Allow us to present you with a review of our book Moments of Excess. The review is taken form the excellent Surrealist publication Phosphor and though it may seem a little vain to post it here we do so because it makes some great points in its own right…
Magic Moments – Gareth Brown reviews Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life by The Free Association (PM Press, 2011)
The Free Association is a writing/affinity group loosely based in Leeds, who all have a background in the anarchist movement of the 1990s. Four out of five of them were members of the Class War organisation and were instrumental in its dissolution in 1998, arguing that the organisation’s incapacity to properly engage with emergent social struggles (the anti-roads protests, for example) suggested that it had reached the limits of its usefulness. For a while, their activity was focused on group study (reading and discussing texts largely drawn from Marxism and in particular those associated with the open Marxist / post-operaist tendencies). In 2001, they commenced a series of written interventions centred on the ‘movement of movements’ (i.e. the difficult-to-pin-down set of interrelated struggles as diverse as the post-j18/Seattle movement in the global north and the Brazilian landless workers movement amongst other things)
Moments of Excess is an anthology of the interventions beginning with 2001’s ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ and ending ten years later with ‘Re:generation’. As such, the pieces of writing contained within were never intended to be timeless. Many of them relate not only to particular points in the trajectory of the anti-capitalist movement but were also written around particular events or mobilisations such as the G8 summit at Gleneagles (‘Moments of Excess’, ‘Summits and Plateaus’, ‘Event Horizon’) or the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth (‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’). Ideas change and develop as the anthology goes on. We can watch the movement of movements morph as we go, beginning with the cycle of summit-hoppings and ending in its disintegration as the financial (and political) crisis of the last five years cleaves great, bloody canals into the global social terrain. That isn’t to say there’s not consistency here. On the contrary, the essays fit together very well, and that they are the product of a collective that is developing cohesively is apparent throughout. There are key themes and questions that never seem to drift out of the eyeshot of the authors, such as the problematic of the event and the everyday (something they tackle head-on in all of the longer pieces in the book) and the necessity of working with a verb-based concept of ‘movement’ rather than a noun-based one (doing as opposed to being).
It is these central concerns, and their approach to them, that have kept me enthralled by the Free Association’s work since my first encounter with it (the freely-distributed booklet of the essay from which this collection takes its name in the run up to the G8 in Gleneagles in 2004). It’s certainly possible to perceive strong parallels between the Free Association’s exploration of the event and the everyday and the surrealist project to reconcile the common with the absolutely subjective and also, perhaps even more directly, in the idea of the marvelous, a concept into which the dance of the event and the everyday is deeply encoded. Interestingly, and as an aside given that it doesn’t relate to this anthology, the group’s recent work has been centered on notions of ‘fairy dust’ and ‘becoming supernatural’, which, in the strictly materialist context of their analysis, are conceptually very close to the ideas of ‘objective chance’ and ‘the surreal’.
The importance of doing as opposed to being is most directly addressed in the second essay in the collection, ‘What is the movement’. At the time of original publication in 2002, this was a vital debate in the anti-capitalist movement (vital both in the sense of essential and animated) and found articulation in a number of the more transformative pieces of writing emerging from it (such as John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power and Andrew X’s seminal ‘Give up Activism’, published in Reflections on J18 and then in a watered down form in Do or Die). It’s possibly fair to say that this dialectic has now reached the limits of its usefulness and begun to crystalise into a moral imperative that puts us at risk of missing the potentials offered by thinking instead in terms of ‘durations of being’ (given that ‘doing’ is not actually separate from ‘being’ but constitutes, rather, a string of momentary beings that fits a particular narrative). This is a musing rather than a criticism, however. One thing that is clear, reading this anthology, is the willingness of its authors to let ideas go or transform them into something else as the nature of capital, of class composition, and of their own milieu changes around them. Indeed, the final essay, ‘Re:generation’, can be read as a deepening of the problematics around the relationship between being and doing, in that it takes the form of an exploration of how political generations (and identities) form around shared struggles. What is important here for the Free Association is not that such ossifications shouldn’t occur but that they must be capable of disintegration. By the end of the anthology, the life cycle of a political generation is complete, from the beginning of summit-hopping to the collapse of neo-liberalism and the emerging struggles battling over the ground that capital is no longer able to hold, from the disbanding of Class War to the disbanding of the Camp for Climate Action. The reader is left having been posed new questions about how we move between movements, whilst avoiding becoming, to paraphrase Marx ‘a dead generation weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. A minor story arc brought to a satisfying conclusion and a major one left wide open but loaded with new potentials.
The authors also have a real knack for making complex ideas very accessible. Anyone wishing to understand Autonomist Marxism’s break with Leninism could do worse than treat ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ as an introduction. Similarly, ‘Speculating on the Crisis’ contains a very readable nutshell summary of the neo-liberal deal (what it was a response to and why it’s fallen apart).
Hopefully, this anthology (despite being a decade in the making) is only a prelude to more substantial collective works.
Published in Phosphor issue three.