How to generate a generation.

Like many people who reach our ‘advanced years’ we in the Free Association have turned our attention to the question of inheritance and new generations. What we’re interested in, however, is the prospect of a new cycle of struggle and the emergence of new social movements. Using the concept of a generation to think this through leads to questions such as: How does a political generation form? And what role can the experience of past generations play in this? Let me explain why we think these are apt questions for this moment in time.

Some of us have argued previously that the world is trapped in a state of limbo, and has been since the economic crash of 2007-8. The ongoing social and economic crisis has shattered the ideology of neoliberalism that’s dominated the world for thirty years. Any notion that neoliberal globalisation will solve the world’s problems has simply collapsed. Instead neoliberalism stands naked, exposed as a simple smash and grab, which has concentrated social wealth into a tiny number of hands. Far from being a modernist project, leading to inevitable social progress, neoliberalism is revealed as a decadent, and perhaps always doomed, deferral of the unresolved crisis of the 1970s. Yet despite this ideological collapse the neoliberal reforms of the public sector continue to be rolled out and with the forthcoming cuts are even being speeded up. This is not because the general population believe it to be the best way to organise the world, it is, rather, because no other conception of society has been able to cohere and gain the social force needed to replace it. The result is that neoliberalism staggers on, zombie like, ideologically dead, shorn of its teleology and purpose, containing no hope of a better future, yet with no opposition strong enough to finish it off.

Why have we ended up in this position? In part it is because, particularly in the US and UK, neoliberalism has been extremely effective at decomposing society and removing the preconditions for collective action. One of the primary aims of the neoliberal project has been to change our common sense view of the world, or to put that in a different language, the neoliberal reforms of society aimed to produce neoliberal subjectivities. In the absence of a change in the organisation of society neoliberalism continues to operate, markets are imposed on ever-wider areas of life and participation in those markets trains people in a neoliberal world-view. To explain this further: when you participate in a competitive market you are forced to act as a utility maximising individual, you have to act in ruthless and heartless competition with others over scarce resources. The more we do this the more we come to adopt this outlook as natural; this is what is meant by a neoliberal subjectivity. The difference now, however, is those trained in this world-view are finding it increasingly hard to make sense of world.

We can gain another angle on this through the concept of antagonism. The transfer of social wealth into the hands of the very, very rich would tend to provoke antagonism in those whose wealth is being taken away. Neoliberalism deals with this problem by obscuring these antagonisms, partly by inculcating a world-view that can’t recognise them but also through mechanisms that displace or defer them. We have talked previously about the central role that cheap credit has played in the neoliberal deal. Real wages in the West have been in stagnation or decline since the late 1970s. Yet access to cheap credit has helped to maintain living standards in the present and so defer the consequences of neoliberalism, displacing the antagonism over social resources into the future. With the massive cuts in public spending it seems that the debts are being called in, but can we expect the displaced antagonism to arrive at the same time?

The prospect of the arrival of antagonism, and with it a new generation of struggle has been dominating Britain over the last few months. In fact in recent weeks, a sort of phoney war has settled in. The phoney war is the name given to the first few months of World War Two before the invasion of France and the start of real fighting between France, Britain and Germany. In our case, of course, we are still not sure whether this sensation of phoney war is merely a nostalgic expectation. Large-scale class warfare has erupted across a swathe of Europe but we simply don’t know yet if it will spread to Britain. To put this differently, we still don’t know how deep the neoliberal decomposition of society goes. To me it seems likely that the breaking of the neoliberal deal will provoke an upsurge in struggle and collective action. However I doubt it will appear in the form or shape that people are expecting. Because of the transformations in society it seems unlikely that these struggles will resemble the 1980s. The response to austerity will likely take an unexpected, or even displaced forms, indeed we might not perceives some struggles as responses to public service cuts, even though they are.

So the question arises: how can we best prepare for an event of unknown shape and time of arrival? Or from another perspective, how do we, who have been through previous generations of struggle, prepare ourselves for the emergence of new movements? What role can our past experiences play, or will the expectations our past experiences produce obscure what is new about the situation?

Second time as farce…

Luckily for us in the Free Association these questions seem to fit with a project that we are already committed to. Early next year PM press is publishing a collection of our writing and we have to write an introduction and epilogue for it. Most of the pieces in the collection were written as interventions into particular moments in what might loosely be called the alter-globalisation cycle of struggles (although it took many other names, movement of movements, etc,). Writing the epilogue has allowed us to revisit those texts with an eye for what remains useful and what was simply of its time. In turn this has provoked the question of how the lessons of previous generations can be learnt and repeated in a useful and productive way.  After all, from a certain angle the existing state of limbo, and indeed the sensation of a phoney war, can be seen as a pregnant pause between the exhaustion of one cycle of struggles and the emergence of a new one.

One of the resources with which we can conceptualise this problem is Marx’s great text on historical repetitions, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which contains this famous passage:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in their time-honoured disguise and in this borrowed language (Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 1968: 97).

The starting point here is that we only rarely get the chance to become historical actors. We only rarely face the possibility of breaking with the historical conditioning that limits how our lives can be lived. The Free Association want to call these moments, when we collectively gain some traction on the world, moments of excess. What Marx is noting above is the tendency within such moments to draw on, and repeat the traditions of past generations of struggle. During moments of excess people are confronted with experiences, problems and degrees of freedom that they won’t have previously faced. It makes sense in this situation that people seek out antecedents to help orientate themselves. In fact it’s a well-noted phenomenon that those engaged in large-scale collective action soon discover affinities not just with their direct antecedents but also with other struggles right across the world. Failure to learn from and repeat the experience of those who have faced similar problematics would leave you disoriented and unarmed in the face of historical conditioning, helpless to stop the old world re-asserting itself. There are, however, different forms that this repetition can take.

When Deleuze (Difference and Repetition 2001: 92) reads the passage from Marx he finds that:

[H]istorical repetition is neither a matter of analogy nor a concept produced by the reflection of historians, but above all a condition of historical action itself… historical actors can create only on condition that they identify themselves with figures from the past… According to Marx, repetition is comic when it falls short – that is, when instead of leading to metamorphosis and the production of something new, it forms a kind of involution, the opposite of authentic creation.

The comic repetition that Deleuze speaks of here refers to the famous line from Marx that precedes the passage above: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A farcical repetition then is one in which the organisational models, forms of acting and interpretive grid of a previous generation of struggle are simply over laid onto the new situation, forcing the new movement to fold in on itself, obscuring the potential for authentic creation. We are all too familiar with the farce of treating each new movement as a simple repetition of 1917, 1968, or even 1999. If present generations of struggle are to prevent the inheritance of past generations from weighing “like a nightmare upon the brains of the living” (Marx Eighteenth Brumaire 1968: 97), then they cannot repeat those traditions uncritically. Authentic creation requires forms of repetition that “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew” (Marx Eighteenth Brumaire 1968: 100).

Talking about my generation…

Perhaps at this point we should attempt to pin down what we mean by a generation. We can start thinking about this through the perhaps unlikely figure of Thomas Jefferson, who despite being the second President of the United States, was, we should remember, also a revolutionary leader grappling with revolutionary problematics. Jefferson approaches the concept of a generation by extending the logic of the American war of independence. If one country can’t be bound by the laws of another, then one generation should not be bound by the laws of its antecedents. It is from this notion that Jefferson proposes, “The earth belongs always to the living generation… [e]very constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.” The problem here, of course, is that births don’t actually occur in twenty-year bursts, they happen continuously; as such, the concept of a generation only makes sense if we say they are formed in relation to certain seminal shared experiences. Jefferson’s generation, for instance, was formed through the experience of the American Revolution. From this we can argue that generations are generated through events. This implies, of course, that the same groups, or individuals, can partake in several generations of struggle. When we talk about the traditions of past generation weighing “like a nightmare upon the brains of the living”, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to count ourselves amongst the ranks of the living.

We can see already some failed and potentially farcical repetitions of past struggles in the attempts to adjust to the present crisis. One of the more sympathetic of these has come from the Camp for Climate Action, which over the last couple of years has tried to incorporate financial institutions within the scope of its actions, most recently a camp outside RBS in Edinburgh. It is fair to say that this attempt has been a bit of a failure. The camp has not been able to adapt its interpretive grid to adequately cope with the new situation. The economic crisis is still seen only through its environmental consequences. As such the camp has turned in on itself, it’s been unable to connect to the rest of the population’s experience of the crisis. For one generation to participate in the generation of a new generation a lot must be given up – often it is only the shock of an event that can complete that process and allow the displacement from one, saturated problematic to a new one.

The Climate Camp is an interesting example because it is the repository of a lot of the direct action experience developed in Britain over the last 15 years. This can be seen in the blockade of the Coryton oil refinery, which seemed fantastically well executed. However the fact that it coincided with a huge wave of strikes and protests in France, in which oil refinery blockades have been pivotal, raises certain possibilities. Wouldn’t the Coryton blockade have had a bigger effect if it had also been done in solidarity with the French?

The prospect of this kind of repetition of the climate justice and alter-globalisation movement came to mind during the recent TUC conference, when the general secretary Brendan Barber suggested that a campaign of civil disobedience could act as a supplement to union led strikes and protests during forthcoming anti-austerity struggles. Such a scenario does seem feasible.  In fact something like this, though no doubt not what Barber had in mind, began to emerge in Sweden 4 or 5 years ago. The Swedish anti-globalisation movement suffered serious repression following the 2001 anti-EU summit protests, including the shooting of two activists. In response the movement shifted resolutely away from summitism, and experimented in using the direct action tactics of the movement within more traditional syndicalist struggles.

The danger in this is that one tradition becomes subsumed within the repetition of another. There is after all a long traditional of seeing the unions as the leading sector, to which all other struggles must subordinate themselves. However, the unions have drastically reduced social power these days and this is partly because they have been unable to adapt to the changed composition of society. The alter-globalisation cycle of struggles, for all its faults, contained useful experiments in how you can produce collective action in a neoliberalised world. These would be lost if these experiences became subsumed under a nostalgia for a lost 1970s social democracy. It was after all neoliberal globalisation that did for that world.

If these forms of repetition seem inadequate then perhaps that’s because there remains a lot that need addressing, for instance:

– Are the conditions for a global cycle of struggles in place? Or do the different post-crisis experiences in different parts of the world and the decomposition of a unified neoliberal global project make such common action impossible?

–  Relatedly for those form a more autonomous background, what should the relationship be with existing institutions, and indeed the more institutionally oriented left? It seems obvious that fighting cuts in public services requires a different and more nuanced relation to state institutions than the alter-globalisation cycle of protests required. The climate justice movement has already begun to work through this problem, first at the Cop15 in Copenhagen and then with the Morales inspired climate conference in Cochabamaba. It is, however, far from straight forward.

– Is it enough to problematise the neoliberal responses to the crisis, or indeed the various proposals for neo-Keynesian solutions to the crisis? Won’t this mean that fighting the cuts will lead to defending the status quo? Is it possible to propose reforms, directional demands as a means of making another world seem possible? Or will this obscure the main task of transforming the possible all together?


– From a different perspective, how is it possible for one generation to help create another generation? (Well apart from the obvious, keep it clean people). Are you formed by your first foundational event? Do you only get to really belong to one generation? Is the perspective of veterans always different to event virgins? As you go through life do you become saturated with experiences, which excludes you from full participation in new generations?

Answers on a postcard please.

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.