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Just a little teaser/shameless plug for our book Moments of Excess which is being published early next year by the good folk at PM Press. This guy has clearly read it…

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I came across this great quote here about the recent storming of the Tory party HQ.

I pushed a little and realised we were winning, so I thought what happens if we push a little more, so we did, and we broke a window! Then I thought, wow, we broke the window, what happens if we go inside? Then we got inside! So I thought, if we got this far, could we go further? And before I knew it I was on the roof!

This is the line that leapt out at me: If we got this far, could we go further? I’m hoping the answer’s in our book…

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I know things have been very quiet on this blog for the past few months, but we are still alive and kicking. Honest. Over the last few months we’ve been occupied elsewhere – including the latest issue of Turbulence and an organised walk through Leeds – and that’s left us little time to do stuff with our Free Association hats on.

Hopefully that will change soon. One of our projects for the New Year is to finish off an anthology of our written work so far. Looking back, that seems to follow a familiar post-Seattle trajectory, as we tried to keep up with changes in the ‘movement of movements’. A number of questions spring to mind. Has that cycle definitively ended? What other forces have emerged since? How does that relate to the global financial crisis? And how much did we laugh at this?

We shall return.

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I stumbled over this and can’t get it out of my head, so I’m posting it here as an act of exorcism.

Kottke says this Gaussian goat “is perhaps what the world would look like if human vision could perceive all of an object’s possible quantum mechanical states at the same time.”

It’s much the same with social movements. Once we give them a name (anarchist, anti-crisis, libertarian Marxist etc), we reduce our ability to see the ways in which they can be other. Rather than being static, clearly defined, encompassing a contiguous range of activity, they’re all vibrating, literally buzzing with potential. It’s that vibration that makes resonance possible.

conference 09

Things have been quiet on this blog (we’ve been getting on elsewhere with life, birth & death, among other things). But the other night I got pulled up over my reservations about the forthcoming anarchist movement conference. So here are some rambling responses…

There’s all the usual trivial stuff about what “anarchism” means. Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relation with the label. In the grand scheme of things, it’s clear that my politics are probably more “anarchist” than anything else. And at certain times it has been really useful to play up to that – a handy way of positioning myself in relation to other groups and practices. In the 1980s, for example, it was a really convenient short-hand for cutting out all the party hacks and robo-Trots. And during the struggle against the Poll Tax, “anarchist” came to mean someone you could depend on, utterly (they wouldn’t sell you out or grass you up).

But more often than not, I’ve found it a barrier, a limit to what can be done. Partly this has to do with how piss-poor most anarchist thought is (or was, certainly when I was growing up). It was never enough to say you were an “anarchist” – you had to say you were a “class struggle anarchist” to distinguish yourself from the 99 different varieties of nutter. But that brought up the whole thorny problem of the Left. However much we denied it at the time, anarchism rode on the coat-tails of the Left it despised (just as the Left was parasitic on the Labour Party). Anything that smacked of the Left (including any sort of critical Marxism) was anathema. It had to go. And what room did that leave for thinking? I can remember when a few people in Class War were talking about sticking the hammer and sickle icon on the Class War banner. “Can you imagine the cops’ faces when we come round the corner? Can you imagine the Left’s look of horror?” They were only half-joking. Shame, really…

But that’s really a side issue. Much more important is the whole idea of how movements come into being, and how they operate and where they end. It’s hard to pick fault with the spirit of the call, but in a strange way it seems so unambitious. In the face of a global economic meltdown, is re-constituting ourselves as an Anarchist Movement in the UK really the best option? We can’t tell from here how things are going to pan out, but maybe that sort of (activist) politics is dead. Sure, you’d hope that libertarian, anti-capitalist ideas and practices would now make more sense than ever, but that’s not to say they have to be wrapped up in all the trappings of politics-as-we-know-it. In fact, those trappings may prove to be a limit, hindering our ability to move rapidly and act flexibly as things unravel. It’s a possibility we should at least consider.

To be fair, some of this has to with London exceptionalism: I guess there are enough anarchists in London to make them appear a viable independent force (although a recent post by Ian Bone says otherwise). Out here in the sticks, it’s a little different. We don’t have the luxury of only working with “–ists”, and that’s not a bad thing.

Re-reading this, it does sound really negative. Sorry. I do have a lot of time for the spirit behind the conference, not least because it’s consciously based on the MayDay 98 conference. As I remember it, that event was really successful in reinforcing a new pragmatism and openness. It was part of a wider moment where movements coming from different directions opened themselves up to the prospect of ‘contamination’ (cross-fertilisation). There was a definite unfreezing of sectarian attitudes. Of course, one of the criticisms of that conference was that it didn’t result in a New Organisation. But that was never the point; and I’m not sure it would have had the same impact if that had been its aim.

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Last night I gave a short talk on behalf of We Won’t Pay For Their Crisis to the Climate Chaos Cafe at The CommonPlace. There’s nothing staggeringly original in it, but it does contain some nice insights harvested from all over the place (some chunks were lifted verbatim from the latest issue of The Commoner and libcom).


We are in the middle of two crises, the climate crisis and the economic crisis. Although we we seem to treat them as separate, I’m going to argue that they are completely entangled. Tackling one without tackling the other is impossible or fruitless. But the connections are complex and shifting, so I want to first give a quick overview of how the economic crisis arose, before probing a little deeper…


To understand the current economic crisis (and the collapse of what we call neo-liberalism, the most current phase of capitalism), we have to understand how it arose. And for that we have to go right back to the end of the Second World War. The post-war productivity boom was based on a ‘deal’ of higher wages in return for improved productivity – those were the days when we were told “you’ve never had it so good”. But by late 1960s this period of growth was being derailed by a wave of strikes and global unrest: in the workplace there were a growing number of struggles over time & quality of life (rather than money), while there was an explosion of anger from those excluded from this deal (i.e. anyone who wasn’t a white, skilled, male factory worker).

In the face of this, the post-war settlement was killed off in the mid- to late-1970s by a capitalist counter-attack which laid the foundations for ‘neo-liberalism’. You can pick any number of key moments – the coup in Chile in 1973, the defeat of the US air traffic controllers strike in 1981, or the defeat of the miners in 1984/5 in the UK. They were all part of a much broader systematic strategy, which played out here like this.

First, the old centres of workers’ militancy (mining, manufacturing) were dismantled and outsourced to low-wage economies overseas. In the UK in 1971 over 70% of people were employed in primary industries (like mining) or manufacturing, today over 70% of workers are in the service sector.

Second, the banking sector was massively deregulated. All sorts of complicated ‘derivatives’ markets were created. When this started to unravel in summer 2007, it ultimately resulted in the credit crunch – because no-one knew what all these pieces of paper were really worth.

Under neo-liberalism, wages were driven ever downward. I’m not alone in the fact that every pay rise I’ve had over the last 15 years has been below the rate of inflation. But while this boosts profits, the problem is that it keeps consumer spending (= economic growth) down. This problem was ‘solved’ by extending massive consumer credit, based mostly on rising house prices. This gave us the spending power to purchase all those lovely commodities coming out of the new manufacturing centres in the Far East and elsewhere. Hence the anomaly where our living standards in the UK rose at the same time as our wages as a proportion of profits kept falling.

Without primary industries or manufacturing the economy came to rely more and more on the banking and financial sector. This sector was in turn heavily reliant on rising house prices: complicated ‘mortgage derivatives’ were one of the major assets held by the big banks. So when the housing bubble burst, everything started to unravel – banks teetered on the brink of collapse, credit dried up, and the economy nosedived.

We are in uncharted waters. Despite comparisons to 1929, this level of collapse is unprecedented. How things pan out is of course partly down to us. But we don’t need a crystal ball to predict the storm that’s coming: in the UK, we’re already facing redundancies, wage cuts, benefit cuts, wage cuts, public service cuts, repossessions & evictions. Globally, there is mass social unrest on the horizon: workers laid off from thousands of factories in China have taken to the streets; food riots exploded in over 30 countries across the globe this time last year; and in the last few months we’ve seen violent battles in Latvia, Bulgaria & Iceland, not to mention Greece, Italy and France…


Obviously at a superficial level, there’s a shift of focus away from climate change, both for us as citizens/campaigners/workers/claimants and for NGOs and local and national government. Plus we now have to deal with the fact that a huge slice of public funds have been diverted into propping up financial institutions.

But we need to dig deeper. We talk about it as a “climate crisis” but from the point of view of capitalism (seen as a thing, an endlessly expanding dynamic system) it’s actually an energy crisis. And it’s an energy crisis that capital has to tackle in order to re-launch a new cycle of accumulation. This isn’t something new: the idea of “limits to growth” were an endless headache for capital in the mid-1970s before neo-liberalism took hold and unleashed new levels of exploitation.

In fact energy in its widest sense has been a permanent problem for capitalist development. Capitalism is an exploitative, ecologically destructive system but it is also incredibly dynamic. 300 years ago, when it faced down a similar twin crisis of a rebellious population and ecological crisis, its salvation was coal. Unlocking these carbon resources played a crucial role by allowing capital to substitute machinery for our labour, at a price that could sometimes be fixed years in advance and without risk of strikes, sabotage or go-slows.

It’s impossible to think about patterns of energy consumption, and therefore about global warming, without thinking of those social relations – capitalist social relations – that have shaped those patterns. The collapse of neo-liberalism and the climate crisis are intimately linked – so much so that they’re almost impossible to separate.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for us. At the back of much of the talk around climate change has been the idea that if we can just get people to accept the thesis of “peak oil” or “global warming”, then we will be able to magically pass into a different sort of world. As if we can switch off a carbon-based economy without also switching off the material social relations that surround it. As if the relentless drive for economic growth is some sort of mad aberration that we can turn off, or tone down. It’s not. There is no accident. There are structural causes at work here: the way we reproduce ourselves socially is bound up with the way we reproduce ourselves economically and the way we reproduce ourselves ecologically. But – and this is the key thing – the global financial meltdown could lead to a recomposition of social forces that would enable the rapid switch-over we need.

To get that right, I think there are four related areas worth thinking about


By this I don’t simply mean what time-scales are we thinking about, altho they are also important.
There’s a time lag in the economic crisis which mirrors the time lag in climate change
– the first cracks in sub prime sector began Aug 2007 = implosion last year
– credit crisis from last summer = redundancies & layoffs now
– £500bn bank bail-out last autumn = massive public sector squeeze for the foreseeable future

This disconnect makes our responses very problematic – by the time we act, it may be too late. But there’s an even more important aspect to this time lag. Neo-liberalism has been built on a massive expansion of debt. By mortgaging our futures (in the case of pensions quite literally) we’ve been able to put off dealing with the fact that a few are reaping massive profits on the back of our falling wages. The same deferral, the same displacement of antagonism into the future, has also been going on with climate change. Except as we know that process is non-linear: once we reach a tipping point, change will be irreversible when it comes time to pay.

This leads into a deeper connection. Capitalist social relations are based on a particular notion of time. Capital is value in process: it has to move to remain as capital (otherwise it’s just money in the bank). That moving involves a calculation of investment over time – an assessment of risk and a projection from the present into the future. The interest rate, for example, is the most obvious expression of this quantitative relation between the past, the present and the future. It sets a benchmark for the rate of exploitation, the rate at which our present doing – our living labour – must be dominated by and subordinated to our past doing – our dead labour.

It’s hard to over-state how corrosive this notion of time is. It lies at the heart of capitalist valorisation, the immense piling-up of things, but it also lies at the heart of the production of everyday life. To paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a cash till ringing up a sale, forever. This is true at all levels, whether for capital’s planners meeting in Davos or for us trying to make ends meet.

But this is the deeper meaning of the meltdown: just like global warming, it has brought the future crashing into the present. Interest rates are now effectively below zero. We have reached a singularity. Capital’s temporality depends upon a positive rate of interest, along with a positive rate of profit and a positive rate of exploitation – all that has collapsed. And just as with climate chaos, the debts are, quite literally, being called in.


The word ‘crisis’ has its origins in a medical term meaning turning point – the point in the course of a serious disease where a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or to death. So capitalism may be in crisis, neo-liberalism may be over, but that doesn’t mean we’ve won. Far from it. Crisis is inherent to capitalism. Periodic crises allow capital to displace its limits, using them as the basis for new phases of accumulation. In that respect, it’s true to say that capitalism works precisely by breaking down. But that’s only true in retrospect – after the resolution of the crisis. In fact crisis is mortally dangerous to capital, because it means an open-ness to other possibilities.

The critical instability we’re living through offers a chance for a phase transition, a rapid flip from one form of social organisation to another – or to many others. From capital’s point of view, it’s exactly this sense of openness, of possibility, that needs to be closed down. At the three major summits this year (G20 in the UK in April, G8 in Italy in July, and COP15 in Denmark in December), world leaders will be looking to contain things, to rein in our desires, and draw a line under the events of the past few months. “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here…” Every ‘solution’ that’s touted at these summits will also be an act of closure, an attempt to reintroduce capitalist temporality, one that sees the future rolling out inexorably from the present. In other words, get back to work: normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

We have to do a fine balancing act here. On the one hand, as recession deepens, we’ll resist any measures that restrict our immediate freedoms. That might mean pushing for ‘solutions’ that are slightly less damaging, and which may therefore help capitalism off its sickbed. Individually we may accept pay cuts rather than risk redundancies (altho historically one doesn’t rule out the other). Similarly, the catastrophic build-up of greenhouse gases needs us to act quickly and decisively.

But on the other hand our greatest chance of something different lies in keeping the crisis ongoing, in keeping the future open. So we also have to resist the pressure from capital’s planners for a quick fix, whether at the G20 or at Copenhagen. As soon as crises are ‘solved’, our room for manoeuvre is diminished.


As crises are closed down, the way the question is framed moves back on to a safer terrain for capital. We drift back into that temporality.

Climate change becomes a matter of carbon trading, or investment, rather than circulation of capital. It becomes a question of technical solutions and national/international policy decisions. Funnily enough, as climate change becomes the major topic at summits, it becomes fundamentally depoliticised. It’s easier to debate carbon parts per million in the atmosphere, rather than ask ourselves what sort of worlds we want to live in

It’s the same with the financial meltdown. Since last summer, it’s gone from a “banking crisis” to a “credit crunch” to an “economic crisis” to “negative economic growth” to “recession”. For months the use of the word “recession” was discouraged on the grounds that it would become self-fulfilling. But if there’s no name to what we’re living through, it can’t be normalised. And if it’s not normal, then we can behave exceptionally… So it’s officially a Recession.

We can see this move from “crisis” to “recession” in another way: a crisis for capital has become a crisis for us. Costs are shifted on to us. The massive bail-out of the banking system in the UK and the US is just the tip of the iceberg.

And it’s exactly the same with climate change. It’s obvious that costs of climate change are met disproportionately by the poor: globally it’s the poor who are most at risk of flooding, spread of disease, crop failure, resource shortages etc. And without a structural change, the costs of alleviating climate change will also be met by the poor. Three examples: green technologies are likely to remain expensive, so the poor will be shut out and forced to use “dirty” energy; agrofuel schemes which are still being forcibly rolled out across the global South (and in the US) in the face of widespread opposition; increasing enclosure of common land in the name of “conservation”, driving people away from resources that they have traditionally worked in order to sustain themselves. And in fact, as well as excluding the poor, all three have disastrous environmental consequences…

If we frame the question in this way, if we support attempts to resolve these crises through the market, and through the state, then we run the risk of engendering a green Keynesianism. In other words, a new regime of capitalist accumulation based on any combination of renewable energy, nuclear power, so-called clean coal or agro-fuels. It’s easy to see how this could make sense. You start off with the idea that in terms of life on earth “we’re all in it together”; but we need to save the economy first to enable us to have the resources to tackle the challenge…

In fact, far from being a ‘problem’ to overcome, the hope is that climate change may actually become a primary source of revenue to solve the massive fiscal problems faced by Europe and the US (but not those of the global South). Renewable energy, for example, is a huge growth sector, where demand far outstrips supply. And according to the head of UN Climate Change Secretariat:  “The credit crisis can be used to make progress in a new direction, an opportunity for global green economic growth… it is an opportunity to rebuild the financial system that would underpin sustainable growth … Governments now have an opportunity to create and enforce policy which stimulates private competition to fund clean industry.”

Or as the European commission President puts it when the EU signed a new climate change deal in December “We mean business when we talk about climate”.

But if the key question isn’t whether we shift away from fossil fuels, but how, then framing the answer in terms of the market and growth is a huge and explosive contradiction.

The problem of adopting the market as a frame of reference is that capital monetizes everything, it turns everything into money. And with financialisation, that trend has become even stronger. Under neo-liberalism, one of the most important roles of the the state, locally and globally, has been to impose “good governance”. In other words, to reinforce the idea that every problem raised by struggles can be addressed – on ONE condition: that we address those problems through the market. There’s a solution for everything, as long as we buy it. Or rather as long as ‘we’ (meaning the world’s poor) pay for it. If neo-liberalism had a slogan, it would be “stop me and buy one”.

Ironically some of the pressure for this has come from green campaigners who have argued, correctly, that capitalism takes no account of environmental costs when calculating price. But under the dictatorship of the market, money has become the measure of all things. The market tries to make commensurable things that are incommensurable. But how can you ‘sell’ the right to emit carbon? Or to poison water supplies?

This isn’t simply an ethical question, one of value against values. The idea of price is also based on linear dynamics. What price can you put on something when you can no longer calculate the probable outcome? As sea levels rise, it’s easy to predict coastal flooding. But then there’s the amount and pattern of rainfall, a probable expansion of the subtropical desert regions, Arctic shrinkage and resulting Arctic methane release, increases in the intensity of extreme weather events, changes in agricultural yields, modifications of trade routes, glacier retreat, species extinctions and changes in the ranges of disease vectors… Put that in your calculator.


With neo-liberalism in crisis, and the threat of irreversible climate change, the state’s role is going to become increasingly crucial. A de-carbonised global capitalism is not impossible. But it will require even higher levels of “discipline”. Austerity will have to be enforced on a massive scale.

As I said earler, capitalism is value in process – like a shark, it needs to keep moving or die. But this drive to self-expansion means it needs an ever-increasing energy base. Let’s look at it from the perspective of capitalism. The logic of capitalist growth is that it will always seek to externalise its costs. If we imagine there’s a three-way relation between capital, us and the environment (although none of these three things are actually discrete), then limits enforced in one sphere re-surface as intensified exploitation in another. If capital can’t rob one, it will rob the other. Leaving the coal in the hole, on its own, means more energy sucked from our bodies…

Let’s not forget that the last capitalist era of renewable energy (the age of sails and windmills) was also a time of slavery, genocide and enclosures on a massive scale


There are no easy answers here. The ground on which we’re fighting is shifting far too fast for that. But one thing to bear in mind is that movements rarely take straightforward forms.
In 1905 the Russian revolution which threw up the first Soviets began with a small strike by typesetters at a Moscow print-works: they wanted a shorter working day, a higher rate of pay, and the right to be paid for apostrophes. In France the uprising of May 68 was sparked in part by a student protest which began in Nanterre with a fight over demand for boys to be let into girls’ dormitories…

Last week a wave of wildcat strikes swept through UK oil refineries. They were hugely controversial, unpredictable, and came out of nowhere. Who knows their long-term meaning? And is it a coincidence that they happened in the energy sector?

What I’m trying to say is that real powerful interventions around climate change may well come from people and areas who don’t explicitly identify with climate change politics. They may take the shape instead of food riots, struggles against property developers, fuel poverty campaigns etc

There are two key points of intervention coming up. On 2 April the G20 are meeting in London’s Docklands. There’ll be a Climate Camp in the Square Mile in the City of London on 1 April. Then in December Copenhagen sees the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15). There’s a huge mobilisation underway amid an ongoing debate about what attitude we should adopt. Inside? Outside? One foot in? It’s been given added significance because will be almost exactly 10 years since the WTO shutdown in Seattle.

Before that, We Won’t Pay for Their Crisis are having a meeting on Saturday 28 February. It’s called ‘We are an image from the future’ and we will be picking up some of these themes and trying to relate them to recent events across Europe.

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Things have been a bit quiet here because we’ve been trying to piece together our thoughts on crisis for an article in the next Shift. Those speculations can be found here (although we may one day produce a slightly longer version because we ended up cutting sections on wealth and value, among other things).

As we threw ideas around, one that kept bouncing back was the meaning of ‘crisis’. As we explain in the piece, “the word ‘crisis’ has its origins in a medical term meaning turning point – the point in the course of a serious disease where a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or to death”. It’s a fork in the road. In one sense, it’s utterly binary – you either live or die. But really it’s a lot more than that. In the current global crisis, the options are far more fluid. If capitalism recovers (i.e. if it can develop a new regime of accumulation), it won’t take the same form as the capitalism we faced 5 years ago; and if it fails to recover, it won’t simply curl up and die.

From capital’s point of view, it’s exactly this sense of openness, of possibility, that needs to be closed down. At the three major summits this year (G20 in the UK in April, G8 in Italy in July, and COP15 in Denmark in December), world leaders will be looking to contain things, to rein in our desires, and draw a line under the events of the past few months. “Move along now, there’s nothing to see here…” Every ‘solution’ that’s touted at these summits will also be an act of closure, an attempt to reintroduce capitalist temporality, one that sees the future rolling out inexorably from the present. So we’re treading a tightrope here. On the one hand, as recession deepens, we will resist any measures that restrict our immediate freedoms – and that might mean pushing for ‘solutions’ that are slightly less damaging (as lay-offs mount, it’ll be interesting to see whether the recent successful Chicago factory occupation is taken up elsewhere). But on the other hand our greatest chance of something different lies in keeping the crisis ongoing. Of keeping the wound open.

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.

As well as being a place to store our half-baked ideas, this blog is also meant to be a place where we can collect, record and circulate interesting stuff. And amidst all the shite that’s been written about the current credit/finance crisis, this piece (by George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici of Midnight Notes) really stands out. Read and think on…


Dear Midnight Notes Friends,

The breakdown of the Wall Street financial machine makes the task that we outlined in our June meeting more urgent. In June we planned to rethink Midnight Notes in view of the restructuring of the accumulation process and class relations carried out through the neoliberal turn and Structural Adjustment. We can now define this project more precisely: what do the current crisis and restructuring of the financial system imply for us as we join the rest of the world in the dog house of structural adjustment in the twilight of the American empire?

In response to these questions, it is important, first, that we realize that the so-called Wall Street “meltdown” is certainly the end, but also the completion of the neoliberal program. Let us be clear about it. To think otherwise is to ignore the lesson taught to us by the event that opened the present capitalist era: the 1973 coup again the Chilean working class experiment with socialism, that led to the victory of strong state backed market economy. Karl Polanyi’s theory that the single most important cause of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe was the inability to control the financial market after the 1929 crash also resonates here. In other words, we should not read the restructuring taking place as a turn to socialism/Keynesianism, to the extent at least that Keynesianism was an intervention by the state into the economy aimed at increasing the state’s investment in social reproduction, starting with the reproduction of the working class, in exchange for an increase in the social productivity of labor. Despite the adoption of regulatory mechanisms, the operation presently conducted by the US government bears little resemblance to the Keynesian program launched with the New Deal.

Behind the $700 billion bail-out and the many others that will follow – some already in the pipeline – is a massive transfer of funds from the US working class to capital, inevitably leading to an assault on the last remaining entitlements (like Medicare, Social Security) and a general program of austerity the like of which we have not seen yet in a long time. The fact that there is no organized response to this assault makes us fear the worst. For things would never have reached this point if over the last decade the US workers had responded to the repeated thefts of their money and benefits, through the Enron scandal and the many other “crises” that have followed it. That despite the “instability” of the market, despite its usage as a means to expropriate thousands of small/working class investors, US workers continued to trust their livelihoods and future to it is certainly a key factor in what we are presently witnessing and Washington/Wall Street confidence in launching the new austerity program. It is our argument that in the same way as September 11 served the US government to shed the last remains of “democracy” and move to a model of government where militarization is always around the corner (apparently Representatives were threatened with the proclamation of martial law if they did not pass the bailout bill), so the Wall Street crash will serve to shed the last remaining elements of working class “socialism” in the US political economy, starting with Social Security, Medicare, a thorn in capital’s flesh, but so far demonstrating a great resilience, the last shore for working class struggle in the nation.

2. Lessons from the Debt Crisis

There is an important parallel here, not sufficiently noted, between the present crash and bail-out and the “debt crisis” of the 1980s, which engulfed most Third World nations (except for China) and was the start of the globalization process. Both have been engineered in the same fashion.

The “debt crisis” was the outcome of a financial campaign conducted by Washington and Wall Street, to practically force Third World nations to take cheap development loans – liberally dished out at the lowest interest rates – at a time when capital was refusing to invest in Europe and North America in the face of the most successful working class attack on its profit-rate since the 1920s, and a new generation of Africans, Asians etc. were organizing to demand a global redistribution of wealth and a program of reparations, that is, in the language of the Bucharest Conference of 1974: A NEW WORLD ORDER.

Through the lending mechanism, the massive flow of petrodollars that had been amassed in the aftermath of the 1974 embargo (the first attack on US wages, organized through a stiff inflationary wave) was redirected to the coffers of Third World nations, which, attracted by the bait of cheap loans, were soon hooked to the global economy, all dreams of an independent path to development foregone.

In other words, loans at the lowest interest rates were key to the creation of a global debt and the process of primitive accumulation (through structural adjustment) that was imposed on most of the workers of the world.

As we know, within less than a decade, the rise of the interest rates in the US, turned manageable debts into a long-term process of economic and political subordination. Debt became the hook for a massive restructuring of Africa’s, Asia’s & Latin America’s political economies, re-establishing a colonial dependency that for three decades has served to promote a massive transfer of funds from the Third to the First World and defeat the organizational efforts of TW nations for an independent road to development.

Under the guise of the “debt crisis,” portrayed as a case of “mismanagement” by backward countries, requiring First World-style financial responsibility, countries across the world were forced to open their books to Washington – via the IMF and World Bank – and accept any terms of repayment imposed on them. They were forced to freeze wages, terminate all social spending, open their markets to foreign investors and products, devalue their currencies and so forth. The consequences of these policies are well known. While Washington and NY built forests of skyscrapers, sucking on the blood of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, Caribbean people, such levels of impoverishment and expropriation were imposed on the people of the world that millions took the road out of their countries, unable to survive in them, while those remaining witnessed epidemics, elimination of schools, famines, wars, the loss of ancestral lands, waters and forests, brutal wars of privatization, all directly related to the debt.

This is history now, though the politics of SAP have set back for decades the project initiated by the anti-colonial struggle, reformulated and reasserted, as I mentioned, at the Bucharest Conference of 1974, where TW nations emboldened by the defeat of the US in Vietnam, demanded a NEW WORLD ORDER, i.e. the redistribution, return of the wealth that Europe and the US have robbed from the colonial world.

With the debt crisis, international capital obtained three major objectives.

i) It disciplined the working class in Europe and the US, by dismantling its manufacturing structure and refusing for years to engage in any serious investment in these regions [remember “zero growth”?]

ii) It destroyed the attempt of the former colonial world to escape a dependent/subordinate position, as demanded by the new generation of Africans, Asians, etc., who, infused of the spirit of Fanon, were keen on import substitution schemes, were pressing for REPARATIONS, and pushing for some form of socialism (in Angola and Mozambique).

(iii). In addition to defeating revolution in First and Third World, the “debt crisis” built the infrastructure for the new global economy. It forged the mechanisms by which industries and offices could be relocated, companies could run around the globe, the work process could be computerized and streamlined and the working class thereby could be flexibilized and re-divided.

Against this background, we must note some basic similarities between the engineering of the debt crisis and the engineering of the Wall Street crash and must assume these similarities will extend to the social consequences of the crash. The housing bubble was the result of loans made at very low though adjustable credit rates, redirecting the influx of capital coming from abroad (China and other countries) toward the US market.

Is it possible that investment banks, credit rating agencies, the head of the Federal Reserve all FAILED to realize what would be the inevitable result of an “easy credit,” lending policy that reversed decades of regulatory principles and rules? Unless we want to revel in the nonsensical tale of a blinding surge in human greed, the answer must be a negative one. Thus, we must stop using the concept of “failure” to describe the absence of regulations and the reasons for the crash. We must rule out that the architects of the housing/mortgage crisis did not know it would end in a financial disaster and cascade of foreclosures for the home owners, in the same way as banks are partly responsible for the debt of the US working class ($45,000 on average per capita).

Continuing with the parallel, we have to conclude that with this 700 billion dollar “bail-out,” coming straight out of our pockets and hides, the “structural adjustment” that since the 1980s has been imposed on countries across the world, is going to be extended to the US territory and the US working class. This time (after many beginnings and many deferrals) we too are being “adjusted.” I will discuss later what adjustment will mean at this time for us. For the moment we only want to stress that we are witnessing not only a financial meltdown, but also a great robbery, a macro-process of expropriation, an immense transfer of labor, this time siphoning funds to the US banking system not only from the Third World, as in the Debt Crisis of the 1980s, but from our households, through the classic maneuver of increasing the national debt. What we are witnessing is a capitalist coup, an example of capital’s historic readiness to destroy itself in order to regain the initiative and defeat resistance to its discipline.

3. Where does this resistance come from? How is the collapse of the financial systems a response to it?

We cannot understand the Wall Street crisis unless we read it in class term as a means to negotiate a different class deal and response to class struggle and resistance. However, in dealing with these questions, I also want to distinguish this approach and the growing tendency to view every development in capitalist planning as a realization of working class struggle and demands, the Negrian perspective on capital’s response to class movements.

This perspective is dangerous, because besides turning even defeat into a victory, (such as: we wanted globalization, we wanted flexibilization, etc), it ignores the fact that a capitalist response must use working class demands against themselves, use them to drive part of the working class out of the struggle, turn it against or away from the other half, use them in such a way as to spark off forms of development that decompose the class.

Let us look now at the crisis as a disciplinary tools and strategy. There are at least three areas of resistance to the neoliberal accumulation project that the Wall Street collapse has to respond to. I will list them without an attempt to establish an order.

First, the crash and the bail-out must defeat the attempt of the US working class to circumvent class discipline by using financial markets, rather than struggle, sweat and labor, to increase their wages. While strikes and struggles have died out over the last two decades, workers have tried to increase their income in three ways: investing in the stock market, buying on credit, now even for everyday expenses, getting equity money through housing, and defaulting student loans. These tactics have clearly failed and now millions of workers are now to pay twice for them, in terms of their individual losses and in terms of the losses that will be inflicted on the US proletariat as a class through the bailouts. If successful, these bail-outs will in fact be conducive to a new regime of low wages and zero entitlements the like of which we have not seen since the last part of the 19th century.

The new regime will not be the end of market fundamentalism. It will be a revitalization of market investment through the injection of our social security money, and it will be a revitalization of some parts of American industry now presumably taking advantage of the fact that workers are desperate enough to accept any conditions just to have a job and a roof over their heads. A large part of capital has for a long time been lusting to bring back America to the situation before the New Deal, when employers had the upper hand. The “crisis” is giving them a chance to return to that era.

That this time Social Security is at stake is due to various factors. First, Social Security is the last pot of money available to re-launch the US market, in a context in which workers have no savings and monetary flows from the outside are drying out. It is also the last “scandal” on the list of US capitalists who have relentlessly for years now told us it must go. Most important of all, Social Security affects primarily the old, the retired, and it is therefore an easier target than entitlements affecting the whole working class.

So far workers in the US have resisted the privatization of Social Security despite many governmental attempts. But cuts in pensions have already gone a long way in the private sector, where employers have given stocks of their companies to workers, or stopped putting any money in their pension funds. The present crisis will extend that to government-backed pensions. And the road to it has been cleared by years of false statements to the effect that Social Security is unsustainable. Though it is a colossal lie, younger generations have, however, accepted it. By cutting Social Security, capital undoubtedly hopes to pit the young against the old, who (as in Africa today) are being pictured as a crew of selfish gerontocrats sucking up the funds the young need to build their future.

The second target of the attack is the global resistance to capital’s appropriation of natural resources beginning with oil and gas extraction. The defeat in Iraq is the peak of it. To this day, despite an immense expenditure in war funding, the US has not been able to put its hands on Iraqi oil. Resistance to international capital control over global energy resources has also come from Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Many more countries are also refusing the neoliberal packet, especially in Latin America. These refusals, not peak oil, are the true limits to capital’s energy plans.

There have also been bottlenecks in the exploitation of forests, waters, minerals, and lands which structural adjustment was to remove. A new “rurban” peasant movement has been growing that is fighting independently of unions, parties, “civil society” and NGOs, using direct action tactics, to re-appropriate the lands and resources of which it has been robbed —poaching, harvesting timber or produce in commercial plantations, mining diamonds and gold “illegally,” or farming in the very lands from which they have been “legally” excluded. When they move to the cities they squat on urban land and take over land not used, private or public to farm it for their needs. It is a vast re-appropriation movement that is redefining the fundamentals of social reproduction globally. It has put globalizers and adjusters out of government, it has forced the nationalization of local resources, and has redistributed wealth and political power, putting the World Bank and IMF almost out of business in Latin America. It has defeated the attempt to completely liberalize the economies of the TW through the rule of the World Trade organization. Though not sitting at the table, the specter of the rural/urban peasants of the world has guided the refusal of TW representative to comply.

Third, global migration has developed in ways that make it difficult for governments to use it as a regulatory mechanism for the labor market. Far from being an easy device for driving wages down, migration is now an autonomous uncontrollable phenomenon, with a logic of its own that is not reducible to the needs of the labor market. It is important however to stress (against the idealization of the migrant and of Exit, Exodus, Flight as the highest form of struggle) that the struggle of the migrants is not superior to the struggle of those who remain. In fact, migration can lead to the dissolution of local organizations, it can create new divisions among the locals, separating those benefiting from remittances and those deprived of them, it can boost the cost of living in the area of origin by the influx of new money and hook local economies more strongly to the international monetary system, fostering the expansion of monetary relations. These, of course, are not inevitable results. Actually, migrants have been able to use the wage against the wage, to refuse impoverishment, to create transnational networks, to move from country to country seeking a better deal and nullifying national boundaries and borders.

The attacks on immigrants of recent months, which have seen the most massive factory raids and deportations ever in the US, are responses to this autonomy. They are part of the attempt to create a population of rightless workers, to function as a safety valve for the labor market. Only if they have no rights can immigrants function as regulatory mechanism for the labor market (in the same way as mass incarceration and expansion of unpaid labor do). The redefinition of immigrant workers as outlaws and the criminalization of the working class – historically a key strategy to devalue labor power – will continue to be a tool of the world order we will see emerging from the crisis. But the crash will intensify the divisions between “natives” and migrants, attack the organizational strength of migrant organizations, unless there is strong opposition to this strategy.

The Politics of the Financial Crisis and Our Response

Crises are always a threat and an opportunity as they break down business as usual, and reveal something of the inner workings and nastiness of capitalism. This one is not an exception and we can be sure that what will come out of it will be greatly a result of what people do in response to it. If the Great Depression is an indication, it took more than ten years for capital to organize a different social order. Much can happen in such a period.

The problem for us today is that workers are only organized around electoral politics at best. And many still place more hope in a racist and imperialist stance than in working class solidarity. We certainly don’t have a communist or an anarchist movement organizing rallies of the unemployed, fight against evictions, or organize “penny auctions” of farms as they did during the Great Depression. Nor do we have an anti-capitalist alternative as the Soviet Union was in the eyes of many. We also do not have the kind of solidarity that in the Great Depression led to invention of new commons, like the hobo movement and the creation of “jungle cities.”

Where to start then? This is what we need to work on in the coming months and years. There is no clear path to this kind of mobilization. But we need to start somewhere. On two things we can get people to agree with us: First, we better find alternatives, because, as things stand presently, we are so incestually connected with capitalism that its demise threats our own existence. Second, unless we organize to resist government planning, what lies ahead for us, after a cut of more than a trillion dollars of our “entitlements,” looks much more like some variant of fascism than socialism.

With warm greetings

Silvia and George

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.