Anarchy 66/Revolution and white bikes

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What are the means to deliver us from all this? By op­pos­ing tyranny, by loosen­ing every au­thor­ity, each in his own manner and wherever he is able to do so. If some­one should say that such pro­tests are of no avail if they are not prac­tised on a large scale, we should answer: “How will you suc­ceed in doing it on a large scale if you do not begin on a small scale?”
f. domela nieuwenhuis: The Pyramid of Tyranny (1909)

and white bikes


One of the prob­lems which faces an­arch­ists, or at least, which faces those an­arch­ists who really want to change the au­thor­it­arian struc­ture of the so­ciety in which we live, is that of being an ap­par­ently perma­nent and minute minor­ity. What ex­actly do you do in such cir­cum­stances? The nine­teenth-century an­arch­ists, like the ad­her­ents of most other ideo­lo­gies of the time, thought that “the day” was im­min­ent, and that pop­u­lar re­volu­tions would usher in the so­ciety en­vis­aged by their par­tic­u­lar pan­acea. But in our par­tic­u­lar time and place, to an­ti­cip­ate that kind of re­volu­tion, however much we may think it de­sir­able, in­dic­ates a certain lack of con­tact with so­cial and polit­ical real­it­ies. It is an article of faith, like the Second Coming for Chris­tians, or the Withering Away of the State for Marxists rather than a reason­able pre­dic­tion of what is likely to happen.

  On a per­sonal level we all have our own solu­tions to this dif­fer­ence between “ought” and “is”, but what kind of so­cial action do we take? Far and away the most sig­nif­ic­ant answers to this ques­tion to emerge in the an­arch­ist move­ments of Western Europe, have been the Com­mit­tee of 100 in Britain and the Provo move­ment in Holland. The sig­nif­ic­ance for an­arch­ists of the Com­mit­tee of 100 and the lessons of its rise and de­cline have been dis­cussed at length in anarchy, and ever since hearing about the “White Bikes”, we had been plan­ning to have an issue of this journal about Provo. But events caught up with us, and the riots in Amster­dam on June 13th to 16th made front page news all over the world while be­wild­er­ing Provo’s sym­path­isers. The doc­u­ments, mani­fes­tos and im­pres­sions gathered together in this issue may not change your at­ti­tude to the Provo move­ment, but will prob­ably make it more ex­plic­able. But not al­to­gether
so. What about Roel van Duyn’s mani­fes­to from the first issue of Provo, with its mix­ture of an­arch­ism and ni­hil­ism and flam­boy­ant non­sense? What about the moral issue raised by Charles Rad­cliffe?

  Provo is ob­vi­ously a number of quite dif­fer­ent trends of dis­con­tent, rather than one move­ment. This is per­fectly ex­plic­able if you think of the vari­ety of fac­tions in the Com­mit­tee of 100 or in the ban-the-bomb move­ment gen­er­ally, or of the head-shakings and heart-search­ings dis­played in the columns of freedom and Peace News each year after the Alder­maston March. When Bernhard de Vries talked in London about Provo he re­marked that “It ap­pears from the outside to be a jolly crowd of like-minded souls, but to in­siders it is a hetero­gen­ous col­lec­tion with at least four types of people in it.” These he cat­egor­ised as (1) the art­ists, the people who or­gan­ised Hap­pen­ings. “Art and au­thor­ity have always been en­emies, and because of the at­ti­tude of the police, these art-ori­ented hap­pen­ings have turned into polit­ical hap­pen­ings.” (2) Beat­niks and hip­sters of vari­ous types, “self-con­fessed escap­ists, seek­ing the means to their own per­sonal world”. (3) Think­ers and philo­soph­ers, like the group around the pub­lic­a­tion Provo. (4) Activ­ists, the direct action Provos, or­gan­ising demon­stra­tions, sit-downs, teach-ins, plat­form dis­cus­sions and legal and il­legal activ­it­ies. Many Provos, de Vries re­marked, belong to more than one of these cat­egor­ies. But it is not sur­pris­ing that a com­mon and con­sist­ent “line” has not emerged from them. The situ­a­tion is much the same as it was in the Com­mit­tee of 100, in which, just as Irene van de Weetering ex­plained last month about Provo, “When someone doesn’t agree with a plan he doesn’t take part.”

  Of the vari­ous Provo pro­jects and plans, by far the most in­ter­est­ing and creat­ive so far has been the White Bikes scheme. The first ac­count of this that we read, in freedom, de­scribed it as a pro­test against “the tyranny of car traffic” in Amster­dam, and went on, “Thirty com­rades painted their bi­cycles white and let it be known that any­body can use them. All they asked was that people should leave the bi­cycles in the street after they fin­ished their journey for use by the next person. This idea spread very quickly until the bi­cycle manu­fac­turers, the in­sur­ance com­panies and the police stepped in. The police con­fis­cated the bi­cycles under the pre­text that they were ‘liable to be stolen’.”

  But the pro­ject was more subtle than this. Barnaby Martin ex­plained in a letter to Peace News:

  “The bike scheme is per­haps the most con­struct­ive part of the Provos’ demon­stra­tions, in which they sought to clar­ify the results of at­tempts to im­prove hu­man rela­tion­ships through law. Bi­cycles are far more nu­mer­ous in Amster­dam than in London, and closer to the hearts of the people. There is a law which says that if you leave your bi­cycle in the street, you must lock it. The reason is prob­ably quite genu­ine on the part of the police—‘we have to spend a lot of time track­ing down people’s stolen bi­cycles and there­fore we must force people to pro­tect their ma­chines so as to save our time and public
ex­pense.’ Very reason­able in its con­text; but the con­text is not a loving one.

  “The result is that one must as­sume that others will steal one’s bike; it is il­legal to trust your fellow men (even though you know that this trust will some­times be broken). By de­clar­ing that their bi­cycles would be left un­locked, the Provos pro­voc­at­ively as­serted their belief in found­ing so­cial rela­tion­ships on trust and re­spons­ib­il­ity, and by paint­ing their ma­chines dis­tinct­ively, told police and po­ten­tial thieves alike where their prin­ciples lay.

  “I don’t think the idea of let­ting these bikes be used gen­er­ally will come into prac­tice, until per­haps the number of white bi­cycles is much larger. But clearly if a white bi­cycle is ‘stolen’, the Provos will not call on the police to in­sti­tute a search that may end, not so much with the find­ing of a bi­cycle, but with the dimin­u­tion of human per­son­ality in court and, per­haps, in prison.”

  The White Bikes pro­ject is thus a “hap­pen­ing” or im­prov­ised drama or a moral­ity play, acted out in the streets of Amster­dam to in­cul­cate a moral lesson, with a beau­ti­ful eco­nomy of means. But it is also a prac­tical solu­tion to an exist­ing prob­lem. Amster­dam is a beau­ti­ful city which is being de­stroyed by private motor trans­port—just as London and New York are. As Pro­fes­sor Buchanan says, “It is not a traf­fic prob­lem we are faced with, as much as a so­cial situ­a­tion.” And the White Bikes plan is ex­actly the kind of cam­paign for cit­izen action “to de­fend the city against ero­sion by auto­mo­biles” that Robert Swann re­com­men­ded in his article “Direct Action and the Urban En­vir­on­ment” in anarchy 41.

  Here, at least, the Provos have some­thing to teach us. The answer to the ques­tion of what can a hand­ful of people with re­volu­tion­ary ideas do in a pro­foundly non-re­volu­tion­ary situ­a­tion, is to find ima­gin­at­ive direct action solu­tions to im­medi­ate, close at hand, prob­lems of daily life. Paul Goodman, whose think­ing is in this re­spect very much like that of the Provos, says that “on prob­lems great and small, I try to think up direct ex­pedi­ents that do not follow the usual pro­ced­ures”. For as David Wieck put it, in anarchy 13:

  “Pro­ceed­ing with the belief that in every situ­a­tion, every in­di­vidual and group has the pos­si­bil­ity of some direct action on some level of gen­er­al­ity, we may dis­cover much that has been un­recog­nised, and the im­port­ance of much that has been under-rated. So polit­ic­al­ised is our think­ing, so focused to the mo­tions of gov­ern­mental in­sti­tu­tions, that the effects of direct action to modify one’s en­vir­on­ment are un­ex­plored. The habit of direct action is, per­haps, identical with the habit of being a free man, pre­pared to live re­spons­ibly in a free so­ciety. Saying this, one re­cog­nises that just this moment, just this issue, is not likely to be the oc­ca­sion when we all come of age. All true. The ques­tion is, when will we begin?”