This is the text of a talk I gave at The Space at the Leeds launch of Occupy Everything, an excellent anthology of writings provoked by Paul Mason’s blog post ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’
I’ve talked a lot in the last year about the magic of rupture, the little sprinkle of fairy dust that can turn an event into something explosive. I want to leave that to one side and instead think about the magic of consistency, how things hang together (or not) in the aftermath of that rupture. And I want to start by going back to the roots of Western materialist philosophy… and football.
For the Classic philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, nothing comes into existence out of nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing. For them, the only two entities are body and void. And this is how they present the universe – bodies raining down in straight lines, never touching, never deviating, through a bottomless void. Pretty grim. Actually Lucretius says, it’s not like that. If it was, nothing would ever exist except bodies and void, and we would be robots with every movement and action determined by unbreakable causal chains. Instead, there is what he calls the clinamen or swerve – a spontaneous tiny change of direction in the course of an atom’s downward fall which makes it lean into another atom.
This swerve is vital. Lucretius says: ‘If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards like raindrops through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom upon atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.’
What has this got do with ‘Occupy Everything’? Well, everything.
That vision of an atomised world, of single bodies falling in straight lines through a bottomless void seems very familiar if you’ve ever been on the Tube or stood in a checkout. But we’re also familiar with the idea of a swerve – a magic moment when bodies come together, when individuals coalesce and become a force. So in football we might say that swerve could be something like the Cruyff turn or a crunching tackle, a moment of brilliance (or brutality) that lifts a crowd to its feet and changes the game. Or it might be the audacity of seizing Tahrir Square or putting a boot through the window at Millbank.
Obviously that swerve is much easier in football where you’ve got a set of rules, a clearly identified opposition and 30,000 people who are already up for the encounter. But we can also think of the ruptures that happened at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 as swerves, as deviations in our falling bodies. People bumped into other people, new bodies were formed and those movements rippled outwards across the globe.
The promise of moments like Millbank or the Arab Spring is that they generate enough consistency between different social actors that new forms of class power, collectivity and organisation can emerge and then recognise themselves.
But there’s a problem. Bodies come together. They get hot. They get sticky. But then things cool. When that happens, bodies drift apart or go off looking for some other encounter.
So how do you keep very different forms of struggle articulated together? And how do you sustain political organisation across the ebb and flow of distinct protest waves?
There’s no easy answer but I think it has to do with finding some sort of consistency or coherence, one that enables bodies to literally stick around. Reading through ‘Occupy Everything’, there are two clear reasons why this is especially important now.
First, we have to take a long term view of the economic crisis that engulfed the world in 2007–8. Even in simple fiscal terms, we are going to be living through its consequences for at least the next ten years. And politically its impact may be even greater, as austerity becomes the new normal. In fifty years time, people might look back and see Keynesianism and social democracy as temporary blips in the normal, brutal functioning of capitalism. Over the next few years, then, there are bound to be waves of resistance followed by periods of quietism and troughs of defeat. Even now, the joy of Millbank and the Arab Spring seem a long time ago.
And when we take this long term view, we need to think again about the effect of speed on our bodies. During the events covered in this book, it was all about the speed of virtual politics – Facebook, Twitter and the power of the meme. But as George Caffentzis has pointed out, the experiences of the last year have actually shown that speed is not enough for political effect. You need momentum as well. If you remember your physics lessons from school, you’ll know that momentum is mass times velocity, so it can mean a small group travelling very fast – via tweets & BBM etc. But if we’re serious about change, it must also mean a much larger number of people moving at a slower pace. In the Arab Spring, for example, what was decisive in the end was massive numbers of physical bodies in physical spaces. So we can think of consistency as a way of bridging that gap between huge numbers of people and small groups moving fast.
And that brings us on to the second reason why finding consistency is crucial. It’s not just our bodies that are in movement. There are other bodies falling down as well. Any one of those can collide with us and send us spinning off in another direction.
In football, a couple of quick goals from the opposition can make a crowd turn in on itself. What was one body becomes 30,000 squabbling individuals, each with their own agenda.
And here we can think about the weak ties of network politics that are so celebrated in this book and in Paul Mason’s. Those weak ties are great because they make movements very elastic, highly responsive and able to grow exponentially. But without more coherent forms of organisation to back them up, those weak ties can make movements very vulnerable to disruption. For me one of the enduring images of late 2010/early 2011 in the UK was that brilliant photo of a boot going through a Millbank window. But fast forward a few months to the August riots. Those virtual social networks which had been so powerful couldn’t hold together all the shocked metrosexual liberals who suddenly discovered their inner fascist. The aftermath of the riots is summed up in those horrible photos of the ‘Broom Army’ – hundreds of people banging the drum for law and order.
So that’s another aim of consistency or coherence: to find ways to help our bodies deal productively with shocks, ruptures and collisions. One of the worst ways of tackling shock is to try and cope with it in an atomised and individual way. If we can develop some sort of consistency, or stickiness, then we can slow down the intensity, collectivise the experience, and create a space for us to take stock and analyse together. So we could think of forms of organisation as shock absorbers or even crumple zones. And for that, spaces like this, and books like this, are absolutely crucial.
So where does that leave us now? All this talk of long-term strategy, of regroupment, of a down-turn, of resignation seems a bit depressing compared to the excitement of the movements covered in this book. If that’s all we’re left with, maybe we should ask what exactly did we gain from the events of 2011? A few north African governments have fallen, but for most of us here in the UK, aren’t we back in the same state of impasse where we began?
Let me answer that with one of Keir’s favourite stories, another football analogy. Let’s call it Riff no. 9. Back in the early 1990s there was a football manager who was trying to introduce a more patient, continental style of football to English players used to a much more direct, physical game. During a training session the manager asks his attackers to pass and move, and pass and move in the final third of the pitch instead of just lumping the ball into the box as they usually do. So they do this, but after five minutes the centre forward pipes up: “Boss, what was the point of all that running? We’re back in the same positions as we started?” “Ah, yes,” says the manager, “but their defenders aren’t.”
Or as Lucretius might say, “nothing disappears into nothing.” The experience of 2011 is in our bodies. We just have to open up to it and use it.
Short notice, I know, but here’s the blurb for a talk we’re giving this Thursday in London, at ‘We have own concept of Time and Motion’. It’s a four day event devoted to the idea and practice of self-organisation: full programme here.
Living with an earthquake: from punk and autonomia to the present
A talk and discussion on the continuing relevance of autonomist ideas and practice. Free Association member Keir Milburn traces a red thread that runs through … deep breath… the Italian movement of ’77, punk-rock in the UK, urban riots, Class War, Reclaim the Streets, the counter-globalisation movement and the struggles of the present crisis. He asks whether thinking about things like ‘class composition’ and ‘auto-valorisation’ can help us escape from the present impasse.
The details of our Manchester launch event have now been sorted, thanks to our friends and comrades in Shift magazine.
Although it’s billed as a launch event, it’s not really about racking up book sales (!). The main purpose of talks like these is that we get the chance to engage in ongoing political discussions. One of the things we’ve been thinking about, in particular, is the relation between the shape of our politics – our ways of organising – and the wider contours of social formations. In autonomist terms, it’s a question of class composition.
This talk on sorcery, rupture and fairy dust looks at how we reproduce capitalism (or rather, capitalist social relations) behind our own backs. And we try to think about what the notion of a “real abstraction” might mean, by looking at the way capital is so slippery and elusive while its effects are horribly real.
But all this has to be put into the context of the economic crisis of 2007–8 which changed the political landscape irrevocably. There was (and is) obviously a crisis in the reproduction of capital: we pay for the crisis in the shape of wage cuts, job losses and closures, a massive reduction in public spending, and a widespread imposition of austerity. But as the effects of this crisis begin to bite, it’s also become clear that there’s a “crisis in political representation”. It’s an ugly phrase, but it’s shorthand for saying that it’s increasingly obvious to everyone that we cannot vote our way out of this mess. Even the most cynical reformist has to admit that the power of parliament (or any democratically elected sovereign body) is more limited than ever. That’s why we’ve seen a range of social movements which have pushed way beyond traditional political solutions – from Iceland in 2008–2009, to Millbank and the student movement in the UK, to the Arab Spring and the huge swell of events in Spain and Greece. These movements have their own peculiarities, but you could say they all have an intrinsic extra-parliamentary logic. In their common rejection of “politics as usual”, they echo the cry of “que se vayan todos” that rang through Argentina in 2001–2002. “All of them must go!”
So, although the imposition of austerity, by definition, means shrinking and closure, we can also see the outlines of radical possibilities in this new landscape. But there are two problems. First, despite the obvious resonances between them, the struggles that are emerging don’t seem able to cohere into a social force capable of effecting change. So while movements have emerged rapidly (and explosively), they’ve also dispersed fairly quickly — demobilised, frozen or swallowed up by traditional civil society organisations — leaving only traces of their initial potential.
Second, there’s a related impasse in terms of the way we organise as anti-capitalist militants. Existing forms of organising and activism that stem from pre-crisis days don’t seem up to exploring the possibilities of this new landscape. And by “existing forms of organising and activism” I really mean all forms — from Leninist parties and national federations to affinity groups and anti-hierarchical networks. In the face of some of the stuff that’s been going on, even the most progressive and liberating of these seem wooden or flat-footed.
Can we find a new political approach adequate to the moment? Is there the possibility of some sort of re-groupment? Or do we need “just one more push, comrades”? Get yourself along to Manchester on 21 July and help find out…
Our London launch event has at last been finalised and will happen on Friday 1 July at Limazulu. Thanks to the efforts of comrades in London, our talk will run as part of Militant Cinema, a short series of films around the Italian Workerist Movement, and will be followed by a screening of Il Posto and Gli uomini che mascalzoni. The full season runs from 25 June to 3 July, and looks brilliant.
Through allegory and pastiche the films expand and illustrate the ideas contained within the movement. First, that it is the working class who are the active agent within capitalism rather than capital, which is always reactive to the movements of the working class, subjugating and oppressing their innovations. Second, that Marx should be radically re-read beginning with works such as the ‘Grundrisse’ to reunderstand Marxism as a thoroughgoing materialism. Third, that the answer is for workers within a constantly shifting class structure to unite around the abolition of the system of wage labour, rather than agitate for more equity in its mediation. Rather than pass through a period of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, communism could be established more immediately, through struggling for autonomy of the working class from capitalism, a capitalism whose continuation is contingent on their labour. Opposed to more traditional Leninist parties such as the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), workerist tactics of occupation, sabotage and the valorisation of the working class spilled into concern for the place of women’s work in the home, for ‘the social factory’ and the cooperative and hence proto-communist nature of working class life.
This eclectic group of films help trace the ideas of the movement and portray something of the social context in which it was born, promising a broad and colourful introduction to late 20th century Italy – a site of mass insurrection, violent struggle and state repression, with a legacy that has left the Italian political landscape with permanent and bloody scars
What follows are some random (and rambling) thoughts on the power of events or acts to inspire whole movements – in part provoked by Paul Mason’s Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, but also as an excuse to display this brilliant poster which I found at the bottom of a drawer the other day.
The events in north Africa sparked Paul Mason’s comments but obviously the question is a lot wider. How do isolated acts of resistance gel to become mass rebellions? And what conditions make them more likely to succeed (even if only for a short time)? The points that really interest me at the moment are points 3 and 7:
3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.
7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.
This brilliant timeline gives a sense of the stuff that’s been kicking off across the world over the last few months. It’s easy to over-state the cohesion and power of these events. And there is a risk of neophilia, of uncritically celebrating the new: “the time for change is now” – as if real change was impossible at earlier points. The flipside to this is the apocalyptic undertone which says, more or less openly, that if we fail to resist the imposition of austerity now, we’ll be fucked for several generations to come. But all the same, it certainly feels like we might be on the cusp of a shift in social relations (the crazy before the new). And part of that feeling is to do with the accelerating pace of events: that truth (the unfolding of new social relations) is moving faster than lies (the ability of capital and the state to restrain or limit our desires).
In the 1980s security experts in the West used the idea of the domino effect to talk about social movements in Central Latin America. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras… the US government feared that victory by “communist” (sic) forces would threaten its own strategic interests. But underlying the domino theory was the idea that outside agitators (in this case, Moscow- or Cuban-trained revolutionaries) were somehow responsible for the rise of popular national liberation movements (fast forward 30 years and Gaddafi has been coming out with the same sort of bullshit, blaming widespread revolt in Libya on al-Qaeda).
Thinking about the speed of change, a lot has been made of the role played by social networking tools (Twitter, Facebook etc etc), but the fact is that struggles have always circulated one way or another – the Black Jacobins didn’t rely on tweets from Paris, but news still went back and forth, albeit in a much slower way. Obviously, the speed at which information can be shared helps to build up momentum in a way that three-monthly dispatches can’t. And momentum appears to be key here. As recent events in north Africa and the Gulf states show, it is the idea of rebellion that spreads as much as the act itself – and it moves far faster than any outside agitator. It’s a contagion that doesn’t depend on physical contact. In fact, it makes more sense to think about this in terms of resonance.
But if we are thinking about social change in terms of memes, how do they arise? Perhaps one of the key assets of memes is that they are reproducible across a range of environments. In Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain and elsewhere, for example, the occupation of public space, like Tahir Square and Pearl Roundabout, has been a central theme. There might be a connection here to simple acts of disobedience or resistance which are taken up and spread rapidly – like Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus, or the mass refusal of the Poll Tax. These acts tend to be low-cost entry points into a movement: people can ‘do’ them (and so join a ‘movement’) without actually doing a lot. To join the anti-Poll Tax movement, all people had to do was not pay something that many of us couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Those individual acts then became part of a much wider collective event. And in a world of atomised social relations, it is this collectivity that is crucial. It creates new possibilities, new worlds (perhaps, we could conjugate resistance in this way: I transgress, you resist, we world).
But numbers, on their own, are not enough. I lived down South during the 1984–85 miners’ strike and the bright yellow Coal Not Dole stickers were a great marker for where the lines had been drawn between Us and Them. But most of the time they were also accompanied by a sense of stalemate, of a pitched battle. There was rarely enough shift in Us to destabilise Them. Compare this to the anti-Poll Tax movement where the weeks and months leading up to Trafalgar Square seemed to be filled with an escalation of events as local town halls were occupied or surrounded as they set their taxes. There was a sense of movement. Perhaps numbers plus momentum equals a new collective body. And perhaps we can think of momentum as the rapid expansion and mutation of memes.
Again, it seems that the sense of moving is key to the way memes multiply and spread. The moment of greatest potential in this festival video is when dozens of people swoop in from all directions to join the dance. At that stage we have no idea what will happen: perhaps we’ll storm the stage; perhaps we’ll tear down the fence that separates the festival from the rest of the world; perhaps we’ll create a living sculpture. Who knows what this new collective body can achieve? And it’s hard not to feel a little deflated when the crowd turns toward the stage at the end and applaud the band and themselves: like establishing a Commune and then rushing to home to cheer a newly elected government.
Moreover, if this sense of momentum offers a real break from the everyday, it’s a break not just from the numbing routine of work-consume-sleep but also from the routine of work-politics-meeting-leaflet etc etc. The multiplication of acts of resistance and emergence of social movements also means a regroupment or re-alignment of our forces. The ‘activist fiction’ (the idea that the world will be changed by activists, therefore we need to make more activists) has become even more unsustainable in the face of recent events.
But why are some acts taken up, replicated and spread, while others remain entirely isolated? Why do we remember Rosa Parks and not Claudette Colvin? Is there some magic pixie-dust that will guarantee success? Clearly not. We have to gamble. And that means history will always be littered with discarded leaflets, dead campaigns, acts that didn’t take off. Our notion of what is possible is constrained by the ‘reality’ of everyday life. Sometimes it takes an act of imagination (of fiction, even) to reveal the real potential. And once we’ve glimpsed another world, it’s harder to go back.
Which also makes me think of this line from Pulp’s Glory Days:
Oh we were brought up on the Space-Race,
now they expect you to clean toilets.
When you’ve seen how big the world is,
how can you make do with this?
Moments of Excess, a Free Association anthology, is now available here. It’s a project that’s taken the best part of a year to realise, but it’s not the usual tale of missed deadlines. As the book’s introduction says:
The texts collected here were written over a ten year period from summer 2001 to January 2011. All were initially written as interventions, one way or another, so it’s no surprise that they betray their origin and context. One or two were originally written for books, some appeared in ‘movement’ publications such as Derive Approdi and Turbulence, and most were also handed out as self-published booklets in the heat of the moment. Yet as we assembled this edition, we were struck by how well the articles hang together as a collection. They are coherent—and they tell a story.
In fact, as we re-read the texts we were both tempted to update them in the light of recent events and simultaneously struck by how much sense they still made. The final article, Re:generation, was initially conceived, early in 2010, as a simple postscript to the other texts, a piece that would tie up loose ends and draw our story to a close. But when we sat down to think about it at the end of last year, of course we discovered that events had taken place and things had moved—as they always do. And how could we not think and attempt to make sense of these movements? More than a simple coda, it opens up more than it closes down.
So what is the story of Moments of Excess? As we re-read the texts, at least three different narratives emerged from the threads that run through them. The first is a tale about the movement of movements, focused on the cycle of counter-summit mobilisations that is usually reckoned to have begun with the WTO Seattle meeting in November 1999. Looking back now, it seems clear that this cycle has come to an end—first stalled and then definitively thrown aside by the economic crisis that ripped across the planet in 2008.
But this isn’t just a historical anthology: there’s a second, wider thread about the form of politics appropriate to the world we live in. Neoliberalism’s ideology of permanent progress through growth may have been shattered by the economic crisis, but it staggers on, zombie-like—and unprecedented cuts in public expenditure across the world are actually expanding its programme of social decomposition. As cracks appear in the most unlikely of places, there’s space to ask the one question worth asking: what sort of world do we want to live in?
And finally there is an even older narrative—the story of ‘the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution’. These are whispers across time and space that can’t be silenced. However it’s expressed—‘Omnia sunt communia’, ‘The poor shall wear the crown’, ‘Que se vayan todos’—we hear the same refusal, the same desire to stop the world as we know it and create something else. Who knows? By tomorrow, this book may well be meaningless, rendered irrelevant by the grubbing of that old mole. We are, after all, part of ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.
(But in the meantime, do yourself a favour and get hold of a copy…)