Don’t Mourn, Organise

The following is the final section of our larger article Up We Rise: Reflections on Global Rebellion. We extract it here because it contains some arguments we’d like people to engage with and at 3,000 words it is slightly more blog (and one sitting) friendly than the original, which was written as a pamphlet:

At the beginning of 2012, as the promise of the global wave of protest began to fade, some asked just what had been gained from the events of 2011. Weren’t we back in the same state of impasse where we’d begun? The situation reminds us of a tale from the early 1990s of a football manager trying to introduce a more patient, continental style of football to players used to the directly attacking nature of the English leagues. During a training session the manager asks his attackers to pass and move in the final third of the pitch instead of launching the usual early cross into the box. After five minutes the centre forward pipes up: “What was the point of all that running, we’re back in the same positions as we started?” “Yes”, says the manager, “but the defenders aren’t.”

We suspect that the field of class struggle across the world has been fundamentally altered by a year of dramatic events. Yet much of that impact has taken place in the opaque and unpredictable realm of desires, expectations and the sense of what’s possible.1 Moreover, just as the economic situation has had waves of collapse, false recoveries and renewed crises, so the social struggles and movements thrown up in response have been through waves of intense activity followed by the dissipation of energies and then the re-emergence of struggle in new form. This problem has presented itself as a sense of a lack of continuity and cohesion, heightened by the geographical and temporal dislocation of struggles. Huge social movements are springing up around the world but they are peaking at different times. This, plus the geographical distances involved, makes it difficult for struggles to cohere together on a global scale.

As the crisis turns into a battle over ‘the new normal’ it’s ever more vital that these changes in class composition are given a political expression. Of course we can’t know for sure what form this will ultimately take but the events of 2011 point us to three distinct yet related problems that must be tackled along the way.

1. We need to develop ways to keep very different forms of struggles articulated together.

The cornerstone of austerity propaganda is that “we are all in it together”. The implication is that we all have to make sacrifices in order to get the economy moving again. Rising pay and bonuses for directors, bankers and executives reveal the lie behind this claim: the rich are simply still getting richer, at our expense. But the myth of unity is telling because it highlights the fractured way in which we experience crisis. Austerity is being rolled out by national governments at varying times and speeds. Even within national boundaries there are geographical differences and temporal lags, with the real effects of budget cuts not being apparent for several years. And different communities come under attack at different times or are pitted against each other in the battle for scarce resources.

Divide-and-rule is an age-old tactic, of course, but the problems of articulation have been compounded by the social decomposition wrought by neoliberalism. At times it can be hard for those involved in one struggle to even recognise the social field in which other struggles are being played out. The labour movement was slow to engage with the Occupy phenomenon, for example, and never achieved any sort of successful collaboration. That said, there have been moments when the different ‘tribes’ have appeared to move in concert. Even respectable union leaders, such as the head of Trade Union Congress Brendan Barber, have talked of supplementing strikes with civil disobedience, using UK Uncut as an example of the latter. There is a danger here of thinking only in terms of formal alliances and agreements, and falling back on the traditional terrain of organized politics (as happened in Wisconsin). The loose, horizontal networks so prevalent in 2011 risk being swallowed up or squashed in such an arrangement. Instead, it might be more useful to frame the problem as one of enhancing the resonance and avoiding the dissonance between different struggles. In this light we might look to create common spaces in which the different tribes can contaminate one another, while allowing for the possibility that quite new subjectivities will emerge.

In addition, however, we need to tackle the problem thrown up by the experience of the August riots in the UK. The weak ties which had helped build the movement during its upsurge in early 2011 were ill-suited to the aftermath of the summer. Instead of offering a pole around which oppositional social forces could cohere, the post-Millbank movement simply disintegrated in the face of an orchestrated backlash. Computerized social networks proved a poor medium for dealing with shocked metrosexuals who suddenly discovered their inner fascist. One tweet we received summed it up: it suggested the day after the riots be henceforth known as “The Great Day of De-Friending and De-Following”. So at the same time as developing ways of keeping different forms of struggles articulated together, we need to find ways to deal with the eruption of new social movements, in order to mitigate the effects of shock. In fact it’s not inevitable that those suffering shock will fall back onto comforting old tropes (such as the innate criminality of the urban poor). Shock can also provoke new thinking, knock us out of habitual patterns and make us question the usually unthought assumptions and presuppositions of existing society. In this light the problem becomes how movements can learn to respond to shock with open rather than closed affects.2

2. We need to recognize the scale and length of the crisis, and develop ways to sustain political organization across the ebb and flow of distinct protest waves.

The occupation of physical space, whether as street protests, camps or mass assemblies, was a repeated theme throughout 2011. We can see this as a move to supplement the weak ties of loose networks with the stronger bonds of long-term engagement. But the intensity and commitment of 24-hour occupations put up barriers to participation and inevitably run the risk of burn-out. Our forms of organization and collective analysis must be able to sustain themselves across movement downturns and transformations in motivating issues. The solution to this lies in adjusting our political imaginaries to the longer timescale of struggle created by the size of the crisis, but also in developing forms of consistency. As George Caffentzis has pointed out, the experiences of the last year have shown that speed alone is not enough for political effect. We need momentum as well. That can be achieved by a small group travelling very fast; but if we’re serious about change, it must also mean a much larger number of people moving at a slower pace.3

This problem of durability operates on two different levels. First, there is a growing tendency for groups to form in response to a problem and then dissolve without leaving a trace. This ‘firefighting’ pattern is nothing new (and of course the history of the radical movement over the last two hundred years is one of groups forming and dissolving). But by the early years of the 20th century, many parts of the workers’ movement had developed a whole range of institutions – clubs, bars, meeting halls, educational associations and so on – which meant that it was possible to live large parts of life within its orbit. Histories, practices and ideas were passed from generation to generation, in spaces which saw themselves as social and cultural as much as political. When groups collapsed and campaigns dissolved, people could still fall back into a left culture where it was possible to re-think and re-group. Two successive world wars and a massive change in class composition destroyed much of that world. And neoliberalism has done its best to obliterate the little which has survived: the attack on the organisations of the labour movement was also an attack on those institutional memories, the collective practices and values that had been built up over a century of struggle.

Here we come to the second level of the durability problem. Social decomposition is also carried through by the promotion of a neoliberal subjectivity. As neoliberal subjects we are expected to treat life as an economic project, constantly prepared to re-invent ourselves. There is little space for memory within that neoliberal subjectivity, because that would involve commitments and connections that make no economic ‘sense’. And neoliberalism has little to say about the future, either. In the boom years, there was no future because the only way to imagine tomorrow was as a repeat of today (history had ended, after all). In a time of crisis, it’s impossible to envisage any future at all. Instead, neoliberalism is always all about now, about the time of consumption. In a world that sees no past and no future, it’s hardly surprising that durability is a problem.

There is little point in mourning the death of the stable communities that produced the 20th century left and its over-arching narratives. Today communities are just as likely to form around disembodied networks as around location or employment, ideas circulate almost instantaneously, and social movements can erupt from apparently nowhere. Occupy, the Spanish indignados, and the Greek square occupations all emerged from this new composition. The problem is that movements can disappear almost as quickly as they spring up, which is why two recent attempts at re-invigorating Occupy are notable. The first, Occupy Sandy, is a coordinated relief effort to distribute resources and volunteers to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy.4 Stepping into the vacuum left by the official response, the group has been able to apply its infrastructure, techniques and skills to promote a “People Powered Recovery”. In this we can see a conscious effort to draw on the political capital made by Occupy Wall Street and inflect it in a new direction. The repertoire of techniques employed in Zuccotti Park– the assembly form, open mic and consensus decision-making – is proving well-suited for this project, where there is a clearly defined goal and a loosely shared set of values. Those forms, however, are less adequate for thinking strategically or shifting direction. The second example, Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee project, represents a more conscious attempt to re-invent a movement and open up new political terrain.5 It’s a step away from the open network model and towards a notion of distributed leadership, where a small group self-organises, researches the viability of an initiative and then presents it to a wider network.

Although Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt both grapple with the problem of re-invigorating social movements and building sustainable forms of organisation, neither offers a model that can be uncritically applied. Both depend on a continuity of individuals and groups that can not always be relied on. But they do show that it is possible for movements to consciously re-invent themselves, extend their reach and break new ground. Invention can be organised.

3. We need to face up to the crisis of political representation by moving struggles beyond simple protest, beyond the purely symbolic, to the direct satisfaction of material needs.

The mainstream consensus is that if our lives are to improve, we have to exit recession. In other words, ‘growth’ is the only way out of the crisis. There is a wilful amnesia at work here, as if the crisis was not itself a result of capitalist growth. Moreover, it’s clear that there are only two ways to achieve growth: either cut debt now by imposing a programme of austerity (Plan A); or defer the issue of debt and instead try to stimulate the economy (Plan B). The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that neither plan looks set to deliver. Within Europe, three years of rigid austerity have failed to stimulate EU economies; and Plan B’s neo-Keynesian approach harks back to a class composition that no longer exists.

In order to move out of this impasse, we need to recognize that, from an anti-capitalist perspective, we don’t experience the current crisis as negative GDP growth or a stock market slump. Instead it is manifested in falling wages, rising prices, home repossessions, cutbacks, increasing precarity and so on. In other words, the crisis is played out as a crisis of social reproduction. And we can understand social reproduction in two ways. First, the ways in which we are produced and reproduced as workers for capitalism (whether waged or unwaged), and at the same time the ways in which we produce and reproduce ourselves as human beings. Second, a focus on all the things that are necessary for a good life, like proper housing, healthcare, education, a sustainable environment, decent food and access to networks of care and support. At this point we can start to think of a Plan C, or multiple Plan Cs: attempts to move beyond protest and to make material improvements in our lives which do not depend on capitalist growth. In other words, Plan Cs are the beginning of a future, a way out of the permanent ‘now’ of neoliberal subjectivity.

These new struggles are emerging now across the whole field of social reproduction, from homes, health and education, to food, utilities and transport. In Greece, food exchange markets and social medical centres have been part of a wider experiment to develop new ways of living, as parts of civil society begin to collapse. In Spain, the anti-eviction campaign which grew out of the 15M movement has played a key role in forcing the banks to call a two-year moratorium on home repossessions, while an Andalusian mayor became a cult hero for leading farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic goods.

Inevitably these attempts at innovation have so far remained exceptional, confined to those hardest hit, but as the crisis deepens they may offer the shape of things to come. In this context, it’s possible that collective action around debt could unlock further fields of action, and create a space for the articulation of different struggles. A historical example of this can be found in the UK anti-poll tax movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.6 This formed around the slogan ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’. It expressed the articulation of a common strategy between those who couldn’t afford to pay the new tax and those, outraged by the tax’s unfairness, who would simply refuse to pay.

The movement’s success was founded on three elements. First, activists had noted the already low payment rates for the local tax which the poll tax was meant to replace. In other words, there was a pre-existing anti-capitalist dynamic, even if it wasn’t understood in that way. Second, by organizing on a street-by-street basis, the entry costs and risks of participating were kept as low as possible: in order to become part of the anti-Poll Tax movement, all people had to do was not pay a tax that many couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Many people agreed to sign up on the condition that more than half the people in their street joined. Once momentum had built up, it became virtually unstoppable. Finally, the third part of the strategy was to create a public, political campaign to provide a political narrative and context for practices that might otherwise be interpreted as individual, or non-political or simply criminal. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland and a year later in England and Wales, the tax lasted little more than a year, with the government announcing its repeal in early 1991. There are echoes of this three-element approach in the work of in Sweden, in the idea of Strike Debt, and in the mass civil disobedience which marked the Quebec mobilisations.

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Underneath movement slogans, such as the Spanish indignados’ demand for “Real Democracy Now!” or Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%”, lies the crisis of political representation. The collapse of both the revolutionary and reformist projects has left political elites unable to either reform themselves or funnel movement demands into institutional change. Yet the types of action we have so far adopted, from symbolic one-day strikes to the occupation of non-vital public squares, don’t reflect this new reality. We need to develop forms of struggle that materially interrupt the roll-out of austerity while directly enacting other values.

  1. We can see hints of this new composition, and perhaps even a loss of faith on the part of the government and business, in two recent, quite unexpected victories in the UK. Firstly there was the defeat of unwanted new contract conditions for electricians working for large contractors. This followed a militant grassroots campaign involving wildcat pickets, protests and other direct action. The second victory has seen the removal of an element of compulsion from one of the government’s workfare schemes. The ease of the latter victory has surprised some as the campaign was conducted primarily through social media and the press.
  2. One possible solution comes to mind if we define shock as a sudden and unexpected burst of stimulation or information that exceeds a body’s ability to process it. One way to deal with those effects is to habituate a body to shock, in much the same that boxers discipline their bodies. But collectivizing the reception and processing of the new stimulation or information is an even surer path. In this way, organization and collective analysis are the best shock absorbers.
  3. Momentum, of course, is mass times velocity. George Caffentzis, ‘In the desert of cities: notes on the Occupy movement in the US’, 27 January 2012; at
  4. Occupy Sandy also draws on the experience of the Common Ground Collective, the network of non-profit organizations formed after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. scott crow Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011).
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  6. Dating from a pre-internet era and taking place mostly outside the organs of the labour movement, the anti-poll tax struggle has slipped from history. Yet there is much we can learn from its success, not least the question of what it might mean to ‘win’. See Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion (Edinburgh: AK Press and London: Attack International, 1992).
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.