Anarchist Pedagogies — Section 2 : Anarchist Pedagogies in the "Here and Now"

By Abraham P. DeLeon

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...professor in the social foundations at the University of Texas, San Antonio. My research interests include curriculum studies. cultural studies, utopian studies, French social theory, nonhuman animals, archival research, representation, space and place, anarchist theory, and critical pedagogy... (From:

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Section 2

SECTION II. Anarchist Pedagogies in the “Here and Now”

DIALOGUE 2. (In a crowded place, between strangers)

Alejandro de Acosta

A: Do you, stranger, have the sense that what is foremost in your concerns is echoed in an experiment that is unfolding right now? An experiment in freedom?

B: In this crowd, everyone speaks at once, stories cross, become confused. It is difficult to stay focused on you, stranger, let alone my own concerns. But, yes, it is as if I had heard a tale of origins, forgotten, then remembered. If we grasp this experiment from the story of its origin …

A: … or any other story about it with sufficient curiosity …

B: … if we accept the challenge of a new problem under exploration …

A: … we see that it could expand in every direction. This crowded place we have traversed so as to meet suggests that to me.

B: It could invent new directions in which to expand. I struggle to recall the details of the tale. Was it not a question of freedom? Of the will, at least?

A: The will? New directions? Where have you come from? Where are you going? After all, in a calm pause …

B: … in the chaos of a street fight … this crowd …

A: … in intimate moments …

B: … in foreign and unfamiliar settings … this crowd again …

A: … there is some delicate opening for a new sort of experience. This crowd, its murmur, deceives in a way that your words do not, stranger. We need many names for what we are discussing … someone said: heteroglossia … Any story will do so long as we can live with the consequences.

B: We risk not being able to live with the consequences.

A: We will call it science or ciencia …

B: … knowledge or savoir …

A: … its only test will be that of experience.

B: But we are not all pragmatists, especially not here. Look around, stranger, who are you, so far from what is familiar in this hubbub?

A: Where else would such an attitude truly make sense? I like to suppose that we share this idea: a discussion, even one as distracted as ours, has its own concrescence before and beyond what is under supposedly discussion.

B: As you say, we need many names …

A: As though we could take this crowded place, subtract the crowd, and be witness to a clearing … do you not hear, in the murmur, talk of destruction? Some no-, un-, de-, an- … seeking to make room for … someone said: heterotopias.

B: But even given the prehistory of destruction and its clearing, the transmission of these names is obviously delicate, face-to-face, intimate …

A: … which is why I said that intimacy is a time of experimentation.


A: Well, then, humor this as the hypothesis: The lesson is not like money.

B: I accept it immediately. Look around. It is local, and its transmission is fragile indeed.

A: That lesson is to be learned one thousand times … we have the time, stranger, in our wanderings through this crowded place …

B: and one thousand times again … we have the space, stranger, having imagined the clearing.

CHAPTER 5. Street Medicine, Anarchism, and Ciencia Popular

Matthew Weinstein


This chapter describes the network of medical personnel organized to support protesters, most notably at meetings of G8, Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the Republican and Democratic Parties, but also more general protests against the war, against immigration policy, and in support of the homeless, and communities in general when states of emergency are declared. This network is known as the street medics and consists of people carrying a wide variety of medical credentials: doctors, nurses, wilderness first responders (WFR), and people having no more than first aid or street medic specific training.

The relationship of the street medics to anarchism is complex. Certainly many of the medics are themselves anarchists. However, often medic collectives declare themselves to be nonpolitical. One of my trainers described the role as being “Switzerland,” nonaligned in the factional battles that are frequent in coalition work. This neutrality leaves the medics free to assist anyone, independent of politics. At the same time the medics exist to enable a politics. They came about (along with legal observers and peace keepers) from within the community of protesters to provide support that is legally denied protesters: traditional emergency medical personnel are barred from entering zones of civil conflict (which in addition to protests includes natural disasters—street medics set up the first clinic in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina (DeRose, 2005). Since the medics derive from these communities, the medics embody the culture of the protesters and practice forms of democracy and practice with deep roots in anarchist struggles including consensus processes such as the spokes council model and more generally a strong emphasis on individual ethical decisionmaking, for example, as to whether to provide medical assistance to the police or counter protesters that the protesters face.

I will first describe the history, social structures, and practices of the street medics (hereafter, just the medics). Next I look at the educational work of the medics. To understand the medics as education workers I locate their efforts within the work of popular education movements in South America and Africa. Within this descriptive material I explore the politics of the medics, briefly noting how their politics have changed over time. I specifically explore the ways that the medics, even when denying explicit connections to anarchism, adopt much of its ethos. Street medicine is as much an educational effort as it is a therapeutic one. Finally, I conclude by building on this theorizing of street medicine as education, by contrasting the kind of educational work the medics do with other efforts to articulate science and lay publics: school science, popular science, etc. I call the particular approach that the street medics take, in contrast, ciencia popular, a Spanish phrase meaning “science of the people.” These different projects position knowledge and expertize in very different ways, and I end the paper by exploring these differences.

This chapter is part of my work trying to map the possibilities for a science education that supports radical visions of social justice, what I term a science education of love and rage (Weinstein, 2010a). For the last three years I have focused on the work of the street medics. I have ethnographically studied one street medic collective; I have attended a twenty-hour street medic training, as well as other street medic educational outreach efforts. I have also collected material from a wide variety of street medic collectives that are available through the web and through zine archives and anarchist bookfairs. This chapter draws generally from this archive of material as well as from the historical work of John Dittmer (2009b) and Malika McCay (2007).

Making Waves over Time

Street medics trace their roots to the organization of doctors and other medical personnel to support Freedom Summer and the March on Selma in 1965. This began a sustained effort to provide medical support to protesters of, first, the civil rights movement, and, later, protesters more generally. This was done under the umbrella of the Medical Committee on Human Rights that also took on the integration of the American Medical Association (AMA) and proxy battles to challenge the military industrial complex (Dittmer, 2009b) in the 1960s. Their support of protesters, sometimes termed action medicine, included, in addition to support for the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, medical support at the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention, and the battle at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 (Dittmer, 2009b; Manriquez, ND; Street Medic Wikia, 2007).

According to Dittmer the MCHR was taken over by radical parties and factions at different times over its organizational life (Dittmer, 2009a). The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party, for instance seized control of the group in the 1970s. In the early 1980s the organization disbanded, though its member medics remained active through the 1980s and 1990s (Street Medic Wikia, 2007). The end of the MCHR marks symbolically the end of the first wave of organized street medicine.

Reflecting the radical political spectrum of the New Left, the medics of the 1960s and 1970s focused both on action medicine, establishing the basic protocols that define modern (i.e., current) street medicine, and on policy concerns regarding the organization of medicine as an institution, especially its racial politics and its collaborations with industry in the Vietnam War, and worked to reframe the war as a medical issue (Dittmer, 2009b; McCay, 2007). It is the action medicine dimension of the MCHR that reemerges as a second wave in the wake of the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Meetings in Seattle. According to the Medic Wikia, which is as much a defining text as exists in the street medic community,

The contemporary incarnation of the street medic movement traces its inception/revival to the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Washington. During those protests, small cadres of street medics were highly visible and very helpful when police used tear gas and pepper spray against protesters. This alerted activists of the necessity of acquiring training to deal with protest-related injuries. Thousands of street medics were trained in preparation for further anti-globalization protests. Street medic training became more standardized and specialized—they learned how to care for pepper spray, tear gas, and taser injuries, as well as hypothermia, dehydration and other likely complications of protests. (Street Medic Wikia, 2007)

While this origin narrative downplays the continuity of medical practice with the earlier MCHR, it is widely shared in the medic community, and clearly, after Seattle there was a wide spread blossoming of street medic collectives in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. This continuity includes the education of medics on the legal framework that allows them to operate, the limitations of their legal ability to practice, and general standards for care such as the now discontinued use of a protocol called MOFIBA (mineral oil followed immediately by oil) for exposure to pepper spray on the skin.

The continuity was established through the training of younger medics by experienced MCHR action medics, most notably Doc Ron Rosen, a doctor of Chinese medicine, who served at the March on Selma, the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago, and at the siege at Wounded Knee. He founded the Colorado Street Medics and trained many other collectives, including the Seaview Street Medic Collective (SSMC) that I studied. His training program included a variety of standard emergency medical operating procedures, a combination of allopathic and Chinese medical treatments, and a set of ethics and standards for both trainings and practice.

Medics primarily recall the history of the second wave of street medicine as a sequence of traumas, as the medics became exposed to the worst violence and harm at national and local encounters between police and demonstrators. After the Seattle WTO meeting, the Quebec City and Miami meetings (2001 and 2003 respectively) of the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting seemed to be moments of remarkable violence and trauma for the medics I have spoken too. The Republican National Committee meetings of 2004 and 2008 are also critical time markers as they were times when medics gathered nationally to support protesters and faced escalated police response in the form of tear gas and pepper spray, batons, and other weapons. PTSD is an ongoing point of discussion and concern among medics, and many collectives are focusing more energy on what is termed “self care” and “after care,” that is, physical and emotional healing after the excitement and distress of mass demonstrations.

In 2001, medics held their first national conference in Athens, Ohio. This meeting resulted in the Athens Manifesto (2001), a one-page document that collectives generally recognize as important, especially in managing the coordination of care between collectives and noncollective medics. The document is divided in four parts: proposals, rights, responsibilities, and a second proposals section. In the first proposals section medics agreed on a number of critical points. First, they agreed to incorporate antioppression work into their own trainings. Second, they agreed that democratic coordination was just as important a skill as medical technique. In the words of the manifesto: “Oppressive behavior has happened in trainings and on the streets and in the clinics coming from action medical/1st Aid people. We want to prevent it from happening again. You can be a neurosurgeon or the most experienced trainer around, but if you don’t know how to facilitate or are oppressive in your behavior, you are doing more harm than good.”

Third, authority has to be yielded to local medics, since they will be most familiar with the geographic and political history of the site/situation. The rest of the document, a series of bullet points, covers a wide variety of issues: the right to disagree, the right to check medical “references” (more on this below), the value of multiple medical traditions including Chinese, Wiccan, allopathic (a.k.a. Western medicine), and herbalism, and the management of “clinic” areas, that is, relatively safe stable locations at the margins of demonstrations where higher levels of medical care can be delivered.

In the collective I studied, the Manifesto was a point of ongoing conversations in 2008. The collective operated in a relatively isolated rural community. The community formed a street medic collective because materiel for the Iraq War moved through the town. Tear gas and pepper spray (chemical weapons) had been used to squelch peace demonstrations that included the blocking of roads. For the collective, addressing the Manifesto had meant, in their eyes, becoming a part of a larger “national scene.” (Collective Interview, 10/17/2008) While the Manifesto does have suggestions for specific collectives, its primary focus is on how to coordinate between medic organizations when they must work together at larger events. I should note that even in local protests in the immediate area of the Seaview Street Medics, they were often only one of several medic collectives offering support, so that the issues addressed by the Manifesto were certainly relevant to them.

In 2010, medics met for a second time nationally in Conneaut, Ohio. This meeting resulted in a review of the Manifesto. While the changes in language are just now circulating back to collectives, the modifications seem to serve to (1) provide more concrete procedures for resolving disputes, verifying references, etc. and (2) emphasize collective as well as individual responsibilities (e.g., in resolving differences).

Finally, while protests and meetings define time and history in many ways for medics, some singular events also mark time in their history. In particular, one collective famously (within the tightly knit medic community) conducted its own blinded randomized trials to find treatments for tear gas and pepper spray exposure on both skin and eyes. The story and results of the Black Cross Collective trials are preserved on a web site, though the collective no longer exists (Black Cross Health Collective, 2003b). Conducted in 2001, the trials verified the effectiveness of MOFIBA (mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol—now agreed upon as too dangerous to perform in the context of protests) for exposure of skin to chemical weapons such as tear gas and pepper spray and identified new effective treatments for eye exposure to chemical weapons: liquid antacid and water (LAW). (The practice of reducing treatments and protocols to short abbreviations comes from emergency medicine, which uses short mnemonics to try to help responders work systematically in chaotic situations). Subjects were exposed to pepper spray and then treated with a variety of items claimed effective by street medics. Many treatments washed out. LAW was quickly established as the gold standard for chemical weapon treatment of the eyes. The trials were not unproblematic. Nonsubjects became exposed to the chemical weapons, including at least one with allergies. However, the trials represent a high level of ownership of one of the specific skills of first- and second-wave street medicine and the development of a science for social justice, what I will later discuss as ciencia popular (people’s science) or as the Black Cross Collective terms it “activist science” (Black Cross Health Collective, 2003b).

Fighting the Power, Doing No Harm

The structure and practice of second wave (or current) street medicine reflects a combination of the legacy of first wave street medical practice and the politics of twenty-first-century radical activism in which anarchism has played a central role. Much of the essential practice of street medicine, especially “running as a medic” (i.e., serving as a medic in a protest context) remains unchanged from the 1960s. The focus on treatment of chemical weapons as a defining skill of street medicine, the ethic of doing no harm, and rules for who can and cannot train others are inherited from the first wave.

The medics also inherit from the first wave the legal structure that allows them to act. Street medicine has always been necessitated by limits in the geography of medical practice. In the first wave this meant that southern Black activists and their northern allies could not expect medical assistance (clinics were segregated in the South) when shots were fired, bombs thrown, or clubs swung. Furthermore, because of the state system of licensure, doctors who traveled south could not operate as doctors. Instead the Good Samaritan laws, which allow people to come to others’ aid with some legal protection, shielded them. The same applies to second-wave medics. EMTs are barred from entering zones of civil unrest, which characterizes many of the current peace and anticorporate globalization protests as well as natural disasters (street medics have provided care in New Orleans after Katrina, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and in Texas after Galveston suffered a hurricane). It is only under the cover of the Good Samaritan laws that street medics operate.[18] The conditions of the laws (which vary by state) determine much of what medics are allowed to do and how they operate. Specifically consent has to be obtained in most states and the care cannot be reckless or grossly negligent. Much of initial street medic training is about meeting these conditions: continuously obtaining consent (including discussions of why people may refuse) and trainings of a specific set of skills. In my own training it was repeatedly stressed the limits of our training and who could provide and what constituted higher levels of treatment, that is, the limits beyond which our actions could be taken as reckless.

The street medics ideally operate in pairs when running as medics. The fact is that the chaos of protests and the need to treat many people simultaneously often divides “buddies.” The primary protocols that street medics use are just those of emergency medicine in general, and would be familiar to any emergency responder. These protocols, as I have noted, are taught along with mnemonics so that medics can recall them in the chaos of the field, such as ABC (airways, breathing, circulation) or LOC (levels of consciousness). Bandaging, splinting, maintaining biological cleanliness, and carrying patients are also in the rudimentary skill set that medics learn. Beyond allopathic (Western) medical protocols, we also learned Chinese medical treatments for asthma and hypothermia. A particular training, organized by the Seaview Medics included an herbalist; others included allopathic doctors who support the medics. The medics take a distinctly pragmatic view toward medical practice and combine medical systems based on the recommendations of other medics they trust. Elsewhere I have referred to this as medical heteroglossia, the ability to speak multiple medical languages at the same time and to bricolage their practices together (Weinstein, 2010a, 2010b).

The allopathic medical tradition, which at least partially informs street medicine, includes a deep commitment to doing no harm. The Black Cross Collective famously adopted the slogan “fight the power; do no harm.” This clearly involves tensions, given the danger that protesters and radical communities inherently face. The specific nuances given to the Hippocratic oath are discussed at length on the Medic Wikia:

… The guiding principle—“the only bit of street medicine ideology that is consistent” according to one person interviewed—is “do no harm.” This is also the guiding principle of the Hippocratic oath, but it has a specific interpretation among street medics. It means “in the theaters of street medicine … the person you are treating, if you do anything to [harm them] you put that person into immanent danger, more than they were before.” Street medics work under the assumption that their patients might not be willing to seek care in a hospital—because they can’t afford it, fear legal ramifications, and so on—so if there is a possibility that a street medic’s treatment will make someone sicker, they will not do it. Street medicine’s emphasis on prevention and wellness rather than treatment also results from the “do no harm” ethic. Street medic protocols emphasize preventative measures such as “dress[ing] warmly, eat[ing] protein,” and debriefing afterwards if something emotionally stressful occurs. There is also a sense of crisis in the way “do no harm” is described. Street medics see their work—when it is responding to medical problems rather than preventing them—as occurring in dangerous of high-pressure situations. They lack the privilege of “back-up” from police or hospitals that a paramedic enjoys. Thus, they see an increased potential for them to commit harm with no additional resources to repair it. (Street Medic Wikia, 2007)

In my interviews with the medics of the Seaview Street Medic Collective, they repeatedly pointed to “do no harm” as a guiding principle. When pressed to explain what this meant to them, they first identified procedures they would not use because of risks (such as MOFIBA) and then they pointed to another regional medic collective that they felt embraced a contrasting philosophy of “do least harm” which meant that they were willing to do some procedures that might be riskier than the ones the SSMC were willing to teach and to use. Do no harm is also tightly connected to preserving the reputation of the medics, not just beneficence. In my training, the “Do no harm” section of the training began with an emphasis that when things go wrong it tarnishes the reputation of medics in general. This theme was picked up in medic interviews in our discussions of the collective that used “least harm” as its standard. The two collectives had different standards for what constituted a legitimate training, the SSMC felt that the shorter training that the other collective used could lead to problems and ultimately harm the reputation of street medics in general (Interview 9/18/2008). As it is, the SSMC has had to deal with people claiming medic status that were clearly unskilled and causing harm at demonstrations in Seaview—medics not trained by them.

Medics tend to serve in two types of social structures. My focus here has been primarily on what might be called “collective medics,” that is, medics who have organized to support protesters through collectives dedicated to street medicine. The collectives necessarily must maintain a degree of political autonomy from the groups that form the coalition of protesters. Their obligation is to serve protesters whatever their ideologies. Medics might even disagree with the protest itself, but feel that the safety of the protesters trump the protesters’ agenda and still serve. Affinity group medics, by contrast, serve a specific group of protesters and come from the affinity group itself. Affinity groups form a basic social structure of modern anarchist politics—and broader radical politics as well, though the origin of the concept of the affinity group is in nineteenth-century anarchism. The affinity group medic has a primary responsibility to their group and not to the protest as a whole. It is too easy to become separated from their group if they choose to assist others, and so they may have to choose to ignore people needing assistance to support their group. Talking to the Seaview collective medics, I however got the sense that the group was grateful to those who they train and ultimately serve as affinity group medics rather than becoming part the collective. Since the affinity groups might engage in riskier behaviors associated with direct action, having their own medic freed the collective medics to serve the main body of protesters rather than having to shadow black bloc groups, for instance. To be clear, it is not that they objected to the black bloc group’s actions (which have included smashing chain store or bank windows), some of the collective might even be part of such groups, but that by having their own medic the SSMC could focus their energies elsewhere.[19]

It should be clear that there is a critical division is between running as a medic and being a protester, and that the two roles are distinct, though the line between them is a fragile one, and the cause of much consternation in the SSMC. They have had to deal with people changing roles without warning, leaving medic buddies stranded, and on occasion being marked (having crosses, etc.) as a medic:

Bonny: [A medic] at the last protest, he threw off his medic gear; threw it at another medic and went and got into the blockade and got arrested. You know, he made the decision to become a protester. But he did the right thing; he unmarked it, he gave away his gear. Now we have so many medics that we have medics that are like “okay, well I know there’s going to be, you know, 10 other medic pairs there so why don’t I do this instead?”

Amy: And that’s a nice comparison. [Another medic] a little while ago did the exact opposite. He decided he just wanted to go--he was a medic; he was wearing my backpack at the time. So I remember this very well. And he got it cut (B: He got cut) because he wanted to join a line of blockaders with a medic backpack on, it turns out it’s just a black backpack. It doesn’t have any medical signs on it or anything. But if you were to open it all it has gauze and stuff inside.

Bonny: You can get in trouble for the scissors.

Amy: They didn’t have scissors at the time, but they just cut the straps and removed the bag, you know. He didn’t think about it. He didn’t even hand it off to like a friend or somebody, like, “hey, get this back to Amy” or whatever.

Bonny: That’s why you have a buddy.

Amy: No, no, he just went right in. And that, you know, we’ve had some difficulty with that kind of activity. (Interview, 9/18/2008)

Many medics of the SSMC felt loss about running as medics. They felt that the neutral position of the medic meant there were ways they could not participate in the protest. One medic who decided to switch roles for a particular protest captured this position:

Carin: Well that changes too, because for example now, after the last Anchor City protest we ran as medics, I ended up basically deciding that my presence at this protest was needed more for organization than for medics.

Me: So you switched hats.

Carin: Yeah, so I decided that that I’ve been a medic for every protest since I became a medic and I realize that I really thought that they needed my help with organizing. And I had ideas that as a medic you just—it’s not appropriate. For you to say, like, I don’t think you guys should be doing this. And I’ve always had a really hard time if I go to organizational meetings because they’ll like want the medics to represent and we’ll be like, “hey, we’re your medics.” But then it’s hard because you can’t organize, you can’t be a part of that decisionmaking … (Interview, 9/18/2008)

Carin admitted to feeling “weird” about not being in the fray, but other medics like Bonny and Amy have no such loss. Bonny loved the simple service the role provided, “It’s really nice. It’s really nice to be able to grab the people who are running out but you can see they’re, ‘waaa waaa,’ and you just grab them, eye wash them” (Interview, 9/18/2008). For Carin, part of becoming a medic was to keep her out of harm’s way, to thwart her own risky impulses:

For example, myself, part of my impetus for joining it was as a way of stopping myself from getting arrested, because I can’t help but throw myself in front of a military vehicle. I can’t help—like, I will throw myself—I can’t do anything (laughs). If I’m a medic, at least I’m doing something else and I have a good reason not to throw myself in front of a military vehicle, because I cannot get arrested. (9/18/2008)

The street medics, in short, have developed a distinct role and distinct politics within the structure of modern radical movements. Their power comes from both distinction from the coalitions that make up modern movements of resistance and empowering those very same movements through their service. But the structure and activity I have described here, associated with running as medics is a small part of the work medics do, and it is to this other part of their activities that I wish to turn.

Street Medicine as Popular Education

This is what schools should be teaching—Street Medic Trainer

Much of the work of street medics is reactive: responding to the needs of protesters. At the same time the street medic movement is just as much about education as it is about post-hoc patching up and eye-washing protesters. This is glossed over in the Medic Wikia overview of “do no harm” in its emphasis on prevention. Prevention is one of several projects medics engage in to, not just to heal, but educate. In general medic collectives are involved in multiple kinds of education projects. Of course, all collectives are involved in getting new members, which is done through formal trainings. They also brief protesters in what the SSMC calls health and safety workshops. Finally, collectives engage in a wide variety of education programs to empower the communities they serve. The SSMC, for instance, created a zine for the nearby college most of the medics were associated with about consent and date rape. Another collective has conducted workshops on “travelers’ troubles” to help disease prevention among community members who are nomadic (or even or those who are just traveling).

Much of the work of collectives is involved in organizing trainings. Most collectives seem to train new medics once or twice a year. When national/international-scale protests happen, additional trainings will be done prior to the event to help medics anticipate specific issues (new weapons they anticipate seeing, specific logistical problems of the protest site, etc.) as well as to increase the number who can provide medical support. The SSMC defines a training as twenty hours, and is part of a network of collectives that use specific outlines to provide a curriculum. The trainings involve briefings that cover specific topics such as obtaining consent, bandaging, dealing with common medical issues (hypothermia, dehydration, allergies, bee stings, etc.), issues specific to police violence including treating the effects of chemical weapons, dress, what to pack in a medical kit, and a review of police weaponry. Between briefings there is usually time to practice with a buddy—someone paired with the student at the start of the training. In addition, trainers usually stage a series of scenarios to give medics a taste of the chaos, danger, and logistical nightmares of protest situations. In my own training, scenarios included fake tear gas, working in the dark, and carrying wounded through mobs of both protesters and police.

At the SSMC training students came for a variety of reasons. Many planned to try to join the collective; others were there to be trained as affinity medics; but some were people seeking a kind of community and personal self-sufficiency. The SSMC medics seemed to find all of these reasons congruent with their purposes. This indexes a much larger mission of the street medic network—to raise the medical capacities of the communities they serve. It is only in the light of this larger purpose that strong links can be made between the structure of second wave street medicine and anarchist politics/philosophy. The street medic movement is establishing networks of medical care and educating people in general to manage a wide variety of illness and injury. As the Medic Wikia notes:

Running parallel to “do no harm” as a recognition of their limitations, street medics also believe that basic healthcare is not overly difficult to teach or learn. This tenet hearkens back to the Black Panther Party’s emphasis on demystifying healthcare. Many believe that the bureaucracy and rules currently associated with both the training for and implementation of medical care in the United States are excessive and at times counter-productive. One long-term Clinic volunteer and street medic described this as approaching medicine “without all the anxiousness and all that bureaucracy.” Street medics view street medicine as portable, because it is neither bureaucratic nor difficult. (Street Medic Wikia, 2007)

The training I went to reflected this popular vision of medical know-how. People were there to achieve individual and collective “sovereignty” (a term used by one of my fellow students). While street medics are definitely engaging in popular health education in ways congruent with health and literacy campaigns in Latin America and Africa, there is also always an understanding that their own knowledge and skills are limited. As a result the medics I have known both respect degree and length of training and acknowledge broad spectrums of medical know-how. This includes recognizing that some designations (doctor, nurse, paramedic) represent levels of skill and knowledge. In the same training I heard our educators at times condemn the medical system and acknowledge it: through reminders, for instance, that only a doctor could do this or that procedure (dispense medicine or suture, for instance). Also, a great deal of time was spent teaching us to work and communicate with the traditional EMT/medical system. In this sense the medical capacity that the medics are seeking to build cannot be read as radically “other” to the extant medical structure. They know it needs the extant system as a safety net for cases beyond the medics’ abilities (which may not mean knowledge, but the conditions to do medicine in a safe, sterile area).

Beyond the trainings, the SSMC was constantly being booked to provide workshops for protesters, and this much more than the medic trainings was their venue for popular education. In these workshops medics advised protesters what to look for in police behavior, how to dress to prevent exposure, hypothermia, and to minimize the pain and injury of chemical weapons. It provided guidance on what to bring, what to eat, and how to care for one’s belongings and self before, during, and after a demonstration. In these ways the medics have actually shaped demonstrations in subtle ways, changing the behaviors (choice of dress and choice of location) to increase the safety of protesters. This education, along with their running as medics measurably increased the capacity of protesters to resist the police. This is what the SSMC medics were most proud of: clear evidence that they had enabled more enduring resistance. As Bonny explained to me:

If you look at like videos from the last Seaview protest you see the people who have the whites around their eyes and running down. You see multiple lines; they’re different colors. That’s because they were eye-washed multiple times from being pepper sprayed multiple times. And it’s amazing when I watched the news after that how many people I saw. I cured that guy! I cured that guy! (Interview, 9/18/2008)

By eye-washing and preparing protesters (wearing the right clothes, for instance), the medics were able to somewhat neutralize what the police had counted on, to scatter demonstrators.

But, the medics push beyond the world of protesters and try to identify medical issues within their communities that they can address through education and medical action. The tackling date rape on the Oceanview College campus most clearly illustrated this, to me. Viewing the medics as merely action medics (i.e., as merely the medical back-up for demonstrators) misses a larger and community level politics. Through their short (eight-page) zine the medics addressed issues such as how to get consent, what to consent over (everything), and where to go for local support, all while trying to retain sex-positive culture in the community. This as much as action medicine illustrates the basic level at which the medics have tried to empower their immediate communities.

This politics of medically informing their communities reflects the distinctly anarchist turn of the second street medic wave. The first wave echoed, first, the civil rights movement and, later, the New Left. In its early days the MCHR pioneered the integration of the American Medical Association (AMA) and medical services in general; by the late 1960s the organization was taking part in proxy struggles at Dow Chemical and other military industrial complex industries. In the second wave there has not been examples of policy oriented reform directed action. Instead the politics of their educational activities seem focused on building an alternative community within extant capitalist society, a politics commensurate with a certain postinsurrectionist anarchist approach of creating an alternative culture within capitalism while simultaneously resisting capitalism (in the case of medics through action medicine). It should be clear that such locally oriented, institution-building practices do not mean that the medics lack a structural analysis of health. The Medic Wikia (2007) explains: “[A] commonality between anarchists and street medics is a “structural determinacy” approach to health. Both groups believe that “oppression” (racism, sexism, economic deprivation, etc.) causes poor health, rather than genetics, biology, or personal choice. To this extent, street medicine is political, because it implies that social change will go further to improve health than individual healthcare.”

There is a largely undeveloped critique of health systems common in street medic culture. The Black Cross website (2003a), for instance, states:

We believe that health care is political. The kind of care we do or don’t receive, where and how we receive that care, who provides that care, who has access to training to provide care, and what kinds of trainings are smiled or frowned upon, all involve inherently political issues. We believe the system needs to be changed … the health care system right along with all the others.

However, the site does not elaborate, that is, describe, how systematic exclusion happens. Their own actual activities reflect the second wave dual practices of action/crisis medicine and medical training. I suspect to the extent there is analysis it is similar to Paul Farmer’s concept of structural violence (2003). Farmer examines how systems of medical practice work to deny health care for the poor and oppressed. Farmer’s organization in Haiti, Partners in Health, actually brought in teams of street medics to help after the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. Farmer’s work, like the medics’, juxtaposes structural analysis and pragmatic action (direct delivery of care).

Ciencia Popular

To understand street medicine as an educational project,[20] one committed to putting medical knowledge directly in the hands of people, one has to analyze their work in contrast to other parallel projects. Street Medicine-As-Education is an effort to articulate (literally connect) technical knowledge and expertize and consuming publics. It can be contrasted in this sense with science and health schooling as well as with contrasting projects like citizen science.

In school science and health, students are taught to objectify their body, to learn the language of scientists, but ultimately to defer to scientific authority for solutions. In other words, school science is about the production of a consumer class—the development of a bioscientific market for expertize. Morris Shamos (1995) makes this explicit in his book The Myth of Scientific Literacy, arguing that disinterest in science and technology should be taken as axiomatic in school populations; that the purpose of science education should merely be educating people in the processes of science and the knowledge of how to find experts when needed. It should also be clear that science, as embodied by school science, references a standard set of facts, concepts, and technical procedures as canonized in texts like the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996). It is a systematic way of knowing that excludes practices like Chinese medicine and herbalism.

Similarly, citizen science projects—that is, projects in which scientists recruit nonscientists to participate with them in research, most famously in bird counts in which birders across North America contribute data about the bird populations of their communities—often are set up to reaffirm the role of the scientist as expert and the public is a resource or source of labor. Even online efforts such as SETI which farms out calculations in the search or extraterrestrial life—or Folding@Home which does the same for calculations of protein folding—follow this hierarchical model. Ironically, citizen science projects often reveal the fragility of this hierarchy. In many environmental citizen science projects there emerge real tensions between local knowledge of the data gatherers and the scientists’ expert knowledge (Brandt, Shirk, Jordan, Ballard & Tomasek, 2010).

School and citizen science attempt to develop or reinforce hierarchies of authority, knowledge, labor, and consumption. Both have specific visions of democracies as informed publics, but those publics are not self-sufficient communities, but publics that have simultaneously internalized the worldview of the expert and acquiescence to the expert.

Street medics acknowledge that there are hierarchies of knowledge and skill, but have no system of certification beyond an oral culture. A street medic’s authority is verified by the word of her or his trainers and her/his experience with other medics. Furthermore, street medics in a variety of forums try to share knowledge, make available what they know, and to develop and circulate knowledge intentionally shaped for communities of which they are part of, that is, to make knowledge public. Expertize is not something to be held onto but to be circulated. Knowledge follows the needs of the community rather representing an abstract worldview. This pragmatism allows street medics, in creating a popular health science, to bricolage medical traditions. This bricolage is positively encouraged through documents like the Athens Manifesto. In this way street medicine’s project is to develop and disperse knowledge that serves social justice communities both in and out of protests. It is in this sense that street medicine is a people’s knowledge, captured by the Spanish phrase ciencia popular (science of the people), a science whose questions, networks, practices, and ethos serve people in democratic struggle.

Ciencia popular implies that knowledge is not just applied to people’s struggles, but developed to advance them, that knowledge, research, and dissemination are organized around the needs of people. As others have pointed out, allopathic medicine has often been organized to answer not the questions of the colonized but the colonizers, and this continues to be a dominant pattern in neocolonial geopolitics, tropical medicine being just the most blatant example (Bass, 1990; Farley, 1991; Goonitalke, 1993). School science draws from the same standpoint of the powerful (Weinstein & Makki, 2009). Street medicine exemplifies a counterpractice, a differently organized science within but not of the capitalist healthscape.


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CHAPTER 6. Anarchist Pedagogy in Action: Paideia, Escuela Libre

Isabelle Fremeaux and John Jordan

For twenty-nine years, the city of Mérida, in Southwest Spain, has hosted what is probably the only anarchist school left in Spain: Paideia. The school is named after the classical Greek concept of civic education involving the process of personal and social training toward active citizenship, aiming not to teach “stuff” but to create a working community of learning. Broader than mere education, Paideia was conceived of as a lifelong process of character building in preparation for direct democracy. It involved the absorption of knowledge and skills, but most importantly, it was about creating a living practice of participatory self-managed citizenship. Through a unique pedagogical methodology profoundly rooted in anarchist values and principles, the small Spanish school has been facilitating such a practice with and by children.

This chapter is based on a three-day-long participant observation at Paideia, during which we shared the life of the children and the adults that constitute it. Even though this is a short period to carry out in-depth critical ethnography and, admittedly, did not offer us sufficient time to, for instance, ascertain potential discrepancies between discourses and specific practices, our sojourn in the school, during which we had unsupervised access to all students, classes, and activities, remains a good starting point for the description and analysis of anarchist pedagogy in action. Indeed it is notoriously difficult to obtain permission to visit the school, let alone undertake participant observation there and we were thoroughly vetted by the pedagogic team before being granted access in September 2007.

The chapter will describe and analyze the main pedagogical precepts that regulate the school, as well as explain how these are implemented in every aspect of the school life. Indeed, Paideia is fundamentally rooted in the notion that anarchism must be experienced, and it thus seemed crucial to communicate this through a form of reflexive storytelling. Our findings will thus be presented in the form of a narrative of our life on site.

Freedom as Responsibility

Located in an old two-story pastel yellow farmhouse on what was once the edge of the city, Paideia used to be surrounded by fields and lush olive groves. Today, every single tree has been bulldozed and the school sits in a desolate landscape of churned up brown mud and partially built roads, which make it feel like a threatened oasis stuck in the hell of urban sprawl. Enormous bulldozers roam around its edges, the old walls and floors shudder with every scoop of broken earth. When the bulldozers are gone, 1,500 brand new identical suburban homes will surround the school. “We are making the future,” declare the developers’ colorful billboards.

Term has begun a few days before our arrival and we have been asked to meet with the staff collective on the evening before we actually come to observe the daily activities of the school. The fifty-eight children have all gone home and despite the long days, from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m. with students and then admin till 9 p.m., the collective of pedagogues greet us with warmth and numerous kisses. We sit down at a large round table surrounded by messy shelves of books and towering piles of paper. Everyone introduces themselves. Josefa Martín Luengo, whom all here call “Pepa,” is one of Paideia’s founders and its main theorist; she has just published her sixth book on libertarian pedagogy, a reflection on the methodology developed at the school: Paideia, 25 años de educatión libertarian (2006). All seven female and one male teachers are adamant that they are not “teachers,” they are facilitators of experience and processes, rather than transmitters of knowledge. Most of the students call them by their first name or simply “the adults.”

Unlike “free schools” such as A.S Neill’s Summerhill in the UK (Neill, 1960; Miller, 2002), Paideia does not see the process of growing up free as something passive. It is not a relaxed laissez-faire attitude where children can simply do whatever they want while the educators remain impassive and value free. It is instead a dynamic exercise, which involves creating a working community that is held by a set of clear values and where the rights of educators and students are acknowledged as equal. Central to the life and learning of the school are seven values derived from anarchist philosophy: equality, justice, solidarity, freedom, nonviolence, culture, and most importantly happiness. More than math and languages, science and history, these are the real subjects. But how these values are learned is as important as what they represent.

“The first few weeks of term after summer are always different from the normal way the school runs,” Martín Luengo explains during this first meeting. “Returning from the summer holidays is always a problem, because for two whole months the kids live with their parents and their grandparents, who do everything for them, they watch a lot of TV, get influenced by consumerism and competitiveness. The children lose their autonomy. Thus, when they come back they forget how to do things: if they need to cut carrots, for example, they look at us with imploring eyes, they have forgotten what needs doing … Their minds aren’t free when they have to ask what to do!”

Practicing Self-Management in the Everyday

At the core of Paideia’s practice is enabling the children to take charge of their autonomy and practice self-management (Martín Luengo, 2006). From as young as eighteen months until they leave at sixteen years old, the students run the entire school in collaboration with the adults. Every aspect of school life is decided through assemblies attended by all. From organizing the lunch-time menu to planning the timetables, resolving personal conflicts to choosing what academic subjects to study, every detail is discussed and managed collectively without coercion or authority. As Martín Luengo explains: “They are free when they know what they want. It is so much simpler to be told what to do than being free. Passing on your responsibility to others is easy.”

Due to the number of students who have returned from summer holidays with “tendencies toward dependence,” as the adults call it, the school is temporarily under what is known as Mandado—which roughly translates as “to be ordered.” It is a state of exception, sometimes applied to individual students but in this case applied to the entire school. As the students are seen to no longer be able take the initiative to do things themselves and are asking the authority figures (the adults) what to do, they are mandado-ed, told what to do by the staff. This state of exception remains until the students decide to call for an assembly where they will discuss collectively whether they have returned to a state of freedom and responsibility. If there is consensus for the Mandado to be lifted, then the school will return to normal and no one will be told what to do anymore. “They need to re-find their anarchist values,” concludes Martín Luengo. “It doesn’t take long. No one likes being told what to do all the time. But if they want to be free they have to fight for it.”

The morning after, we go to the school for 9:30 a.m. and wait for the children. The school bus arrives, a long sleek brand new white coach. Children pour out. The older ones hold hands with the little ones guiding them down the steps and into the school grounds where they pat the two lounging school dogs and are kissed by the waiting adults. The smaller children, eighteen months to five years old, peel off to the kindergarten annex; we stay with the older ones in and around the main building.

There is a flurry of activity as the children scatter in every direction to join their different “collective working groups.” We follow the cooking group: seven children in mixed ages from five to sixteen go into the kitchen put on white aprons and start preparing the day’s meals. Outside, a couple of children are swinging on the trapeze attached to an old crooked Cypress tree but the rest are busy, some weeding the garden, some tidying the classrooms, and a few sweeping floors with brooms that are nearly twice as tall as them. Despite the state of Mandado, no one seems to tell anybody what to do. There is a constant flow and movement of energized children throughout the building, getting on with things without being managed by teachers or even a school bell. In fact the school has no bells, and the only clock visible seems to be a tiny plastic one tucked away in the corner of the kitchen where the cooking group are chatting away as they prepare breakfast. All take part: the older children and one adult look after the younger ones as even five-year-olds wield large knives, diligently cut up tomatoes, and stir the industrial cauldrons.

Every Friday, a working group in charge of the week’s daily meals meets to organize cooking for sixty people. Spanning from six to thirteen years old and chaired by one of the children but with an educator present to guide them on issues such as nutrition and balanced diets, the group decides a daily menu. Each child proposes an idea for a dish, which is debated and agreed upon. If it happens to be one of their birthdays, they have the right to choose the day’s menu without debate. Once the week’s menus are set, the children check what food is left in the store cupboards. Lists are made, the children, armed with specially devised forms, decide who will telephone the wholesale suppliers to place the weekly provisions order, and then cooking begins. Next week another group will take over.

“Come on, it’s time to work, Manu,” calls Carlos from the kitchen. Although he is only seven, and not the official coordinator of the cooking group, who is thirteen-year-old Arai, Carlos is able to see what needs doing and can gently wheel his friend away from playing and back in the kitchen. Meanwhile, three other children, who can’t be older than nine, are going around the entire school with a pen and paper, asking everyone how many fried eggs they want for lunch. They skip up the wooden stairs, past a 1930s framed poster declaring: “If the tyrant doesn’t grow the wheat; why do you demand bread?”

Food is seen as a key aspect of the socialization process at Paideia: not only is it a simple way of coming together and building relationships, but by giving the children the opportunity to choose their own food and cook, they learn to be much more independent and self-reliant. The nursery children are the first to eat in the morning. They arrive holding each other’s hands, accompanied by an adult. A five-year-old and two three-year-olds begin to set the tables for the twenty-three children of the nursery.

Values as Pedagogical Framework

The white walls of the dining room next door are plastered with colored pieces of paper each printed with a different quote, including Joseph Proudhon’s famous tirade: “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censured, commanded” (1851).

No school is value free, state or otherwise. State schools are potent vehicles for replicating the values of capitalism (Giroux, 1984, 1987). For eighteenth-century philosopher William Godwin, there were two axes of power: government and education (Pollin, 1962). Godwin argued that since government depended on the consent of the governed, the most important area for political struggle was education, because it was there that people’s thinking was formed. In 1783, as the public debate over the implementation of mass state education was taking place, he published a prospectus for a school that abolished authority and valued the autonomy of the child, in which he expressed his fear that if education fell into the hands of the state, “governments [would] not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions” (1783).

His vision was prescient: individualism, competitiveness and the acceptance of hierarchical authority, the dominant values of our culture, are subtly encouraged through schooling to this day (Whitty and Young, 1976; Giroux, 1988). Although not necessarily part of the openly designed public curriculum, these values are transmitted through the conditions of learning and the way the school operates. It is a form of “hidden curriculum” where implicit values and priorities are picked up at an unconscious level. It is not blatant indoctrination but insidious influences that emanate from the everyday climate and structures of the school; the relationship between teacher and pupil, the layout of the classroom, the way the school is managed, the system of rewards and punishments, and so on. Added to this are the unexamined and unspoken assumptions of the teachers who send messages out daily: only certain kinds of achievements count, bookish learning is more valuable than practical skills, middle-class values are more worthwhile than working-class ones, obedience to law is good, disobedience is bad, certain career choices are more worthy than others, contributing to society is honored, criticizing is discouraged (Postman & Weingartner, 1969). Despite a long tradition of anarchist educational ideas and practices (Bakunin, 1969; Suissa, 2010), many which eventually percolated into mainstream education, there is rarely any mention of it in histories of education and pedagogical theory.

“Children must be accustomed to obey, to think, according to the social dogmas which govern us” wrote Spanish anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer (Spring, 1998, p. 23) describing church-run Spanish state schools in the first decade of the twentieth century. Freed from religion, his Escuela Moderna (Modern School) was about “a drawing out rather than a driving in” (Avrich, 2006, p. 192). It was a process of self-development where the child’s unique spirit could be nurtured rather than shaped or suppressed. His ideas spread following the global condemnation of his mock trial and execution after the bloody suppression of a Catalan antiwar uprising in 1909. As a result forty-eight schools inspired by his ideas sprang up in Spain and many more across the world (Avrich, 2006). The notion that education could be for emancipation rather than subservience began to gain ground. Ferrer had been inspired himself by earlier anarchist experiments in France, first at Cempuis (Brémand, 1992), a state school where Paul Robin’s ideas of integral education aimed to develop every aspect of the child’s potential—physical, intellectual and moral and where sexes were mixed, something unheard of at the time (Demeulenaere-Douyere, 2003)—and later at La Ruche, which merged an independent school, with a cooperative farm funded by the production of honey.

To anarchists, the whole idea of teachers imposing authority on children and there being a hierarchical learning relationship where knowledge is poured into the silent, obedient heads of students, is an anathema (Avrich, 2006). Despite the evolution of teaching methodologies in the twentieth century and the recent trend of “student-centered learning” (Rogers, 1983a and 1983b), the underlying structures of most schools remain the same. It is still the teacher who decides when the “student-centered learning” takes place, where it will happen and what the student will learn. The student is certainly not the center of decision-making but a passive recipient of decisions made from “above.” They don’t learn to own themselves but to obey others. They have been ingrained with what primitivist author Derrick Jensen (2000) says is our culture’s central belief, “that it is not only acceptable but desirable and necessary to bend others to our own will” (p. 242). Spending six hours a day for twelve years in a place where they have virtually no say in anything, where being governed is all they know, a profound passivity becomes normalized, the hopelessness of submission becomes fixed deep below the child’s skin. It is a perfect preparation for the consumerist future that awaits them (Giroux, 2000).

Asambleas: The Core of Self-Management at Paideia

“Religion fuera de la escuela!” (Kick religion out of schools!) reads a red and black sticker stuck on the large oak double doors that open to reveal the main entrance hall. Children are running up and down the wooden staircase, the noise resonates through the building. A tall, skinny sixteen-year-old, her freckled heart shaped face framed by enormous jangling hooped earrings, bounds up to us. Everyone kisses and she introduces herself as Jara. “That was our collective work session,” she tells us breathlessly. “It is when we all do the cooking, cleaning, etc. Let me explain our timetable to you.” She leads us to a cork notice board at the back of the hall. Sepia postcards of the CNT anarchist-run tram system during the 1936 revolution are pinned beside colorful lists of workshop groups and numerous timetables decorated with children’s crayon drawings.

“After the collective work we have breakfast. Then from 11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m., we either have an assembly or attend a workshop, after that we have free time till lunch at three, unless we are in the cooking group that week. After lunch it’s collective work again till four, followed by an hour-and-a-quarter-long workshop and finally afternoon tea at five before we head home.” Jara realizes that she is dominating the conversation and turns to Manuel, a shy, spotty classmate of hers. She encourages him to continue the explanation. The timetables are decided by asambleas. Before each term starts, a general asamblea takes place in order to analyze how the last term went, decide what subjects pupils want to study in the workshops (the preferred term to “lesson”), what working groups they want to be in and how the timetable should be organized. There are four age groups in the upper school, each with a self-assigned name and their own classroom: five-to-seven-year olds’ “cool group,” the seven-to-eight-year-olds’ “tornado,” the nine-to-eleven “group one,” and twelve-to-fifteen “group two.”

When we ask Lali, one of the adults, if it is OK for us to attend a workshop, she retorts sternly: “Don’t ask me, ask the children.” Feeling rather embarrassed at our faux pas, we get to the door of a classroom full of ten-year-olds. One of them stands out from the other distinctly Latin children, with his blond hair and blue eyes. He invites us in, in an English rounded by a strong Yorkshire accent. He has been living in Mérida for two years. At first he went to state school, but learned little Spanish since the only time he could practice speaking was in the playground: most of the school day was spent sitting silently in class listening to unrecognizable words. In Paideia, he quickly became bilingual: the school not only thrives on children’s conversations, but is run by them, through the debates at the asamblea.

The general asamblea is the main organ of school life, attended by both children and adults, and facilitated by the former; it is where every decision that affects the whole school is taken. Even in the nursery, the day starts with one, facilitated by four- and five-year-olds. Seeing our astonished looks, Augosto, the only male adult of the school, explains: “They do it really, almost better than older children because they take it really seriously. The small ones who cannot yet speak obviously don’t take part in the decision-making, but they know that the asamblea is where one sits quietly and listens.” In the primary and secondary school, asambleas are fed by a series of “commissions,” which give feedback about what is happening in the school. Made up of groups of two to four children, armed with complex tables to fill in, the commissions are mirrors to reflect the workings of the school back to itself. They relate information and analysis to the general asamblea, and rotate every fortnight. Chris explains that he is in the “solution makers commission”: “I have to be on the look out for problems and conflicts that arise … if there is a problem we go and try to help out, if we can’t find a solution there and then, we call an asamblea.” There are commissions to observe the school bus, manage the teaching materials, and even a “values commission,” whose members observe how the values of equality, justice, solidarity, freedom, nonviolence, culture, and happiness are being practiced.

Nonviolent Conflict Resolution

A dozen children walk purposefully through the open door of the classroom, none of them are older than seven. “Pablo bit me, we have to have an asamblea!” declares Miguel as they shepherd Pablo, a new boy, out into the main hall. They find a corner and sit in a circle on the floor. Everyone is talking. Hands are flailing passionately. Adriane, a supremely confident seven-year-old takes a piece of paper from her notebook and draws two columns on it: one for stacking the speakers, the other for the proposals. She begins to facilitate. A hush descends on the gaggle. One by one the children put up their hands to speak. Miguel calmly explains the situation: “Pablo snatched my workbook and then bit me.” The other children describe their version of events. Most of them seem totally relaxed, it is clearly a normal part of conflict resolution at Paideia. Pablo, however, is reacting differently: he is tense, frustrated and fidgeting nervously. “Why did Miguel call for an assembly when I didn’t do anything?” he shouts. He doesn’t wait for the facilitator to take his turn speaking. This is hardly surprising: while most of the children have been attending assemblies since they started school at eighteen months old, Pablo arrived here two weeks ago. The resolution of conflicts through nonviolent methods is a crucial part of the curriculum at Paideia (Martín Luengo, 2006, p. 96) and one that the children learn through practice rather than abstractly in “citizenship classes.”

Eventually an adult, Lali, arrives: she has heard Pablo speaking out of turn and decided to come and see if she could help out. “I wanted to see Miguel’s drawing … he wouldn’t let me. But I didn’t bite him,” Pablo remonstrates. Miguel shows everyone the bite mark on his arm. The children study it carefully, then one of them realizes one can tell who bit whom by looking at the shape of the bite marks and relating it to the tooth pattern. Suddenly they are all biting their own arms to see what marks they leave. But the bite marks on Miguel don’t seem to match Pablo’s. “Did you bite yourself?” Lali quizzes Miguel, who shakes his head blamelessly. Lali calmly mediates between the two children: “Pablo, you cannot force someone to show you their drawing. If your friend says he doesn’t want you to do something, you don’t do it.” She turns to Miguel: “And you have to help Pablo if you see him doing things in a violent way.” However, she lets Adriane play her role of facilitator of the spontaneous asamblea. The latter suggests that it is time to make some proposals. “My proposal is that Pablo should not be in the Tornado group,” suggests Carlos. Another proposal is that he is sent out from communal life for a bit. “I have another one,” says Lali, “Pablo is new and has to learn to behave in a different way. How can he learn to be different without being in a group? His problem is not the group he is in, but himself. The group has to help him and he has to respect the group.” Adriane summarizes the proposals, a vote is taken on each one, the kids raise their hands, Adriane counts and notes the results. Lali’s proposal gains unanimous support, apart from Miguel who abstains.

Learning at Paideia is thus not simply about acquiring abstract knowledge—dates, facts, and arithmetic—but about encouraging a different way of being in the world, evolving the senses and deepening the capacity to connect with one’s own potentiality and that of others. By instilling the seven values the school sets a clear and dynamic direction. Unlike the “hidden curriculum” of state schools, these profoundly human principles are the visible anchors of the curriculum. Constantly referred to, analyzed and reflected upon, they are the center of gravity of the school’s culture (Martín Luengo, 2006, p. 96).

The values of solidarity, justice, freedom and nonviolence all aim to resolving conflict through dialogue, which is one of the keys to the school’s culture (Martín Luengo, 2006, p. 122). The only time that a child has been expelled was when they were repeatedly violent. The value entitled “culture” is about acquiring the skills so that others don’t interpret the world for the children. As for “happiness,” it is seen as more than a value, rather it is the sum of all the values. However, as Martín Luengo had explained to us: “It is not about getting everything you want, it is about attaining emotional maturity and stability. It’s about being not having.”

The educators were candid about the fact the hardest value to attain was “equality,” which is a fundamental objective of Paideia (Martín Luengo, 2006, p. 111). This difficulty has actually resulted in one of the most controversial practices of the school: to alleviate social privileges and the acquisition of cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1990), students are not allowed to follow any extracurricular activities.

Open Classroom

The history workshop is in full swing. “I like history,” Chris tells us, “especially the Napoleonic period, we should learn from the mistakes of the past so we don’t repeat them.” He chose to do the subject at the general asamblea where the staff suggest a dozen different workshops and the class groups collectively decided five that they want to do. Chris’s group chose: History, English, Global Economy, Grammar, and Art.

The classroom windows are wide open and the smell of cooking drifts up the stairs. Although a blackboard covers the back wall, there is no teacher standing in front of it lecturing. In fact there is no adult to be seen anywhere. The half a dozen students sit facing each other in a circle of desks each one getting on with their own work. Some are diligently writing notes or filling in workbooks while others are leaning back on their chairs chatting. Every now and then Chris gets up to pick a book off the shelves lining the wall. Anton has just aimed a rubber at a classmate, it ricochets off the side of his head. Iban asks Miguel if he can help: “I can’t do this. I don’t understand.” Miguel leans over to explain. Iban starts scribbling in his book, but it doesn’t take it long before he is distracted again. “Give me your pencil, Miguel.” He reaches across the desk. “No, I’m working,” Miguel replies, annoyed. “Oh, be quiet, Iban,” Anton pleads.

Despite the appearance of mild chaos, academic learning must be taking place: the school boasts excellent end-of-compulsory-education exam results. The school has not been properly legalized by the state, and consequently the students cannot take their final exams here. They must therefore finish their schooling in the local college.

Pepa walks casually into the classroom. “If your work is ready I can correct it,” she says. Iban trots out of the door, but Anton produces his workbook. “Hmm … there is a lack of good grammar, just like last year,” she says and strolls into another classroom. “Shit,” grumbles Anton, screwing up his sheet of paper, “I have to start all over again.”

We ask the children what motivates them to study in the absence of coercion. Chris and Anton explain that all students fill in and sign “commitment” forms, which list the personal commitments they have decided to make and a date by which they commit to have completed them (see examples Martín Luengo, 2006, p. 509). Commitments range from how many projects and workbooks they are going to complete, to how they are going practice the anarchist values, what collective work they will do, to what they commit to on an affective level. At the end of the term they collectively assess each other’s commitments. If the asamblea thinks that someone has not fulfilled them properly, they can be mandadoed for a while. They also make a commitment to do what is called “intellectual work.” This is a totally self-determined project, on a subject of their choice. Chris has decided to do a project on the Roman Empire. In a fortnight he will stand in front of his group and present it. He won’t be given any mark since there is no form of summative assessment. However he will have to take part in “La Prueba Larga” (i.e., the big test) at the end of term, an in-depth formative assessment that takes place one to one with an educator in Martín Luengo’s study. A holistic appraisal observing the development of the child, it looks at everything from motor coordination to numeracy, character traits to the way they engage with asambleas, energetic temperament to diction, artistic proclivity to relationship to food, emotional qualities to social skills, grasp of history to connection with their own bodies. All these traits are recorded on complex psychopedagogic tables (see templates in Martín Luengo, 2006, 366–508), which are evidence of the rigor of Paideia’s pedagogic methodology.

Punishments and Uprisings

Jara takes us into Pepa’s office. It is covered with political posters, including one that proclaims: “If fighting for a better world means being a terrorist; then I am a terrorist.” The lanky teenager plunks herself on the large, paper-strewn desk. “This is the headmistress’ office,” she smiles cheekily. “It is funny, most people in Mérida don’t understand this place, they think it’s a boarding school or somewhere for people with mental illness. They don’t believe anyone learns anything. But a lot of our friends are jealous that we don’t have any exams and so never fail anything.” We ask if there is any form of punishment. “The main punishment is to be taken out of the collective life, to do things on your own, to eat and study without your friends. Sometimes you have to spend all day cooking. Once I spent two weeks in this office, no one was allowed to come and see me, but they did anyway!” she grins. “When you decide that you are ready to go back, then you go to the asamblea and explain that you have realized why you were punished and have reflected on what you did.” She looks up to the ceiling thoughtfully. “You know, you can tell when people have changed. In the asamblea you can see when people have really thought through their behavior. Then everyone decides whether you should return from exclusion or not, sometimes there is a trial period … I think it’s a just form of punishment.”

At first, it reminded us of Maoist self-criticisms and confession rituals. Yet emphasis on the notion of responsibility as a collective as well as individual value, and constantly trying to eliminate all forms of authoritarianism quickly changed our opinion. Moreover an anecdote pointed to the coherence of the antiauthoritarian approach at Paideia. Indeed, as one would expect from an anarchist school, there have been student uprisings. The most serious one was five years ago when the children excluded all the adults from school and ran it themselves. It began, as it should, during an asamblea. Most of the time everyone moves about the school freely, weaving in and out of classrooms at will. There is hardly a closed door in sight. But there is a strict rule stating that no one is allowed to walk out of an asamblea without asking the facilitator first.

“One day,” Jara enthusiastically recounts, “we were all screaming and shouting at each other during the asamblea. Pepa got really annoyed, and walked out in a huff. The rest of the adults followed. So the children decided that as they hadn’t asked the facilitator, they should all be excluded. The adults agreed and went away. They spent their days reading and playing cards, only looking after the little ones. All the older children had to take on the adult roles, correcting each others’ work and so on, but this meant they did not have time to do any of their own stuff. After a week we realized it wasn’t working.” The children called the adults into an asamblea, apologized and asked them to come back: running the school without the adults was proving too much work! “Whenever I tell the story of our ‘occupation’ to my friends from ‘outside,’ they don’t believe me,” says Jara.

Constant Evolution and Experimentation

Schools most often seem suffused with a rigid sense of stillness, places where not much changed, where each term looked very much like the next, where bodies were tense and timetables static. Very occasionally a cathartic outburst would disturb the icy routine, but the authorities would soon repress it. The atmosphere at Paideia could not be more different. There is constant movement, not just the physical motion of the children’s bodies through the building, but the whole structure of the school is organically evolving and adapting. Timetables, subject matters, working groups; everything is always being carefully considered, revised, adjusted, and tailored to the specific students and situation. The only things that remain constant are the anarchist values, the moral foundations, everything else is up for amendment via the asambleas. Some might see this constant fluctuation as destabilizing and counterproductive to learning. But for anarchist educators, encouraging interactive experimentations is one of the linchpins of their pedagogy. Learning is a continuous feedback process fueled by free will. The role of anarchist education is to reclaim free will, not simply for the sake of practicing freedom but because free will is seen as the catalyst of qualitative learning, and learning to learn is a big step toward autonomy.

Yet it has not always been a smooth ride and Paideia has had a stormy history: it was founded in 1978 after a similar experiment in Fregenal de la Sierra (started by the same group of three women) was shut down by the right-wing authorities. It has always been run as a cooperative, made up of parents and supporters of the project and the adult collective of educators. Over the years there have been internal splits and parental coups, including attempts to abandon the principle of self-management. The main tension has been with parents who don’t understand the difference between a progressive school and a truly free school. For the founders, Paideia is not simply an alternative to mainstream schooling, in fact it is a radical critique of everything a school normally stands for. Some parents wanted to turn Paideia into what Martín Luengo describes as “a school for the bourgeoisie.” “They wanted the pedagogy but not the ideology,” she told us indignantly.

The school has survived the crises by constantly changing, evolving and responding to the problems over the years. Very little seems immutable here and anarchism’s emphasis on permanent experimentation is the key to its longevity. There is however a constant lack of money, illustrated by the slightly shabby feel of the buildings and decor. A monthly fee of 545 euros per student pays for the upkeep of the school, the rent, school bus, all meals and materials; what is left goes to the collective. If parents cannot afford the fee, arrangements are made to pay in installments and there is a solidarity fund for parents who can afford to pay more to help families who find the fees difficult.

The lack of money however means that salaries are very low, which forces Gloria, one of the teachers, to also teach in the local state school. This gives her an invaluable perspective on Paideia’s pedagogical approach. When we ask her if she thinks that the anarchist school is an island, her answer is a resolute “no.” “It’s the opposite of an island,” she tells us, “because people leave here with skills for critical analysis, they can engage and challenge the world. In the state system there is no critique of anything. The whole thing is based on domination and authority, between staff and pupils but also between older and younger pupils, heads and teachers. There are so many levels of authority and no love. That’s the island: kids who are little individualistic islands.”

The notion of love is primordial to Gloria. “In the state school the children are not loved by the teachers, in fact the students become an enemy and the whole idea is to domesticate them.” She also thinks that the whole experience of early schooling is deeply confusing for children. “At five or six years old, when the children move to primary school, they go from a situation where learning is about talking to each other and playing, to one where suddenly everything changes: they have to sit and be silent. The only way this can be achieved is by bringing in fear, punishment and authority.”

She tries to apply some of Paideia’s pedagogy to the state system, but it is complex: “The children get confused: suddenly they are allowed to talk, to have asambleas, to criticize. I use asambleas in my classes, but the other teachers are completely against it, they feel personally threatened. The parents at first thought it was a waste of time, especially when the children felt it was more important to resolve conflicts than to do math or languages, but now they have come to understand that it was worthwhile.”

Life after Paideia

The afternoon sun beats down, we retreat to the shade on the edge of the playground. We are chatting to ex-students Laura and Johanna. Eighteen years old, both dressed in tight white jeans and belly tops, they give off an air of relaxed self-confidence. “I come back here after college, sometimes every day,” Laura tells us, her big chocolate eyes framed by a mass of dark tangled hair. Both her and Johanna are at the local instituto (high school) preparing for their final exams, yet they are still deeply committed to the longevity of Paideia. “It is not like a school here, more like a family,” Laura explains. “People have their responsibilities and commitments to each other; everyone helps one another.”

“The hardest thing here,” Johanna chips in, “is the work one does on oneself, pushing oneself. In the end it’s worth it for the satisfaction of getting somewhere. But the other hard thing,” she says with a hint of sadness in her voice, “is leaving this place.”

We are intrigued at how it must feel to go from the freedom of Paideia to the rigidity of the state institute. One of the questions often leveled at alternative education is whether it can prepare students adequately for the “real” world. “The first thing I noticed was that we had to sit in rows instead of circles,” Laura gestures in disbelief. “I was shocked that I had to have my back towards my friends … Also the relationships between teachers and pupils, and between pupils themselves is so different, in many ways it feels ultra-masculine. There seemed to be men shouting and telling others to do things all the time. And they use the grammatical masculine everywhere, instead of @!”[21] Despite these elements of disruption, both teenagers insist that schooling at Paideia have given them a strong grounding, in that they have been taught how to learn and so has given them a huge advantage over the other college students who don’t seem to have the ability or the motivation unless they obliged and directed.

We are impressed by the maturity of Laura and Johanna, but cannot help wondering why did so few of the ex-students become “activists”; in fact we haven’t heard of any and this seems almost counterintuitive to us. Is the school really embedded in social movements or is it just creating free children, who would end up working in capitalist society as atomized individuals? Do these young adults schooled in anarchism really want radical change? Or, as political philosopher and social ecologist Murray Bookchin wrote in his abrasive critique of contemporary anarchism, did they “eschew any serious commitment to an organized, programmatically coherent social confrontation with the existing order” (1995, p. 58). They certainly are not what he calls “Lifestyle Anarchists,” wallowing in subcultures, celebrating “latter day anarcho-individualism … with polymorphous concepts of resistance … disconnected with the public sphere” (1995, p. 10).

Maybe what the school has taught them is a trick: to mask their anarchism, to work embedded in their communities and become anarchists “disguised” as hairdressers and postmen, psychologists and teachers, lawyers and nurses. In doing so, they refuse the division of labor that occurs when activists take on the role of social change expert. As Andrew X pointed out in his seminal essay “Give Up Activism”: “To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change” (2001). Activism, he explains, not only reproduces capitalism’s divisions of labor but it encourages hierarchies, fetishizes action, self-sacrifice, and isolates the “activist” from “normal people.” More often than not, he writes, “activism” gets in the way of real change. In the end it is not what we call ourselves that matters but the way we behave. This approach was confirmed by Martín Luengo herself: “We don’t want to produce conveyor belt anarchists, each student has to choose their own way,” she explained. For her, the ideal student is one that, “practices anarchy and anarchist values where ever they go.” “In Spain,” she continued, “many of the youth who gravitate towards Anarchism don’t really understand its core ideas—they are attracted to violence and rebellion without embodying the real values. In fact they embody the very things that the state identifies with anarchism: disorder and dirtiness. If you can’t change the way you think then you don’t change anything. In Mérida, students transmit their values to others, there is more free thinking locally, more libertarian unions, and a strong alternative culture. And …” she pauses, to allow a mischievous grin to spread across her face, “no student ever got married.”


At Paideia, the theory is that freedom and autonomy cannot be taught, only experienced. Its pedagogy is based on the conviction that when freedom is merely given, it tends to create a distorted individualistic concept of freedom, common within capitalist culture. For the pedagogues of Paideia, freedom is an active process, it is the art of developing personalities who have an uninhibited sense of volition embedded within acute consciousness of self and connection to the other. Only a transformed selfhood can display the attentive self-consciousness needed to engage in self-management and prepare us for living in a community of other self-realizing beings (Clark, 1984). The students learn to be free by working together to create the collective conditions for freedom; from which emerges not unlimited freedom but what political philosopher Alan Ritter (1980) calls “communal individuality.” Through a rigorous and highly theorized and reflexive pedagogical practice (Martín Luengo, 1978, 1990, 1993, 2006), the school enables a kind of direct feedback mechanism to occur, where individual freedom and collective responsibility go hand in hand and encourage each other toward ever-greater autonomy.


This is an edited version of a chapter in Fremeaux, I. & Jordan, J. (2011) Les Sentiers de l’Utopie. Paris: Zones (a book/film available in French on from February 2011).


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Martín Luengo, J. (2006). Paideia: 25 años de educación libertaria. Manual teórico-práctico. Madrid: Ediciones Villakañeras-Colectivo Paideia.

Martín Luengo, J. (1981). Intento de educación antiautoritaria y psicomotriz en preescolar. Mérida: S.I.

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CHAPTER 7. Spaces of Learning: The Anarchist Free Skool

Jeffery Shantz

Social theorist Michel Foucault used the occasion of his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces,” to introduce a term that would remain generally overlooked within his expansive body of work, the notion of the “heterotopia,” by which he meant a countersite or alternative space, something of an actually existing utopia. In contrast to the nowhere lands of utopias, heterotopias are located in the here-and-now of present-day reality, though they challenge and subvert that reality. The heterotopias are spaces of difference. Among the examples Foucault noted were sacred and forbidden spaces which are sites of personal transition.

Decades later, Foucault’s notion of heterotopias would be echoed by the anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson. Published in 1985 under the pen name Hakim Bey, the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism would become an almost instant contemporary anarchist classic. In T.A.Z. Wilson/Bey outlines, in often exhilarating flourishes, a lively version of anarchist heterotopias. These anarchist heterotopias, now called TAZ, are the anarchist society in miniature. In them structures of authority are suspended, replaced by relations of conviviality, gift-sharing, and celebration. They are living embodiments of what the anarchist Peter Kropotkin termed “mutual aid.” And they exist, not in a postrevolutionary future of in the distance, but right here, right now.

While Bey’s work put forward some unique visions, and did so in often-provocative language engendering a fair bit of controversy within anarchist circles, what he calls TAZ, or something very close to them, have always been part of anarchist culture and politics, as well as the culture and politics of the working classes and oppressed more generally. These have been, in other contexts, infrastructures of resistance (Shantz, 2009). To mention only a few examples, one might make note of the culturally vital and politically raucous Wobbly union halls of the 1910s and 1920s, the revolutionary community centers of Barcelona during the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s and the variety of squatted cultural centers of Europe from the 1960s to the present. Indeed Wilson/Bey’s inspiration is drawn explicitly from the diversity of heterotopias and intentional communities of history, including pirate utopias, the Munich Soviet of 1919, Paris 1968, autonomist uprisings in Italy during the 1970s, and the radical ecology camps of the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the last two decades, whether aware of this history or not, many young anarchists, punks and artists took Bey’s message to heart, building a host of community centers, infoshops, and free spaces in cities across North America, including Toronto. These spaces were intended as something a bit more permanent than the temporary autonomous zone. Envisioned as permanent autonomous zones, or at least potentially durable ones, these anarchist spaces have provided support structures for oppositional cultures, infrastructures of resistance. They have formed crucial aspects of the broader do-it-yourself (DIY) movements which provide alternative cultural and economic infrastructures in music, publishing, video, radio, food, and, significantly, education. Anarchist heterotopias provide important sites for skills development, for learning and practicing those skills which are undeveloped in authoritarian social relations.

Their existence allows for some autonomy from the markets of capital, some freedom from the restrictions of mainstream education. Their ethos runs counter to capitalist consumerism: play rather than work, gifts rather than commodities, needs rather than profits. For participants, they provide the imaginal, if not the material, means for undermining state and capital relations and authorities both ideological and structural. Practice often settles for something much less than that.

Contemporary anarchist heterotopias are not to be confused with the intentional or “drop-out” communities that have emerged at various points in North America, most recently the countercultural communes in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary anarchists are less interested in dropping out, preferring to build alternatives in alliance with people involved in more mainstream projects rooted in the day-to-day experiences of poor and working-class people. Anarchist heterotopias today are most likely to be located in urban neighborhoods and open and accessible to community involvement, rather than the arcadian spaces of isolated rural communes.

The following provides a glimpse into one such heterotopia, the Anarchist Free Space and Free Skool (AFS). Hopefully the images reveal both the promise and problems that people face while trying to create room for education outside of the confining structures of the permitted. These are experiences of collaborative learning over several years bridging classrooms and communities, particularly marginalized communities, to highlight opportunities for critically engaged teaching and learning. Through participatory approaches bringing students and street involved people together in contexts in which people are simultaneously teachers and learners these efforts contributed to a teaching/learning praxis informed by critical pedagogy and antiauthoritarian social perspectives contributing to empowerment for learners and communities. Along the way participants tried to effect positive changes in themselves, the skool, and the community.

Anarchy and Education

For anarchists, learning should help people to free themselves and encourage them to change the world in which they live. As Joel Spring (1998, p. 145) suggests: “[E]ducation can mean gaining knowledge and ability by which one can transform the world and maximize individual autonomy.” Anarchist pedagogy aims toward developing and encouraging new forms of socialization, social interaction, and the sharing of ideas in ways that might initiate and sustain nonauthoritarian practices and ways of relating. At the same time it is hoped that such pedagogical practices might contribute to revolutionary changes in people’s perspectives on society, encouraging broader social changes.

Anarchists seek freedom from internalized authority and ideological domination. “In the modern state, laws were internalized within the individual, so that ‘freedom’ merely meant the freedom to obey the laws that one had been taught to believe” (Spring, 1998, p. 40). Internalization of the laws through socialization in school has been viewed as a means to end disobedience and rebellion. Freedom is freedom from direct control of the state but only if one acts according to the laws of the state (Spring, 1998).

The protoanarchist Max Stirner referred to the thought that one could not get rid of, the thought that owned the individual, as “wheels in the head.” Such thought controlled the will and used the individual, rather than being used by the individual (Stirner). What Stirner called “the ownership of the self” meant the elimination of wheels in the head. Stirner distinguished between the educated and the free. For the educated person, knowledge shaped character. It was a wheel in the head that allowed the individual to be possessed by the authority of the church or the state. For the free one, on the other hand, knowledge facilitated choice, awakened freedom. With the idea of freedom awakened within them: “the freemen will incessantly go on to free themselves; if on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient, cringing souls” (Stirner, 1967, p. 23). For the free, knowledge is a source of greater choice rather than a determiner of choice (Spring, 1998, p. 39). Ideas, as wheels in the head, subject people to the ideas themselves. Domination does not refer only to the internalization of ideologies that refer to sacrifice for supposed needs of society, external to the individual. It also refers to moral imperatives that capture a person’s creative capacities.

There were two levels of wheels in the head. The first leveled people through everyday life. One went to church and paid taxes because that was what one was taught; that was the way one lived. On the second level were ideals—ideals that move people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the fatherland, that made them try to be Christ-like, ideals that led them to give up what they were for some unrealizable goal. It was this realm of ideals upon which the strength of the Church and State was built. Patriotism and religious fervor were the results of people being possessed by ideals. (Spring, 1998, pp. 40–41)

Stirner objected to notions of “political liberty” because it only spoke of the freedom of institutions and of ideology. Political liberty “means that the polis, the State, is free; freedom of religion that religion is free, as freedom of conscience signifies that conscience is free; not therefore that I am free from the State, from religion, from conscience, or that I am rid of them” (Stirner, 1963, pp. 106–7). This perspective proved profoundly influential for a range of Free Skool participants, as it has for anarchist educators for decades.

The free school movement finds its inspiration in the anarchist Modern School movement begun by Francisco Ferrer in Spain. The free school movement emerged in the 1950s and spread through the 1960s as an effort to develop alternative forms of education and self-development in a context that was considered increasingly alienating, rationalized, and industrial. Anarchists were actively involved in the free school movement and their involvement is seen as crucial to the antiauthoritarian character and direction of the movement. Free schools were viewed as “an oasis from authoritarian control and as a means of passing on the knowledge to be free” (Spring, 1998, p. 55). Indeed, one of the principle proponents of the free school movement was the best-known anarchist in the United States, Paul Goodman, whose works were widely read and discussed during the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, contemporary anarchist activists have rediscovered Goodman’s works through recent emerging movements. Free schools were, for Goodman, part of a broader decentralization and de-bureaucratization of social institutions. Goodman argued that schooling had become a process of grading and certification that largely benefited industrial elites who gained trained, and largely obedient, personnel. Education had become more and more geared toward perceived labor market demands. For Goodman (1966, p. 57): “This means, in effect that a few great corporations are getting the benefit of an enormous weeding out and selective process—all children are fed into the mill and everybody pays for it.” In response Goodman argued for the development of small-scale schools or minischools in urban centers. Through participatory involvement and decentralization, these minischools could allow for direction according to the needs and desires of students and the communities and neighborhoods in which the schools were situated. Goodman also suggested that “in some cases schools could dispense with their classes and use streets, stores, museums, movies and factories as places of learning” (Spring, 1998, p. 56). Indeed Anarchist Free Skool participants pursued such an approach regularly holding classes on the sidewalks in Kensington Market. On other occasions classes were held in laundromats, nearby parks, and at picket lines where workers were on strike.

The Anarchist Free Skool

The Anarchist Free Space and Free Skool (AFS) was begun in April 1999 by artists and activists who had organized a fairly lively freeskool at a soon-to-be-closed hangout, the Community Cafe. When the Cafe shut down some of the freeskool participants, looking to keep things going, set up shop in a roomy storefront location in Kensington Market, a multicultural, historically working-class neighborhood in downtown Toronto.

The Free Space was intended as a venue for committed anarchists, novices, and nonanarchists alike to come together and share ideas about the prospects, difficulties, and strategies for creating new, antiauthoritarian social relations. The primary vehicle for this was an ambitious schedule of classes on diverse issues. The hopefulness of the new collective was expressed in a statement on the front page of its course calendar.

Education is a political act. By deepening our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, sharing skills and exchanging experiences in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical setting free of prejudice, we challenge disempowering habits and broaden our awareness of alternatives to the inequalities of a capitalist society. The Anarchist Free School is a counter-community dedicated to effecting social change through the application of anarchist principles in every sphere of life. This Space represents and opportunity for the community at large to come together and explore these alternatives. The Anarchist Free Space welcomes all applications for use of the Space.

Courses reflected the desire for openness—they weren’t all about anarchists talking to anarchists about anarchy (though a few of them were just that). Some of the courses included “Love Songs of the 20s and 30s,” “Street Art,” “Understanding Violence Against Women” and “Alternative Economics.” Not just the mind but the body was taken care of in a yoga class and in shiatsu workshops. For most of the year at least one class was running every weekday evening. Far and away the most successful and long-running were “Introduction to Anarchism” and “Class Struggle Anarchism, Syndicalism and Libertarian Socialism” (See Appendix).

For me, some of the most interesting courses weren’t courses at all but more like events. Every Tuesday at 9:23 p.m. sharp the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation gathered for excursions in their particular type of mayhem. The Recordists promised and often delivered “A weekly meeting, open to those with an interest in Recordism, Surrealism, and other currents of the Fantastic and the Absurd in contemporary art and culture (and spirituality, and politics, etc., etc.), for the exploration of those topics via discussion, presentations, game-playing and other collective activities, and general nonsense and tom-foolery.” One Recordist evening consisted entirely of a fellow cutting his way out of a cardboard box. Eyebrows were raised throughout the space when one of the Recordists’ mummies turned up in the basement. The mummy proved popular, however, eventually garnering its own wardrobe and securing a privileged place in the front window.

Another interesting event-class was the ponderously titled and sadly short-lived “Drifting as Foundation for a Unitary Urbanism.” Inspired by the Situationists’ dérive (or creating spontaneous pathways through the city), “The Drift,” as it became known, brought people together to wander through the nighttime city exploring the hidden, unseen, out-of-the-way places of an alter-Toronto.

In addition to classes the AFS tried to revive the anarchist salon tradition. As the course booklet noted: “Salons have a colorful history throughout the world and in particular within Anarchist Communities. Salons are intentional conversational forums where people engage in passionate discourse about what they think is important.” At the AFS the third Friday of every month was reserved for lively discussions on various topics decided upon by participants. Often the salons included a potluck dinner and performance. By all accounts the salons were enjoyable and engaging affairs drawing upwards of forty people.

Other memorable happenings ranging from the wacky to the profound included the infamous Satanic Ritual Party which brought the cops and almost made one of our pagan members quit; the Go Guerrila performances and zine launch; a couple afternoon punk shows organized after Emma closed; and (on the profound side) the Books to Prisoners poetry readings by ex-lifer John Rives.

Some projects never did come together and others suffered a lack of attention. The lending library suffered regular neglect as no one seemed interested in taking care of it. Eventually it fell into complete disrepair. A proposed free table for used goods never really got started. Neither did the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League (RABL). More positively Anti-Racist Action and the Toronto Video Activist Collective (TVAC) continue to make use of the space for meetings and video showings. Others such as Food Not Bombs and the Recordists pulled out before dissolving completely.

Free Skool participants openly acknowledged the example of the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer who suggested that radical pedagogy should question and challenge the traditional or habitual practices that sustain existing social structures (Ferrer, 1913). Courses emphasized the capacities of people to act and shape society’s direction, starting with local environs in which they lived, worked and learned. The anarchist Paul Goodman argued that, within free schools, “The use of certified teachers could be dispensed with and people like the druggist, the storekeeper, and the factory worker could be used as teachers” (Spring, 1998, p. 56). The participants at the Anarchist Free Skool pursued such an approach. In place of instructors who presented information in a unilateral fashion, with a dominant voice, classes involved AFS members who acted as facilitators, taking responsibility to photocopy and make readings available, and ensuring that the space was available and open and people welcomed. Given their initial familiarity with anarchist ideas and texts they helped to fill gaps in knowledge, particularly about specific practices, theories, or histories, where possible and necessary or to suggest texts for future reading. Often new students would ask specific questions about how anarchists had handled particular issues, such as justice or punishment, historically. Typically, responsibility for introducing a topic rotated through the class participants according to their personal interests or availability as they volunteered to take responsibility for specific readings or weekly topics. Following a brief introduction to the readings or cases, classes were opened up to a loosely structured discussion based on individual and collective readings of the topic.

Even more, within Free Skool classes and meetings, anarchists tried to develop active listening, respectful debate and productive disagreement, in a context that recognizes the harm done to many “students” by their previous negative experiences in mainstream schools. Punctuality, passivity, and obedience were in no way promoted at the AFS. Emphasis was on training for community action and the development of critical social consciousness. Some even identified the structures and pace of modern urban environments themselves as barriers to learning.

Organizers realized that there are many barriers people face to free and independent learning. They emphasized efforts to break dependency and inhibition within the learning process. The anarchist Emma Goldman criticized approaches to learning that emphasized the actions of rulers, elites, and governments. Such an approach, still too common today, conditions people to accept a society in which the majority of people are passive, expecting groups of leaders to direct events. Such approaches typically reinforce authoritarian institutions. Anarchist Free Skool participants saw the impacts of such teaching first-hand. In initial meetings of classes nonanarchist participants often expressed an acceptance of social stratification or presented a view that elites were entitled to the unequal social rewards they received. One of the common responses was that they had “more important jobs” or “greater responsibilities.” The Anarchist Free Skool classes provided an important opportunity to discuss such questions in a constructive and respectful manner. Anarchists noted that often the most important jobs, such as garbage pickup, were least rewarded. Similarly, work with the most responsibility, such as mothering, was not rewarded monetarily at all. Caring work, such as early childhood education and nursing, was not rewarded in terms of status and was often underrewarded monetarily, relative to the work’s importance.

For anarchists, learning should contribute to independence of thought and action and contribute to capacities for self-determination. In the view of Free Skool participants, it is always important to avoid ideological approaches to learning. Anarchist ideas should be subjected to lively criticism and revision like any other ideas. Debate should always be open and welcomed within anarchist spaces. Dogmatic insistence on the rightness of particular theories or ideas must be avoided and tendencies to dogma actively undermined.

Anarchists at the Free Skool did not view the space as a place to indoctrinate or spread a particular ideology. Such an approach would be bound to fail anyway, and furthermore it would contravene participants’ principles of anarchism and antiauthoritarianism. Education should support people in freeing themselves from social dogma and encourage their efforts to change social structures and social relations positively. Rather different varieties of anarchism and other steams of radical thought were presented for debate, discussion and appraisal. Hidden histories of resistance and alternative social organizations were explored.

Classes enjoyed participation from around five to thirty people. Gender was mixed with the proportion of men, women, and transgender participants varying by class. Similarly classes were facilitated by men and women in roughly equal proportion. The AFS was quite successful in overcoming the generational divisions that afflict many activist groups, particularly some of the direct action groups of the alternative globalization movement. The Free Skool provided a space in which children as young as a few months old played while folks in their eighties debated and shared jokes. Participants in classes ranged widely in age, with classes generally enjoying involvement from a range including late teenagers to sixty- and seventy-year olds.

In addition to classes, the Free Skool also served as an information center in which books and other media were available on loan to community members. More than simply offering courses on alternative and independent media, the Free Skool made cameras and movie-editing equipment available for community movie making. Experimental filmmaker Kika Thorne brought equipment for editing Super 8 film and showed anyone who was interested how to use it.

This was all part of the broader emphasis on skill-sharing. People registered their various skills with the Free Skool so those seeking to learn specific skills could easily contact someone willing to share information and experiences. Larger workshops were regularly held on specific topics, skills, and activities including zine-making, guitar, art, knitting, cooking, and gardening. Sessions were also provided on self-defense. Reflecting holistic approaches to health, classes, and workshops were provided on nutrition, first aid, and basic health care.

“Class” Organizing

Libertarian or anarchist approaches to education emphasize participatory involvement, consensual practices and relations and the limiting of stratifications based on expertize or experience (Spring, 1998). At the Free Skool the educational emphasis was on learning for social justice, learning as social justice. This was not an academic or even purely intellectual pursuit but rather a holistic approach to education in and as practice. For participants learning was geared toward positive social as well as personal transformation. Learners who were also teachers had a commitment to use their opportunities and resources, collective practice, knowledge, to contribute to the betterment of particularly poor communities. The Free Skool encouragement of social justice was not limited to the radical content of courses but as expressed as much in the structure and practice of courses and the space more broadly. In particular this included consensus-based decision-making processes and participatory practices in which learners guided the direction of courses and the space itself.

Anarchists emphasize the school as a site of political, cultural, social, and economic power. Schooling instills a respect for authority and builds a habitual deference and adherence to the laws of the land. In the words of one of the directors of the anarchist Modern School movement in New Jersey in the 1920s, “From the moment the child enters the public school he is trained to submit to authority, to do the will of others as a matter of course, until the result that habits of mind are formed which in adult life are all to the advantage of the ruling class” (Kelly, 1925, p. 115). Criticisms of the government-based public school system include its nationalistic emphasis (with anthems to start school days and flags on buildings and images of presidents or monarchs in every room. Also of concern is training for the demands of the labor market and industrial system rather than for critical analysis or engaged “citizenship.” It is part of organizing more broadly against patriotism and moral regulation within society as well as school systems.

Anarchists, like other radical education theorists, raise concerns about ways in which traditional schooling trains people to accept work that is monotonous, boring, or without personal satisfaction (Spring, 1998, p. 14). There is great, and growing, pressure from policymakers, government officials, bureaucrats, and corporate leaders to direct all education toward the fulfillment of perceived or anticipated demands of the labor market. Education is viewed primarily, or even solely, as career preparation. Learning s placed in the service of a future social role and preparation for that role. As Spring (1998, p. 146) notes: “Knowledge is not presented as a means of understanding and critically analyzing social and economic forces but as a means of subservience to the social structure.”

Not simply an abstract or philosophical concern, Free Skool participants were critical of the neoliberal education policies of their own province, which shifted the emphasis of education toward training geared to the labor market almost exclusively. The Ontario government at the time the Free Skool opened had recently legislated the requirement that university programs justify funding on the basis of the employment success of graduates. It forced programs to justify their existence on the basis of vague references to employability. This employability proof shifted emphasis in programs away from critical analysis toward supposedly practical considerations. Sociology programs, for example, shifted from critical theory or social movement studies toward supposedly more marketable areas such as criminology and family studies.

Another concern of anarchists is the contribution of educational discourses to the myth of social mobility within stratified capitalist social relations. Within these popular discourses, educational credentials are uncritically accepted as a basis, even the basis, for social rewards, or more as a measure of social worth or standing (Wotherspoon, 2009; McLaren, 2005, 2006). Unfortunately, such credentials are largely distributed along existing lines of inequality and reflect ongoing divisions of class and status. Rather than increasing mobility, education, and the focus on credentials, prestige, and reward reinforces social class divisions (Spring, 1998; McLaren, 2005; 2006). As Spring (1998, p. 29) notes:

The poor are led to believe that schools will provide them with the opportunity for social advancement, and that advancement within the process of schooling is the result of personal merit. The poor are willing to support schooling on the basis of this faith. But since the rich will always have more years of schooling that the poor, schooling becomes just a new way of measuring social distances. Because the poor themselves believe in the rightness of the school standard, the school becomes an even more powerful means of social division. The poor are taught to believe that they are poor because they did not make it through school. The poor are told that they were given the opportunity for advancement, and they believe it. Social position is translated through schooling into achievement and underachievement. Within the school the social and economic disadvantages of the poor are termed underachievement. Without school there would be no dropouts.

The anarchist approach aims at radically transforming society rather than reforming it. As Joel Spring (1998, pp. 9–10) suggests, while reformist approaches to education try to eliminate poverty by educating the children of the poor to function within existing social structures, radical education tries to change the social structures that support and perpetuate unequal social relations. Reformist approaches can certainly make improvements, and these improvements are not to be dismissed, but they do not make the thoroughgoing sociostructural changes needed to address poverty and inequality. In Spring’s (1998, p. 10) words: “The first approach would emphasize changing behavior to fit into the existing social structure while the second would try to identify those psychological characteristics of the social structure which keep poor people under control.” For Free Skool participants, education should be part of processes of social transformation and human emancipation. Individual efforts to succeed within existing structures tend not to end inequality and injustice. Schools should not reinforce the social organization of society. They should challenge and change it.

What must be sought in the future is a system of education which raises the level of individual consciousness to an understanding of the social and historical forces that have created the existing society and determined an individual’s place in that society. This must occur through a combination of theory and practice in which both change as all people work for a liberated society. There should not be a blueprint for future change but, rather, a constant dialogue about means and ends. Education should be at the heart of such a revolutionary endeavor. (Spring, 1998, p. 146)

For anarchists, educational alternatives are situated as part of overall attempts, within collective movements, to change broader systems of power, including but not limited to those of education. Anarchists seek a de-institutionalization of the socialization process. For anarchists, schools teach people to trust the judgment of the educator while developing distrust for their own judgment (Spring, 1998; McLaren, 2005; 2006).

Implied in the concept of a society without schools is the end of all other institutions which are breeding grounds for dogma and moral imperatives. In a sense the church and state are themselves schools, with ideas of how people should act and what they ought to be. A society without schools would be one without institutions of mysticism and authority. It would be a society of self-regulation where institutions would be a product of personal need and usefulness and not sources of power. (Spring, 1998, pp. 52–53)

For anarchists at the AFS, working toward a new society depends, in part, upon changes in ideas and attitudes. New social relations do not spring into being fully formed from nothing. They must be taught, learned, played with, experienced, revised, and relearned. At the same time, less acceptable or less desirable practices must be unlearned or discarded. This is not done immediately, the outcome of an act of will. Even more, people who are raised in authoritarian contexts, socialized within authoritarian assumptions, will understandably need to learn new ways of acting. They will need to adjust, through trial and error, to new ways of relating to one another. Yet there are relatively few accessible spaces available in which such practices can be engaged. The anarchist Max Stirner (1967, p. 23) was drawn to ask: “Where will a creative person be educated instead of a learning one, where does the teacher turn into a fellow worker, where does he recognize knowledge as turning into will, where does the free man count as a goal and not merely the educated?” The AFS anarchists tried to provide opportunities for people to experiment and struggle with creating new forms of relationship, interaction and understanding one another.

Most Free Skool members struggled under public schooling regimes, finding their education to be constraining, restrictive, and lacking in venues for the expression of creativity. Many of the people who participated in Free Skool classes were decades removed from formal schooling. For them, the Free Skool provided a welcome alternative to their generally unsatisfactory and unsatisfying educational experiences. Many were thankful for the presence of the Free Skool, suggesting that they had searched a lifetime for such engaging learning experiences.

For Free Skool anarchists, the question of content is not the only one. Anarchists also stress the importance of methods. As in other areas of activity, anarchists stress the importance of a correspondence between means and ends, form and content. For anarchists, antiauthoritarian relations and practices cannot come from authoritarian methods. In education there is a link between methods and approaches to learning and the organization of the classroom and the character of the development of relations among participants. Learning can be an end in and of itself and should be an enriching process that allows for the rewarding experience of nonauthoritarianism in practice.

Concerns over the types of methods pursued in the classroom involve the nature and extent of control and authority (Spring, 1998, p. 26). Radical education critics suggest that classroom techniques have been related to shaping a character that fits within and functions according to existing institutions of authority outside the school (in government or corporations). Modern mass consumer societies, according to critical theorist Ivan Illich, require a citizen character that relies upon, or is dependent upon, the advice of experts, which can be broadly integrated within decision-making processes (see Hardt and Negri, 2009). The society depends upon the consumption of packages expertly planned and circulated according to marketing strategies. For radical critics, schooling prepares the individual by assuming responsibility for “the whole child” (Spring, 1998, p. 26).

By attempting to teach automobile driving, sex education, dressing, adjustment to personality problems and a host of related topics, the school also teaches that there is an expert and correct way of doing all of these things and that one should depend on the expertize of others. Students in the school ask for freedom and what they receive is the lesson that freedom is only conferred by authorities and must be used “expertly.” This dependency creates a form of alienation which destroys people’s ability to act. Activity no longer belongs to the individual but to the expert and the institution. (Spring, 1998, pp. 26–27)

Indeed Free Skool participants were explicitly working to overcome the dominance of experts in social life. This is not to say they reject the knowledge developed by some people in specific areas, such as computers, health care, nutrition, or woodworking, based on experience and training. Rather it is the dominance of broad spheres of social life by experts and the frame of mind that suggests an uncritical deference to authorities. It also speaks against the proprietary character of much expert knowledge, as privileged possession or competitive advantage, within capitalist societies. More specifically, the Free Skool anarchists sought to allow everyone opportunities to develop their own expertize and confidence. This was part of an overall emphasis on do-it-yourself (DIY) or do-it-ourselves (DIO) practices. People were encouraged to formulate answers and develop solutions to problems in a participatory and collective way, brainstorming, experimenting, practicing, and reworking with fellow participants.

Anarchist critics argue that poor people learn in school that they should submit to the leadership or authority of those with more schooling. Those with more schooling, in terms of years and grade levels, tend to be those from more privileged class backgrounds who complete postsecondary education and graduate school. Thus anarchists seek to subvert this relationship of education and leadership or authority, particularly on the basis of class.

Here the concern is not with order and efficiency but with increasing individual autonomy. The goal of social change is increased individual participation and control of the social system. This model rests on the conviction that a great deal of the power of modern social institutions depends on the willingness of the people to accept the authority and legitimacy of these institutions. In this context the question becomes, not how to fit the individual into the social machine, but why people are willing to accept work without personal satisfaction and authority which limits freedom. (Spring, 1998, p. 131)

Anarchists attempt to overcome traditional teacher/student relationships which can inhibit students and reinforce authority structures of command ad obedience. For Stirner, education should assist individuals to be creative persons rather than learners. Learners lose their freedom if will in becoming increasingly dependent upon experts and institutions for instruction on how to act. Rather than learning how to act they might determine for themselves how to act.

Anarchists seek educational practices and relations that will contribute to the nurturance of nonauthoritarian people “who will not obediently accept the dictates of the political and social system and who will demand greater personal control and choice” (Spring, 1998, p. 14). This includes experience in the development of collaborative practices, knowledge sharing and mutual aid, rather than the competition, for grades or status, or emphasis on individual knowledge possession, intellectual property, and “originality” that marks much of mainstream, particularly postsecondary, education.

For anarchists, methods of discipline and reward in mainstream teaching undermine freedom and self-determination (Spring, 1998, p. 25). Too often teachers use extrinsic motivation, through grades, threats of punishment, or promises of promotion (Spring, 1998, p. 25). The focus can readily be displaced onto the extrinsic motive, such as grades. This is a common feature of the neoliberal classroom, as grades, a surrogate for wages, become a primary concern of students seeking a specific credential, which can be converted to a job on the labor market. This is similar to the process by which satisfaction in the intrinsic qualities of labor has been displaced toward satisfaction in the wage, even where the work itself is despised or debilitating.

Part of the modern state’s power rests in its awareness of the significance of the “domination of the mind” (Spring, 1998, p. 40). For anarchists, freedom must extend beyond political liberty and equality before the law, to emphasize self-control over one’s perspectives, beliefs, and practices. Most educational systems have been geared toward the internalization of values and beliefs or the development of a conscience that favors support of existing social structures and relations (Spring, 1998; McLaren, 2005; 2006). Nonauthoritarian practices of education seek to encourage this broader approach to freedom, through people’s own efforts and experimentation, successes and failures. Anarchists do not claim to have perfect pedagogical practices or ready-made answers to difficult questions. They recognize that they themselves have much to learn about practices of freedom and radical transformation, socialized within authoritarian systems as they have been.

Anarchist Colin Ward suggests that one of the tragedies of social struggle is that people do not know immediately how to deal with freedom. We all need to learn through experience practices of consensus, direct action, mutual aid, solidarity, and restorative justice. Education is a key aspect in organizing any society, whatever its scale. The goal of libertarian approaches “is therefore an educational method which will encourage and support nonauthoritarian individuals who are unwilling to bow to authority and who demand a social organization which provides them with maximum individual control and freedom” (Spring, 1998, p. 131). The DIO approach to education pursued by Free Skool anarchists was driven by a belief that “no social change is meaningful unless people participate in its formulation” (Spring, 1998, p. 132). This convergence of revolutionary organizing and radical education is a key aspect of working to develop infrastructures of resistance. Thus it is an area of some emphasis for anarchists. For anarchists the failure of previous revolutions and their development in conservative directions, relates to the lack of “radically new means of education and socialization by which all people could be brought into the revolutionary movement and become acting members of it rather than its objects” (Spring, 1998, p. 133). Anarchist Free Skool members were clear that a nonauthoritarian society could not be wished into existence and it would not happen without organizing, discussion, and engagement. The Free Skool was part of those broader processes. At the same time Free Skool organizers were conscious not to become a therapeutic space and not produce dependency on the Free Skool as an institution.

In social and political terms the AFS was at its liveliest, and indeed its most relevant, during its second spring and summer when a number of members managed to bring a community organizing perspective to the space. Tired of the seemingly endless drift into pedantic debates and mystical dreaming the community activists tried to develop the AFS as a useful community resource. Importantly, unlike others in the collective, the community organizers had a clear vision and strategies they wanted to pursue. Taking the view that the AFS could (and should) be a worthwhile organizing and education center they reached out to serious activists in the city. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) was invited to hold their movie nights at the space every Saturday and held several successful large “screenings.”

The anarchist zine Sabcat was produced out of the AFS and since its first appearance has met with tremendous enthusiasm locally and abroad. Sabcat has presented original artwork, reviews, and articles on such topics as “green syndicalism,” “OCAP,” and “alternative education.”

Trying to overcome the educational divide that separates “citizens” and prisoners AFS members initiated a Books to Prisoners program which became quite successful. Poetry readings and hardcore punk shows brought in hundreds of book donations along with the help of some independent publishers and distributors. Before long the first shipments went out from the Free Skool to inmates in both women’s and men’s prisons.

Whose Market? Against Poor Bashing

Almost everything I’ve ever read about such alternative spaces raises the business of gentrification in North American cities. This story is no exception. At the same time, the educational approach of the Free Skool maintained that members develop a commitment to social justice and community involvement in support of those lacking resources. Putting their education to work members of the Free Skool collectives took leading parts in the battle against gentrification in the Kensington Market neighborhood.

During a general meeting in May of 2000 a member alerted Free Skool participants to a petition which had begun circulation against plans by St. Stephen’s Community House for a soup kitchen and hostel for homeless people to be opened on Augusta Avenue just north of the Free Space. The rather viciously worded petition openly attacked poor people saying they were unwelcome in the Market. This was viewed by Free Skool members as an act of what antipoverty organizer Jean Swanson (2001) calls poor bashing. At the same meeting the collective decided without delay to interview every storeowner or manager in the Market to see who was carrying the petition and who supported the attacks on homeless people and the poor. Enlisting support from the AFS, teams of two spent the next few days talking to people throughout the Market. Where petitions were found, and thankfully very few places had accepted them, it was made clear that such antipoor propaganda was unacceptable. A boycott of a trendy cafe previously frequented by activists was begun, and perhaps coincidentally it closed by the end of the summer.

At the end of June a leaflet was distributed in the Market which asked, “Do you want Kensington Market to become just one more rundown neighborhood with no hope for its future?” A second leaflet, circulated by the Kensington Market Working Group hysterically raged against the planned soup kitchen suggesting that feeding and sheltering homeless people was simply cover for the real “goal of destroying the family shopping atmosphere that is Kensington.” Members of the AFS organized a campaign to attend the City’s Committee of Adjustment hearing and brought letters of support for the soup kitchen. Eventually the plans were approved though the Kensington business association has promised to keep up the attacks.

Later in the summer another more directly aggressive battle developed over harassment by the City of Toronto of a few homeless men living in the Market. The situation came to a head when one of the men asked several of us at the Free Skool for help in keeping city workers from taking his stuff to the dump. When we approached the workers they refused to tell us which bylaw they were citing when removing the stuff but implied that they were under pressure from the business association. After some debate we worked out a deal where the city workers promised not to touch anything left in the area fronting the Free Space. The guys hung out at the space and sold their wonderful array of used goods in front of and alongside the Free Space. For a couple of months it was like a real street bazaar. Shoppers loved the piles of stuff and there was always serious bargaining going on. They sold more in those two months than the AFS ever did.

Vision Trouble

The Anarchist Free Skool was open for participation by anyone who had a general agreement with nonauthoritarian and nonoppressive perspectives and practices. Anyone who agreed to these basic principles could take part in membership meetings and involve themselves in the decision-making process. The egalitarianism and participatory democracy of the relatively small collective should allow developing inequalities and grievances to be more readily identified and more immediately dealt with, as many anarchists historically have argued (Hartung, 1983, p. 96). At the Free Skool this was generally, if imperfectly, the case.

At times the Free Skool found it difficult to develop ongoing political projects. Even agreement on short-term actions was difficult to come by. The Free Skool vision, as reproduced above, was a rather vague commitment to “deepening our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, sharing skills and exchanging experiences.” While promising a dedication “to effecting social change through the application of anarchist principles in every sphere of life” there was little agreement on what these principles were and even less sense of what strategies might be necessary to “effect social change” or even to “challenge disempowering habits.”

The collective took as its model of decision-making process the consensus approach outlined by the Public Interest Research Groups. Consensus, whereby decisions are based upon lengthy discussions and much compromise of positions, is an article of faith for many anarchist groups who believe it to be more participatory, more open, and more likely to lead to better and more satisfactory decisions. It was also viewed as an important part of participatory pedagogy.

Despite the commitment to consensus as a pedagogical tool, there were difficulties with the process. First, the Free Skool was sometimes fractious throughout its history, never quite sure if it was a countercultural “hangout,” an artist colony, or an activist resource center; never certain whether its politics were “lifestylist,” petty bourgeois market socialist or class war anarchist. Art, theory, practice education, or activism? The AFS suffered from a failure to bring these approaches together

Secondly, consensus, because of the long time involved in making decisions and because it always tends toward compromise answers, is in many ways unsuited to a lively activist group which must take quick decisions and may not be able to compromise on principles. Diverse groups with vastly divergent notions of what anarchism is about require a process which allows each vision to be expressed without either limiting or implicating the other members of the larger group. In practice this is very difficult to negotiate and to realize. Free Skool meetings often bogged down in hours of heated discussion over whether activist posters could be placed in the windows because some of the artists found the postings to be unsightly and esthetically displeasing. Needless to say the activists thought it more important to publicize important events regardless of esthetic considerations.

The persistent lack of analysis and vision along with a failure to assess the political context for action and develop useful strategies for meeting stated goals consistently undermined the collectives’ capacities to do political work. Clearly good intentions were not enough.


Projects such as the Anarchist Free Skool emerge to meet specific needs, transform as priorities and interests shift and eventually dissolve only to emerge elsewhere as the Anarchist Free Skool has morphed to become the Anarchist University. I prefer autonomist Marxist Harry Cleaver’s suggestion that such spaces are acts of “self-valorization” which can mess with the circuits of capitalist re/production. Certainly they represent places in which people have the time to value themselves and their relationships with each other beyond the commodified time in which much of our lives are contained. Following Cleaver we might understand temporary autonomous zones (TAZ) both as aspects of a refusal of domination and as creative attempts to fill the time, space and resources thus liberated.

One must be careful not to underestimate the rather large amounts of real labor required to keep a TAZ running. While Bey often portrays TAZ as profoundly mystical moments, it is important to remember that they have a substantial materiality. TAZ are constructed of the mundane, the everyday. As a sign in the Free Space proclaims, “Anarchy doesn’t mean dirty dishes.” (Although a glance at the Free Space sink too often suggested otherwise.) In the end its how well the demands of the everyday are met that can determine the success or failure of autonomous zones.

Still there is always an aspect of the carnivalesque in spaces like the AFS. Whether it be the lively conversations, crass hardcore music, the quirky zines, humorous buttons, joyful camaraderie, or the clarion of agit-prop, the spaces signal their difference from their surroundings, their “otherness.” As liminal sites they are places of transformation from present to future—glimpses of the “new world in the shell of the old.”

Autonomous zones are hubs of do-it-yourself (DIY) culture and politics. In scenes where transience and the ephemeral often predominate free spaces offer some permanence, some rootedness. They provide a space where the underground can move above ground and engage in an everyday discussion with nonactivists, with people who want to find out what this anarchy stuff is all about.

The Free Skool participants were successful at taking anarchist ideas beyond the confines of anarchist subcultures and radical political “scenes.” Unlike many other infoshops and free spaces the Free Skool did manage to bring people from the neighborhood into the spaces. Most just dropped by to chat but many took part in classes and a few even joined the collective. The Free Skool provided a venue, within a working-class neighborhood, for nonanarchists to inquire about anarchism, ask tough questions, and have discussions about anarchist theory and practice. It also provided a community center, a space in which community members could come together to discuss neighborhood issues and organize to address community needs, both through developing their own self-directed activities, but also by preparing collective approaches to local government authorities around aspects of city planning and policy. Without the Free Skool it is certain that the homeless shelter and soup kitchen would have been defeated and an important resource for poor people would not have been available in the neighborhood. It is also certain that homeless people would have faced greater harassment and criminalization.

That the Anarchist Free Skool was able to extend its reach beyond current students to bring in nonstudents, particularly individuals from poor and working-class backgrounds, and those who had long ago left school behind, stands as a testament to the promise of the participants’ commitment to open and engaged learning. It also showed the significant work done by Free Skool members in doing outreach into the local neighborhoods and communities, actively working to build bridges and take anarchism outside of any preexisting subcultural comfort zones. A promising beginning though it still has not grown in the way needed to forge an organic connection with other communities.

This is by no means the final paragraph in this story. New ones are being written at this very moment. Already a number of people involved in the AFS have worked to start up a new space, an activist resource center geared toward political projects and solidarity work. Rather than simply affirming a commitment to some nebulous notion of anarchy these folks are developing the basis for shared principles and shared work as part of the preparation for opening new projects.

Intended as something a bit more permanent than the temporary autonomous zone, these anarchist spaces provide the support structures for oppositional cultures. They are parts of the broader do-it-yourself (DIY) movements that provide alternative community and economic infrastructures in music, publishing, video, radio, food, and education. Anarchist heterotopias are places for skills development, for learning those skills that are undeveloped in authoritarian social relations.

The existence of TAZ allows for some autonomy from the markets of capital. Their ethos is counter to capitalist consumerism: play rather than work, gifts rather than commodities, needs rather than profits. In theory, they offer means for undermining state and capital relations and authorities both ideological and material. Practice often settles for something much less than that.

As always, the challenge is to maintain openness and inclusion while actually working to create “the new world in the shell of the old.” Many at the Free Skool struggled to show that freedom is not some fanciful idea, something for philosophers and mystics to ponder. It only has meaning when it is lived.


Course descriptions for the most popular courses at the Anarchist Free Skool:


Anarchism, as a political movement, emerged as part of broader workers’ struggles for socialism and communism and contributed greatly to those struggles. Contemporary anarchists in North America, however, have generally forgotten this important connection, as anarchism has become a largely subcultural phenomenon. Similarly distinctions between authoritarian and antiauthoritarian traditions within the diverse history of socialism have been obliterated by the horrors of state capitalist regimes calling themselves “socialist.” This course seeks to reconnect anarchism with the struggles of working people to build a better world beyond capitalism of any type. The course is initiated by activists concerned with class analysis and day-to-day organizing and is not intended simply as a study group.


This course will be a broad introduction to anarchist theory and practice, as well as a look at the history of anarchism and anarchist struggles. There will be readings taken from some of the major anarchist thinkers such as: Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and others. Also, the class will be structured in such a way that the participants may suggest the focus and direction of the readings and discussion topics.


Bey, H. (1985). T.A.Z.: The temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism. New York: Autonomedia.

Bookchin, M. (1995). Social anarchism or lifestyle anarchism: An unbridgeable chasm. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Cleaver, H. (1992). The inversion of class perspective in Marxian theory: From valorization to self-valorization. In W. Bonefeld, R. Gunn & K. Psychopedis (Eds.), Open Marxism: Volume II, theory and practice. London: Pluto Press, 106–44.

Ferrer, F. (1913). The origin and ideals of the modern school. London: Watts and Company.

Foucault, M. (1986). Of other spaces. Diacritics, 16(1), 22–27

Hartung, B. (1983). Anarchism and the problem of order. Mid-American Review of Sociology, 8(1), 83–101.

Shantz, J. (2009). Rebuilding infrastructures of resistance. Socialism and Democracy, 23(2): 102–109.

Spring, J. (1998). A primer of libertarian education. Montreal: Black Rose.

Stirner, M. (1963). The ego and his own: The case of the individual against authority. New York: Libertarian Book Club.

Stirner, M. (1967). The false principle of our education. Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles.

Swanson, J. (2001). Poor bashing: The politics of exclusion. Toronto: Between the Lines.

CHAPTER 8. The Nottingham Free School: Notes Toward a Systemization of Praxis

Sara C. Motta

Nottingham Free School was formed in the summer of 2009 as a space to develop nonhierarchical and noninstitutionalized processes and practices of radical education. The members of the original group shared a reaction against experiences of alienation, exclusion, and oppression from within formal institutions of education. To differing degrees we sought to develop an educational practice that was against and beyond formal education. Fundamentally this would be based on principles of openness, collaboration, egalitarianism, and relevance for activist and broader community needs and desires. We wished, as a collective working with and in community organizations and activist communities, to take control of the process and outcomes of learning in a creative and constructive way.

We shared a commitment to education as a means of resistance, creation, and fundamentally as a way of constructing the types of horizontal postrepresentational communities that create worlds beyond capitalism to which we aspired. We hoped to gain inspiration from past and current examples of education being used as part of a process of liberation and emancipation, and hope to do what we can to continue that legacy in Nottingham. In terms of theoretical-practical inspirations particularly influential have been Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1971), and experiences with the ideas of Open Spaces of Dialogue and Inquiry (OSDE, Empirically the group had different experiences with radical education from the coordination of skill-shares in Nottingham based on the idea of mutual aid and horizontal learning processes, coordinating activist networks, and consensus decisionmaking to working with popular education with autonomous social movements in Latin America.

We therefore spent our first few meetings discussing how we should begin to work and with whom. While we wanted to work with working-class communities in Nottingham it was agreed after much discussion that we couldn’t inorganically create relationships with these communities if they weren’t existent at present. We therefore focused on the communities that we did have relationships with and participated in autonomous activist groups and communities in and around Nottingham. Our entire process has been experimental, very much making the road by walking, influenced by our traditions, experiences, and commitments but not preplanned, predictable, or necessarily successful. The process has not merely involved the development of workshops, skill- shares, and discussion groups but has also begun to forge a collective of radical educators in Nottingham. This process of construction has demonstrated to us that radical education and its role in the construction of autonomous anticapitalist communities, subjectivities, and social relationships combines the intellectual, affective, political, personal, and cultural. Learning to know and trust each other, understanding the particular exclusions experienced and lived by fellow collective members, drinking together, looking after each other’s kids, crying together, cooking together, and thinking together. All these are part and parcel of breaking down the divisions between the intellectual and the emotional, between imagination and theorizing, between mind and body, and between teachers and learners that characterize institutionalized and alienated educational practices.

To facilitate a process of reflection and beginnings of systematization of our practice to date I will focus on two workshops that we developed, a series of skill-shares and the process of the development of a collective of radical educators. I hope to reflect in relation to a number of elements: their ability to open up spaces of dialogue and reflection; their ability to contribute to the development and practice of autonomous anticapitalist communities; and their contribution to praxis of horizontalism and postrepresentational knowledge production. The forms of systematization developed are firstly an evaluation of the lived experience of the project in relation to predetermined frameworks of analysis based in Freirian, Illichian, and OSDE-inspired conceptualizations of radical education. This evaluation links the theoretical with the practical and contextual as a means of creating new theoretical practical insights. Secondly, this is combined with a dialectical systematization, which seeks to create new theoretical and practical knowledge as a means of contributing to transformations in reality and social and political change (for further conceptualization of types of systematization see Mejía, 2010).[22] This is not a final end product but rather a contribution to our ongoing process of learning. As we state, “We don’t pretend to have all the answers, and are committed to a continuously evolving process in which those participating have ample opportunity to evaluate, challenge and contribute to the running of the project.”

Nottingham Free School Workshops

We developed a workshop called Radical Education. This workshop sought to explore the nature of radical and alternative education and its use for the construction of the communities and relationships we desire. We explored how and if it was desirable to move completely away from institutional education. We ran the workshop perhaps seven to eight times over a period of about a year in different activist and community settings. After each session we discussed what we thought had worked and what not and adapted the workshop accordingly. As a group we were also open to a facilitator changing the workshop and experimenting with different structures and methods. The first structure was envisaged as a four-hour-long session to which we invited individuals and groups that we thought might be interested in participating in the Nottingham Free School. The workshop was framed as part of the development of identity or identities of the Free School, which was trying to get a sense of its objectives and forge a community of radical educators. This workshop was organized as part of this process and its main objectives were: i) get to know each other’s backgrounds, interest in radical education, and understanding of radical education; ii) problematize terms like “radical,” “education,” and “learning” in order to help make explicit our assumptions about education, learning, teaching, the nature of knowledge, what knowledge is for and how it is created, etc. in order to iii) make clearer resonances and dissonances/similarities and differences between us and build on these constructively and creatively.

It began with a reflection upon one’s life history of education. In which we asked participants a number of questions: note down experiences of education (formal and informal) where they remember learning something; what it was they learned, how they learned it and what it had felt like. We gave participants a sheet of paper and asked them to answer these questions in any way they wanted: drawing, text, and image. We then asked participants to put their paper up on the wall and organized a break where people could get tea, coffee, etc. and also look at each other’s education life stories noting anything that struck them as interesting, they wanted to learn more about or they were puzzled or intrigued by. We began from the experiences of participants in the workshops as we believed, following our experiences but also the ideas of Freire and Illich that transformatory education has to be relevant and meaningful. It needs to be embedded within the experiences, histories, and cultures of individuals and communities in this way turning on their head the assumptions of traditional education in which the teacher is the knower and the student an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge (Freire, 1970; Illich, 1971, pp. 30–35). As Freire argues this type of dialogical learning is designed to make people “feel like masters of their thinking rather than passive learners” (1970, p. 95). Fundamentally it needs to recognize the validity of the experiences and knowledges of participants and be premised in the rejection of the self-sufficiency and privilege of the educator (Freire, 1970, pp. 62–63). Therefore we thought that to make this discussion meaningful and relevant and to bring in the knowledges of participants, we needed to pull out those elements which had been enjoyable in learning that we could link to forms of radical education and help participants to systemize and name these experiences in relation to traditions and practices of radical education.

Therefore our next step was to begin to pull out generative themes from the educational timelines that participants had made (Freire, 1970, p. 69). This was done as a group in which each individual was asked about any issues or questions they had in relation to the education timelines they had looked at and their own. The facilitator tried to bring out key themes and issues from the discussion which she began to note on the wall. This was a means of beginning to make our own concepts and lines of investigation and exploration into radical and alternative education. From this basis we wished to move onto a next step. This we called “naming/making assumptions explicit.” On the basis of the themes and issues identified we aimed to split participants into groups and assign them a particular reading[23] with questions but also leaving the group open to come up with their own questions. The next step was to return to the broader group and discuss the answers the groups came up with. If a group didn’t come up with an answer to a question then we encouraged the group as a whole to work through an answer(s). The penultimate step, “working through what different conceptualizations of radical education might look like in practice,” involved participants returning to their small groups and developing a miniworkshop based on the tenets of radical education fleshed out in section 2. Each group would then run a minisession for the entire group for about ten minutes. Finally the session would end with a short summary by the facilitators of their understanding and experiences of radical education and why they were interested in running this type of workshop and then a group evaluation of the workshop.

When we tried to run the workshop we reached stage two at which point we needed to end the workshop as some participants felt emotionally upset and uncomfortable. When bringing out generative themes tensions had arisen in relation to different understandings of the nature of authoritarianism in education and what a liberatory education should and should not include. These tensions had been intensified due to the personal nature of the reflections. The breakdown in the workshop threw up some important questions for us as a collective. We had planned the workshop as a space to bring out resonances and dissonances and to question what we mean by radical and alternative education. We had purposefully made individual experiences and histories central to this collective reflection and process of knowledge construction. However by bringing together a disparate group of people, some with knowledge of each other, others without, who vaguely shared an identification or interest in radical education we had created an open space but not necessarily a safe space (Andreotti, n.d.). We had brought to the fore the individual, the subjective, and the emotional in a situation in which people did not have the bonds of struggle, experience, or history between them to have created trust and a shared understanding of limits and norms of respectful dialogue. The inevitable conflict that would arise when breaking down consensus and assumptions and bringing out difference and variety was something we were not ready to deal with. We were unable to transform this conflict into productive grounds for dialogue and further engagement and instead were faced with the breakdown of the workshop. This raised important questions for us about the nature of openness. We had assumed a setting as found by Freirian popular educators working with exploited and excluded communities whose territorially close-knit communities often give a commonality of experiences and struggles in which bonds of trust, reciprocity, and norms of dialogue have been and are being formed (Freire, 1970, pp. 52, 66). However, this was not the setting we were in. So the questions we asked where whether the openness we were looking for in the spaces we were creating needed to be defined by more grounds of commonality: that is, should we actively only invite people who shared some close political and social principles; or whether if we continued to have very diverse groups with little knowledge of each other should we not focus so much on the individual and perhaps focus on different concepts of radical education as is done in OSDE settings. OSDE is a critical literacy approach which in many ways is a development of the Freirian model as it also draws on dialogical and perspectivist concerns. It connects in particular to the idea of critical literacy: the ability to make sense of radically different perspectives and to situate these perspectives within relations of power-knowledge. The purpose is not to change people’s orientations on the issues under discussion, but to make them aware of the constructedness and perspective-relativity of their own knowledge, and hence to acquire critical literacy. Thus in OSDE workshops different assumptions about a topic are the building blocks of discussion and questioning taken-for-granted assumptions. These are then used as a means to think about one’s individual assumptions. However these individual reflections are not necessarily a point of general discussion, providing a kind of protection to individuals and a level of safety and security to groups who are not groups or collectivities outside of the learning space (Andreotti, n.d.). It also brought to the fore how openness which lacks community and collectivity can be highly exclusionary to vulnerable participants whose experiences of trauma and exclusion can be triggered unintentionally by different norms and understandings of respect, dialogue, and education.

We didn’t come up with any definitive answers to these questions. However, we did respond by organizing workshops about radical education with diverse groups and individuals in the university for example using a more OSDE methodology so scrapping step one and focusing instead on what participants associated with formal education and radical education and then moving on to step three in relation to traditions and experiences of radical education. We were also careful to bring in the personal to settings of distinct activist communities such as the Rossport Campaign, Radical Roots Gathering, and the Earth First Gathering where we assumed that a level of commonality and experiences of struggle together would create levels of trust, respect, and understanding to enable the possibility of a constructive transformation of conflict via facilitators and the group. We also immediately after the breakdown of the first workshop realized that a four-hour workshop was much too long and that therefore we needed a two-hour workshop at most, perhaps with an idea of developing a second sister workshop if desired. This meant that the radical education workshops tended to either focus on part one and two or a variation on these, or an adaptation of the groups’ ideas about radical and traditional education and then discussion about how and where we might develop elements of radical education identified.

An issue that we found with the workshop was that at gatherings and activist events, to which we were lucky in Nottingham to have a number scheduled through the spring of 2010 that we were often timetabled at the beginning or end of gatherings as the timetables were full with meetings/ discussion more directly related to the campaign/project. Additionally we were often unable to attract significant numbers to the workshops. After informal reflection and discussions with participants at the gatherings and other activist and educator friends we began to think about how education and radical pedagogies form in relation to movements and communities historically and contemporarily in the global south for example. We used the experiences of one of the collective with autonomous social movements in Latin America as a basis of informal reflections. Often what is found is that communities begin to organize around a particular issue like land or water rights or education and it is during the process of trying to consolidate their struggle and deepen their communities of resistance that questions of pedagogy become more important. However, this often happens as a result of key members of the community having a history and experience with popular and radical education (see for example Motta, 2009). While members of the collective participated in many of the activist communities that had gatherings in Nottingham these gatherings were not merely local communities but large national and at time international meetings. Thus there was something external to the relationship between movement and workshop (Free School). In many ways discussion and practices about the use of radical education and pedagogy for the building of the objectives of activist groups and movements and for building autonomous anticapitalist communities hadn’t taken place. This meant that for many there was perhaps little motivation or relevance in the workshop. This didn’t imply that the workshop was a failure rather perhaps that it was a contribution to an opening toward these types of discussions, reflections, and practices. The process of constructing communities and the organicity of radical education as a part of this is a process that becomes embedded in concrete struggles and communities. Through these experiences we began to learn about the possibilities and limits of particular workshops; what they could and couldn’t achieve. We also began to discuss the need to perhaps develop a NFS pamphlet which is interactive and dialogical as a means of deepening the discussion of radical education and its role in anticapitalist struggles with activist communities in and around Nottingham. This we hope will plant further seeds for the continued development of a collective of radical educators who are also activists in different movements thereby opening space to develop a praxis of radical education in Nottingham’s anticapitalist movements, networks, and communities of resistance and creation.

Finally we held a relatively large workshop at the Earth First Summer Gathering of 2010. There were participants from activist movements, individuals interested in radical education, and participants from other radical education collectives. The workshop went well in terms of personal reflection and developing generative themes. The final part was how and where we imagined we could be able to develop the practices of radical education identified. It was here that the workshop broke down somewhat and returned to general discussion about the different forms of radical education. On reflection with participants and other members of the Free School, we again thought about the limits and possibilities of workshops in different contexts. This time the problematic was not so much questions of trust and some sense of collective cultural norms (however exclusionary and problematic these implicit norms themselves can be as one participant commented) but rather a common political project, experiences, or objectives. This meant that we went from the concrete experiential to the generic but were unable to move back the complex concrete in terms of developing particular strategies, theorizations, and methodologies for moving forward with a political project or objective, as is assumed in Freirian praxis. This left some participants feeling frustrated at the level of generality of the workshop. However again this was a process of realizing possibilities and coming to an understanding and an opening toward the different types of openings and possibilities from our practices. It was a realization of the process like nature of all that we are involved in and that we cannot always look for concrete outputs and outcomes (as in capitalist understandings of success and failure) but rather move with the movement of creating and exploring different ways to engage and create collectively, or creating our own concepts of politics and praxis. Thus as a group of radical educators we were also involved in a process of learning to name the world and develop our own concepts (Freire, 1970).

Trauma and Privilege

The second workshop I would like to explore in these reflections was entitled Trauma and Privilege. This workshop developed out of a desire to explore the hierarchies, exclusions, and assumptions within activist communities. This desire was generated by participants’ experiences of these often-silent exclusions and power over, whether that is in terms of gender, class, race and, other contexts such as childcare responsibilities or histories of trauma and abuse. We discussed how it was often assumed how power, exploitation, and alienation was out there and that we as activists in autonomous social movements, communities, and relationships were immune to these alienating and alienated practices that reproduce hierarchies. When developing the workshop we knew that this was going to be a highly emotional and potentially explosive space; a space that actively looked to create ruptures and create productive uncomfortableness. In this sense we built on Freirian pedagogies desire to challenge common sense and taken-for-granted ideas and practices about and in the world, to create limit situations that push us out of the taken-for-granted (Freire, 1970, p. 16). However in many ways we stepped away from OSDE with its focus on external reflection as a prompt to internal reflection and action. For this we agreed, on the basis of previous experiences, that it would be run with consolidated activist communities and perhaps among ourselves as a means of engaging with each other and our experiences and histories. In this way, processes that were emotional and personal could not be respectfully developed with groups of individuals who shared no common experience, history, struggle, or knowledge of each other. The workshop aimed to open up a discussion around the issues of trauma and privilege, and their interconnectivity. Asking questions such as, How does our own psychological experience affect the ways in which we are able to act in radical social change? and How do we negotiate the social, cultural, or economic capital we have (or lack) as we experience radical political action and the traumatic events it can often cause? How does our social change work relate to trauma we have experienced?

The basic outline of the workshop was for participants as a group to talk about the type of privileges and hierarchies they had experienced in activist circles. We wrote these up into categories. We then asked participants to think about a trauma they had experienced in their life, break down into small groups, and discuss the trauma with others in their group. We also all agreed (three of us facilitating the workshop) that we would participate in this and be willing to use our experience in a small group if others didn’t feel they could. We then asked those in the group who had heard the trauma to think about if this trauma had happened to them how their situation might have differed from the person who experienced the trauma, not in a judgmental way but to think about how the types of privileges they had might change the experience. We aimed to encourage participants in their reflections to refer back to the hierarchies and exclusions noted in the first exercise. Our aim was to bring the emotionality of trauma and experience to the heart of collective thinking and feeling, to break down taken-for-granted barriers of norms and limits of dialogue. We aimed to challenge individuals to recognize and think about potential privileges that they have and how these might impact upon their behaviors and relationships in activist communities.

We experimented with this workshop at the Rossport Gathering. The first part went relatively smoothly and a number of exclusions along age, gender, knowledge, class, and race were noted and discussed. But when we went on to discuss trauma, participants began to question the relevance and necessity of this process. They were understandably uncomfortable at being asked to reveal highly traumatic experiences in their lives and didn’t see the direct links with understanding privilege and hierarchy in activist communities. We therefore had to have time for this discussion in the workshop. We came to an agreement that this section was optional and that only those who wanted to participate would. However, the actual process of individuals talking about traumas and then others attempting to reflect on how their experience might have been different in relation to privileges was traumatic to say the least. There were three groups. In one group the conversation broke down and there was active resistance to the facilitator with the facilitator feeling unable to negotiate and transform the situation productively. In the second a facilitator and other participant shared their trauma. Those participating in the group engaged very powerfully and emotionally with the experiences of the individuals and engaged in a process of reflection in relation to potential privileges. In the final group there was a lot of discussion about the usefulness and relevance of a practice such as this, how it potentially opened up people who were vulnerable to more pain, and how there seemed to be no direct link with expressing and discussing trauma and thinking creatively and constructively about privilege and our role in reproducing unequal power relations and exclusions. Two people discussed their traumas in this group: a facilitator and a participant. The experience of discussing trauma was highly emotional and created an intense linkage and recognition among the two who shared their trauma and some reflections about privilege within individual histories and contexts and how this might affect dynamics within activist circles.

Our reflections about the workshop, its success and its productiveness were also relatively conflictual. One facilitator didn’t want to be involved in the running of this workshop again because the experience had been traumatic. This brought to the fore the importance of taking each other seriously as not external facilitators but internal participants in the workshops; how the experience of facilitating was also an emotional, effective, and intellectual process that challenged ourselves and put us potentially into uncomfortable situations or situations we felt we lacked the experience to deal with. This was a learning experience that profoundly impacted upon our relationships as a collective in the sense that it was a point of recognition of ourselves as embedded individuals and not merely as people working abstractly on a workshop to be delivered the following week. It raised the question of how we develop practices of care and support. It also made clear our lack of experience in dealing with such emotional reactions. It brought to the fore (often implicitly) the necessity of having tightly organized, intensely thought out, and highly trained facilitators to work in situations and workshops related to trauma and other emotional issues affecting workshop participants (including the facilitator).

Others differed on the extent to which the rupture and uncomfortableness created was productive, whether it actually helped to systemize and make explicit the hierarchies and privileges in activist communities. There were questions about whether there was a useful link between trauma and privilege. Nevertheless it was agreed that it had been a powerful experience which had broken down taken-for-granted norms of dialogue and opened a space of knowing each other which pushed boundaries of collectivity and understanding. For one facilitator the chance to make visible and give voice to an experience of trauma was a release and a part of healing. It had a testimonial element as found in much collective healing processes associated with feminist and indigenous political practices (Restrepo, 1998; Robinson, 2010). Yet these practices are generally collective whereas this was individual. However she also felt that she was ready to do this and that the process of healing from trauma is a long one with many different stages many of which are not about articulating publically or to others your experience. The impact however demonstrated the powerful emotions and consequences of the workshop, even if they differed somewhat from the stated objectives of the workshop. They did bring in to the open people’s traumas and the intensity of their lived experiences and emotions. While many participants’ feedback was focused around feeling uncomfortable or not seeing the relevance of the workshop there was a minority who found the workshop extremely powerful and able to create an opening to a different level of understanding of self and other in their community.

On reflection there was a tension between the different objectives of the workshop. On one hand we hoped to facilitate a space which made visible and gave validity to people’s traumas and their personal context in the tradition of feminist and indigenous political practices. On the other we wished to open up a space of reflection about informal and often invisible hierarchies and exclusions in activist communities. By attempting to facilitate two very different objectives we perhaps confused two different processes and ended up potentially opening up a situation which could have caused harm and reproduced (unwittingly and naïvely) emotional and psychological violence against participants and ourselves.

These two processes—a kind of collective therapy, an attempt at emotional bonding as a form of community building, and an attempt to challenge privilege in the activist movement—seem to require different methodologies and pedagogies. The first, as practiced by feminist groups, indigenous communities, and black groups have developed nuanced and complex forms of collective grieving and visibilization of trauma that are acutely political. They avoid the potential trap of our workshop that could easily lead to self-blame by its individual focus. The work of La Mascara feminist theater of the oppressed group in Cali, Colombia, is an example of such collective healing and visibilization. It uses popular education methodologies combined with theater techniques to make visible and contextualize the multilevel experiences of violence of displaced women and children. They contain a strong testimonial content. Yet individual reconstruction and understanding are embedded within transformative collective practices and contextualization realized through theater work (Medina and Teatro La Mascara, 2010; Motta, 2010). These processes are often embedded in intensely spiritual practices and rituals. The second objective of challenging privileges could perhaps be productively explored by the use of a framework closer to OSDE, which seeks to explore different understandings of a particular topic—be that privilege and hierarchy and their nature—from a number of different perspectives as a means of opening up processes of revealing personal and collective assumptions. This aims to create dissonances and uncomfortableness which are productive and achieved in a safe setting.

The combination of two very different processes into one workshop was unable to facilitate collective healing or collective reflection about internal practices of power and hierarchy. For me it intensely brought to the fore our responsibility as facilitators to each other and to the participants in workshops and the importance of continual individual and collective reflection of our experiences and experiments in radical education.

Sumac Skill-Shares

The Sumac skill-shares have been running for a number of years. They have been premised on Illich’s idea that to break down formal institutionalized education we need to take education into our streets, communities, and homes. Education needs to be horizontally organized and around knowledge that is needed by a particular individual or community (Illich, 1971, p. 80). It is assumed, as in Freirian philosophy of education, that all have knowledge and can participate as learner and teacher in the experiences developed. The skill-share approach is also similar to approaches found in indigenous education, where skills are learned mainly through activity (Ingold, 2000). The approach consists mainly in the transmission of skills through skill-modeling and learning by doing, with practitioners acting as instructors, demonstrating techniques and then overseeing learners who attempt to copy the techniques. However, in contrast to Illichian and indigenous learning, it is typically very short-term with a skill-share (treated as a complete teaching-learning relation) lasting usually a few hours. It is mainly used to disseminate practical knowledge. Therefore the skill-shares have traditionally kept to a format of someone learning and someone teaching in a particular skill-share, even if the following week the teacher would become the learner and the learner a teacher.

As one of our collective was a coordinator of the skill-shares since 2009 we decided in discussion with the other coordinator of the skill-shares to experiment with the format and content that had been developed up until then. Our orientation was to emphasize a praxis based on the idea that we are all skill-sharers and all have dormant skills and knowledges that we have developed throughout our life experiences more in line with the Illichian approach. As our pamphlet stated,

If communities are going to strive and flourish outside of the states control and influence then we must break down the current paradigm of learning and knowledge. There can no longer be a dependence on what has been established, but development of what is hidden and kept silent. In order to do this we must bring together all our existing understandings and create new ways of doing, learning and sharing. We must no longer reach to the outside for expertize, as there will come a time when that reach is slapped back and we will be left to fend for ourselves as a community.

Accordingly we developed a series of two weekly workshops around key themes and issues: housing, health, education, culture and media, and food sustainability. The basic organizing idea was that individuals would spend two consecutive Saturdays engaged in skill-sharing around one of these topics. We would facilitate the discussion not as teacher but rather as a participant facilitating questions, identifying themes and issues for further exploration, and pulling out resonances and dissonances. The premise was that all who participated had skills and knowledge in relation to the topic. We envisaged that the first half of the first day would be about discussing our understanding and pulling out our knowledge about the topic. The second half would be exploring and developing one of the themes or issues discussed and high-lighted in a more practical way. We originally had the idea of two training sessions for a group of facilitators who would coordinate the skill-shares and would ideally enter into a reflexive process about their facilitation that would help to systemize the methodology we were trying to develop. However, due to issues of time, this didn’t happen between regular Free School participants. It also didn’t happen with those we had hoped would join a facilitator team. To some extent this raised questions about the inclusiveness of our collective. Paradoxically the process of building group solidarity and understanding throughout the previous nine months while creating connections, collective learning, and relationships also potentially excluded others who had not been part of this process and made them feel that they were not equal participants or that this was not their project. The problematic remains, particularly how to expand and deepen the collective outside of a group of people who have built a deep level of trust or already knew each other politically and socially.

We framed the skill-shares with questions such as these. In the housing workshops, for example, we asked:

When exploring how we will create and maintain shelter for ourselves and one another, as individuals we already have life times of experience in doing this in a variety of ways, if we bring these experiences together what will we be able to create? What new knowledges will come forth? And will we make these knowledges both sustainable and flexible? These are the questions we’ll be asking in the first two weekends, where discussions will encourage us into action. Actions which will be determined by those who attend. Whether those practicalities are the setting up of a new co-op, squatting a new building, improving an old house or creating a chanty town.

And in the health workshops, for example, we asked:

In the third fortnight the attention falls on health. We all fall prey to sickness, whether that be a common cold or something more serious. But do we really need to be so reliant on the National Health Service and the medical industry? Which aim for quick fixes and quick profits, and are intrinsically tied up with the various causes for the illnesses that may come our way. What other options are there? What other options have people being used for centuries? How can we produce and share new models for maintaining our physical and mental health? What importance does our mental health and social situation play in our physical well being? What effect does child care have on the health of the child as they become an adult? As individuals we may have our own answers to these questions, but if we combine our knowledges and resources what can develop from that?

The skill-shares had very low turnouts with some having to be canceled. However, there were some productive discussions at the education and health workshops. At the education skill-share participants in the Really Open University ( came up from Leeds and a long set of discussions about radical education, strategies for developing radical education, and potentials for linkages between the groups discussed. This has since been followed up by collaboration between participants in both radical education collectives. Three women participated in the health discussions, one as the facilitator. A huge amount of critique of current health systems and mental health systems was developed. This was built on by explored alternatives which potentially combined elements of dominant health systems with practices of indigenous communities and practices that have been lost and buried from previous groups of women midwifes and healers. We spent the second half of the day exploring lost traditions and alternative traditions as a way to begin to think about how we might use these in our everyday practices of health and healing. Since then, ideas about a mental health and trauma collective have been discussed with the idea of developing a network in and around Nottingham.

These were important moments of openings and connections which created resonances and recognitions building the grounds for collective praxis and creating. However, the low turnouts and subsequent cancellation of sessions opened up a series of discussions about the reasons for the lack of interest in the workshops as structured in this way. Previously skill-shares had been organized around the sharing of a specific skill. This has acted as a motivation of participation, which in many ways replicated the practice of learning as an instrumental process of attaining a particular skill or knowledge as a thing. Our rupturing radically that premise and opening up daylong workshops around a general theme without any immediately identifiable concrete skill or outcome was unable to reach out to people’s motivations and desires. To some extent, we put the cart before the horse. It is important to connect to where people are at, to their everyday concrete needs, desires, and interests. To sidetrack this is to miss one of the basic premises of Freirian popular education and Illich’s emphasis in deschooling society: that education to be liberatory and transformative must be relevant and context-specific. Disrupting traditional ways of learning and knowledge construction is a process. It takes a slow opening to learning that gradually breaks down fixed subjectivities and understandings of ourselves as learners (but not as teachers unless trained to do so) and of knowledge as a thing as opposed to a creative process. These reflections led us to agree that future skill-shares needed to combine the concrete needs and desires of potential participants with the development of a dialogical methodology that pushed to breaking down the divisions between skill sharer (practitioner/teacher) and learner in the skill-share space.


This piece has attempted to begin a process of systematization of the praxis of the first eighteen months of the Nottingham Free School. It has used the Freirian, Illichian, and OSDE philosophies and methodologies of radical education and the experiences of the facilitators to evaluate some of the practices and projects of the collective. It has done so in relation to whether they manage to facilitate open and dialogical spaces, help to construct postrepresentational and horizontal anticapitalist communities, and forge horizontal and participatory processes of collective knowledge construction. It has also reflected on the process of building a collective of radical educators.

Perhaps one of the most significant elements of the theory and practice that emerge from this systematization is the importance of taking into consideration the context and nature of the community that one is working with. There are distinct differences between working with organized political groups and varied groups of individuals and collectives that may or may not share common objectives and principles. This recognition implies the adaptation and transformation of methodologies and pedagogies from a range of radical education traditions. It also enables recognition of the limits and possibilities of working within different contexts. This lends itself to the development of a different conceptualization of success and politics, away from the output/object orientation of capitalism and toward and open and processal understanding of success and a multifaceted understanding of the construction of anticapitalist communities, which includes the affective, symbolic, spiritual, intellectual, institutional, and cultural. Fundamentally it also highlights the processal like nature of developing a collective of radical educators that are prepared and able to work in diverse settings. This is a long-term process with no shortcuts, which must be necessarily embedded in ongoing individual and collective reflection and systematization. The process of forming this collective is itself not merely about learning different methodologies and pedagogies but also learning to relate to each other in postrepresentational ways and unlearning our learned subjectivities which embed us in relations of power-over.

I hope with this piece to have contributed to this process of continual individual and collective reflection of the Nottingham Free School and to have provided some useful notes toward the problems, possibilities, and potentialities of constructing an educational praxis beyond capitalism.


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CHAPTER 9 Learning to Win: Anarchist Infrastructures of Resistance

Jeffery Shantz

Activists, ensconced in familiar, even comfortable, spaces that are inhabited by other activists, can too readily forget that the activities in which they are engaged each day—whether meetings, organizing, or debates—do not come naturally. They have to be learned through practice and shared labors. Similarly, the actions that are undertaken less frequently, irregularly—such as pickets, occupations, and demonstrations—also have to be learned and relearned through direct experience in order to be carried out effectively. Even more, do activists and organizers have to learn and revise specific theoretical positions and perspectives? In societies in which we are set up to lose, we all need to learn to win and what winning might mean in specific contexts.

Typically the learning involved in these varied activities, and reflections upon them, are nurtured in specific collective spaces. These spaces, from community centers to might be understood as infrastructures of resistance, resources that support organizing among the working classes and oppressed and provide some transfer of knowledge over time and space. For working-class people in Canada and the United States the primary spaces for learning have been associated historically with unions and workers associations. Yet over the last thirty years, with the decline of unionization rates and the transfer of unions into primarily bargaining agents, the spaces of learning, particularly radical or activist learning, have eroded or even disappeared. This has deprived rank-and-file workers of opportunities to learn about the histories of working-class struggle, even of their own unions and locals. It has also deprived workers of resources to learn, create, and debate strategies, tactics, practices, and ideas of struggle, whether historic or more recent.

This chapter examines attempts by anarchist workers to restore, revive, and maintain spaces of learning and infrastructures of resistance. It discusses, in particular, efforts of anarchist workers to build radical rank-and-file networks and resources through workers centers. Specifically it details the work of the coalition of anarchists, employed, and unemployed workers that has formed to develop a workers action center in Windsor, Ontario. Beyond the immediate outcome of each particular occupation or struggle, the turn to more militant and direct action tactics poses a rethinking of the avenues available to workers. The projects and alliances, networks, and experiences forged within them provide the foundations for new infrastructures of resistance. They also serve to stir memories of working-class struggles, practices, and visions that had seemingly been forgotten, lost to time.

Rebuilding Infrastructures of Resistance

As my colleague Alan Sears (2008, p. 8) notes, the habitat in which twentieth-century working-class radicalism, such as anarchism, could thrive no longer exists in the twenty-first century in the form that previously sustained radical movements and ideas. The forms of political radicalism that animated much resistance of the working classes, poor, and oppressed, were vital as components of broader infrastructures of resistance (Shantz, 2009c). The infrastructures of resistance included a range of institutions, venues, organizations, and practices. Some important examples included free schools, alternative media and publishing, shared spaces such as social centers bookstores, union halls, and bars, and workers’ campgrounds and medical clinics. These infrastructures developed within contexts of particular organizations of life and work. Through struggle and the pressing realities of meeting material, cultural, personal, and social needs and desires, people and their communities developed infrastructures of resistance to sustain themselves and provide the necessary supports to sustain ongoing struggles and the inspiration of the new world they sought to make. The last few decades have ushered in significant changes in the organization of social relations and conditions of production, which have transformed the possibilities for specific political projects (Sears, 2008, p. 8). Emerging movements need to focus on the reemergence of infrastructures of resistance if they are to be relevant parts of contributions to the development and growth of new waves of radical renewal and resistance.

As the anarchist labor organizer Sam Dolgoff often stressed, the labor movement once put a great deal of energy into building more permanent forms of alternative institutions. An expanding variety of mutual aid functions were provided through unions in the early days of labor.

They created a network of cooperative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centers, insurance plans, technical education, housing, credit associations, et cetera. All these, and many other essential services were provided by the people themselves, long before the government monopolized social services wasting untold billions on a top-heavy bureaucratic parasitical apparatus; long before the labor movement was corrupted by “business unionism”. (1990, p. 31)

Infrastructures of resistance also included practices such as rank-and-file networks, flying squads and working groups and opposition movements within unions (see Shantz, 2009d). The infrastructures of resistance also included, notably, anarchist and socialist groups and organizations themselves. Key here were the informal networks of workers and community members inside and outside official union structures. These varying infrastructures of resistance provided, allowed for, and encouraged a range of material and imaginal supports within communities of working-class, poor, and oppressed people. Indeed it is within these infrastructures of resistance that community became possible and practiced in real ways. As Sears (2008, p. 8) notes, these infrastructures of resistance “cultivated collective capacities for memory (reflections on past experiences and struggles), analysis (discussion and debate about theory and change), communication (outside of official or commercial media channels) and action (networks of formal and informal solidarity.”

Over the last half century, many of these infrastructures of resistance have severely eroded within working-class communities across North America. The erosion of infrastructures of resistance has resulted from a series of significant transformations in work and social life. It has also been impacted by shifts in the reorganization of political and social priorities and opportunities of official institutions within communities of the working class and oppressed. Most of the changes have been effected by defeats suffered through offensives of states and capital. At the same time, others have resulted from seeming working-class victories, including the legalization of unions themselves (Sears, 2008, p. 8). For all of their potential power, the trade unions in Ontario are restricted by a leadership that cannot allow decisive force to be unleashed.

This has meant that over the past few decades working-class opposition in North America has been contained largely within official, typically legalistic channels. Most common among these have been established bargaining and grievance procedures via union representatives in economic matters. This has been accompanied by a containment of political action within the official channels of party politics and elections. Indeed the separation between economic and political spheres (and the relegation of unions to the limited terrain of economic management) is a reflection, and result of, the collapse of infrastructures of resistance that expressed the connections, even unity, of economic and political action, and the need for organizations that recognized the connections between struggles in these areas. Activities such as occupations, blockades, wildcat strikes, and sabotage have been dismissed or diminished within unionized workplaces in which unions act as a level of surveillance and regulation of workers, attempting to contain their actions within the framework of contracts with employers.

Indeed the main role of the unions became supervision of the contract during periods between bargaining and symbolic mobilization to support official union negotiations during legal bargaining. Rank-and-file militants have faced disciplinary actions, lack of support, or outright shunning by union officials. Contracts include provisions that prohibit wildcats, as agreed to by the union representatives.

In Canada, the institutionalization of unions as economic managers has been accompanied by the institutionalization of working-class politics within electoral politics in campaigns of the New Democratic Party federally and provincially, at national and local levels. Politics has been reduced to party campaigns and lobbying for legislative reform as proposed and channeled through NDP caucuses (Shantz, 2009b).

In the current period these institutional pressures and habits have constrained working-class responses to structural transformations of neoliberalism and economic crisis. Unions have sought to limit losses rather than make gains. The approach has been to negotiate severance deals that limit the harm done to former employes (and members) rather than contest the rights of employers and governments to determine the future of workplaces and workers’ livelihoods.

These arrangements have also engendered a certain faith in or reliance upon the system among the working classes. Rather than seeking new relations, a new society, the institutions of the working class presented and replayed the message that working-class desires and needs could not only be met within capitalist society, but, even more, depended upon capitalism for their realization.

Such a notion played into the “trickle-down” fantasies of neoliberal Reaganomics, which insisted that policies and practices that benefited business should be pursued as some of the gains made by capital would eventually find their way to the working class and the poor. Such was the justification for the massive multi-million-dollar bailouts handed to corporations as part of the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.

Infrastructures of resistance provided the imaginal universe in which alternatives could be thought, pursued and even, if in part, implemented and realized. The decline of infrastructures of resistance left communities without alternatives or the possibility of alternatives, consigned to the sense that capitalism was the only option. This sense of resignation was reinforced by official institutions (unions and labor parties) that, in their rhetoric and actions suggested that another world was not possible and all desires had to be met or discarded within the context of capitalist social relations. Relations of exploitation.

There has also been a decline in working-class institutions such as the working-class social centers, “labor temples,” or union halls as centers of cultural life and activity. Cultural activities have been reduced to the occasional union barbecue or pub night. Shared spaces for discussion, debate strategizing and developing collective visions and practices have eroded. So too have opportunities to nurture connections across generations of workers.

The cultural activities of working-class elders and youth have been separated, and even segregated. Great distances obtain between the so-called “youth subcultures” and the touchstones of adult cultures, themselves divided along a range of consumer preferences.

All of this has meant that more militant responses, possibilities of occupation, factory recuperation, or wildcats, have not been raised as reasonable responses to capitalist crisis or restructuring. Now as the previous gains made by workers and social movements are being, or have been, erased under neoliberal regimes, the working class, poor, and oppressed are left alone to face precarious existence and exploitation without the necessary infrastructures that might sustain them or offer a basis for renewed struggle. This is true in terms of the loss of autonomous institutions of the working class and poor, but also in terms of the loss of public institutions (the reified outcomes of struggle reflected in the welfare state and various social services), which have been privatized, turned over to the market and its cold profit logic.

These memories are often buried beneath layers of bureaucracy, legal procedure, and parliamentary process. The stirring of rank-and-file initiatives and the lessons learned in practice energize a militant hope that poses new questions and new opportunities. They can change the context in which workers’ expectations develop. They can also change the context in which the rights of workers, capital, and even the meaning of property itself are understood. They offer wonderful opportunities for workers to gain a powerful sense of their own strength and shows fairly clearly the sort of impact they can have beyond the typical confines of legal negotiations and bargaining.

Anarchists have always emphasized people’s capacities for spontaneous organization, but they also recognize that what appears to be “spontaneous” develops from an often-extensive groundwork of preexisting radical practices. Without such preexisting practices and relationships, people are left to patch things together in the heat of social upheaval or to defer to previously organized and disciplined vanguards. Preexisting infrastructures, or transfer cultures, are necessary components of popular, participatory, and liberatory social reorganization. A liberatory social transformation requires experiences of active involvement in radical change, prior to any insurrection, and the development of prior structures for constructing a new society within the shell of the old society.

Various alternative institutions, whether free schools or squats or countermedia, form networks as means for developing alternative social infrastructures. Where free schools join up with worker cooperatives and collective social centers, alternative social infrastructures become visible at least at the community level. Contemporary projects are still quite new. None have approached the scale that would suggest they pose practical alternatives, except perhaps in the case of new media activities and Internet networks. Yet all are putting together the building blocks that might promote practical alternatives extending well beyond the projects from which they originated.

Toward the Rebuilding of Infrastructures of Resistance in a Blue-Collar Town

The infrastructures of resistance help people and communities to develop the capacities to sustain human struggles over time and place. They provide a basis for self-directing these struggles strategically. They also allow for the crucial connection between local and immediate struggles and campaigns and broader and more thoroughgoing projects of contesting and even overthrowing the existing social structures (Sears, 2008, p. 10).

Windsor, like many working-class centers, is certainly a community that would benefit from a renewal of rank-and-file direct action. As Ross and Drouillard note (2009), between 2002 and 2006, secure, well-paying, and unionized manufacturing jobs in Windsor declined by 28 percent. The loss of jobs has devastated the community, with people losing homes, leaving the community, or turning to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters to get by. The city’s downtown has become abandoned in certain areas, the boarded up storefronts a ghostly reminder of the city that once was. While there have been outward signs of opposition, such as the forty-thousand-strong community demonstration in 2007 calling for government support for unemployed workers and those facing job loss, the overarching sense has been one of resignation and hopelessness (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Such has been the impact of ongoing and deepening experiences of unemployment, marginalization, and poverty across the community (Ross and Drouillard, 2009).

In Windsor many of the organizations and institutions that had recently provided infrastructures of resistance, such as the Windsor Coalition for Social Justice and the Anarchist Working Group, had disappeared. Central spaces in which activists had gathered, met, and organized, such as the Eclectic Cafe, which had provided something of an organizing nerve center during the demonstrations against the meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS), had folded. The roving Coffeehouse 36 weekly anarchist gatherings had faded away after providing lively venues for discussion, debate, and organizing. As Ross and Drouillard (2009) note:

The CAW’s strategy of using buyouts as a way to mitigate layoffs (while allowing employers to permanently reduce the workforce) has generated a growing number of ex-union members in the community, some of whom were local union activists. As these workers drift away into other workplaces or struggle to find new jobs, and with nothing to connect them to their former union or workplace community, they experience isolation and the dissipation of their activist knowledge, experience and capacities.

One interesting attempt initiated by anarchists to rebuild working-class infrastructures of resistance emerged in Windsor at the end of 2008. On November 1, 2008, the Windsor Workers’ Action Center (WWAC) threw open its door with a celebration attended by a standing-room-only crowd (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Participants view the WWAC as a venue for developing new strategies for collective struggle and for providing resources, material and imaginal, that will contribute to new types of worker’s organization and action. The concern is not solely with helping people survive the crisis but, even more, to forge the solidarity and support that might build the capacity to raise seriously workers’ alternatives to capitalism (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). One key challenge is to make connections between unemployed workers and those who still have jobs. Similarly there is the need to build solidarity between unionized workers trying to hold onto relatively decent paying jobs and nonunionized workers, many of whom have never enjoyed such jobs in the first place.

The initiative comes out of a growing sense that working-class organizations, and community advocacy groups, are not capable of confronting, let alone overcoming, the issues and difficulties facing the working class and oppressed in twenty-first-century capitalism. The WWAC is a material manifestation of working-class and poor people to develop and share resources among themselves in a way that will forge durable relationships within or between individuals and groups while helping to overcome the sense of isolation and defeatism that often impedes struggles. It is a space of mutual aid and solidarity, an infrastructure of resistance in the making.

In other contexts and eras, infrastructures of dissent provided venues and resources through which workers and community activists could come together and collaborate on shared projects, making connections between seemingly distinct issues and concerns and creating a critical mass for dealing with them effectively. As Ross and Drouillard (2009) remind us, “workers’ independent social and cultural spaces outside the workplace … allowed workers to gather, socialize, debate and argue, develop their own forms of cultural expression as well as bonds of friendship and solidarity that could underpin difficult struggles as well as generate alternative perspectives.” Initial meetings thus emphasized building opportunities for bridging gaps, bringing movements, groups, and activists together to find common cause and common ground.

Contemporary infrastructures of resistance must be places that recognize and are open to the diversity of working-class experience. They must be spaces in which people from different workplace and community backgrounds can feel comfortable and welcome. This marks them as distinct from union halls, church basements, and university campuses, spaces that have often been used for organizing. As WWAC participants are aware, union halls can be difficult spaces to enter for nonunionized workers “given the broader cultural atmosphere of antiunionism, the resentment fostered against unionized workers, and the fear of reprisal from employers if seen associating with the movement” (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Similarly many working-class people still feel uncomfortable or unwelcome on university campuses, spaces that are viewed as the domain of elites who do not or cannot relate to working-class people or, worse, who look down on them. I still have vivid memories of being physically assaulted my first week as an undergraduate simply for wearing my union jacket on campus, the student assailants repeatedly asking why I was wearing a union jacket on their campus. In other cases community organizers sometimes fail to recognize cultural diversity. I recall an antipoverty group holding a welfare clinic in a church basement only to find that some Muslim people, who were among the groups to whom outreach was being directed, would not enter the building.

For the founders of the WWAC, it was essential that the space they created be open to any working-class people who wanted to participate, from a broad diversity of backgrounds and experiences. The gathering space should be free from direction by any particular group, organization, or workplace (such as the university). Its focus must be straightforwardly to provide a free space, both in terms of openness but literally free in terms of cost, in which people can meet to pursue their own organizing needs. Additionally this space should allow for people to meet others, unfamiliar to them, who might have similar interests, experiences, concerns, and intentions. These opportunities and encounters, it is hoped, will lead to new forms of interconnected struggle and even allow people “to develop broader forms of consciousness” (Ross and Drouillard, 2009).

A key goal that motivated the creation of the WWAC space was challenging and overcoming the false divide that too often separates community and workplace struggles, as if they were somehow separate spheres (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Indeed, the organizational structures, activities, and membership of social justice groups often (re)produce that divide. Antipoverty groups, housing advocates, injured workers groups, migrant workers’ organizations too often have limited aims, scopes, and activities related to specific concerns of a particular working-class constituency with too little interaction between them, shared memberships or mutually engaged strategies and tactics. Precisely because such divides are false, in many ways the outcome of previous struggles and defeats, and even victories (see Sears, 2008), “activists needed to better understand and organize around the intersections between work-based inequalities and injustices and those experienced in the family, in schools, in the grocery store, in neighborhoods, and in the city” (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Participants in the WWAC were aware and concerned that unions have still not made organizing around working-class issues beyond the workplace a real priority. This situation has only gotten worse as unions retreat and retrench around a limited defense against demands for concessions (Sears, 2008; Ross and Drouillard, 2009).

In January 2009, the WWAC set up a phone line to assist workers in dealing with current employers or to help unemployed workers and community members deal with government agencies and programs such as Employment Insurance (EI) or Workers’ Compensation claims (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). WWAC participants have also developed and hosted workshops on employment standards to the Windsor Unemployed Help Center and Windsor Women Working With Immigrant Women (an organization that helps immigrant women secure employment), and has developed workshops on EI and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). At present, the work of the WWAC is focused on service provision, in a context in which many people are without adequate support in dealing with government systems that are not accessible or easy to navigate (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Notably people often lack the knowledge required to navigate such institutions of authority effectively in ways that meet their own specific needs. Assistance is offered for anything from filling out government forms properly to taking direct action against an employer or landlord who is ripping people off. Those affected decide the best approach to deal with their situation and the WWAC helps with resources and people to get it done. Recognizing that “established channels” rarely work in favor of poor people the working group is committed to developing the skills and resources necessary so that people can take whatever action is necessary to get what they need. This is an example of an infrastructure of resistance, one in which skill-sharing and learning occurs collectively to help people meet rather essential needs.

One of the central, essential infrastructures lacking for a variety of organizations of the working-class and poor is simply space to meet and gather safely and securely. Addressing this ongoing need, the WWAC makes available free meeting space for several community organizing groups, including the FedUp Community Gardening Network, the Windsor Peace Coalition, and the Windsor Fair Trade group, a group devoted to making Windsor a fair trade city (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). The center also holds a number of free school classes, including classes on anarchist economics and theory.

The availability of a common organizing space allows a diversity of social justice groups and organizers to meet, talk, and build relationships. This provides opportunities to move beyond the fragmentation and isolation that often mark struggles and issues and allows organizers to make connections that would otherwise not emerge. Indeed participants in the WWAC note the numbers of people who have remarked that before spending time at the center they did not know about a range of other projects underway in the city (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). This is clearly a case in which involvement or interest in a specific group or event can, through the presence of a shared space, lead to contact and involvement with other groups and issues, contributing to the expansion of group participation and the forging of relationships of mutual aid and solidarity (Ross and Drouillard, 2009).

Developing practices for overcoming barriers between people and movements and moving past the fragmentation and isolation that are part of relations of exploitation and oppression remain key challenges to be addressed in building and nurturing infrastructures of resistance. Ross and Drouillard (2009) note that most workers’ centers have been geared toward more clearly defined or specific constituencies, typically around particular industries, workers, citizenship status, or employment status. In their view, organizing workers as a class is a difficult task, particularly as it must avoid the pitfalls of traditional labor organizations and movements.

The type of service provision that unions and community organizations are typically involved in, such as accessing government, contractually affirmed or legal resources does not entail much risk, either for recipients or providers (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Various limited resources exist to support individual workers, as long as it remains within a context that reintegrates them into the system of waged labor. Collective organizing for more than this is both more difficult and more risky, in material and emotional terms. Before people are willing or ready to engage in such collective actions they must experience or see examples of success. As Ross and Drouillard (2009) note: “Many people, whether unionized or not, are well aware of the pervasive injustice of the current state of affairs, but are skeptical that collective action can change these circumstances. If the CAW, the most powerful union in Windsor, must take major concessions to preserve jobs, what can other organizations do?”

Infrastructures of resistance, like the WWAC, must crucially develop and maintain capacities for making and securing real victories that are meaningful in people’s lives. At the same time this requires that people develop the confidence to struggle further (Ross and Drouillard, 2009). Even so-called minor victories, such as securing proper severance or benefits or delaying a plant closure, can be essential. People, in a context of too many, often ongoing, losses, need to win to experience what winning feels like. As Ross and Drouillard (2009) note, in the current context, even addressing the question of making real gains and attempting to develop new ways of answering it can be a real contribution to the regeneration of workers’ resistance.


We need to be prepared not just intellectually but organizationally for radical struggles and transformation. Infrastructures of resistance serve as means by which people can sustain radical social change before, during, and after insurrectionary periods.

As a child growing up in a union family in Windsor I can remember many occasions in which members came together to share good times, discussion, play, and friendship—parties at the union hall, picnics, sports clubs, etc. These events provided spaces in which members and their families could benefit culturally and materially from a shared community and culture, from mutual aid in practice. By the time I went to work in the plant and became a member of the local myself, most of these activities and spaces were things of the past. My fellow workers on the line were finding support and solidarity not within the shared spaces of the local, but often, instead, in born-again religions and reactionary clubs.

Indeed this is perhaps one of the lessons to be learned from the successful organizing done by the Right in the 1980s and 1990s. In times of need and crisis, the evangelical churches provided institutional support and emotional defense against capitalist alienation (though not necessarily in ways that the Left should emulate). Many evangelical communities provide food, clothing, and shelter for members. Many can mobilize hundreds to build a house for someone in their community. The Left has been less active in developing these infrastructural capacities, though these are things we could be doing in our own neighborhoods.

Infrastructures of resistance encourage people to create alternative social spaces within which liberatory institutions, practices, and relationships can be nurtured. They include the beginnings of economic and political self-management through the creation of institutions which can encourage a broader social transformation while also providing some of the conditions for personal and collective sustenance and growth in the present. This is about changing the world, not by taking control of the state, but by creating opportunities for people to develop their personal and collective power.

Infrastructures of resistance create situations in which specific communities build economic and social systems that operate, as much as possible, as working alternatives to the dominant state capitalist structures. They are organized around alternative institutions that offer at least a starting point for meeting community needs such as education, food, housing, communications, energy, transportation, child care, and so on. These institutions are autonomous from, and indeed opposed to, dominant relations and institutions of the state and capital. They may also contest “official” organs of the working class such as bureaucratic unions or political parties. In the short term these institutions contest official structures, with an eye toward, in the longer term, replacing them. The creation of alternative institutions and relationships, which express our more far-reaching visions, can be desirable in and of itself. It is important to liberate or create space within which we might live more free and secure lives today, as we work to build a new society.

Superseding the status quo requires, in part, a refusal to participate in dominant social relations. Communities might seek to reorganize social institutions in such a way as to reclaim social and economic power and exercise it in their own collective interests. They might seek an alternative social infrastructure that is responsive to people’s needs because it is developed and controlled directly by them. Such an approach takes a firm stand against the authority vested in politicians and their corporate masters. It might also speak against the hierarchical arrangements that exemplify major institutions such as workplaces, schools, churches, and even the family. It is important to develop the skills and resources, some forgotten or overlooked, that might contribute to this.

The perspectives and practices of our movements, in addressing immediate day-to-day concerns, remind us that we must offer examples that resonate with people’s experiences and needs. Additionally, any movement that fails to offer alternative and reliable organizational spaces and practices will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Or as Herzen has remarked, “A goal which is infinitely remote is not a goal at all, it is a deception” (quoted in Ward, 2004, p. 32). These practices could point the way toward the development of real world alternatives to capitalism. The challenge remains how such activities might allow for the creation of greater spaces for their autonomous development and extension. There is an ongoing push and pull between forces driving toward dis/valorization into capitalism and forces working for autonomous development.

Such projects as the workers center together are showing the reasonableness and promise of workers control as meaningful responses and alternatives to the failures of capitalism. Examples like the WWAC suggest that where these reemerging infrastructures of resistance become able to reinforce and encourage each other, new contexts for struggles might emerge.


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Eley, T. (2009). Autoworkers end factory occupation in Windsor, Ontario. World Socialist, March 20.

Ross, S. & Drouillard, R. (2009). Renewing workers’ struggles in the crisis: The Windsor Workers’ Action Center. The Bullet E-Journal. Toronto: Socialist Project

Sears, A. (2008). Habitats for socialism. Relay, 23, 8–10.

Shantz, J. (2009a). Living anarchy: Theory and practice in anarchist movements. Palo Alto: Academica Press.

Shantz, J. (2009b). The limits of social unionism in Canada. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 12(1): 113–30.

Shantz, J. (2009c). Rebuilding infrastructures of resistance. Socialism and Democracy, 23(2), 102–9.

Shantz, J. (2009d). Anarchy at work: Contemporary anarchism and unions. WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 12(3), 371–85.

Ward, C. (1973). Anarchy in action. New York: Harper Torchbooks

CHAPTER 10. Inside, Outside, and on the Edge of the Academy: Experiments in Radical Pedagogies[24]

Elsa Noterman and Andre Pusey


Universities, as well as other educational institutions, are currently facing economic instability, debt, and an uncertain future. The squeeze on higher education is like the crisis of capital: global. But so too is the emergent resistance. People around the world are challenging the neoliberal model of the university, which produces “skilled” workers to be put to use for the (re)production of capital.

The “double crisis” of the economy and the university has made campuses once again sites of resistance, and the “new student movement can be seen as the main organized response to the global financial crisis” (Caffentzis, 2010). These struggles have not only formed spaces for opposition—to budget cuts, the increasing precarity of labor, rising education costs—but have also featured calls for new models for education to “transform the campus into a base for alternative knowledge production that is accessible to those outside its ‘walls’” (Caffentzis, 2010). In this chapter we will investigate recent attempts to create alternative spaces for radical pedagogy and knowledge commons inside, outside, and on the periphery of the academy, exploring several spaces of pedagogical praxis and to reflect on the potential for radical pedagogy and knowledge production.

First we look at attempts to open autonomous spaces within the neoliberal university, including the MA in Activism and Social Change at the University of Leeds (UK) that attempts to reconcile radical scholarship and activism. We also look at a project called “Student as Producer,” which aims to transform the form that teaching takes across the undergraduate syllabus, at the University of Lincoln (UK).

We then engage with “Free School” and “Free University” projects as instances of pedagogical spaces outside the academy—specifically those organized in places such as autonomous social centers and explicitly rooted in the anarchist tradition of collectivism, autonomy, and self-management.

Finally we reflect on a group attempting to place itself in what we term “creative cramped space” on the edge of the university. The Really Open University (ROU), which we are both involved with, is working to develop a collective critique of the current university system, and develop experimental and participatory interventions.

The refrain of the ROU is “strike, occupy, transform.” To our mind it is this transformative politics of antagonistic affirmation that offers us hope at creating open and nonhierarchical institutions of research and learning, based on what have long been anarchist principles of creating prefigurative examples in the here and now. This transformative space on the edge of the academy can perhaps provide a place for the merging of critical pedagogy with anarchist theory—prefigurative education (DeLeon, 2006). Expanding on the Zapatista saying, “Preguntando caminamos” (asking, we walk) (Holloway, 2005), we seek to examine spaces where as researchers, asking we struggle.

Experiments Inside the Academy

In this section we wish to look at experiments in opening radical educational spaces within the academy. We focus mainly on the course we have most experience of, the MA in Activism and Social Change, run from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds in the UK.[25]

Stevphen Shukaitis (2009) notes that “anarchism has always had an ambivalent relationship to the academy.” Indeed, from an anarchist perspective, critical of universities as hierarchical and exclusionary institutions, it is easy to see an array of problems arising from attempts to experiment with radical education within the bounded and striated space of the academy. The course fees alone mean that any attempt at running a radical course will only attract those who are able to afford to pay tuition or willing to go into debt for the purpose of further study. Within the current point in the edu-crisis this situation looks like it will only intensify, with a recent UK government report (Browne, 2010) recommending the doubling of undergraduate university fees to around £7,000 to £10,000 a year for “home students”[26] in the United Kingdom. Course fees globally are skyrocketing, along with student debt. In the United States, the average debt for students who graduated in 2009 was $24,000 (up 6 percent from the previous year) (The Project on Student Debt, 2010).

In addition to the financial issues, there is the recurrent accusation that the academy “recuperates” radical struggles and ideas, thereby rendering them harmless and capitalizing off them for its own ends (Vaneigem, 1972). To some extent, academic courses with a specific focus on gender, class, and race, among others, have only been granted space within the academy as part of wider social struggles outside (as well as within) university space (although we concede that the university as often as not acts as a machine that captures and recuperates these “minor knowledges”) (Thorburn, 2003). Indeed, as Shukaitis (2009) states, “anarchism … cannot find a home in such a space without betraying itself.”

In the UK, as elsewhere, students and teachers are currently facing an all-out attack on whole sections of knowledge production and education, especially within the humanities and social sciences, which are deemed less important than subjects more explicitly tied to the generation of profit. It is therefore difficult to see much of a future for courses in the current university system whose subject matter is overtly “radical” or even “critical.” The criticisms outlined above, and many more, have been leveled at the masters program in activism and social change, developed, and currently taught, within the Geography Department at the University of Leeds (UK).[27] The MA in Activism and Social Change (hereafter MAASC) was established in 2007 and is now in its fourth year. The FAQ for the MA states that the course “is not about a detached study of activism, activists, or social change. Rather, it aims to promote free and critical thinking about the challenges we face, how we can develop tactics and strategies and skills to respond to them, as well as creative alternatives to life under capitalism” (MAASC FAQ).

The program covers a range of topics from anarchist, Marxist, and ecological ideas to radical research methods such as Participatory Action Research and Militant Inquiry. At the end of the course students embark on an “action dissertation,” connecting their training in progressive research methods and radical theory with their campaigning and activism. This aims to be a form of assessment, which is radically different to conventional dissertations.

Discussing the reasons he and Chatterton devised the course Hodkinson (2009) states, “We saw a real and urgent need for undergraduate and postgraduate courses that would reopen educational spaces for students to develop their own ideas and thinking per se, challenge the neoliberal direction of our own workplaces, and at the same time, create new learning opportunities for those who clearly wanted to take action to make the world a fairer and sustainable place to live in.” Here we can see that the MAASC is identified as having a dual role, as a form of what bell hooks (1994) has described as “teaching to transgress,” as well as comprising a part of the struggle against the further neoliberalization of higher education. Hodkinson (2009), again highlighting the link between resisting neoliberal reforms and the practice of teaching, states that “one of the main ways in which we can resist corporate takeover and the neoliberal agenda is through our teaching.” He has conceded, however, that “there have, understandably, been plenty of criticisms from activist quarters of our decision to put on this particular Masters course,” continuing that “a common reaction is that the very essence of an elite-level university degree in ‘radical activism’ is a contradiction in terms as universities are ‘part of the problem’ and the course will inevitably be exclusive to white middle class kids who will go on to become a ‘professional elite’ of ‘career activists’ and ‘social movement managers’” (Hodkinson, 2009).

Academics, like those in any other profession, are challenged by the fact that they are involved in the reproduction of capital, regardless of the content of their lectures. However, as John Holloway (2005, p. 235) reflects in Change the World Without Taking Power, “[l]iving in capital means that we live in the midst of contradiction.” Therefore, “in spite” (Holloway, 2005) of this, many academics have a long involvement in activism from stopping road building and airport expansion, to squatting and fighting gentrification (Chatterton, 2002; Maxey, 2004; Plows, 1998 and Wall, 1999). Academics are also involved in struggles closer to home, for example the Royal Geographical Societies sponsorship by Shell and academic complicity in the arms trade (Chatterton and Featherstone, 2007; Chatterton and Maxey, 2009; Gilbert, 2009).

The academics who established the MAASC, Paul Chatterton and Stuart Hodkinson, as well as others involved in the course, are themselves engaged in movements and struggles that are critical of capitalism and the state form. This work informs not only their research, but also their teaching on the MA. Chatterton, for example, worked with the Zapatistas before taking his lecturer’s post at Leeds and has also been active in a variety of radical projects, from helping to establish an autonomous social center called The Common Place to being arrested for occupying a coal train as part of a struggle against the causes of climate change. He is also involved with a popular education collective called TRAPESE[28] and interested in using teaching as a way of generating critical and defiant subjects (Chatterton, 2008). Among other projects, Hodkinson is engaged in an ongoing campaign against the gentrification of Leeds’s Kirkgate Market, is active in housing struggles, and was also involved in the establishment of The Common Place (Hodkinson and Chatterton, 2006; Hodkinson, 2010).

There has been a range of debates within radical academic literature on the relative merits of “scholar-activism” (Chatterton, 2008). There have also been many discussions—in and out of academia—around whether an academic’s activism should take place inside or outside the academy, or whether this is a false binary (Castree, 2002). It is sometimes difficult for those outside of formal education to see education itself as a site of contestation and political struggle—especially because of the privileged position university education occupies in society. As we have illustrated, this course is viewed as part of the fight against neoliberal education, but it is also a site of struggle in and of itself. The first year the course was held, for example, the fees were lowered for asylum seekers (the course organizers were, however, quickly reprimanded by the university administration for doing so) (Hodkinson, 2009). We feel that the course name—masters in activism and social change—needlessly courts criticism. Using the term “activism” is highly contentious to many people, leading some to view the course as a form of “professionalization” of struggle. It is also a term that is very open to (mis)interpretation, raising many questions, including: “What forms of activism are actually represented on the course?” It fails to take into consideration many of the debates within movements about the role of activism and activists as being exclusionary and elitist, especially where activists themselves become a form of specialists in struggle (Andrew X, 1999).

Beyond the content of the course and some experimentation with alternative pedagogical practice, it is hard at times to discern how this course varies from other academic courses. Assessment, for example, takes fairly traditional forms for the most part (essays, reports, individual assessment, etc). There is more emphasis on seminar, discussion-based learning, rather than lectures, and the course aims at a participatory approach, but this is perhaps is not as radical as the scope of the course suggests. It also fails to fundamentally change the traditional relationship between student and teacher. Of course there are a variety of difficulties in running the course within the current neoliberal university and therefore its existence maintains a precarity which many courses face today. But this once again suggests the limitations of organizing and maintaining radical courses within the university system, as it exists today.

There have been, of course, many limitations that the university placed directly on the program. Hodkinson (2009) discusses how one senior manager told him and the other organizers of the course that the MA was “very controversial” and was being “closely watched in higher places.” Nothing has come of these comments, and indeed the main threats to the course have come from the pressure for it to be “profitable” rather than because of ideological arguments around the course content or assessment. At the end of the day, to some extent, you can teach what you like within the neoliberal university, as long as people are paying enough for it!

So how does the MAASC “market” itself? In terms of future “employability,” it aims its publicity fairly explicitly at the NGO sector, with supportive statements from organizations such as the World Development Movement (WDM) on its literature and websites. This would seem to confirm activist fears that the course contributes to the proliferation of “experts” in social change and professionalization of activism. Of course, we recognize that graduates may go on to a variety of other, unrelated jobs (or maybe more likely none at all) but in terms of those outside the academy looking in, this may further agitate those who are critical of NGOs and other “professional” activists.

It has, however, not been our experience over the four years that the course has been running that most students have decided to take the course simply as a stepping-stone to a job within an NGO or similar organization. Most seek an engaging and educational experience, in which they can learn new skills, uncover new literatures and partake in a participatory pedagogical experience where they can learn from others while sharing their own experiences. As expressed by a former student:

In our opinion the MA should attempt to tackle a number of challenges. It should attempt to bring more activism into the academy by directly studying the academy as a major social institution and by seeking to engage students in the politics of that institution. Secondly, the MA must work to take itself outside the academy by organizing activities or forms of activity that can be utilized by all campaigners not just the ones privileged enough to afford the luxury of joining the course. In so doing the MA could help contribute to a culture of reflexive activism, that is critical and strategic thinking among radical social movements. (MAASC program participant, 2008–2009)

All this is what we feel education should be about, not merely the cynical “employability” so favored by today’s education system—and certainly some people are attracted to the course because they seek something different from the status quo. However, one must be able to afford the fees with which to embark on this individual/collective learning adventure!

This leads us to the problem of institutions. The university as it currently exists, is clearly not an institution of our own making. When we work within it, as students and academics, we are grappling with it as a messy and contested space of, often contradictory, values and ethics. On the one hand the role of the university is (increasingly) about social reproduction: creating docile, debt-ridden workers for capital. On the other hand, the university is a potential space of community and commons (Harvie, 2004), a “crack in capitalism” (Holloway, 2010)—a place where students can discover radical ideas and develop critical thought, often engaging in their first forms of activism. Nonetheless, the university is becoming ever more “closed.” The massive increase in fees, in both the UK and United States, is leading to a staggering amount of graduate debt. A recent survey shows that graduates from the “Class of 2010” in UK universities expect to owe an average of £17,900, up from an average of £11,600 in 2008 (High Fliers Research Limited, 2010). Therefore is it possible that this course is just perpetuating the elitism and privilege of university education? Once again, the spiraling costs of gaining a university education exacerbate this dilemma. Debt, in this case student debt, acts as a disciplining mechanism. The actions one takes and opportunities open to us are affected by the debts we have.

In our examination of the MAASC, we hope to highlight some of the opportunities, challenges, and questions raised by attempts to open up spaces for radical pedagogy within a neoliberal educational institution—in this case the university. Ultimately we are left with more questions—How can the course remain in the university without becoming Institutionalized or simply a mechanism for capitalistic production? Are efforts at placing radicalism as the object of academic inquiry useful and necessary within a larger context of struggle against neoliberal capitalism? To perhaps shine some light on these questions by virtue of comparison, we now turn to a project where radicalism takes the form of teaching and research.

Student as Producer Project

At the University of Lincoln a project called “student as producer” has been launched.[29] The initiative aims to make a break with the logic, increasingly taking ground within Higher Education, which positions students as consumers. Instead, the goal of the “student as producer” model is to place the student, not as the passive recipient of knowledge transmitted though the “teacher” but as an active participant. The project recognizes students’ capacity to take part in a process of research activity that produces knowledge while engaging the participants in an active process of learning. As the project states, “The Student as Producer project develops this connection by re-engineering the relationship between research and teaching. This involves a reappraisal of the relationship between academics and students, with students becoming part of the academic project of universities rather than consumers of knowledge” (Student as Producer Project Proposal:

The concept of “Student as Producer” is informed by the work of Walter Benjamin (1934), in particular his lecture, “Author as Producer,” which focused on the question of how radical intellectuals intervene in moments of crisis. Another intellectual who had a significant impact on the idea of Student as Producer is Lev Vygotsky who suggested that the teacher must arrange the social context so that the students teach themselves (Neary, 2010a). The instance of its practice at the University of Lincoln is the result of a £200,000 grant from the Higher Education Academy (through the National Teaching Fellowship Project Scheme 2010–2013) to initiate a three-year project that aims to transform teaching across the entire undergraduate curriculum. The project will mean that all teaching across the entire undergraduate curriculum is based on research, or research-like activity (Neary and Winn, 2009). This may include collaborations between students and academics, students writing journal articles or some other form of research-based knowledge production.

In contrast to the MA in Activism and Social Change discussed earlier, the subject of study is not specifically “radical,” but the form of pedagogical approach looks to be both radical and wide-ranging in its reach. Rather than radicalism being isolated to a handful of courses where the object of study is radical ideas and movements, this project attempts to challenge the instrumentalization of education across the entire curriculum, with a radically different form of teaching approach. As Mike Neary (2010a) from the University of Lincoln states, “A key issue for Student as Producer is that social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice.”

It is too early to evaluate this project in practice, but we look forward to discovering more about its development and impact. The extent to which the transformation of the pedagogical experience this project entails will in turn transform the university may prove interesting—as will its potential impact on other institutions of learning. We are also curious to see to what extent this form of learning could spread to other institutions. There are of course risks associated with this project, ranging from academics exploiting students for research work, to recuperation. Mike Neary (2010b) has already attempted a form of autocritique, titled the “Pedagogy of Excess,” and acknowledges these risks.

In this section we have focused on projects almost entirely bounded within the university as it is, despite some radical differences to the way we may experience the subjects and styles of the pedagogical approach of many courses and institutions. In the next section we look at experimental educational projects on the “outside” of the universities walls, which often intentionally posit themselves against traditional hierarchical educational institutions.

Outside the Academy

Below we focus mainly on the proliferation of anarchist(ic) Free Skools both in the UK and the United States as well as the “Free University” projects that are scattered across Europe.

From Free Skools…

There is a long history of autonomous alternative education efforts. By abandoning or rejecting the normative educational system, people have sought to organize new spaces for the exchange of ideas and skills. Free skools,[30] the anarchist manifestation of this trend, are based on principles of horizontality, autonomy, self-reliance, equality, and collective organizing. These skools create educational opportunities and encourage skill-sharing in their communities while functioning outside the market economy, in favor of a gift economy. Ardently student-centered, many of these skools call into question the traditional dichotomy between “student” and “teacher.” Held in autonomous social centers, church basements or other public spaces, they seek to maintain openness and a lack of entrance requirements.

Free skools have their roots in the anarchist Escuela Moderna (Modern School) of Spain, established in the early twentieth century. This period of history was a zenith of libertarian schools and pedagogical projects—the best known of which was Francisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna, where classes were guided by “the principle of solidarity and equity” (Bookchin, 1998, p. 117).

Popular education projects were also a major characteristic of 1960s and ‘70s, including the establishment of the University of Paris VIII-Vicennes in 1969. An “Experimental University Center,” Pedagogy of the Oppressed, written by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in 1970 also proposed a new relationship between teacher, student, and society, and advocated for a “mutual approach” to critical pedagogy. Freire recognized “schools as a possible source/site of human emancipation and resistance” (Kahn, 2009, p. 125). The works of Paul Goodman were also popular during the 1960s and ‘70s and attempted to draw links between a bureaucratic and centralized society and the form of “miseducation” this resulted in, instead proposing decentralized and flexible alternatives (Goodman, 1966).

With a more explicit anarchistic political and pedagogical vision, Ivan Illich, on the other hand, argued that people have always possessed knowledge without curricula. Illich’s “tools for conviviality” promoted “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment”—in opposition to “industrial productivity” (Illich, 1973, p. 27). Through this idea of conviviality, “Illich proposed positive norms to critique existing systems and construct sustainable options using values such as ‘survival, justice, and self-defined work’” (Kahn 2009, p. 130).

The recent expression of the “free skool” is based on a community-oriented, anticapitalist, loosely structured education model. Free skools, such as the Free Skool Santa Cruz in California, often see themselves as “a direct challenge to dominant institutions and hierarchical relationships” (Free Skool Santa Cruz website, “About Free School Santa Cruz”). They consider part of their prefigurative project to be “resistance to the old [world], to the relentless commodification of everything, including learning and the way we relate to each other” (Free Skool Santa Cruz website). Free skools strive to blur the lines between teacher and student. Many of these volunteer-run and community-supported projects are decentralized, holding classes in social centers, parks, and other public or reclaimed spaces. These spaces are generally, at least attempting, to be open and inclusive, whereas university space is more often than not, increasingly corporatized, closed, and elitist.

Shantz describes a form of “constructive anarchy,” or “projects that provide examples of politics grounded in everyday resistance”—which includes free skools (Shantz, 2010, p. 1). This can be viewed as the affirmative, prefigurative side of anarchist(ic) movements, which are too often described as simply reactionary or “negative” manifestations against the existent state of affairs. Many anarchist free skool organizers and participants consider education to be a political act—“expanding and deepening their knowledge of themselves and the world around them, sharing skills and providing an opportunity for community members at large to come together and explore alternatives” to a capitalist society (Shantz, 2010, p. 14). Free skools can act as important centers for community resources and sites for organizing struggle. In many ways, these free skools provide “infrastructures of dissent” by serving as repositories for knowledge and resources, which help to sustain mobilization and dissent (Shantz, 2010, p. 3).

However, free skools as skill-shares and resource centers for movements can be perceived as instrumentalist in terms of political action. This might explain the tendency toward sharing “skills” rather than ideas. Perhaps in the blanket rejection of all institutions, these infrastructures of dissent hold up political action but fail to reimagine it and potentially create something new.

On the other hand, anarchist(ic) free skools as prefigurative politics have the potential to create alternative educational “institutions.” Colin Ward suggests that anarchism, “far from being a speculative vision of a future society … is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society” (Ward 1973, p. 11). The Free Skool in Nottingham, UK, for example, purposefully sets itself outside of traditional education institutions, holding their classes in the local social center (see Motta, Chapter 7). However, in 2010 they decided to change the structure from a “skill-share” with a given “expert” or teacher, to a more horizontal model, focusing on general topic areas with no student-teacher dichotomy. When we spoke with some of the organizers after the Free Skool had finished, they described the difficulty of breaking out of a typical activist skill-share. People did not seem to want to come to a class to discuss “radical education” but were interested in learning specific skills, like bike maintenance. Again, there seems to be a distinction between content and form—the topics of a free skool may be radical or support a certain kind of lifestyle but the pedagogical methodology is more traditional.

… To Free Universities

Related, but distinct from anarchist Free Skool projects are the “Free University” projects that exist across areas of Europe. These are not necessarily intended to reconstruct or replace the traditional university system but to, “establish additional means of exploring different organizational dynamics and developing new tactics, both for resistance and, more importantly, for our own creative processes by which we might constitute alternatives” (Kanngieser, 2007, p. 2). Within the current education crisis these “micro-level self-organized autonomous or free universities and classes” have been argued to help movements to, “experiment more militantly with molecular resistance activities, those that we can easily facilitate and maintain ourselves to transform the relationships between knowledge, education and capitalism” (Kanngieser, 2007, pp. 2–3).

Many experimental initiatives have been organized by student collectives—such as Meine Akademie (My Academy), the Free University of Los Angeles, the Manoa Free University in Vienna, the Copenhagen Free University, and the University of Openness in London—and have constructed “autonomous platforms dedicated to creative DIY methodologies for students and the wider public” (Kanngieser, 2007, p. 3). As Kanngieser (2007, p. 4) discusses in her paper, “Its Our Academy: Transforming Education through Self-organized Autonomous Universities,” many of these initiatives are predominantly organized by current students or recent graduate activists who have an “ambivalent relationship” to the traditional university and “maintain a focus on process over terminus.” For example, the University of Openness in London, is a “user led facility of learning and research with many temporary physical campuses … and many online presences.”[31]

These free universities do not seek to be a sanctioned replacement to the normative degree-generating university, but rather an anticapitalist alternative. Instead, these projects are ways in which to neutralize the mechanisms of what some commentators see as the university-as-factory—“by denying the capitalistic endgame of the stratification of specialization and intellectual labor” (Kanngieser, 2007, p. 5), it is suggested that the free university can create radical heterotopic spaces, “simultaneously virtual, imaginary and actual, in which to conceive, discuss and implement different modalities of knowledge” (Foucault, 1986).

However, like free skools, free universities raise the issue of voluntarism. The time and effort it takes to organize these projects limits participation for many people. The current economic and education crises exacerbates this as more students, and recent graduates, are taking on paid work to pay off their education debts. This illustrates the truism that debt is disciplinary, acting as an obstacle to participation in struggles and alternative experiments (a la “dole autonomy”) (Aufheben, 1999). Another issue raised by these “outside” educational projects is whether they have the potential to aid the development of forms of counterpower—and whether they are fulfilling that potential—especially existing within our current capitalist society. In After the Fall (2010), it is suggested that, “A free university in the midst of a capitalist society is like a reading room in a prison; it serves online as a distraction from the misery of daily life.”

In the next section we will turn our attention to a project we have been heavily involved with, the “Really Open University” (ROU). The ROU is, perhaps, more of an activist-orientated group than some of the Free Universities discussed above. The ROU has been agitating around a multitude of issues relating to the university, but most prominently cuts to public education and increased tuition fees. The Really Open University has also experimented with forms of Free Skools, but is not an ongoing Free Skool or Free University project like many of those mentioned above.

The ROU’s most recent Free Skool project, “Reimagine the University,” asks how we could transform the university, “how could students and lecturers learn differently through more creative, critical and empowering processes, is it even possible to transform the university, or do we need to create an entirely different system?”[32] As such it is attempting to experiment with a free skool transgressing the exclusionary space of the university.

On the Periphery of the Academy

In this section we wish to look at experiments in opening radical educational spaces on the periphery of the academy. We will focus mainly on the project we helped to organize and maintain—the Really Open University (ROU)[33].

As we discussed in our introduction to this chapter, universities, as well as other educational institutions, all around the globe are facing economic instability, debt, and an uncertain future. Instead of demanding a “bailout” for education, university administrators are imposing budget cuts and austerity measures—except on capital investment projects including campus beautification and new buildings (Bousquet, 2010, p. 78). Facing an uncertain future and further alienation from educational institutions, which are increasingly “perceived to be mercenary and bureaucratic that, in the bargain, produces a commodity subject to rapid devaluation,” students and education workers throughout the world are questioning and challenging the current economic model, which prioritizes profits over people, and claims that cuts in education and across the whole of society are inevitable and necessary (Caffentzis, 2010).

At the University of Leeds, the Vice Chancellor Michael Arthur announced £35 million of cuts as part of an “economies exercise” (University of Leeds, 2010). In a record ballot the university lecturers union (University College Union, UCU), voted in favor of strike action and action short of a strike (February 3, 2010). During the period in which the UCU was balloting its members, the Leeds University Student Union (LUU) started an antistrike campaign, erroneously called “Education First.” This campaign urged UCU members to “vote NO to strikes” (LUU’s “Education First”), and a large banner with this message was unfurled over the main entrance to the Student Union building. Furthermore, using the LUU website, students were encouraged to send generic e-mails to their lecturers, which urged them not to strike due to the alleged detrimental effects it would have on their education.

Faced with massive cuts at the University of Leeds and the antiunion response of the LUU, several students, education workers, and activists outside the university came together to discuss resistance to the cuts in education and to subsequently form the “Really Open University” (ROU) in January 2010.[34] However, in addition to rejecting the proposed cuts, the ROU also stated its opposition to the broader education crisis and emphasized the opportunity the strikes provided for students to seize control of their own education and to use the crisis as a way to open up cracks for other narratives and radical pedagogical alternatives to emerge.

The ROU linked the cuts to the general economic crisis and discussed, as both written and shouted by students in California, that it is actually we who are the crisis (After the Fall, 2010). The ROU’s critique, therefore, was not simply one of cuts to education, but of hierarchical and exclusionary educational institutions in general, and the destructive organizing system of capitalism that accompanies them. The vice chancellor of the University of Leeds, Michael Arthur, had pronounced that he did not want Leeds to become “a battleground for the future of higher education in the UK,” and the ROU responded that it is “not a battleground over education but against an economic system that puts profit before people” (Morgan, 2010).

Similar to other recent student movements, such as the “Anomalous Wave” movement in Italy, the ROU did not want to defend the university as it was, but to reform or recreate the university (“autoriforma,” or “self-reform”) (The Anomalous Wave, 2008; ROU, 2010a). In addition to forming a space for resistance, the ROU featured a call for a new model of university based on principles of “self-managed” knowledge production. The ROU adopted the refrain of “strike, occupy, transform,” which it hoped to represent the transformative politics of affirmation that offers the hope of creating open and nonhierarchical institutions of research and learning, based on what has long been anarchist principle of creating and supporting prefigurative examples in the here and now. The ROU continues to seek to occupy this transformative space on the edge of the academy, which can perhaps provide a place for the merging of critical pedagogy with anarchist theory—prefigurative education (DeLeon, 2006).

We can also relate this to the idea of “mass intellectuality” developed within the post-Operaismo tradition (Lazzarato, 2006). Mass Intellectuality does not refer to a specific group, such as academics, nor is it spatially bound (i.e., in the academy), but is a term that describes the collective intelligence that expands across the whole of society. It recognizes that intellectuality does not develop from individuals, but from social-knowledge and cooperation. The result of this cooperation is the knowledge commons. ROU believes that we need to free the knowledge that has been enclosed within certain specialist spaces and gateways (such as the academy) and connect it with the flows of knowledge that are already, and increasingly, existent throughout post-Fordist society. As such, this is both a rejection of the traditional liberal project of the public university and the neoliberal academy—as the University of Utopia (2010) put it, “not mass education or education for the masses but mass intellectuality.”

Strike: v. 1. To Withdraw Our Labor and Fill That Time with Other Forms of Doing

To strike is essentially to withdraw one’s labor, but it is also to fill one’s time with other forms of “doing.” Instead of the doing of labor, of capitalist exploitation, there is the doing of the picket line, or ideally of new connectivities between different parts of the worker force, other parts of the class, strike supporters, passersby, etc. (Holloway, 2010). The Inoperative Committee (2009, p. 7) states that “to strike is to attack the function of a space and to suspend the rhythm of its time in a determination [sic] location.” It is this suspension of the capitalist clock and its disciplinary regime (Thompson, 1993) that makes space for the connections and “other forms of doing,” this is the self-valorizing aspect of the strike. However, it is increasingly absent.

The strike as a tactic within the UK has become very domesticated, especially since the raft of anti-trade union legislation passed under Thatcher’s Conservative government. Laws about whom and how many pickets can be on a picket line and what those pickets can do, alongside the reformism of trade union bureaucracy mean that it is increasingly difficult for the strike to be anything other than a purely symbolic affair in many cases. This is especially the case with one-day strikes, where it is difficult for these connections, relationships, and other forms of doing to occur. All too often the strike and the picket line can take the form of what Foucault describes as the “sad militancy,” characterized by a politics of lack, joylessness, and self-sacrifice, also criticized by Vaneigem (1983).

As discussed above, the ROU emerged in the midst of a struggle to resist cuts in education and therefore supported not only strike action by university lecturers and staff, but also workers’ struggles in general.[35] The ROU planned and organized actions around the proposed strike at the University of Leeds as a way not only to support the striking lecturers, but also to critique neoliberal institutions. Importantly, the ROU attempted to come up with creative ways to transform the picket line from a few dozen pickets standing in the cold to something more vibrant. These ideas included having music and hot food present, a cheerleading troupe and games which used the campus space in reimagined ways. The ROU also published and distributed a series of newsletters called The Sausage Factory,[36] which sought to reveal the underlying crisis of education as well as rally support for the strikes on Leeds campus as well as throughout those taking place locally and around the world.

Occupy: v 1. To Fill Up (time or space)

In response to the LUU’s Education First campaign and their continued attempts to undermine student resistance to the cuts, the ROU created a spoof union website[37] as well as a series of stickers encouraging support for strike action while also rearticulating the role of the student union. The ROU wanted to critique not only the LUU leadership, but also how institutions like student unions often give the impression of student participation, when they are used by university administration as a mechanism of control.

The website not only parodies the consumerism and institutionalized nature of the LUU, but also lays bare the labor practices of the university and role of the student as consumer (rather than the model of student as producer discussed earlier). In place of the apolitical volunteerism of the LUU, the ROU student union spoof site serves as a directory for other websites and information related to the struggle at the University of Leeds, as well as to the broader education and economic crises. As such it is a form of virtual occupation of the LUU esthetic, part parody and part indicator of other possibilities.

When the strikes at the University of Leeds were called off at the last minute, the ROU continued to call for action in recognition that while strikes are important, they are normally only used as a defensive tool. The ROU highlighted that at the heart of struggle was not a return to the status quo, but a need to unravel and transform the existing university, seeing crisis as possibility. Part of this reclamation of the university was an opening up and redefinition of the physical space of campus. Therefore, in collaboration with Leeds Urban Playground—a local group that coordinated citywide games—the ROU organized a game of Capture the Flag on campus to make use of the space of the university in a reimagined way.

Participants in the ROU were—and are—interested in exploring the political importance of the idea of seizing space and using it for creative ends. The ROU organized a public discussion called the “Logic of Occupation” at the Common Place—a social center in Leeds—to discuss the recent resurgence of the use of occupation as a tool within workplace, community and university struggles—and more broadly the potential of occupations for opening up spaces for both resistive and affirmative politics (ROU, 2010b). This workshop was adapted and repeated in November 2010 and held in an occupied university building. This occupation was established after a several-thousand-strong march, organized as part of the escalating days of action against increased fees, culminated in around seven hundred people dancing to a bicycle-powered sound-system in what would normally have been a lecture theater.

Transform: “v 1. To Alter or Be Altered Radically in Form, Function, etc.”

After the strikes had been called off, the ROU held its public launch on March 2, 2010. Over fifty students, staff and members of the larger community came together to discuss, “What Is a Really Open University?” The ROU facilitated a creative, resistive space in which to have a participatory dialogue to spark a critical, reflective process about what education means and what a really open university would look like—as opposed to the neoliberal university. Through this “visioning” process, the group developed several vision statements about what an alternative to current educational system would look like. These seven statements provided a point of departure for the creation of a Really Open University. The decision was made to keep all the visioning statements that had been formulated during the meeting—rather than trying to force them into a single statement.[38]

One of the interesting things to come out of this process was that, despite the emphasis on process rather than concrete decisions or consensus, there was actually a remarkable agreement between participants and the vision statements they created. Not only did many of the statements hold themes in common, but the process of producing them engaged the participants in a process of “commoning.” Commoning is the “doing” of the common(s), a verb rather than a noun, a process rather than a static resource or product (Linebaugh, 2010). The process of commoning produces new subjectivities and the generation of what Massimo De Angelis (2006) calls “other values.” This emphasis on prefigurative process has been discussed as an important element of the alter globalization movement (Maeckelbergh, 2009), and we can see this influence developing within aspects of edu-struggles.

A fortnight later the ROU held another meeting, which was focused on the implementation of the alternative visions formulated in the previous meeting. This participatory process ultimately led to the creation of working groups based on the basic elements identified as necessary to make the Really Open University. The goal was to work toward manifesting a Really Open University in Leeds. Unfortunately this initially failed to get off the ground, in part because of the limitations of the student calendar, based around term time, residency in the city, etc.

However, these meetings were the groundwork for a three-day event called “Reimagine the University.” This event coincided with a National Day of Action comprising of a walkout and call for direct action, which fell hot on the heels of a national anti education cuts demonstration in early November that attracted around fifty thousand people—over double what the organizers (NUS and UCU) had expected. Several thousand people broke away from the main march in London and occupied the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank. The few police present were completely overwhelmed, and several windows were smashed, graffiti daubed, and protesters on the roof flew red and black flags.

This event effectively marked the development of a wave of student resistance that is ongoing as we write. The Reimagine the University event was timed perfectly to engage with this, as the first of the three days of activities coincided with a walkout and massive demonstration in Leeds that resulted in the occupation of one of the University of Leeds buildings. The result was a perfect mix of political antagonism, the “No!” (Holloway, 2005) to cuts and fee increases, and the affirmation and reimagination of the university in the form of workshops and discussions on topics ranging from radical pedagogies to direct action training.[39] The occupation meant that some of the events could be held in the occupied space on campus, while others were in reserve rooms across the university. Participants included students and academics from Leeds and a host of other cities, as well as a few nonstudents.

The Risks of Living on the Edge

We have observed a number of tensions and obstacles in our experiences with the ROU. As already discussed, the ROU was initiated by a small group of students and nonstudents and the group’s intention was to exist on the edge of the university. However, ultimately most of the nonstudents were deterred from further participation by the increasingly student-centric nature—and therefore insularity—of the group.

We think the ROU tries to occupy a precarious “cramped” space and is therefore pulled both inside/outside at times (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). The university acts as an “apparatus of capture” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004) that is constantly trying to reterritorialize the ROU within the realm of “student politics,” or education struggles as merely the concern of a relatively privileged sector of workers. Fortunately, the explosion of anger that has recently erupted in the UK, which has included a large number of non-university student, as well as university students, has to some extent helped push beyond these boundaries. Many people—inside and outside the university—seem to be taking great strength from the size and energy of the education struggles.

What makes the ROU different from other radical educational experiments is that it attempts (in theory at least) to maintain a productive tension—a dialectical relationship—between “inside” and “outside,” as well as process and action. While we believe these tensions provide a unique opportunity to connect resources, struggles, and ideas, they also lead to challenges and its precarious position. There is a constant uncertainty in the periphery, which is partly due to the endemic mistrust between those inside the academy, and those outside.

In general the university does not like outsiders coming in. It either categorizes them as intellectually inferior or attempts to cite all sorts of bureaucracy (risk assessments, health and safety regulations, etc.) in order to practically maintain the campus as a territorial “bubble” or border (Counter/Mapping QMary, 2010). The insular nature of the university and student life is a barrier (or border) to many students (and faculty) thinking outside of their own university campus. Several of the Undergraduate students at the University of Leeds who are involved in the ROU, claim not to know any nonstudents.

From the perspective of those outside the university, there is a large degree of resentment and hostility toward students themselves and “student politics” in general. Many of our nonuniversity-based friends and comrades who had been active in all manner of campaigns and anarchist-related politics for years seemed totally taken aback by the explosion of anger at the recent DEMOlition march and occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters in London.

Another tension that the ROU struggles with, is whether to defend or destroy the existing university institution—especially as these institutions are increasingly facing serious funding cuts. There was some tension within the ROU about how to confront and fight these cuts without affirming the current university system. The ROU struggled to find transformative spaces, or a creative ground between “defend” and “destroy.”

This parallels debates taking place within the U.S. “occupations movement,” which have become heated at times. There is a risk of self-marginalizing “ultraism” within this dialogue, which falls into a perhaps attractive (to some) militant rhetoric but fails to resonate, and, as George Caffentzis (2010) states, “what is certain is that this is a major challenge the movement must overcome in order to increase its power and its capacity to connect with other struggles.” We feel that in the midst of the edu-crisis there is a possibility to develop new, open, and ephemeral forms of institution that experiment with radical forms pedagogy, based on entirely different values to those of the current educational system.

How Do We Build the Really Open University?

So, how do we build this new kind of open and ephemeral institution? We think it is important to open up spaces in which we can both experiment with, and critically reflect upon, radical pedagogical practices. The crisis of the university is a crisis that throws up new openings and possibilities for what a university could be. These spaces can work toward pushing the boundaries of the academy by concretely asking, “what can a university do?” in praxis.

We need to engage in a discussion about how we can go forward as critical-radical researchers inside, outside and on the periphery of the academy. Is there any place for us within the institution as it is? Or as Stefano Harney and Ferd Moten (2004) suggest, is the “only possible with the relationship to the university today … a criminal one”? This opens up the question/possibility of what Virno terms “exodus,” but which might also be described as “desertion.” This is not a territorial exodus, or a fleeing from, but rather a desertion of one’s assigned role, in this case of the “critical” yet docile body (Foucault, 2004) of the academic. As Harney and Moten (2004) put it, “to be in but not of is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.”

In part, the Really Open University is an experiment in just this. The creation of spaces in which we can begin to interrogate the role of the university and of the academic, not just as theoretical exercise, but within an implicitly antagonistic, yet not wholly reactive, space of political engagement. This is a messy space that avoids any pure politics, or identitarian overcoding, neither overtly anarchist, nor Marxist, nor simply an “anticuts” group, yet neither a purely utopian reimagining.

This is necessarily a “cramped space,” of (im)possibility, as Deleuze (2005) states, “creation takes place in bottlenecks.” Many elements of the edu-struggle will ultimately want to close down the categories again, in order to give more weight to their ideological underpinnings, trying to make the moment fit their politics, rather than seizing the moment in all its wealth of potentiality. The ROU views ‘crisis as possibility’ arguing that it is “up to us to decide [the universities] future.”[40]

But through what concrete actions might we actually develop a “really open university”? One way to begin may be through the occupation of the spaces where we work, play and consume, and the reappropriation of this time and space for our own (common) ends. This may help to promote new lines of questioning and open up new connectivities.

One way to discuss this occupation and reappropriation, might be the literal forced reclamation of space, though direct action. This has, of course, been a tried and tested method across history, and we have seen the tactic of occupation has begun to some extent become popular again, with the recent occupations at universities across the UK, but to a much larger extent across Europe and the United States.

We think there is an interesting dynamic, however, between defensive and offensive uses of occupation. We do not wish to set up a binary, but rather are interested in the qualitative shifts and activities that can occur within the occupied space itself, rather than simply the obstructive element of occupation. This problematic has been explored in the U.S. occupations movement through the often heated debate about the utility of political demands, versus occupation without demands. For example, “Occupation mandates the inversion of the standard dimensions of space. Space in an occupation is not merely the container of our bodies, it is a plane of potentiality that has been frozen by the logic of the commodity” (Inoperative Committee, 2009).

Another way to discuss the occupation and reappropriation of time and space might be through the creation of new spaces that prefigure the new forms we may wish a reimagined university to take. A concrete example of this is the model of the autonomous social center, or “infoshop,” found within anarchist and autonomous activist practices (Atton, 1999).

Social centers are place-based, self-managed spaces. They can be squatted, rented or cooperatively owned (Pusey, 2010). A particularly rich history of social centers can be found in Italy, but they exist all across Europe. In the United States the closest approximation to the autonomous social centers seems to be the network of radical bookstores and “infoshops” such as Red Emma’s in Baltimore and Bluestockings in New York City (Kanuga, 2010).

Some academics at the University of Lincoln are attempting to develop a cooperatively run “social science center” that utilizes a social center type autonomous space, where they can practice radical pedagogical methods (Winn, 2010). The idea is that students will be able to enroll for free and staff will still be paid. We can imagine, based on our experiences and research within social centers in the UK, that this would be controversial within anarchist circles, both for its relationship with the institution of the university, and also because of its payment of academic staff. Payment for some roles performed within some spaces has been a source of much debate and contention within social centers within the UK (Chatterton, 2008). These spaces generally rely on the good will and free time of volunteers. However, many spaces cite burnout and lack of participation as major issues within social centers (UK Social Centers Network, 2008). The “dole autonomy” (Aufheben, 1999), which helped facilitate earlier cycles of struggle, has been very much weakened with successive government attacks on the welfare state, and students increasingly forced to take employment while studying means that there are far fewer people around with the “free time” to help enable projects such as these.

It is, perhaps, through the establishment of self-organized alternative educational practices, and open and ephemeral institutions that we can start to value ideas for their own merit, rather than capitalist value—to create spaces and places where we can discard the price tags of commodified knowledge and instrumental learning, and instead appreciate the value of ideas and concepts themselves, while rediscovering the subversiveness of teaching.

Conclusion: What’s Next, or Where Do We Go from Here?

We started this chapter discussing initiatives inside the academy, from a course about radical social activism, to attempts to transform the position of students from one of consumer to producer. We then looked at experiments attempting to operate outside the economy, including anarchistic free skools and free university projects. These efforts attempt to translocate educational practices and skill-sharing outside of the institutions with which we traditionally associate them, into spaces such as self-managed social centers, community spaces, and other more public arenas. We have discussed our experiences engaging with the Really Open University (ROU) project at some length, including the group’s attempts to navigate a precarious space on the periphery, operating both inside and outside the academy. The ROU, as a critical education activist group, continues reflectively to engage in the edu-struggles, which have been unfolding as we write this chapter, as well as to experiment in developing a praxis-based radical pedagogy.

The experiments inside university space risk cooptation and the reproduction of an elitist and exclusionary education system. The Free Skool and Free University projects can potentially run the risk of irrelevance outside of a small milieu, or disappear due to the voluntaristic nature of the endeavors. The ROU is attempting to occupy a position that is inherently precarious and could easily become drawn into being solely a university-based student group, or in its attempts to inject an irreverent creative-resistive practice, either be overcome by those who wish to continue “protest as usual” or stagnate and fail to reinvent itself, or just become an irreverent irrelevancy! But with all possibilities come risks, and this is especially the case with prospects for wide-ranging transformation.

The Really Open University byline, strike/occupy/transform, reflects a praxis of direct action—directly making the changes we would like to see. We see this as one of the most empowering and participatory ways of engaging in politics. Participants in the ROU have attempted to engage in creative-resistive tactics that reclaim space and put it to work for different ends, utilizing, for example, flashmobs, collective urban games such as “capture the flag” and participatory public assemblies. Through this process activists with the ROU hope to start an engaging, participatory process that transforms subjectivities. As the ROU states, “We wish to engage in affirmative and positive struggle, living life in different ways, even if it is only for a short time. To this end the ROU will be a series of interventions, into different ways of living.”[41]

We are sure that if the current cycle of struggles around education is to continue, deepen, widen, and join up with other struggles, then the need for groups to creatively reimagine the present, so as to control the future, is essential.


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CHAPTER 11. Anarchy in the Academy: Staying True to Anarchism as an Academic-Activist

Caroline K. Kaltefleiter and Anthony J. Nocella II

Before we put so powerful a machine (education) under the direction of so ambiguous an agent (government), it behooves us to consider well what it is we do. Government will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions. (William Godwin, 1793)

In her work The Social Importance of the Modern School, anarchist Emma Goldman discusses the role of schools and a state-controlled system of education and knowledge exchange. According to Goldman,

The great harm done by our system of education is not so much that it teaches nothing worth knowing, rather that it helps to perpetuate privileged classes, that it assists them in the criminal procedure of robbing and exploiting the masses; the harm of the system lies in its boastful proclamation that it stands for true education, thereby enslaving the masses a great deal more than could an absolute ruler. (1917)

Goldman’s work underscores the extent to which schools act as instruments of state power and, as such, echoes the writing of several anarchist scholars, William Godwin among them. Anarchist scholar David Gabbard (2010) notes, “William Godwin developed the first comprehensive anarchist critique of government schools in his Inquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Godwin viewed freedom of thought as fundamental to political liberty.” (p. 3). Joel Spring further contextualizes Godwin’s work on anarchism and education, According to Spring (1994), Godwin believed that “since people constantly improve their reasoning power and their understanding of nature, their understanding of the best form of government is constantly changing” (p. 42). While Godwin “recognized that education was crucial toward the development of individuals’ powers of rational thought that would guide them in self-government, he “considered national systems of education to be one of the foremost dangers to freedom and liberty” (Spring, 1983, p. 68).

In this essay, we examine the university not only as an instrument of state power but also as a site of cultural resistance. Our aim is to contextualize the university within an ideological framework offering both a systematic critique and alternative narratives to create new ways of looking at the university as a critical space for both theoretical discussions about anarchist studies as well as to develop locations for participatory engagement and anarchist direct action. Our work is illuminated by our respective roles in the creation of an interdisciplinary anarchist studies project/institute, the Anarchist Studies Initiative (ASI) that is housed at a state university in Upstate New York. We interrogate ongoing debates and critiques within the anarchist community as to whether an anarchist studies project housed at a state university could be successful. Finally we offer an overview of curriculum development, cocurricular programming, and community outreach taking place at the Anarchist Studies Initiative. Here, we forge a conversation that calls for an academic-activist hybrid culture; one that not only addresses the tensions that exist in the academia/activist relationship, but also advocates for creating a continuum between the academy and other sites of activist resistance.

Universities: Ideological State Apparatuses

Critical theorist Louis Althusser (1971) argues that schools, universities first and foremost, function within a capitalist system to perpetuate its norms and values in order to smoothly reproduce itself. Althusser’s work addresses a cerebral society that employs forms of physical and mental incarceration. He suggests two major mechanisms to ensure that people within a state behave according to the rules of the state, even if it may not be in their best interest (in regards to their class positions) to do so. The first is what Althusser calls the RSA or Repressive State Apparatuses that can enforce behavior directly, such as the police, criminal justice, and prison systems (Klages, 2001). Through these “apparatuses” the state has the power to force one to physically behave and restrict one’s movements and actions. The second mechanism Althusser examines which is central to our discussion of anarchy in the academy is what he calls ISA or Ideological State Apparatuses. According to Althusser (1971), “Ideological practice consists of an assortment of institutions called Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the family, the media, religious organizations, and, most importantly in capitalist societies, the education system, as well as the received ideas that they propagate. Mary Klages (2001) notes, “These are institutions that generate ideologies which we as individuals (and groups) then internalize, and in which to act in accordance. ISAs include schools, religions, the family, legal systems, politics, arts, etc. These organizations generate systems of ideas and values” (p. 239). A value system in which the notion of both economic and cultural capital is emphasized serves to reify class indoctrination.

Pierre Bourdieu (1970; 1990) notes that class domination is not only a result of economic warfare, but also a fight for cultural capital. Dominating classes use cultural capital, specifically that of knowledge, to their benefit. In the case of higher education, Bourdieu views the university system as integral to the (re)production of capitalist values, ideologies, and imperatives, such that the educational structure is designed not to cultivate knowledge and autonomy but rather to instruct students and professors how to labor in a market-dominated world. For instance, schools of journalism often focus on the mechanics of writing and producing news without asking student journalists to critically reflect on the social, cultural, political, or economic impact of stories produced and reified in various media texts. Student writers are taught to be workers (re)producing the stories of dominant elites (Kaltefleiter, 2009). In his seminal text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire (2000) discusses what he refers to as the “banking concept of education whereby students are seen as submissive learners and merely take in information that is deposited into their brain banks by their teachers. Freire asserts that modern education is widely recognized as a chance for instructors (or “oppressors,” as he calls them) to fill students with information as they submissively accept it. He explains that the ritual of schooling filters into an overall culture of manipulation whereby young minds are shaped to adhere to the agendas of the power elite. According to Freire (2000),

Manipulation becomes a fundamental instrument for the preservation of domination. Prior to the emergence of people there is no manipulation (precisely speaking), but rather total suppression. When the oppressed are almost completely submerged in reality, it is unnecessary to manipulate them. In the antidialogical theory of action, manipulation is the response of the oppressor to the new concrete conditions of the historical process. Through manipulation, dominant elites can lead people into an unauthentic type of “organization” and can thus avoid the threatening alternative: the true organization of the emerged and emerging people. (p. 148)

He continues, “[t]he dominant elites are so well aware of [the subversive nature of free inquiry] that they instinctively use all means, including physical violence to keep the people from thinking” (p. 149). Hence, independent thought is given up in favor of obedience, with the goal of keeping people “from asking questions that matter about important issues that directly affect them and others” (Chomsky and Macedo, 2000, p. 24).

A discussion on ideology is crucial for us to better understand the systems of both repression and oppression that exist for university students and faculty today. Such an analysis extends Marxist theory which defines ideology as an instrument of social reproduction and is conceptually important to the sociology of knowledge—including the pursuit of knowledge taking place within the confines of university classrooms.

A critical investigation of ideological frameworks related to the structure of the university and avenues of intellectual inquiry opens up the possibility for (re)thinking or (re)purposing university educations, offering competing readings of how intellectual work is carried on/out of the university and allows for creative and intellectual activity taking place in the streets, union halls, and community centers. This idea is linked to the work of Stuart Hall, who discusses the notion of encoding/decoding texts. Hall (1980) emphasizes that texts through every moment in the process of communication, allow for active message composition (encoding) and message reception (decoding). The message continuum, “from the original composition of the message/code (encoding) to the point at which it is read and understood (decoding), has its own determinants and conditions of existence” (1980, p. 129). Just as the construction of the message/code is an active, interpretive, and social event, so is the moment of reception. Hall identifies three primary positions of decoding messages and signs, including the dominant position or “preferred” reading, the “negotiated” position, and the “oppositional” position/reading that can be applied to contemporary texts, institutions, and social movements. (Kaltefleiter, 1995, 2009). Therefore the space in which university learning takes place can be resisted so as to create oppositional paradigms of thought that allow for new modes of communication and direct action. Students and faculty collaborate to engage in a resistance culture: wherein individuals question the ways in which members of society come to internalize and to believe the ideologies set forth by ISAs, including universities. It is within this continuum of resistance that an anarchist studies pedagogy emerges. Students, faculty, and community members share in the development of course offerings—including readings, discussions, and evaluation, if such a system is necessary to be employed. Such actions serve to dismantle hierarchal structure of the academy and strive to create common spaces of engagement wherein one’s affinity to issues of peace and social justice issues can be explored in/out of formal structures of learning.

Labor, Anarchy, and Resistance in the Academy

We are students of words; we are shut up in schools and colleges for ten or fifteen years and come out a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Freire (2000) outlines the necessary steps for individuals in their everyday lives to counter deceits and regimes (im)posed by the state. To oppose such manipulation and repression, a critical thought process needs to situate its citizens in historic processes, power systems, and ideological frameworks. The academy is often touted as a space that encourages the free and unfettered pursuit of research and inquiry and yet everyday academic freedom is under fire (Kaltefleiter & Nagel, 2009). Nonetheless, this constant refusal to accept paradigms of domination is central to the development of anarchist studies dialogue within the academy. Contemporary anarchist scholar Noam Chomsky describes “the basic institutional role and function of the schools” as providing “an ideological service: there’s a real selection for obedience and conformity” (Chomsky, 2003, pp. 27–28).

In order to better understand the social conditioning that exists within the academy, we draw upon the work of cultural studies scholar Paul Willis. In his ethnography, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, Willis (1977) discusses ways in which youth culture prior to the Internet revolution were tracked and filtered into a menial labor market. Willis discusses a politics of resistance that was cultivated by working-class kids in the United Kingdom in their everyday life by rejecting “mental labor” and engaging in “cultural labor”—for example, hanging out in the streets, creative art/communication, and getting in and out of trouble. The dilemma of Willis’s UK lads represents the catch-22 of the working and popular classes in general: “challenging power requires (credentialed) knowledge, yet the acquisition of that knowledge is organized so that it reinforces credentialed system of power” (Abercrombie and Urry, 1983, p. 17).

Willis’s work has been used to ground discussions that explore schooling rituals (McLaren, 1993; Castoriadis, 1997; Aronowitz, 1998). Here the structure of learning is questioned and a politics of resistance is forged. Here we extend Willis’s notion of “learning to labor” from a physical-based contest of menial work to a mental-based context of learning to do intellectual work and as such offer a rethinking of the extension of the classroom into, and onto, the streets. Everyday life experiences of colleagues engaged in anarchist and activist projects that represent interdisciplinary perspectives as well as community-based narratives serve to become a central component of a social and cultural curriculum. The sharing of information through traditional presentations as well informal publications such as zines, blogs, social media sites, and street performances allow for the creation of new forms

and forums of engagement. Students, faculty, and community members study history/herstory of anarchists and contemporary events in which the lives of anarchist are examined and provide in Stuart Hall’s words, an oppositional frame of analysis, disparate from a dominant pedagogical ideology, offering new ways of thinking about societal organizational structures and the ways in which fellow citizens follow directions from the State to ensure conformity and obedience that contributes to the reification of class strata. In this continuum and location of opposition, we create a dialogue and space to resist ideologies that allow for the misrepresentation of ourselves as Mary Klages (2001) puts it into “unalienated subjects in capitalism.” Such dialogues lead to actions that seek to deconstruct hierarchical organizations, capitalist culture, and dominant paradigms of education, including the development of an anarchist project at a small comprehensive university in New York State.

Anarchist Studies in the Academy

The study of anarchism in the academy is certainly not new, however, there is undoubtedly been a rise in anarchist scholarship in recent years. Significant works include: Martha Ackelsberg’s (2005) rerelease on anarchist women in the Spanish Civil War; Jeff Ferrell’s (2001) work on the anarchist definition of public space, anarchy, and critical animal studies (Best and Nocella, 2006) and even girls and anarchy (Kaltefleiter, 1995, 2009). Today, new forms of anarchism are being articulated and include new anarcha-feminism, environmental anarchism, and Situationist anarchism to name a few. Contemporary anarchist scholars continue to advance developments in third-wave feminism, antiracist politics, queer theories, transgender culture, disability studies, as well as environmentalism(s) and animal advocacy. Anarchist practices include actions emerging from postcolonial states and indigenous populations, giving reverence to the everyday life experiences of those involved in daily struggles of oppression. The proliferation of anarchist scholarship, coupled with historical flashpoints, aided in creating a rationale for the creation of an academic project/program that would be housed at a state university.

Flashpoint: Battle of Seattle and the Emergence of New Anarchism

Ten years ago, anarchists and a coalition of workers’ unions, feminists, antiracists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian leaders, and animal rights liberationists successfully stopped the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference. Soon after the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle there was a significant (re)emergence of scholarly and activist interest in anarchism—which opposes capitalism and envisions a society based on solidarity and mutual aid. These ideas are becoming ever more relevant as we enter a global depression that sees workers all over looking for an alternative to a corrupt and hierarchical method of distributing resources (Amster, DeLeon, et al., 2009). Since the Battle of Seattle, a number of grassroots groups and anarchist-inspired actions have gained recognition. Some of these include Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, and Reclaim the Streets. Anarchists have a large presence in groups like Anti-Racist Action and Anti-Fascist Action. Class struggle anarchist groups can be found in various parts of the United States, Western Europe, and Latin America.

As participants of anarchist actions, including the Animal Rights movement and Riot Grrrl network, we found ourselves in the unique position being both academics and activists, in which our involvement at the WTO came through direct action and independent media projects. Our street credentials at the WTO would lead to the to the 2009 publication of essays in Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introduction Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy, coedited by Anthony Nocella. During the fall of 2009, we began to discuss the possibility of developing a center focused on anarchist studies. With the North American Anarchist Studies Network, Anarchist Academics listserv, anarchist studies lectures on a variety of college campuses, books on anarchism in every liberal arts academic discipline being published, and anarchist students from a diversity of social movements entering higher education, it seemed like an ideal and prime time to create a center on anarchist studies.

Flash forward ten years after the Battle of Seattle to Cortland, New York, where two young academic-activists decide to create an interdisciplinary institute that focuses on Anarchist theories and practices. We often get strange looks when we tell people that we are the cofounders of the Anarchist Studies Initiative at SUNY Cortland. Invariably, the first question activists and academics ask is why SUNY Cortland? A comprehensive undergraduate institution, SUNY Cortland has a longstanding tradition in social movements, direct action projects, and engaged activism that includes the work of Professor William “Bill” Griffen. He was the longest tenured faculty member in the SUNY system, serving fifty-one years until his death in 2007. Bill Griffen was a professor in the Foundations and Social Advocacy department in the School of Education, where one former student wrote upon his death, “He was kind of like Gandhi—he showed courage and bravery by being gentle and kind. He handled tough situations, never with anger, but with humor” (Geibel, 2007). Bill Griffen would become Cortland’s equivalent to social historian and civil rights activist Howard Zinn. He became involved in the civil rights movement after one of his former students, Bill Moore, died while registering black voters in the South (ibid.). Griffen would go on to inspire students and faculty alike, engaging them in demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the location of a Superfund waste disposal site, and the proposed building of a Super Wal-Mart store in Cortland County.

SUNY Cortland is located in upstate in the poorest county in New York State. The ongoing need to address poverty, blight, and economic inequity of the region drove us as organizers to seek out ways to discuss and act out against the ways in which global capitalism was impacting our town—our neighbors, their kids, the unemployed, the elderly, and the dis(abled). Our university is situated between world-renowned university centers such as Syracuse, Binghamton, and Cornell universities. This action research triangle, if you will, seemed not only logical but possible to create this continuum of communication. Ongoing collaborations between area community groups such as Binghamton’s Food Not Bombs collective, the Central New York Peace Consortium in Syracuse, and Ithaca Hours, an alternative currency exchange, made SUNY Cortland a logical site for an Anarchist Studies center. SUNY Cortland is also home to the Center for Gender and Intercultural Studies (CGIS) whose mission to foster and develop equity and respect for social, ethnic and cultural, economic, gender, environmental justice, and diversity. Given its mission, CGIS became an important ally in our attempt to propose what on the surface to some may have seemed like a bad idea—negative connotations associated with term “anarchist” and the ongoing images of battles in the streets of Athens, where purported anarchists were engaged in street demonstrations, some violent at times.

SUNY Cortland faculty, students, staff, and administration are open to new and cutting-edge ideas, even if they disagree with them, for instance the Ninth Annual Conference for Critical Animal Studies, which had people from around the world and more than 350 attendees mostly from colleges and universities, was embraced by SUNY Cortland. Yes, there were those that were fearful and one or two that opposed the idea of personal interest due to their research on nonhuman animals. Despite all this, our colleagues joined us in a resolution to create the Anarchist Studies Initiative. Consequently, we had an academic home that was interested and was willing to argue for our existence, which we can unequivocally attest to be the most important part of politics in and out of higher education. It should be noted while a few faculty voiced concerns about the initiative; it was not seen as a threat to status quo, but viewed as an intellectual scholarly project.

Opposition to the Anarchist Studies Initiative in the Academy

Before the Anarchist Studies Initiative was created, we knew that we would be criticized for encouraging the institutionalization of anarchism. We had both been involved in discussions at the first North American Anarchist Studies Network (NAASN) Conference in November 2009 in Hartford, Connecticut. Discussion of the tensions in the academia/activism relationship were clear in observations made by members at the Hartford conference where academics and activists alike seem to apologize for their profession or vocation. Anarchist scholar Jesse Cohn was at the Hartford meeting and wrote on the NAASN listserv:

I heard some moments where those who identified as “academics” seemed to feel they had to apologize for or elaborately disavow claims to expertize before nonacademics, and I heard other moments where “activists” seemed to feel almost ashamed to have no “academic” credentials, as if they had nothing to offer in the way of knowledge or insight, as if there were no other way to understand or practice scholarship. Both moments at the same conference! Because none of us is used to operating in an environment that is neither-nor and/or both-and … whose space is it? Wherever we locate ourselves, the answer, some of the time at least, seems to be “not yours,” and that makes folks nervous. (November 23, 2010)

The strained relationship between anarchist academics and activists needs to be addressed. Academia is an institution that is at its core hierarchical—and that actively creates and maintains hierarchy—and therefore is fundamentally at odds with anarchism. Stephen Shukaitis (2007) acknowledges the awkward position of anarchist academics. He warns against the creation of a field of anarchist studies that constructs anarchism as a fixed, static object to observe from afar; the end result, he cautions, could be that the work done by anarchist academics is “turned against themselves and re-incorporated into the workings of state and capital … creating the image of subversion while raking in tuition fees” (p. 167). As David Graeber (2007) puts it, “to act like an anarchist would be academic suicide” (p. 107).

While we certainly understand this point of view given our own circumstances of academic repression within various institutions, our argument remains that Bakunin, Godwin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon institutionalized anarchism since day one. Moreover, we continue to interrogate the university’s role as an ISA. Howard Zinn (2002) points out that educational practice is never neutral and the university is hardly benign in its spheres of influence (e.g., in the corporate, scientific, and military sectors) or its functions to perpetuate business, governmental, and social practices, however corrupt or antidemocratic. NAASN member and anarcho-blogger Kevin Carson (2010) articulates a need to move away from essentialism between academics and activists. According to Carson,

Pushing anarchist studies into the academy is strategically smart for the movement. The University system, particularly in the United States, is a mass indoctrination factory that is essential in the functioning of the State and Capitalism. In the U.S. schools have a particular relationship with the population and with alternative culture/politics. The more we can [work] against authoritarian pedagogy and traditional content in the classroom the more young minds may find the path to self-empowerment. (November 23, 2010)

There were a number of exchanges on the Anarchist Academics listserv about the creation of ASI at SUNY Cortland, some of which were not so positive. One listserv member wrote,

I sent this to the list a while back and didn’t get a response and was wondering if anyone had any answers to the questions myself and Tristan [Husby] raised below. It’s about the Anarchist Studies Initiative at SUNY. I’m not against the initiative…. This sort of institutionalization, and the concentration of resources that comes with it, will have an effect in at least two ways (I’m sure others can point out more). First, the concentration of resources, while it will help some, will alter the balance within the movement between those who have and those who have not. The challenge for the center will be to justify that imbalance and to equalize it again where possible. (Pritchard, 2010)

We continued to underscore our argument citing the need for anarchist studies to have a place in the academy so as to dismantle the dominant ideology or cultural reproduction apparatus. The academy is essential to state capitalism. The system relies on universities to provide trained managers and professional to perpetuate its values. Herein lies the opportunity for those in the academy to create oppositional scenarios of representation and communication and to advance narratives for direct action and social change. A number of NAASN colleagues backed up our position.

Briefly, I’m not an organizer, but went to the unveiling and was awarded with a certificate for work I’ve done on anarchism and sexuality/gender (in addition to some organizing some WSAer’s and I have been doing around reproductive freedom in Hartford). As far as I can tell, your guesses on their budget are way off base. Beyond that, there are ASN and NAASN folks in the associated faculty (Ruth Kinna and Jesse Cohn, for example), so they’re connected to some of the other projects around anti-authoritarian education (in addition to having organizers involved in the Transformative Studies Institute and some associated popular education initiatives). (Shannon, 2010)

Criticism regarding the development of ASI at SUNY Cortland also questioned funding streams for the project as well as the “street credentials” of those involved.

This initiative [ASI] looks pretty huge to me, with a shit load of money (please correct me if I’m wrong). I’d like to know where the money came from before I make a judgment, but it seems to me that whether the money came from trustees, benefactors, the university or elsewhere makes a huge difference…. The SUNY initiative seems to have oodles more and institutional support (but maybe I’m being bamboozled by fancy titles and a good website?). I think there needs to be some transparency on this if only for the sake of the integrity of the initiative and to keep the rest of the movement on side. (Pritchard, 2010)

In creating the Anarchist Studies Initiative, we knew that people would challenge our legitimacy as anarchists, academics, and as activists. In retrospect, we commend our colleagues for doing their due diligence to call for accountability and transparency of ASI’s organizers. This seems even more important given the recent cases of police agents now exposed for infiltrating global activist groups, including police constable Mark Kennedy of Great Britain. Kennedy worked undercover for seven years to expose the interworkings of global climate change protesters and provided information to authorities about planned actions and demonstrations (Lewis et al., 2010).

Despite criticism and skepticism of our intentions and the mission of ASI, our defense was clear, we were activists, academics, and anarchists. Too often on the listservs and in academic anarchist groups there are those that study anarchists and proclaim to be anarchists, but have no history in social movements, activism, youth resistance, or community organizing. Anthony Nocella offered this response:

Yep, I am on the list, a little about my self in my defense—lovable Queer and person born with severe mental disabilities, long-time animal and Earth liberationist (first activist framed in the movement), beaten severely in jail, prison abolitionist, Quaker, on the Board of American Friends Service Committee, founded more than 15 activist political organizations, working on my Ph.D., while teaching at SUNY Cortland at Le Moyne College, co-founder of one of the first youth incarcerated reentry programs in the US, and a volunteer in NY prisons for the last 7 years. I also have published 12 books including Igniting a Revolution and Academic Repression. Both published by AK Press. (Nocella, 2010)

In addition, Nocella offered information about members of the ASI Collective to attest to the fact those involved with the project had legitimacy in the anarchist community. “Caroline Kaltefleiter, one of the leading figures back in the day of the Riot Grrrl movement and girl studies, and now the Chair of the Women’s Studies Department. Colleen Kattau, a very respected peace activist and musician and major organizer against the School of the Americas and teaches Spanish at SUNY Cortland. Finally, long-time Transnational Feminist and prison abolitionist Mecke Nagel, who teaches in philosophy” (Nocella, May 17, 2010).

On the subject of institutional funding, we remained resolute in our decision to move forward with creating ASI with the understanding that there was no institutional support and had in fact always planned on adopting a DIY (do-it-yourself) strategy. As Nocella notes, “We have no money and I am very very poor, but I am a long-time organizer with many anarchist and radical organizations and can make my money stretch” (Nocella, 2010). At the same time we were launching ASI, the State University of New York, including our own faculty union, was in the midst of struggle with the governor over contractual obligations. Our efforts were being torn between advancing ASI and standing in solidarity with our union colleagues. Anarchist colleagues responded in tandem with us to this discussion. Anarchist scholar Jesse Cohn writes,

I don’t think the organizers are on this list, and even if they were, they’ve got other things to worry about right now (in addition to the usual end-of-semester work crunch): the governor of New York has threatened to “furlough” them for one day per week, meaning, in effect, that they have just been presented with a non-negotiable 20% pay cut. They’re fighting it in the courts, but I can only imagine the kind of precarity that would introduce to my life. (Cohn, 2010)

Unveiling ASI and Anarchist Pedagogies: Being An Academic-Activist

On April 9, 2010, in commemoration of the sentencing to death of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, SUNY Cortland held the unveiling and dedication the Anarchist Studies Initiative. The day included panel discussions and informal presentations from faculty, students, and community organizers, including members from the zine collective Silent Distro. Attendance for the unveiling exceeded room capacity and included members from countries around the world, including Italy.

Today, the project organizers work to create a project relates the practice of (media) theory relates to the larger field of cultural studies and anarchist studies. Work undertaken at ASI incorporates a discussion of identity politics that allows for self-reflexivity and direct action and the use of do-it-yourself media. ASI features a number of events each year—including William Godwin Spring Lecture, Emma Goldman and Lucy Parson Fellowship Programs, and Mikhail Bakunin Film Series. Analysis of contemporary anarchist studies actions and media representations of such events allows for critical analysis in the continuum of production of information about anarchists to “the reception of a given text” (Rossiter, 2003, p. 106).

Althusser’s conception of ideology can therefore aid anarchist scholars in tackling a broader perspective in their work. Having established that ideology is lived relations or social practices organized by sensibilities of symbolic realms (1971, p. 131), an anarchist scholar may observe how the mass media which is both a product and a shaping force of existing institutions and social practices seeks to present a “mediated” version of anarchism. Arze-Bravo, Murray, et al. (2010) note, “Because the ‘imaginary, as such, is constituted by material practices located within institutional settings’ (Rossiter, 2003, p. 116), media manages to be both materialistic and imaginary. Thus not only is media a product of the social and creative imaginary, but it also reflects political and economic systems.” Subsequently it is through continual interrogation and analysis of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as schools, universities, and the media that an authentic (anarchist) activism, in and out of the academy, might emerge, or, as anarcho-blogger Kevin Carson put it, “When a student happens to perceive the internal self-contradictions of the official ideology (e.g., the contrast between ‘free market’ rhetoric and the actual state-subsidized and -protected nature of capitalism, the contrast between the ‘peace and freedom’ rhetoric of the national security state and the death squad reality, etc.). When an instructor is actively pointing out these contradictions, the effect is profoundly subversive” (November 23, 2010).

The concept of putting theory into practice has often been a desired outcome in higher learning; however, limited exposure to direct action projects by academics continues to be one of the most frustrating issues for us as activists in the academy. There are anarchists who write books, articles, and organize forums on the topic, but are not rooted in true action including, but not limited to civil disobedience ending in arrests, economic sabotage, and prisoner support. Many have only participated in activism because of their graduate work, thus justifying their political activity to academic administrators. Further, their detachment from activism like all careerists was justified because of not having a job, tenure, or still negotiating higher education. Many other academics that proclaimed their activism cannot be found within blogs, listservs, collectives, or other forms of social movement historical documentation, only to conclude that they were either against being documented or that they were “weekend warriors” up for a thrill or to tell their friends or children how they were once radicals. While wanting to remain positive about the anarchist interactions in the academy, we realize there remain a number of careerists and opportunists, who invariably steal and adopt new cutting-edge areas of interest without a true commitment or dedication to the field. They are simply moving up the ranks being collegial and collaborating with others in order to receive legitimacy within the given field of study.

Anarchism—similar to disability studies, critical animal studies, and women’s studies—is rooted in struggle and liberation, and while many fear repression and are controlled by social norms, to challenge oppression and domination many are willing to write about it. A most obvious example, without saying names, is many academics who have written on the leftist revolutionary group the Zapatistas and have gotten tenure and made a career on them, with posters on their walls, but who have never been to Mexico at worst and at best never given back to them financially.

Therefore, it is not enough to organize conferences in academia or to write articles or books, or to be on Facebook shooting out comments about how the anarchist revolution is tomorrow, by their students. Moreover, how these academic-anarchists will not be involved because they have to write in an academic press or journal to gain the movement creditability and legitimacy, or that they have to be the spokesperson for the students, when the students get in trouble, which they are so proud of. We say, stop writing and stop posing and hit the streets every day, for as the quote goes, “If not you, who? If not now, when?” Social change has never been possible by people playing it safe or trying to be collegial. It was about being oneself and believing in something so much that one had to take serious extreme action to protect it such as in the case of animal liberation, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) go underground and mask-up to liberate nonhuman animals from laboratories, fur farms, and factory farms and burn down McDonalds and research laboratories. We are not saying that academics need to take these actions, but instead if one is going to write on these actions to give back financially to political prisoners that do risk their lives for these causes. One should not use students as shields or tokens, but instead be a role model for students in engaging in democracy, such as protesting, engaging in civil disobedience, and conducting sit-ins with students, staff, and fellow faculty.

Toward Anarchist Pedagogy: Activist Principles

Here are few principles to follow in pursuit of staying true to being an activist in and out of the academy:

  1. To follow the footsteps of great role models such as Angela Davis, Howard Zinn, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Andrea Smith, Kathleen Cleaver, and Ward Churchill, who have challenged systems of domination prior to entering high education.

  2. To be a role model for a student means to support them and take the same risks they do.

  3. To actively engage in student groups not as an adviser, but as a member willing to learn as well as share.

  4. To participate in community organizations and collectives regularly so as to not only have a presence on university campus or be a representative of a college.

  5. To engage in antioppressive work such as volunteering at a prison or at a domestic violence prevention center.

  6. To publish not in academic, corporate presses but in public activist presses such as AK Press, Arissa Media Group, PM Press, South End Press, and Lantern Books.

  7. To publish in activist journals and magazines rather than in academic journals that are only read by a handful of scholars and are only useful for career advancement.

  8. To publish in alternative methods such as Youtube, blogs, Twitter, film, and radio.

  9. To be a public intellectual such as Michael Eric Dyson or Cornell West, who share their views, opinions, and beliefs on the radio, television, and in documentaries.

  10. Finally, to be willing to be challenged and willing to accept and to work on one’s dominant position as a college professor in society.


Through our work at the Anarchist Studies Initiative, we continue to interrogate assumptions about various subject positions in our daily lives and our actions and interactions that that are conducted according to the cultural and ideological norms or protocols associated with them. Our work incorporates an anarchistic pedagogy of everyday life wherein whenever we read a blog, watch a movie, respond to a Facebook post, or listen to a political speech or our favorite rap artist, we become aware of how or why we resist or accept certain views.

To be above the world as a scientist examining people’s behaviors, society’s constructions, the natural world, and historical patterns, as if the scientist experiences did not taint the lens that the scientist examined the world through, is a detached approach that allowed for horribly oppressive and repressive actions to take place in the name of normalcy, such as eugenics, segregation, prison-industrial complex, and capitalism. Rather we embrace an evolving anarchist pedagogy, that as Graeber (2007) suggests, positions anarchism as a process, as a means, and, thus, suggests that the role of anarchism in academia (or of academia in anarchism) is to provide space and resources for “the elaboration of ideas and knowledge useful to further developing anarchist politics … approached from a way that is deeply connected to questions posed by social movements and struggles” (p. 169). This process of critical engagements gives us power to actively shape our lives on our own terms and creates spaces of resistance wherein learning moves beyond classroom walls, creating a two-way flow of community and ideas between the academy and the activity community.


Abercrombie, N. & Urry, J. (1983). Capital, labor and the middles classes. London: Allen and Unwin.

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From :

...professor in the social foundations at the University of Texas, San Antonio. My research interests include curriculum studies. cultural studies, utopian studies, French social theory, nonhuman animals, archival research, representation, space and place, anarchist theory, and critical pedagogy... (From:

...[one of] the most prominent academics studying anarchism bridges the gap between anarchist activism on the streets and anarchist theory in the academy. (From:

Researcher, writer, teacher. Social movements and the radical imagination. (From:

(1957 - )

Allan W. Antliff is an anarchist activist, art critic, author and founding member of the Toronto Anarchist Free School (now Anarchist U) who has written extensively on the topics of anarchism and art in North America since the 1980s. Since 2003 Antliff has held the Canada Research Chair in Art History at the University of Victoria, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on modern and contemporary art. His research interests include dada, contemporary art, anarchist history and political theory, and his graduate seminars include "20th-Century Anarchism and Avant-Garde Art"; "New York Dada" and "American Modernism Between the Wars". In addition to teaching art history, Antliff co-edits the Alternative Press Review, serves as art editor for Anarchist Studies, edited the volume Only a Beginning: An Anarchist Anthology and has written two scholarly books; Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics and the First American Avant-Garde and Art and Anarch... (From:

Anthony J. Nocella II, Ph.D., award-winning author and educator, is an Executive Director of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, National Co-coordinator of Save the Kids, and co-founder and Editor of the Peace Studies Journal and Transformative Justice Journal. (From:


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