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Beryl-BurtonI’m at a bike shop in central London. I’m being fitted for a new frame. I’ve had some serious problems with my back and my best bike, its pro geometry never really suitable for me even when I did race, is now definitely inappropriate. Julian, who’s sorting me out, asks me about racing and I mention my club Ferryhill Wheelers. Ah, he’s seen that name when he’s looked at results for over-50s races. I do a double-take and look at Julian more closely. This guy’s in his fifties? I would’ve put him at around my age. Turns out he’s 56. Must be something keeping him looking young. Perhaps it’s cycling. Or maybe love of life. He’s just returned from a holiday celebrating his first wedding anniversary. Congratulations. He tells me that he and his partner, now wife, have been together for decades, they’ve got a couple of teenage kids, but last year decideded to get married. That’s interesting, I think, getting married only once your kids have almost left home isn’t normal. I’m drawn to him.

We return to cycling and Julian talks of racing as a kid, before “giving it all up for rock ’n’ roll and going off to play in various punk bands”. So we spend some time chatting about punk rock. Once more the conversation returns to cycling and Julian starts talking about his cycling heroes. The great Belgian cyclist, Eddy Merckx, ‘the Cannibal’, 5-times winner of the Tour de France, is one. But he’s most enthusiastic about Beryl Burton, from Morley, Leeds, who won numerous races over a four-decade career, beating men as well as women, and breaking dozens of records, all between her day job picking rhubarb.

Talk of Yorkshire sporting heroes reminds me of my daughter’s first school, which she attended for a term, a sports academy, which chose to name its four houses after a male footballer (Billy Bremner), a male cricketer (Fred Truman), a male rugby player (Jason Robinson), with the sole woman Jane Tomlinson, a ‘plucky’ amateur runner (unlike the more successful men) who died of cancer. I get angry again: at the gender imbalance and at the school’s choice of the four sports (football, cricket, rugby and athletics) that you read about every day on the back pages. How boring. And at the omission of the wonderful Beryl Burton.

For some reason, I mention a trip I made a few years ago, by bike of course, from Monchio, just north of Bologna, to Bergamo, near Milan, a distance of 250km. The furthest I’ve ridden in one day — though it’s absolutely flat. Julian is impressed. Then he mentions that he took a similar route once, but by train, from further south in Italy up to Milan. 1980. His train passed through Bologna railway station just a few hours before the massive terrorist explosion that killed 85 and wounded more than 200. The Red Brigades, he tells me. Actually no, I respond. Yes, the Red Brigades were involved in setting bombs, but the Bologna massacre was the work of fascists, with the likely connivance of the Italian state. And I start explaining about the social movements of the 1970s, autonomia, and the ‘strategy of tension’, with which the state responded.

Cycling, punk, gender politics, autonomia… It’s great when you meet someone new and you click — and I found Julian’s obvious love of life quite inspiring — but somehow those topics seem connected.

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There’s a great interview here with Mark Stewart of early post-punks the Pop Group — by Diane Kamikaze on wfmu.

Can’t capture it all here, but the conversation ranges seamlessly across music, politics, culture, innovation, DIY, group dynamics, magic, ethics and the repetition of history. He even mentions zombies. As punk as fuck.

The interview alone is here (about 55 minutes); the full 3-hour show — with 7 or 8 Pop Group songs — is here.

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Why aren’t the British middle classes staging a revolution?”, asks Telegraph columnist Alex Pound.

Why aren’t the middle classes revolting? Words you probably never thought you’d read in the Telegraph. Words which, as a Gladstonian Liberal, I never thought I’d write. But seriously, why aren’t we seeing scenes reminiscent of Paris in 1968? Moscow in 1917? Boston in 1773?

I don’t much like a lot of what he’s written (“While much of what Reagan and Thatcher did was necessary…”), that’s not the point, and I’m not part of his target audience – “officer class” types, more senior managers, people who “worry about things like Farrow & Ball Paint colours”. But he gets a few things spot on.

He clearly identifies himself and his middle-class readership as part of the “99%” – or rather the “99.9%”. His readership is certainly not part of the elite: “All these guys care about is money. They don’t care about society. They certainly don’t care about jobs and they don’t care about you.”

He’s right that discussing politics, economics, political economy, inequality, the ethics (or not) of capitalism belongs in a “lifestyle” column. In a sense he’s writing about social reproduction: “the most important lifestyle issue you’ll ever face”.

He touches at parts of what we’ve called the “neoliberal deal” too. He notes that, in the 1980s, that period when Regan and Thatcher were carrying out their “necessary” attacks on the working class, the middle classes, “vain fools that we were, we identified upwards.” And, finally, he’s clear that this “deal” is now over, that things have changed: “And its when the middle classes start identifying downwards, rather than upwards that when elites really need to start watching their backs”.

So, perhaps next time London riots, it’ll be Kensington, Mayfair and Notting Hill in flames, not Hackney and Croydon. And the people on ordinary incomes won’t be hiding their homes, they’ll be joining in or at least cheering from the sidelines.


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Stop, etc



For me, one of the best things about last weekend’s FAST FORWARD festival was seeing two comrades I organised with in the early- to mid-1990s. We’ve been involved in different political projects over the intervening two decades, we live in different cities, different countries even. But every year or so I encounter one or the other of them. At some demonstration or protest. At a conference. Maybe a social event where there’s a bunch of politicos. I like the fact that we share political histories stretching back a quarter-century. I like it that I know these people who keep turning up, on the streets (or in the fields — I’m thinking of the summit protests of the counter-globalisation movement and climate camps), in our political meeting spaces, like bad pennies. Enoch Root types. The radical. Enoch the Red. It’s definitely to the credit of Plan C, FAST FORWARD and its organisers, that these bad pennies were attracted to the festival.

There was some discussion of diversity — or the lack of it — at FAST FORWARD. Too few black people, for example. And where were the trans people? (Perhaps they were there, but we didn’t know.) But why do we care about this? After all, we’re not sociologists or pollsters who need a representative sample of the population. I think it does matter: different ‘sectors’ or ‘sections’ (of the ‘class’, the ‘multitude’, the ’99% — delete according to your preferred political tradition) experience capitalism in different ways and they (we) have different experiences of struggle. These experiences are valuable in informing collective analysis (i.e. understanding our situation(s) and our power) and collective strategising.

But my two old comrades apart, there were precious few older heads at FAST FORWARD — and certainly no-one who’d count as an ‘elder’. And there weren’t that many children either — 15 or 16, which is certainly more than at most political events of similar size, but still not that many out of 160-odd participants. Another way of saying this — though not exactly equivalent for several reasons — is that not many parents took their kids to FAST FORWARD. (Again, it’s worth pointing out that there was probably a far higher proportion of ‘families’ — my shorthand for parent(s) plus child(ren) — than at most political events, but lower than in the population as a whole or even the population you might find in a youth hostel like Edale on any other weekend of the year.)

Again, this matters. First, the older heads. My generation (I’m talking more about political generation than an age-defined generation) was politicised by moments such as the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the peace movement, particularly the women’s camp at Greenham Common (yes, men too were influenced and inspired by this camp); we were all active in the movement against the first Gulf war and — perhaps most important — the anti-poll tax movement. I’m not claiming these — for us formative — experiences are more important than other political struggles. But it is worth remembering that we are currently in the midst of a debt crisis (part of the crisis of social reproduction) and the anti-poll tax movement was a debtors’ movement — and a successful one, with 1 in 3 refusing to pay the tax. The poll tax has been rarely mentioned over the past 5 or 6 years — what’s happened to all those anti-poll tax activists, what’s happened to all their knowledge and experience of struggle?

More generally, what’s happened to my generation? And older generations (‘the elders’), those folks who made the struggles of the 1980s, the 1970s, even the 1960s? Where are those comrades who opposed the Vietnam war? Those who were so disruptive in (waged) workplaces — walking out of factories, occupying factories, ‘working to rule’, ‘going slow’ — that poor industrial relations became known as the ‘British disease’? Who, with their struggles in the workplaces, homes and on the streets, made the so-called second wave of feminism? No doubt a few have changed their politics, some have probably joined the Labour party. But most haven’t.

Then what about the young? My daughter had a fantastic time at FAST FORWARD, she loved it, I think all the kids did. She/they relished the freedom of having the run of such a large territory. For them, Edale youth hostel became a ‘temporary autonomous zone’; and they were helping in our collective ‘making of another dimension’. Theo and Caddy, who ran the kids’ space, were fantastic. They don’t see what they do as a ‘service’, the provision of childcare that enables parents to participate in the political activities. Rather, they see themselves as doing political activity alongside the other political activity — only their stuff is aimed at children rather than adults. We can see what Nic did, cooking with the children in the kids’ kitchen, in a similar way; and also the contribution of Giles, who did rock-climbing with the slightly older children.

So we can understand events like FAST FORWARD as ‘formative’ for children and young people — just as counter-summit convergence camps and climate camps have been over the 2000s. And before too long — just a few years for the oldest children at FAST FORWARD 2014 — these kids will start becoming interested in what the adults are talking about, they might start wandering into meetings and staying to listen and ask questions, they might start demanding or organising their own meetings. After all, as one Plan C member and bamn contributor writes in his biographical blurb, ‘his first school detention was for taking part in a walkout over the Iraq invasion. His second was for leading a walkout of the first via a window.’

So, my vision for FAST FORWARD in future years, FF2015, FF2016 and so on…

I want it to be a space where all generations can mix. That’s how Plan C can help create and sustain a ‘community of reference’. (Related to this, but slightly off the generations theme: I don’t think Plan C should be shy about attempting to recruit new members/activists. But FAST FORWARD shouldn’t be primarily about recruitment. I want it to be a space where we can encounter people involved in other struggles, movements, organisations — as it was this year, I think.) Nor should it matter too much if people don’t attend the meetings. Edale is (obviously) beautiful, a lovely place to stroll, hike, cycle, or just hang out. I’d be happy if we encouraged no-longer active older comrades (my generation, elders) to come along simply to de-stress. For them the festival is a place to PAUSE. But of course we all mingle, after a day of meetings or not-meetings, in the REWIND bar (great name for the bar, by the way, and I’m riffing off it). The old heads soak up the enthusiasm and energy of their younger comrade and in return share some of their wisdom, gained through their experiences in earlier struggles. Sometimes this will be reversed: young activists have different experiences, valuable experiences, lessons to teach; they also get burned out; sometimes older people can be the inspirational ones, they can provide energy and enthusiasm — and also more sober advice on how to cope with burnout and defeat.

Childcare is absolutely crucial for this. Parents need to know that there’ll be activities for their kids to enjoy, that they won’t need to worry about them. Thus the festival will also incorporate PLAY spaces — for children of all ages. And of course, these kids’ spaces and activities will also be spaces where our children will develop — we hope — into young comrades.

We want to STOP capitalism, but that requires the constitution or composition of a new ‘we’; my hope is that FAST FORWARD can become a space for the constitution of a new ‘we’ in the fullest sense of the word.

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mandela fistLike much of the planet’s population (if the media is to be believed) I have done a certain about of reflecting and even mourning over the past week or so. Of course I am glad that Nelson Mandela did not die in prison. But at the same time I cannot help feeling a certain nostalgia for that time when he was incarcerated on Robben Island — at least for that part of my life, the 1980s, when I’d become aware of him, his plight and the broader struggle he was part of.

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spinning top

The concepts and words used typically to describe and understand our realities are inadequate to the task of interpreting, and accompanying, those societies in movement.

It is as if the capacity to name has been trapped in a period transcended by the active life of our peoples. Many of the assumption and analyses that shaped us during the struggles of the sixties and seventies have become, to borrow a phrase from Bruadel, “long-term prisons”. Quite often, they stifle creative capacity and condemn us to reproduce what already known and has failed.

A new language, one that is capable of talking about relationships and movements, must break through the tangle of inherited concepts to analyse structures and organizational frameworks. We need expressions capable of capturing the ephemeral, the flows that are invisible to the vertical, linear eyes of our masculine, legalistic, and rational culture. That language does not yet exist, and thus we must invent it in the heat of the various resistances and collective creations. Or, better yet, pitch it out from the underground of popular sociality so that it can grow out onto the great avenues, where it can become visible and, thus, be adopted, altered, and transformed by societies in movement.

In short, we need to name ourselves in such a way that is faithful to the spirit of our movements and that turns fear and poverty into light and hope; a magical gesture reminiscent of the zumbayllu (spinning top). Ernesto, the forlorn protagonist of Arguedas’s book The Deep Rivers, uses the zumbayllu as a means to escape the violence of his boarding school into what Cornejo Polar calls the “unusual movement of brotherhood”. I employ the image of the zumbayllu as a reflection of societies in movement that, in order to exist, to ward off death and oblivion, must move themselves from their inherited place. These societies must keep moving, because to stop means falling into the abyss of negation, to cease to exist. At this stage of capitalism, our societies only exist in movement as the Zapatista communities teach us so well, as do the Indians throughout the Americas, the landless farmers, and, increasingly, those condemned to the margins of the urban world.

Images like the spinning top bring us closer to the magic world of movements, which can move quickly from horror and hatred to fraternity, and vice versa. The double movement, the rotation on its own axis and the passage across a plane, are two complementary ways of understanding social change: displacement and return. Indeed, it is not enough just to move, to vacate its inherited material and symbolic place; a type of movement is also necessary that is a dance, circular, capable of piercing the epidermis of an identity that does not let itself be trapped because with each turn it reconfigures itself. Displacement and return can be understood as repetition and difference. The zumbayllu, as a reflection of the other society, is, philosophically speaking, committed to intensity over representation, destined always to sacrifice movement to the alter of order.

The spinning top of social change is dancing for itself. We do not know for how long to where. The temptation to give it a push in order to speed up its rhythm can bring it to a halt, despite the good will of those trying to “help”. Perhaps the best way to promote it is to imagine that we ourselves are part of the zumbaylla – spinning, dancing, all and sundry. To be a part of it, without any control over the final destination.

This fantastic metaphor is from the Introduction to Raúl Zibechi’s new (in English) book, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Zibechi explores how the practices of movements such as the piqueteros and recuperated factories in Argentina, landless workers in Brazil and Zapatistas in Mexico challenge theories of social change centred on parties, trade unions and other institutions of the ‘working class’, the Left. What’s exciting is not only these movements’ insistence on being autonomous from the state and from state-oriented groups, but the way both territorialisation (i.e. creating and sustaining a territory) and social reproduction seem to be at the heart of their practices. These groups have all moved beyond the attempt simply to reappropriate wealth, demanding that the state to provide healthcare or education or food, for example. Instead they working out how to produce wealth.



Rebirth of coolMark Fisher makes some really important points in this interesting blog post, The Happiness of Margaret Thatcher. The stuff about ‘outrage’ – and the important role papers like the Daily Mail play in creating it – seems particularly relevant. As he says, ‘Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat.’ It engenders weariness (‘we wake up in the morning … [and ask] what are we supposed to be outraged about today?’) – and I’d say this is part of a more general class war weariness.

It’s also an example of the way we (the Left, most broadly understood) have been drawn onto enemy terrain. Not only the discourse of ‘welfare’ (‘faring well’ is now bad, is it?), but also that of the economy and growth. Just think of the furore amongst the Left – and I admit it’s captivated me as well, but then I’m a professional economist as well as a communist, so that’s my excuse – over the ‘spreadsheet scandal’. It’s not just a furore: some liberal-left commentators have expressed jubilation that Reinhart and Rogoff’s results have been shown to be flawed. As Fisher says, it’s a ‘liberal leftist compulsion – rife in social media – to point to superficial contradictions in conservative ideology. “‘They believe in small government… until it comes time to control women’s bodies!’ Zing!”’

The question, as ever, is what should we do then? Fisher’s conclusion I think complements George Caffentzis’s argument that ‘speed is not is enough for political effect, momentum (mass times velocity) is necessary as well’ – an argument we repeat in our ‘On shock and organisation’ chapter in this book – and our interest in subjectivities and the affect of winning:

We must engage, just not on its terms. Instead of the ‘hot’ response of outrage (with its immediate nugget of satisfaction, achieved at the cost of a long-term political impotence), we need a cooler stance of appraising the enemy’s weapons and strategies, and thinking about how to counter, overcome and ultimately outwit them. Is a left-wing version of the Mail possible? If not, how could we construct a discursive hub that is as successful for the left as the Mail is for the right? This needs to be part of a broader strategy of devoting our energy and resources to goals and projects that will deliver change in the long term, breaking us out of the short-termism that has become endemic in the age of Twitter. What we need to overturn is something that has been the case since before Thatcher’s rise to power – the tendency for reactionary political forces to be pro-active, and for progressives to be reactive.


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Earlier in the year we posted about Chickpea of Dissident Island Radio recording an audio book of Moments of Excess, read by us and friends and family.

The book is now available for free download: here. And last night Chickpea presented the Circled A radio show on Resonance 104.4fm; the show featured exerts from an interview with Brian and Keir of The Free Association and from the audio book. You can download the half-hour show here: MP3 link; OGG link.

Again, our warm thanks to Chickpea for suggesting and executing this project and to our friends and family who read chapters.

The clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. (Lewis Mumford)

During the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city … there were people shooting at the clocks … (Walter Benjamin)

Just like the clocks, the debate about clock-time is going forward and back, forward and back. See this report here about proposal that Britain moves to Central European Time. Why does no-one ever suggest that we all work an hour a day less during the winter months? That way, we’d have both lighter evenings and lighter mornings with all the associated benefits. Let’s call it life-time saving… Let’s propose it!

In the context of all this, there’s another text by the English historian E.P. Thompson that is definitely worth reading, ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism‘. Pasted below is John Holloway’s ‘prologue’, written for a German edition of Thompson’s article, which isn’t otherwise available in English. Obviously I like it because it says nice things about us, but quite apart from that it’s a fantastic piece.



Thompson and the Decomposition of Abstract Time

John Holloway

1. Perhaps the most striking thing about Thompson’s article on “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” is that it is such a pleasure to read.

In part, this is because of the elegance with which it is written. It is a beautiful article. The sense of fun, the extraordinary knowledge and the love of history leap at us from every paragraph. When one reads that the New English Dictionary (but not the Oxford English Dictionary) records as an example of pre-capitalist time measurement a “pissing while”, and then Thompson’s comment that this is “a somewhat arbitrary measurement”, one knows that the article was written with enjoyment and that it has been enjoyed by generations of readers ever since.

But our pleasure in reading the article also has to do with the substance of the argument. On the face of it, it is a sad story: Thompson tells us of the victory of abstract clock-time over lived time. There is nothing automatic about this victory. It is the outcome of a struggle that lasts for centuries. In the end, however, the workers come to accept the time of capital: “The onslaught, from so many directions, upon the people’s old working habits was not, of course, uncontested. In the first stage, we find simple resistance. But in the next stage, as the new time-discipline is imposed, so the workers begin to fight, not against time, but about it.” (1969, 85) When we come to that statement, we sigh with sadness, recognising it to be true. But that is the point, isn’t it? We take sides. We read of the clash between two times, the clock-time of capital and the lived-time (or whatever we want to call it, because, as Thompson points out, there is no agreed name for it) which is defeated as part of the struggle to impose capitalism. We take sides, we sympathise with the people who lived time in a different way. When Thompson tells us of the Rev. J. Clayton who bemoaned the fact that “’the Churches and Streets [are] crowded with Numbers of Spectators’ at weddings and funerals, ‘who, in spight of the Miseries of their Starving Condition … make no Scruple of wasting the best Hours in the Day, for the sake of gazing…’” (1969, 83), then we side with the gazers and silently (or perhaps loudly) boo the reverend gentleman.

But why, why do we take sides? Does this mean that the victory of clock time was not so complete as we sometimes think it was? Is the struggle between the time of capital and lived (or whatever) time still alive? And are we part of that struggle?

In the last part of his article, Thompson suggests that there is a decomposition of clock-time. After emphasising the role of Puritanism in imposing the internalisation of clock-time, he asks: “if Puritanism was a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialised world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan evaluation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax? Is it decomposing already? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on their wrists?” (1969, 95)

As we read the article now, nearly forty years after it was written, this is surely what we have to ask: is there a decomposition of clock-time? Is it something more than a decomposition? “Decomposition” suggests perhaps a process we do not control, but Thompson shows clearly that the imposition of clock-time was an active struggle, so that any “decomposition” too must be understood as an active struggle. Is that what engages us so actively when we read Thompson? Is there a revival of struggle not just about time but against time, a revival of the struggle between abstract clock-time and lived time? And when we read the article, are we taking part in that clash of times? Are we the decomposition of clock-time? Are we perhaps the crisis of abstract time?

2. Yes, we are the crisis of abstract time, the crisis of the separation of time from doing.

Clock time abstracts from our doing. Whereas earlier forms of time measurement tended to revolve around human doing (“task orientation” is the rather ugly phrase adopted by Thompson), the imposition of clock time separates time measurement completely from human activity. Clock time is not interested in pissing or singing misereres or boiling rice or frying locusts. A second is a second is a second; a minute is a minute is a minute. For the clock an hour is exactly the same whether we are living or dying, whether we are sitting in class or making love. The clock is absolutely indifferent to our passions, our intensities and boredoms, the rhythms of our living and doing.

Clock time could only come to dominate in a society in which doing itself abstracts from doing, in which doing itself becomes indifferent to its own content. Clock time, indeed, is part of the process by which doing becomes indifferent to itself: part of the transformation of doing into labour, that is, the metamorphosis of willed, project-laden doing into a labour that is imposed upon us, a labour that is indifferent to us. Labour is measured by time: in the morning the capitalist watches the clock to make sure that we arrive on time, in the evening we watch it and wait for the day to come to an end. The abstraction of time is inseparable from the abstraction of doing into labour.

We revolt against this: against the abstraction of doing into labour and against the abstraction of time. Inevitably and constantly. Our revolt is the endemic and permanent crisis of both forms of abstraction.

We revolt all the time against the transformation of doing into labour. Often we just refuse: we find ways of not going to labour or of disobeying instructions. Or we try to limit as much as possible the part of our lives subjected to labour, by working part-time or taking time off. Sometimes we do more than refuse; we try to find ways of doing that make sense to us, or that we feel we control. Often these efforts do not lead anywhere, but there is a constant theme in the lives of most or all of us: the antagonism between doing and labour, the search for a way of not subordinating our life’s activity to an activity that has no meaning for us.

We revolt too against clock time: quantitatively, of course, as we try to have more time “free” of direct alien control, but also qualitatively. In our relations with those we love, for example, we try to establish a different sort of time. Sometimes people speak of spending “quality time” with their children or loved ones, but what is meant is not just a better time, but a radically different time. Thompson suggests “lived time” to refer to the other time, but also helpful is the distinction that Richard Gunn (1985) makes between time-in-which and time-as-which: the time we reject is the “abstract and homogeneous progression leading from past to present to future”, the time for which we struggle is the “temporality of freely chosen actions and projects”. The aim is to live not “in time” but “as time”, when “time exists only as the rhythm and structure of what it is [we] choose to do”. This time-as-which is the time of a society that does not yet exist and therefore exists not-yet, as present struggle.

The existence of domination is inconceivable without resistance. The abstraction of labour is inconceivable without the revolt of doing. The abstraction of time constantly confronts time-as-which. In that sense the crisis of capital, of labour, of time, is permanent: we are that crisis. But is there something more than that going on? Is there an intensification of the endemic crisis at the moment, is there a heightened crisis of clock time, a decomposition of clock-time of which we are an active part?

I think so. In the last twenty or thirty years, time has become an overt issue in class struggle, not just in quantitative but in qualitative terms. There is a surge in the revolt of time-as-which against time-in-which, and a surge in the struggle of doing against labour. The rule of clock time and the abstraction of  doing into labour reached their crudest expression in the Fordist factory – caricatured in Chaplin’s aptly named Modern Times. Here the complete separation of labour from the person performing it is clear; clear too is the domination of clock-time, incarnated in the Taylorist measurement of each movement of the worker. The crisis of Fordism comes in a rise of class struggle that goes far beyond the traditional concerns of trade union struggle to question labour itself and the very meaning of time and life. The crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s is overtly a crisis not just of capital but of labour.

Since then, the nature of time has been a constant issue both in open anti-capitalist struggles and in the common experience of life. There is nothing automatic about this: the meaning of time is a two-way conflict. When Thompson speaks of the decomposition of clock-time, he emphasises the importance of learning “to break down once more the barriers between work and life” (1969, 95). But breaking down the barriers between work and life can be understood in two senses: either as the de-alienation of labour, its transformation into a doing which we control at the rhythm we choose, or as the spreading of factory discipline to the whole of society (to constitute the “social factory”). Some authors have hastened to argue that Fordism has now been replaced by a new mode of capitalist domination, post-Fordism, characterised by, among other things, a new regime of time in which all the hours of our day are now subordinated to the direct dominion of capital.

What we learn from Thompson, surely, is that such a conclusion is too hasty, too crude. He helps us to see that time is always a struggle, always a clash between times. He opens up time for us, shows that there is nothing pre-determined about it, that it is not just a field of domination but of struggle. Certainly there is at the moment a struggle by capital to extend its dominion more profoundly to every aspect of life, but there is also a struggle to break time, to subvert time, to create cracks in clock time. Sometimes the lines may not be very clear: it can be that just when we think we are breaking from capital, we are actually contributing to its reproduction in a new form. But that is true of all revolt: it forces a change in the pattern of domination, so that distinctions become blurred, and yet the antagonism and the revolt remain.

What is this time without name (time-as-which, lived time) that we oppose to clock-time? If capital rules through the abstraction of time from doing, then our struggle is to recover the centrality of doing, the centrality of ourselves as doers, as active subjects. But how does that happen, and how do we do it? Here are some thoughts.

Attacking duration: The reproduction of capitalism depends on its duration. By duration I mean the continuity between yesterday, today and tomorrow, the assumption that just because something existed yesterday, it will exist today and go on existing tomorrow. In a world of duration, the subject plays no role. She may have created the things that exist, but they have acquired an autonomy, their existence has separated itself from their constitution. The things themselves deny their own origin in human doing. So it is in capitalist society: the things we produce become commodities and the commodity, according to Marx, “is, in the first place, an object outside us”. In a world of duration commodities are, capitalism is. In this perspective the only way of thinking of revolution or radical social change is by abolishing capitalism.

Is this duration real or is it appearance? It is both, it is real appearance. Duration is based on the suppression of the creating subject. This is a real suppression: capitalism is the rule of things, the negation of human creativity (or its imprisonment within the cage of things, represented by money). And yet the things which rule actually depend on the doers who make them. In that sense the autonomy of the done from the doers is an apparent one. The apparent autonomy of things is an autonomy which we constantly reproduce and owes its existence to our repeated action. Duration exists only to the extent that we create and re-create it: it is a false appearance which is real only to the extent that we create and re-create it. Capitalism exists not because we produced it two or three hundred years ago, but because we produced it today: if we do not produce it tomorrow, it will cease to exist. The problem of revolution is not to abolish capitalism, but to stop producing it.

The struggle for human dignity (communism, in other words) is a struggle to recover our power-to, our creative capacity, a struggle therefore to break duration and all forms of dominance of the past over the present. In time-as-which, the past is not a history which determines but a memory which enriches. Our time is not a time of nouns but a time of verbs, a time in which doings do not become frozen in their results but remain open to change. Can we just shed the past like that, so easily? Of course not, but the struggle goes in that direction, as a struggle against abstract time and against history. As the total destruction of humanity becomes a more and more imminent threat, it is clear that revolution can no longer be seen as the culmination of history, but only as its breaking.

Opening the moment: To break duration is to open each moment as a moment of possibility, to seek to lift each moment from the general flow of time and push it beyond its limits. In abstract time, each moment is exactly the same as the next and the last; in doing-time, time-as-which, each moment is distinct. This does not mean that each moment is cut off from the surrounding flow of time, but that each moment is different from the preceding and the succeeding moment, and each has its own potential. Carpe diem becomes a revolutionary principle, but not in the sense of a Friday night escape valve which confirms the abstract time of the rest of the week, but as an opening which probes each moment of the week for its possibilities.

This is the time of the child, a time in which each moment is different from the last, in which each moment is filled with wonder, with amazement and possibility. And with horror: we see the killing of people (by violence, by hunger) and the deadening of people (by boredom, by repression) and we see it with amazement and say “that cannot be!” We cast off the blinkers that help us to survive in this society of horrors and open our eyes with the naïveté of a child and think “no, this cannot continue one moment more, the change must be now, not in the far-off revolutionary future”. “The child’s days”, says Vaneigem, “escape adult time – they are time swollen by subjectivity, by passion, by dreams inhibited by reality.” Even after the child has learnt school discipline, grown up and become imprisoned by adult time, “his childhood will remain within him like an open wound”. (1994, 222) The struggle for our time, the struggle against duration, is the stirring of this open wound, the awakening of a time repressed, a time in which the whole of existence is at issue in each moment. Our communism is indeed an infantile disorder.

To open up each moment is to go against institutions. Institutions seek to freeze the moment, to give duration to some agreement or some achievement, to bind today by the rules of yesterday. Even where the institutions are designed to give substance to the real achievements of past struggle, they quickly become oppressive, unless they are constantly re-created (and therefore de-institutionalised). The history of class struggle is full of such cadavers that live on, weighing like a nightmare on the struggles of the living. For how long did that dead, institutionalised result of the Russian revolution oppress and imprison the strugglers of the world?

Going for excess: opening up each moment means pushing each moment beyond its limits, trying to make each moment a “moment of excess” (as the Leeds May Day Group put it (Leeds 2004)), a moment in which we overflow the social relations and regulations of capitalism. This form of rebellion against time is reflected, for example, in a politics centred on events. The great political events of the movement against capitalist globalisation (Seattle, Genoa, Gleneagles and so on), or the great riots in France in 2005 and 2006, cannot be understood in instrumental terms (did Gleneagles make poverty history? of course not) but in terms of the breaking of time itself. They are events in which the world is turned upside down, in which everything becomes possible, in which our relations with those around us are transformed. That the events may be short does not affect the fact that a moment of time is opened up and transformed into our time, and that requires no sort of justification in instrumental terms.

Giving ourselves time for the patient creation of different social relations: Moments of excess cannot be everything. A politics of events is important in breaking the sense of duration created by capitalism, but if we are going to stop making capitalism, we must do something else instead. The creation of this other can only take place now in the interstices of capitalism (the old idea that communism could not grow interstitially no longer stands), and this requires a long and patient practice of creating other doings, other social relations. If the moments of excess are a sort of concentrated performance-time, perhaps one can think of this second temporality as gardening-time or weaving-time. It involves processes of creation that cannot be rushed. The Leeds group (now called the Free Association) follow Deleuze and Guattari in speaking of this time as a time of refrain: after the intense creativity of a jazz improvisation, for example, the refrain restates and develops the basic melody (Free Association 2006). Struggling for time-as-which cannot be a question only of intensities or of just running from one event to another but must also involve times of relaxed and thoughtful creation. The two temporalities are necessary – but first the impatience and then the patience (and not the other way around, as in traditional revolutionary theory). Revolution can only be now: the idea of a future revolution is a contradiction in terms, precisely because it remains locked in clock-time.

Creating a world of social self-determination requires in many ways a more relaxed time than capitalist time. It requires time for thinking and discussing. In the initial dialogue between the EZLN and the Mexican government, the Zapatistas at one point said that they would need to consult their communities. Given the bad conditions of communication in the Lacandona Jungle, and the need to discuss everything thoroughly, the principle of ‘mandar obedeciendo’ meant that the decision would take time. When the government representatives insisted on rapid replies, the zapatistas replied that they did not understand the indigenous clock. As recounted by Comandante David afterwards, the zapatistas explained that ‘we, as Indians, have rhythms, forms of understanding, of deciding, of reaching agreements. And when we told them that, they replied by making fun of us; well then, they said, we don’t understand why you say that because we see that you have Japanese watches, so how do you say that you are wearing indigenous watches, that’s from Japan’ (La Jornada 17/5/95). And Comandante Tacho commented: ‘They haven’t learned. They understand us backwards. We use time, not the clock’ (La Jornada, 18/5/95). This is important not because the Zapatistas are indigenous, but because rebellion itself, and especially a rebellion that has self-determination as basic principle, must necessarily confront the clock with a quite different time.

Setting the agenda: Class struggle (or, more simply, living, trying to live a human life in, against and beyond a society that negates our humanity) is a struggle to set the agenda, to set the priorities and the temporalities. Once we accept the agenda of capital, once we agree to fight on their spatial or temporal terrain, we have lost, whether or not we win on a particular demand. In Thompson’s terms, a struggle about time that is not also a struggle against time is already lost, because, although it may change the relation between labour and its twin, leisure, it does nothing at all to create freedom, to weaken the abstraction that deprives our lives of meaning and humanity. Most of capital’s struggle to dominate us is concerned with pushing us on to its terrain: the very existence of the state seeks to lure us into logic of spatial divisions between states and the temporalities of bureaucracy and elections; state violence too pushes us towards the violence of violent response. Any response that remains within the space and time of capital is lost before it begins. The very existence of humanity itself now depends on our ability to break the time and space of capitalism, to stop making capitalism and make something else, a society based on our creative power, and therefore a society with a new space and a new time.

3. All these points are not just taken from my imagination, but seem to me to be very much part of the general air of anti-capitalist struggle in recent years. If so, then there is indeed a decomposition of clock time, as Thompson suggests, and we are the active ingredient of this decomposition.

The argument here seems to me to be implicit in Thompson’s analysis. But perhaps not. In any case it is a wonderful article and should be enjoyed – and as you enjoy it, ask yourselves why you are enjoying it.

References (stated and unstated):

Benjamín, Walter (1973): “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books)

Bloch, Ernst (1993): Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)

Free Association (2006): What is a Life? (Leeds: Free Association)

Gunn, Richard (1985): “’The only real Phoenix’: Notes on Apocalyptic and Utopian Thought”, Edinburgh Review, no. 71, 1.

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Toni, Empire, (Cambridge: Harvard U.P.)

Leeds May Day Group (2004): Moments of Excess (Leeds: Leeds May Day Group)

Vaneigem, Raoul (1994): The Revolution of Everyday Life (London: The Rebel Press/ Left Bank Books)

Virno, Paolo (2004): A Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext(e))

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  • Comments Off on Ed and Edward on the ‘moral economy’

Besides the ‘quiet crisis’, the other term Ed Miliband seems to be using quite a lot at the moment is ‘moral economy’. Though it seems it was his brother David who used it first, in a speech at the LSE in March and in a speech he would have given this time last year had he won the Labour leadership:

[O]ur purpose is higher and harder. It is to use all the ingenuity of modern society to honour the dignity that should be common to all human beings. It is to build a moral economy and a good society.

It’s quite a nice term. But I first came across it in an excellent article by the English historian Edward Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century‘. (The Miliband brothers probably got it from Thompson, too, via their father Ralph: both Ralph Miliband and E.P. Thompson were influential anti-Stalinist Marxist intellectuals in the 1960s and ’70s .) Thompson counterposes moral economy to the nascent political economy and, most importantly, uncovers the contours of the (class) struggle between the two. Tactics employed by the ‘crowd’ included the food riot and the hijacking of merchants on their way to market: these merchants were forced to sell their grain (or whatever) at what the crowd considered ‘fair’ or ‘moral’ prices. Is this what David and Ed Miliband are on about?

Rather than write any more on this, I’d just like to reproduce an excellent blog post by Terence Renaud, written just after August’s riots, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the twenty-first century‘:

Yesterday British PM David Cameron characterized the riots that swept across England this past week as a “deep moral failure” and promised to restore a “stronger sense of morality and responsibility — in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He denied that the riots were the result of impoverishment in the face of the current economic recession: “This is not about poverty, this is about culture. . . . [The rioting was] not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Let’s assume for a moment that the conservative PM is correct: this week’s riots, the worst popular violence that England has seen in decades, were not about poverty, politics, or protest, but about “culture.” It is clear from his remarks that the problem lies in some deficiency or immorality of culture, especially among England’s youth. He implies that a moral English culture does not abide street violence — that, in fact, the marauding, black-hoodied youths lack culture, are uncivilized, and should be punished to the full extent of the law. Therefore the police will remain in force on English city streets until further notice.

In 1971 the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson published an article in Past & Present called “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in which he argued that the current understanding of the term “riot” as a spasmodic outbreak of irrational sentiments among the masses was a gross misunderstanding of what actually goes on during a riot. Taking the pre-industrial food riots of the 17th and 18th centuries as his example, Thompson showed that the motivations and conduct of the rioters could be reduced neither to economic despair (i.e. starvation) nor to spontaneous irrationality. Rioters actually demonstrated a high degree of organization, discipline, and restraint. They may not have planned in advance their protests against millers and farmers whom they suspected of withholding grain, but they did act according to certain rules of conduct and to a particular “moral economy” that dated back centuries. The popular consensus was that bread pricesshould be kept at a reasonable level with respect to the subsistence of the population and that if they got too high, then the people have a right to set them back to normal, by violent means if necessary. Involved in the food riots of early modern England was therefore a moral understanding about prices and consumption that had not yet been replaced by the free market ethos of Smithian political economy. Even in the 19th century, when industrialization changed forever the social composition of England, the old moral economy of the poor survived in various guises, not least of which was the organized labor movement. The point is that riots are complex events that draw on both new and traditional fears, hopes, and demands for justice that sometimes run contrary to the moral assumptions of the state and ruling classes.

There can be no equivocation about the fact that the burning, looting, and physical violence that has terrorized neighborshoods in London, Manchester, and elsewhere is unacceptable from the point of view of public safety. But Cameron’s unwillingness or inability to understand the deeper cultural significance of the riots means that we can expect to see more of this sort of street violence. Turning England into a police state, like what happened in the early 19th century amidst fears of a Jacobin revolt, cannot solve larger socioeconomic problems. Nor can the PM’s narrow concept of culture and his specious appeals to morality and responsibility.


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.