Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not

I went to a really productive meeting at the CommonPlace last night, throwing about ideas on the financial crisis and trying to work out how best we can ‘intervene’ (ugh, bad word but you know what I mean). I’m slowly coming to terms to with the fact that I’m fairly crap in meetings: I get distracted too easily and lose the thread; plus I have the turning circle of a small tanker (a small tankie, even), and need time to digest new ideas. But I can think on my wheels, if not on my feet, so here are a few things that occurred to me on the way to work this morning.

One of the recurring themes of recent debates around the financial crisis is that we really don’t know how things will pan out, and what new regime might take the place of neoliberalism (if it is dead), or what new form neoliberalism might take (if it’s just a bit poorly). Clearly some new Bretton Woods is going to take shape – it already is happening – but it might be more useful for us to focus on our end of the bargain. It’s not as if our leaders are going to emerge victorious from a boardroom clutching a piece of paper and proclaiming a new global financial regime… Actually, they might do just that, but the point is that regime will only ‘work’ to the extent that we allow it to work. Simplistic, I know, but it’s the same as any campaign around the law: during the struggle against the Poll Tax in the UK, it was really important for activists to know the law, to advise non-payers of their rights, to know how to use the power of “McKenzie Friends” to clog up the courts etc. But the aim of the game was to make the law unworkable.

Related to this is the problem that it’s really hard to work out what’s going on while we’re in the middle of this shit-storm. True. I’m struggling to understand what the fuck is going on (and why) and where we fit into this. But perhaps we can flip this around. This sense of global uncertainty is exactly what’s offering a possible opening. There’s a crack in capitalist reproduction (altho not one obviously created by our activity), and this has led to the suspension of some of the “normal” laws of operation. The impetus for a new Bretton Woods is an attempt to minimise this state of exception (and normalise what can’t be reduced), so we can all “stop worrying and get back to work”. So how can we slow down this process of normalisation? How do we keep these times exceptional?

One of the defining characteristics of neoliberalism (at least in the global north) is the way the logic of capital has penetrated ever further into our lives. And one of the results of this has been a real cramping of time and space. Two simple examples: the “working week” has been extended in countless, barely visible ways; and the cut-backs in state provision (and privatisation of social resources) have meant a decline in real, physical space available to us – community centres shut or squeezed, and the domination of shopping centres (private space) over the traditional High Street.

The idea of a Fair Price Campaign (or whatever it might turn out to be) could work really well on several fronts. First, it’s something new, a break with normality – an “exceptional” tactic. It could capture the imagination in a way that straightforward ‘political’ activities (like marches around town) doesn’t. Second, it tries to disentangle our needs from money. It’s not perfect, I know: it would be better to completely bypass the cash nexus, but we have to start in some sort of real world. Third, there’s a reclamation of space (and time), and the possibility of laying foundations for a new collectivity (subjectivity, even).

But (and this is a big ‘but’) there’s a real danger of getting trapped down a populist dead-end. This could be as simple as us all ganging up on Tescos, and Aldi/Waitrose/Netto then picking up a whole load of new business. Or the introduction of a new ‘Recession’ food range. Or maybe a wide-scale reintroduction of food stamps, or even rationing… All of these could easily be sold back to us as ‘solutions’, precisely because none address the fundamental problem – our desire to escape this world and create new ones.

It’s useful here to think about the relation between demands and problematics which we talk about in Worlds in Motion. The demands we pose (like ‘fairer prices’) are useful because they help open up space for the development of problematics. Problematics are, well, problematic because they’re about movement into the unknown, the creation of the new – exploration, as our surrealist friends might say. Demands, on the other hand, are always partial or one-sided (we can demand lower prices knowing that they’ll only come by supermarkets screwing producers even further into the ground) because they operate within this world. It’s crucial that we don’t get stuck inside them, unable to remember what it was that brought us here in the first place.

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.