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Why collectives shouldn’t be autonomous

More impactful activism for non-autonomous collectives.

The University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council convenes a number of different “collectives”, activist organising spaces centred on particular issues. Though some of these are open to anyone of any identity, such as the Environment Collective or the Education Action Group, others are “autonomous”, only allowing membership for particular identities. They are namely, the Wom*n’s Collective (WoCo), the Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR), the Queer Action Collective (QuAC), the International Students’ Collective, the Indigenous Collective and the Disabilities Collective. I think that autonomy in regards to membership should be scrapped.

This argument hinges on a specific vision of collectives as the primary organising spaces for feminist, anti-queerphobia, anti-racist, Indigenous or disability-rights movements on campus. That’s because collectives are affiliated to the SRC, which is an activist union, because this has been the historic purpose and because, for many of them, it’s literally in their name (e.g. Queer Action Collective, Autonomous Collective Against Racism).

But even if it weren’t the case, I’d argue it should be: there are alternative spaces for a-political identity-based socialising (like clubs and societies) and it’d be an affront to the activist history of these groups to transform them into social groups (compare the networking-minded “USyd Women” group to WoCo).

I’d also like to specify the modesty of my argument in two ways. First, this isn’t an argument against autonomous spaces or “safe spaces” generally: one could easily continue, for example, to have the campus Queer Space exclude cis-gendered straight people while making anyone welcome in the Queer Action Collective. Second, this is not an argument against “identity politics” (too nebulous a term to even define here) or identity-based socialising generally.

So, what are the arguments for autonomous collectives? As I see them, they are the following: first, that people who belong to a particular oppressed identity group have a greater stake in fighting for the interests and rights of that group. Second, that it is important that this activism excludes other people because they don’t have the lived experience to truly understand or have a stake in these struggles. Third, if included in these spaces, currently excluded people – men, non-Indigenous people, white people, straight cis-gender people or domestic students – might, at worst, dominate in ways harmful for other members and for the broader struggle, or at best, require other members to perform the “labour” of explaining their experiences to them.

One could agree with the premise of the first and second arguments without agreeing with autonomy itself. It seems to me instead, that collectives should require members to respect the experiences and accompanying knowledge of people of the relevant identity and understand they should, in almost all instances, lead these struggles. The rise of identity politics in contemporary left-wing organising has meant that I think activists would be adequately deferential, and where they were not, would be a minority that would wield little power in the collective. Much of off-campus refugee organising, for example, is already open to people of any background, but often defers to refugee leadership and direction in organising. If you accept that, then you also have to recognise that the likelihood of these spaces becoming “unsafe” were their membership open, is small.

I’m also sceptical of the objection, then, that members would be unfairly saddled with the burden of educating these new additions of their experiences, for a few reasons.

First, I just do think that it is the role of an activist is to educate people, to build movements and to explain the ways in which your struggle may not be too different from their own. Others have far more eloquently noted the troubling neoliberal development that frames simple things like explaining some type oppression as labour requiring remuneration.

Second, this is a very different form of education than trying to convince the average punter of your goals. For example, cis-men entering WoCo, presumably, would already be feminists, likely open to education on the finer points of rape culture or subtle forms of misogyny.

Third, collectives could retain the discretion they already exercise over people joining, to prevent stacking or influxes of trolls. That someone, regardless of gender, has feminist politics and has attended feminist rallies could be a condition of entry into WoCo, for example.

Fourth, because everyone has multiple types of identities, this sort of thing happens already. Women of colour in WoCo, for example, have had to deliver this sort of education to white women. The conclusion thus far hasn’t been that we should make hundreds of small collectives catered to specific intersections of identities. Fourth, other types of educating and persuading occurs in collectives all the time – not all members of WoCo always object to the existence of colleges, not all members of QuAC believe we shouldn’t have corporate sponsors in Mardi Gras – but these collectives continue to function and organise across political cleavages.

Given that, I think autonomy poses several problems for collectives.

First, and most obviously, it shrinks the pool of people who are able to be part of movements. That of itself is a problem for activism which seeks to build mass movements based on solidarity between peoples oppressed on the basis of class, gender, sexual orientation or race. But collectives face the additional difficulty of a very small membership pool: people of the particular identity group, who are politically active and engaged, who have heard of the existence of said collective (most students, I suspect, haven’t heard of collectives at all) and whose work, classes or other responsibilities does not coincide with the collective’s weekly meeting time. Note that, for some collectives, the pool is even smaller: the best estimates mean that only about 10% of students on campus are queer, and Indigenous students at USyd, on some accounts, remain in the double-digits.

Where membership is already small, it becomes difficult for collectives to sustain themselves. Too few people are members to promote the collective’s existence to new students, and as existing members graduate, they disappear. At the moment, for example, the Indigenous Collective at USyd does not functionally exist, meaning an important basis for student organising has disappeared.

Moreover, it just means there are less people to do the unglamorous behind the scenes work of political activism. Even for the largest collectives, the number of people turning up to rallies, banner paints and reading groups is incredibly small. It’s unclear to me why one would want to make that even smaller.

Second, many activists already recognise the limitations of autonomous organising, and do organise inclusively: I’ve accompanied cis-men on WoCo poster runs, and last Wednesday’s travel ban protest was organised by domestic and international students. Where this is already happening, the relevance of collectives is undermined.

Third, it removes one barrier to the involvement of privileged groups in these movements. Activists will often argue that the burden to create change should not be placed solely on the oppressed, so it seems odd others are excluded from spaces they can actively join this fight.

Fourth, autonomous collectives create the intractable problem of defining who should be part of these spaces. I struggle to see how whether asexual people are “queer” or if Ashkenazi Jews are oppressed by white supremacy is directly relevant to the work at hand of fighting against queerphobia or white supremacy. Though some of these arguments are worthwhile, most are unproductive, reflecting the problem of basing membership on nebulous social concepts whose meanings have changed over time and context, many of which were invented to justify the otherisation and oppression of groups of people.

What might a non-autonomous collective look like then? Choosing leadership could, and I think should, remain in the hands of members of the relevant identity group. Meetings could also be structured such that planning and goals are led by that group, perhaps involving autonomous caucusing before meetings beginning, or where only people of that identity could speak for a short period at the beginning of meetings. In many cases, I doubt they would be very different at all: I would be surprised if white people suddenly overcame their indifference en masse to anti-racist struggles and comprised most of ACAR’s membership. For most collectives it would mean a few more hands on deck, more people promoting these collectives. For groups focused on enacting change on-campus, that small difference can mean a lot.