the tent embassies that have been established in cities around Australia[11].

A minority of Australians continue to be disgusted with the treatment of refugees, and resistance inside the system of immigration detention centres continues. Anarchists in Australia are engaged in the campaign for refugee rights and against mandatory detention, but more could be made of the space this campaign presents were anarchists more consistently organised. Trotskyist groups use Refugee Action Collectives like Lenin branded soap boxes, yet the nature of this issue lends itself to an anarchist critique. Anarchists should not be shy in arguing against borders as a general principle. The Cross Border Collective in Sydney is producing some interesting work along these lines [12].

Australians continue to express concern about the state of the environment, and climate change in particular. Outside the union movement, environmental politics are one of the largest areas of civic participation in Australia:

Over 5 million people (34%) aged 15 years and over took some form of environmental action in 2007-08. People most commonly signed a petition (17%) or donated money to help protect the environment (14%), while attending a demonstration for an environmental cause was relatively rare (2%). Some people expressed their concern about the environment through a letter, email or by talking to responsible authorities (10%), or by volunteering, or becoming involved in environmentally related concerns (9%). [13]

As frustration with the mainstream political process’ capacity to address environmental issues increases, the space opens for anarchists to advance make the case that capitalism is responsible for ecological catastrophe, and that the capitalist state is incapable of an adequate response. Within the environmental movement there is a two-fold task for anarchists, to argue for real mass organisation (and not GetUp style tokenism), and to argue for tactics that actually confront polluters, the state and capitalism.

The election of conservative governments at the state level in the most populous Australian states has led to a renewed attack on public sector and construction workers. The trade union movement has been militant in its response now that their supposed allies in the Labor party are in opposition. Whilst supporting the campaigns of teachers, nurses and construction workers, Anarchists within these sectors must be ready to argue for more militant tactics. We need to be ready to make the case that industrial ‘umpires’ should be ignored, that early compromise by union bureaucracy must be guarded against, and that continued disruptive industrial action delivers the goods. Again, these tasks would be easier if anarchists were a more organised tendency.

The storm clouds of global financial crisis continue to grow on the horizon, whilst Australia has thus far been isolated, the situation continues to cause a sense of unease. Were a deepening of the global crisis to significantly affect Australia the situation for Australian workers could change rapidly and resistance could develop or falter in any number of ways.

It is likely that next year Australia will have a conservative government, intent on pushing politically motivated austerity, attacking the union movement, and pushing a conservative social agenda. The task before us will be to argue for resistance. In his article in Sedition, Jeremy argues that “if we actually want to make change, we need to do the hard work of building accessible, long-term formal organisations, linked to larger networks”. In that, I whole heartedly agree.

[1] February 2012, pp. 2 – 4. Sedition is a new joint publication of Anarchist groups in Australia.
[2] Disappointingly, each article in Issue 1 of Sedition is attributed to a pseudonym or to a first name only. A rather unnecessary step for a movement that is not underground.
[4] ILO,, 9C Days not worked, by economic activity
[5] ILO,, 9D Rates of days not worked, by economic activity
[6] ABS, ‘Decline in Trade Union Membership’
[7] ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Voter Turnout’,
[8] ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Informal Votes’,
[9] It will be interesting to see the most recent census results, taken in the post GFC world. The 2006 results are probably still a reasonable reflection of civic participation in Australia, anecdotally there does not appear to have been a sudden shift.
[10] ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Civic Participation’,
[11] Check out
[12] ‘We Don’t Cross Borders; Borders Cross Us’,
[13] ABS, ‘Democracy, Governance and Citizenship: Environmental Citizenship’


  1. I should also note that the title, “Organising Anarchy in Contemporary Australia” was also chosen by Black Light’s fine editor. Before anyone gets stuck into me about the idea of “Organising Anarchy”.

    If I’d chosen a title, it probably would have been as long as the article, full of all manner of qualifications 😛

  2. Groan, re-reading this article I realise I actually made a silly mistake:

    Within the environmental movement there is a two-fold task for anarchists, to argue for real mass organisation (and not GetUp style tokenism), and to argue for tactics that actually confront polluters, the state and capitalism.

    I seem to have said “tactics” twice, I had intended to say tactics and analysis. The analysis task is to argue for an anti-capitalist explanation of the environmental crisis. Capitalism and the capitalist state are actually incapable of a sufficient response to this crisis, because capitalism is the core of the problem.

    The environmental movement is prepared to talk about consumption, the need to move away from fetishising growth, the need for a steady state economy… but there is a mind block that fails to see how capitalism lies at the root of the growth fetish, and that arguing for a steady state economy is necissarily anti-capitalist.

    There is also the fact that the great majority in the environmental movement blame the working class for consuming, and fail to see how consumerism is the symptom and not the cause.

  3. Patrick HillfordAugust 5, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Compulsory voting is about as low as the state goes. I would suggest adopt Bitcoin – that is currently one of the best ways to move anarchy forwards.
    More research: (“S.Molyneux, Statism is Dead”)


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