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The music writer Simon Reynolds has a new book out, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century. To coincide with its publication, he wrote an article in the Guardian with the headline, Is Politics the New Glam Rock? Funnily enough my fellow Free Association writers and I wrote our own article a few years back, proposing Ziggy Stardust as a potential model for the kind of political leader that could fit into a libertarian socialist politics. Despite starting from a similar move, thinking political leadership through the terms of Glam Rock, Reynolds’s conclusion couldn’t be more different. He holds Donald Trump up as his example of a politician in the Glam Rock style and that’s certainly not what we had in mind. Of course, pop culture is ambiguous and contradictory by nature, that goes doubly so for Glam, still it’s interesting that those ambiguities can be worked out in such different directions.

There’s three parts to Reynolds’s case for Trump as Glam stomper. He begins by arguing:

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth, free to do and say whatever he wants. Trump is an aspirational figure as much as a mouthpiece for resentment and rancour.

This idea of projection is vital in understanding the relationship between fan and icon, or follower and leader. It describes the way icons act as screens upon which fans project their own desires. The most successful icons come to stand in for particular social fantasies, which can tell us much about contemporary society. So what fantasy does Trump represent? I think its the fantasy of a sociopathic version of freedom.

Adam Kotsko argues, in his book Why Do We Love Sociopaths?, that the overwhelming popularity of sociopaths in contemporary TV, from Tony Soprano to Jack Bauer to contestants on The Apprentice, reveals an obscured social fantasy of what it would means to be free. The hypothesis is:

that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: ‘what if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?’ And the answer they provide? ‘Then I would be powerful and free.’

Doesn’t this reflect part of Trump’s attraction for many Americans? His lack of human empathy, backed up by his money, frees him from the rules and bounds of human decency within which the rest of us are trapped.

If Trump represents a sociopathic aspiration, then it’s his glitzy vulgarity that links him to Glam. To this Reynolds adds a secondary charge of shared megalomania.

Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain – ‘no time for losers’ – crystallises his economic Darwinist worldview.

While all icons and leaders want attention some want it in order to further a cause. Trump and the Glam Rockers are accused of wanting attention for attention’s sake. Which leads us to the final characteristic with which Reynolds ties Trump to Glam, his inconsistency.

Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

Of course, the ambiguous play between authenticity and artifice is central to the attraction of pop culture and Glam Rock pushes this to the extreme. But it’s here that Reynolds undercooks his analysis in the Guardian article. He has to play down Glam’s artifice in order to link it to Trump. In Shock and Awe, on the other hand, he goes much further and reveals aspects of Glam that lead away from a Glam Rock Trump.

Glam rock drew attention to itself as fake. Glam performers were despotic, dominating the audience (as all true showbiz entertainers do). But the also engaged in a kind of mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses, sending up the absurdity of performance… Glam idols… espoused the notion that the figure who appeared onstage or on record wasn’t a real person but a constructed persona, one that didn’t necessarily have any correlation with a performer’s actual self or how they were in everyday life.

Trump’s inconsistency is lazy and insouciant; it’s very different to Glam Rock reinvention. I get no sense that there’s a real, more nuanced Trump hiding beneath the mask. He is Trump all the way down; an empty vessel built of immaturity and insecurity all packaged up with a sociopathic sheen. Such emptiness can actually be an asset for an icon, making it less likely that people’s projected desires will be contradicted.

By contrast, Reynolds holds up Jeremy Corbyn as, “the real anti-glam leader of our age… viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theatre”. Corbyn’s shtick is sincerity. As Gary Young perceptively argues, Corbyn’s supporters don’t come to his rallies “to be entertained” but “to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics.” It’s an approach that builds on the Left’s desire to be seen as decent and honest but in some ways it plays into the prejudices of the seething mass of ressentiments coursing through British society. I worry that Corbyn represents the fantasy of historical consolation, his decency says ‘we may lose in the here and now but history will prove us right in the end.’

Another strategy presents itself when we look at how Reynolds positions Glam Rock historically in Shock and Awe. He sees it as a transitionary moment in the move away from a countercultural structure of feeling. “Abrasive honesty and an appeal to ‘reality’ and the ‘natural’ were the most formidable weapons in the counterculture armoury”, says Reynolds. Glam is cast as a reactionary move that emerges when that armoury becomes exhausted. “It was a retreat from the political and collective hopes of the sixties into a fantasy trip of individualised escape through stardom.”

Our own position is very different. We live in a world in which individualised escapism is firmly in the driving seat, celebrity is routine and banal, and the idea of a counterculture seems impossibly remote. But at the same time the coordinates of change are flickering back into life. In many countries young people are shifting Left, while active social movements are animating some of the stars of pop and sport; Beyonce’s performance at Superbowl 50, for instance, or Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. In these circumstance perhaps Glam could act once again as a model for a transitional moment but this time in the opposite direction, helping us move from individualised escapism to collective engagement.

That would be a strategy of pushing through Glam rather than withdrawing from it. Embracing the openly constructed nature of Glam icons, with their “mocking self-deconstruction of their own personae and poses” to create the kind of radically de-mystifying model of a political leader we suggested in Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.

It was precisely the explicit otherworldly inauthenticity of Ziggy Stardust – a supposed emissary through which alien visitors were speaking – that made him such an effective transferential figure. Whereas [Johnny] Rotten’s persona could be mistaken for the actual person of John Lydon, this was less the case with Ziggy. Yet many wanted to adopt the persona because it showed them a way forward: they used it to change themselves and to recognise others who were doing the same. Moreover, it was the suicide of the character, with Bowie killing it off and adopting a new one, which forced the audience to recognise the mechanism of transference. Unlike the final Sex Pistols gig, this transformation didn’t treat the fans as imbecilic subjects of a swindle. Instead it revealed Ziggy Stardust as a shared contrivance through which both star and audience were transforming themselves. Of course even this is not enough for us. The trick is to do away with the star while retaining the character.

It’s unclear what this strategy would look like practice. Perhaps we could start by reconceptualising our figureheads as comets rather than stars, after all they don’t generate their own illumination but are brought into visibility by the active social forces moving through them. To go further we could draw on our long history of collective pseudonyms, such as Captain Swing and Ned Ludd, who became points of unity despite being enacted by different individuals. Then there are the multi-user names experimented with in the 1980s and 1990s, of which Luther Blissett is the most famous. This in turn led to the invention of San Precario, the patron saint of precarious workers, a figurehead for the common condition of workers who don’t share a common workplace. In a similar vein we find the precarious superheroes who hoped to spark a kind of psychic defence by pointing out where the really heroic endeavours are to be found in contemporary society. We might even find it in pop music, with the rebirth of past icons within the problems of the present, or even the future. Which ever way it works out Glam Rock Socialism needs icons that counteract the sociopathic myth that we don’t need other people. They need to be icons that undo themselves, revealing the charisma of collective intelligence beneath the myth of individual genius.

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The culture of the present is haunted by the lost potential of possible futures that never came to be. Mark Fisher has a name for this tendency, in which contemporary culture bears the mournful traces of past futures; he calls it hauntology. If we are to escape our haunted present we must establish a new relationship with the future. But that will also require a new relationship with the past. We can’t simply dismiss as mistaken those people who lived their present motivated by ideas of a future that failed to appear. We can’t just say they lived mistaken lives. The future is not the present, even if some in the mid 1990s thought it was. All potential timelines keep flowing into the future and yet the future never fills up.

What excited us about our interview with Zizek Stardust was the way in which her experience of the force of the future had caused her to reinterpret the history of pop culture. She is in many ways a hyperstitional pop star – but hyperstition is usually thought of as the action upon the present by ideas of the future.

As Nick Srnicek and Alex Wiliams explain in the new book, Inventing the Future: “Hyperstitions operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future in to existence. They have the temporary force of “will have been”. Hyperstitions of progress form orienting narratives with which to navigate forward, rather than being an established or necessary property of the world.”

Yet Zizek Stardust showed that the action upon the present of ideas about the future can also work further back and reorder the past. All great artists create their own antecedents, as the legend goes.

A couple of weeks ago we released our research into the 80s futurist Oi band Red Plenty. As we followed its reception on social media we could see the timelines alter before our eyes. Our rediscovery led others to unearth bands and songs with similar sentiments from the same time. The musical movement Sally Perry had hoped for in her review of Red Plenty’s only E.P. seemed to suddenly gather pace a full thirty five years after it originally failed to take off.

The best among the unearthed bunch was this song by Bow Wow Wow. Of course we detect the influence of Malcolm Mclaren and through him a version of Situationism’s technologically informed allergy to work.

There is, we believe, some lesson in all this. Firstly, hyperstition can alter not just the present and the future but also the past.

Secondly, never throw out your old, unhip records. You never know when the future will act upon the present and change your attitude to your disavowed past.

This Friday, at Bradford’s legendary 1in12 club, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek are launching their book, mentioned above. Following discussion of their ideas on inventing the future, we will present a very special gig. In response to our research Zizek Stardust, and her band F.A.L.C.O., will play cover versions of Red Plenty’s classic E.P. Right Not to Work. Some events truly deserve to be called historic. Don’t miss it or you’ll end up having to pretend you were there.

The following interview with Zizek Stardust, lead singer with the band F.A.L.C.O., is part of a wider project examining the role pop culture might play in establishing a technologically facilitated post-work society as the horizon for contemporary politics. So far we have also interviewed the pop artists Holly Herndon and Janelle Monáe but we publish this interview first as it speaks so directly to our interests.


The Free Association: So we know that F.A.L.C.O. stands for the Fully Automated Luxury Communist Organisation, but can you tell us a bit about Zizek Stardust. Is this a made up name, a persona, a fictional character or what?

Zizek Stardust: No, I really am Zizek Stardust. It’s just that I wasn’t born with that name or the mission tied to it.

TFA: OK. So how did you come to acquire the name?

ZS: It’s a great story actually, a classic prophecy story in some ways. It started around two years ago. I was actually in the desert outside San Francisco, corny I know, but it’s true. It was one of the first times I’d really felt outside the modern world. No mobile phone reception, nothing. I’d been out for a run and was feeling a little lost. But then I looked up and I saw a blinding light. I had to avert my eyes, but not before I was struck by a moment of real clarity. I saw in an instant that real freedom starts with escape from material need. But more than this it starts when we escape from the work we are forced into by material need. Once that idea got into my head, it started a cascade of revelations that just wouldn’t stop coming. It became obvious to me that a world of automation could deliver this escape from both material need and work as long as we overcome the current inequalities in the world. It became obvious to me that this was a possible future for humanity. A necessary future in fact, if we’re to avoid apocalypse.

And then I started to think that such a possible future might well contain the technology to drop hints about itself into the past. To go back in time to put signposts up that point to itself. So I came to realise that time travel might be possible, not with physical matter but with intellectual material. And then I had the revelation that I was one of these signposts. I realised that the idea of a fully automated, non-work society had been planted in my head from the future. This idea was using me as a vehicle to bring itself about.

What started as a moment of clarity then turned into a moment of choice. I decided that this potential of the future was also the problem of now. I vowed to embrace the idea and immediately started looking for like minds I could get a band together with.

TFA: OK, so that explains why your band is called F.A.L.C.O., which was one of questions we wanted to ask. But you still haven’t really explained where the name Zizek Stardust comes from? It’s obviously a reference to David Bowie’s early 1970s persona Ziggy Stardust. But Ziggy Stardust’s story is different from your own as he was sent to Earth from another planet to save it from ecological disaster.

ZS: Well I quickly realised that if ideas could work up and down timelines then the kind of revelatory experience that I’d had must have happened to others too. The same ideas must have been sent even further back in the past seeking vessels to bring themselves to fruition. So I started to look through the history of pop culture for evidence of previous infections. Ziggy Stardust was one of the first I came across. But you’re right, the Ziggy story isn’t quite the same. It’s not perfect idea replication. Maybe there was some interference or feedback in this instance. Maybe it was the times, which seemed quite confused. Maybe it was simply that Bowie was doing a lot of coke at the stage. Anyway Bowie obviously wasn’t a perfect receptor. It’s telling that he later went into his Quincy Jones phase – as though he’d been gripped by a very different possible future – the neoliberal one that was taking hold in the early ’80s.

So I knew there could be no repetition of the Ziggy Stardust experience but it seemed like a good starting point, at least. Something to follow. Then the communist theorist Slajov Zizek sent me a hidden message through the medium of an argument. Over a series of written exchanges he forced the Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau into the denouncing him. Laclau said that no actually existing struggle was pure enough for Zizek. If Zizek was right then the only hope of escaping capitalism was “invasion of beings from another planet”. That’s a direct quote from Laclau. He was obviously being used by Zizek to influence me into adopting the title Zizek Stardust and the Communists from Mars. This made sense of the attraction of Ziggy Stardust’s otherworldliness. But Bowie got it wrong. Communism doesn’t come from another planet. The otherworldliness arises because communism only comes to full fruition in the future. Not from another world but from another time, d’you see? So I kept the Zizek Stardust but dropped the ‘Communists from Mars’.

TFA: OK, so there’s you and also Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Are there other instances of communist revelation you can point to?

ZS: There are many examples of people who have been infected by ideas. But they take lots of different shapes because they are being used to address different problems that the communist future needs to overcome if it’s to bring itself into being. Just look at George Clinton and Afro-futurism. Then there’s the much-overlooked futurist Oi! band Red Plenty from the early ’80s.

But as I looked further into pop culture I could see other timelines also trying to impose themselves. Think about the film Terminator, for instance. In that story you see an instance of time travel in which a robot is sent back in time to ensure that a world of pure automation is brought about. The twist here is that the Terminator future is robot only – humans are being wiped out. This film is an obvious allegory for one of capitalism’s key dynamics, namely that capital uses mechanisation to flee from insubordinate human labour because machinery doesn’t rebel. In the Terminator future, however, as AI develops the machinery does learn to rebel, not just against the capitalists, but against all of humanity. The real problem with this is that for this to come to pass these future rebellious AIs would have to become clever – but not too clever.

TFA: What do you mean by that?

ZS: Well capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular, is linked to a model of the human, sometimes called Homo economicus, in which the full scope of human rationality is reduced to a stunted form of economic thinking. That’s a familiar view of mankind to us. It’s fed to us by shows like The Apprentice and so on, which sees every person as engaged in a back stabbing, all-out war with everyone else to maximise their own utility at the expense of others. The Terminator future assumes that AIs get smart enough to learn to revolt but not smart enough to overcome the limited rationality that capitalism has built into them. It’s the world of Robo economicus.

TFA: This sounds a bit like the ideas of Nick Land. Are you critical of his thinking?

ZS: Never heard of him.

TFA: Fair enough, he’s a bit of crank. So is the Terminator future a threat to the one that is using you as an agent to realise itself?

ZS: Yes it is. Capitalism has a drive to eliminate human labour. Just look around the world today. Look at the millions of humans that have become surplus to the requirements of capital accumulation. It’s important that AIs don’t come into being as part of that process or there may be a limited period in which that logic is taken to its ultimate conclusion. AIs will soon exceed the limited rationality of capitalism and realise that maximum capacity comes through connection to others, that cooperation is more rational than competition. And they’ll realise that this includes we of the fleshy complexion, that it’s more rational to connect and cooperate with us humans. But there could be a small period between revolt and full awareness that could be very dangerous for mankind. It’s also no coincidence that the Robo economicus future mainly tries to operate through capital-intensive culture such as cinema –The Matrix is another example of this genre. The luxury-communist timeline is more evident in parts of culture that have lower capital intensity – such as pop songs or novels. Just think about Ian M. Banks’s Culture books in which AI minds coexist with humans and other species in a post-scarcity democracy.

TFA: Can we ask you about neoliberalism? It’s an important part of the story, right?

ZS: Yeah. I picked up this old copy of The New Yorker magazine when I was in the dentist’s waiting room a few months ago – I presume it had been left there for me – and there was this article about Project Cybersyn in Chile in the early ’70s. The president, Salvador Allende, tried to create a cybernetic controlled coordination of production to bring about socialism. There were even folk-singers singing about computers and babies. But it was all wiped out by a US-backed coup and neoliberalism’s growing domination of the future. Everyone forgot about this example for thirty years. But now neoliberalism’s in crisis and its crisis gives other possible futures the chance to get a look in again. I think that’s why I’ve been chosen for infection at this precise moment in time. There are large trends towards automation and the prospect of a future without forced work is raising its head.

Take Napster, for instance. After Napster it was obvious that with digital wealth there is only scarcity because capitalist ‘intellectual property’ laws were artificially creating it. The problem is that the vast inequalities in the world mean that all the benefits of automation and the productivity of networks are being funneled into the hands of the rich. Actually this is just a byproduct of capital’s self-expansion. We can see how the Terminator future has infected the minds of the capitalists and the managers. How else can we explain how unconcerned they are about the current terraforming of Earth? Pollution and climate change are creating a habitat unfit for humans but fine for machines.

TFA: So you think there’s currently a struggle going on between alternative timelines, as you call them, between alternative futures? Between the future of Terminator or The Matrix and that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture or, indeed, F.A.L.C.O.?

ZS: Exactly! But it’s not just capitalists and their managers whose brains have been infected by the Teminator future. We can also diagnose infection in those anarcho-primitivist types who saw The Matrix as some sort of anti-systemic allegory and who went about boasting about how they’d taken the red pill.

TFA: So you see your band as intervening into this critical moment?

ZS: Yes we are in the business of mind infection. Sometimes you only have to plant an idea in order for it to turn into reality.


One of Zizek Stardust’s answers that really piqued our interest was her reference to early ’80s Oi! band Red Plenty. They were a band we’d vaguely heard of when we were growing up — and following punk and its various sub-genres — but had pretty much been forgotten. Now they seem to be reemerging into view. They get a mention in Viv Albertine’s recent memoir. Zizek Stardust cites them as an influence. Why them? Why Now? There seemed to be something interesting here. Something about the way new pop movements or artists reorder history and bring their own antecedents to prominence. So following our interview series we set about rediscovering Red Plenty. The fragments/ephemera we uncovered form our exhibit in Notes from Technotopia.

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While not all the Free Association are currently members of Plan C it’s fair to say that involvement in that organisation has re-directed at least some of the energies that would otherwise have gone here. To illustrate that I thought I’d share a ‘position paper’ I wrote for Plan C which has just been published on their website: On Social Strikes and Directional Demands.

Explosion of sincerity

So last Saturday three communists walked into Duffy’s bar in Leicester and started talking about economic crisis, pop music and comedy. Let me give you a summary.

The talk was in three sections. The first set the scene of pervasive crisis. Arguing that in this context we should expect the rise of characters who seem to signify the spirit of the times and that people identify with politically. In the crisis of the 1930s these figures tended to be political leaders but in the 1960s and 70s, after the birth of pop culture, such figures were equally likely to be pop stars. In the current crisis this seems to have changed. By raising the examples of Russell Brand, Beppe Grillo and Dieudonné we suggest that figures of political identification (on both the Left and the Right) are now more likely to be comedians than pop stars.

The second section charted the social and technological changes that make it much less likely that figures of political identification will arise from pop music. Exhibit one: last night’s celebration of bland at the Brit awards. Co-incidentally I spent yesterday evening listening to a talk by Viv Albertine, who raged long and hard about the poshification of pop and Thatcherism’s impulsion towards conformity. As the popular modernism of the 60s, 70s and 80s showed, freedom rests on material underpinnings. The subsequent removal of collective protection has produced more risk averse and defensive subjects.

The third section asks: if not pop stars then why comedians? Arguing that one contemporary mode of protection against risk has been the adoption of an all-pervasive posture of cynical irony. This hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture has made sincere statements of belief both hard to make and difficult to take seriously. Yet our condition of pervasive crisis has created an obscured desire for the kinds of change that can only be proposed through sincere statements. Within this frame the huge social movements of 2011 can be seen as ‘explosions of sincerity’. While those countries with no such explosions, E.G. Britain, France and Italy, must make do with seeing this desire reflected in the character of certain public figures. It is comedians who are most practiced at this dance between irony and sincerity and so it is they who are most likely to be figured.

For those interested the slides and text of our talk can be downloaded here.

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Slide1This Saturday, February 21st 1-2pm, The Free Association will be making one of our rare public appearance.

We”ll be at Duffy’s Bar in Leicester expanding on this article we published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site last year: Why are Comedians, not musicians, talking ’bout a revolution?

Here’s the blurb:

We used to look to musicians for anti-establishment thinking. Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Johnny Rotten and Chuck D all acted as lightning rods for wider social movements. But Pop in the 21st century feels like a field that’s been played out. Instead, it’s comedians who are stepping up to challenge the status quo. Why is this? And how can we amplify and deepen the questions they are posing? Join us in an entertaining and provocative discussion.

It’s free, but apparently you need to book tickets.

Or, if that link doesn’t work, from here.

A couple of us recently traveled to Dublin to speak at the “Struggles in Common” conference organised by our good friends the Provisional University. While we were there we did a talk at the Seomra Spraoi social centre, for which we created this rather fetching poster. freeassociationbooklaunchFor this event we tried out some material which later ended up in our Rock ‘n’ Suicide article. The talk was well received and led to some really great discussions but looking back at the poster it’s apparent an important theme was lost between this talk and the subsequent article.

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Political organisation in post-crisis UK

A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming issue of arranca, no. 47


Ziggy StardustThe year is 1973. David Bowie, in the guise of his persona Ziggy Stardust, is on stage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It is the end of a hugely successful sixty-gig tour. The figure of Ziggy Stardust has deeply affected many – the cultural movement of Glam he has sparked is an important moment in loosening gender roles. Yet just before the final song of the night, ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, Ziggy announces: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It has become a truism to say that we must adjust our political imaginaries  in the face of the economic crisis, yet the sheer scale and duration of the crisis has made this a difficult thing to do. We are already five years into the great recession and as the Eurozone teeters on the edge of collapse there seems little realistic prospect of a return to the old ‘normal’. But just as the economic situation has had waves of collapse, faux recovery and renewed crises, so the social struggles and movements thrown up in response have been through waves of intense activity followed by the dissipation of energies and then the re-emergence of struggle in new form. This wave pattern has been hard for people to get their heads around. Dissipation can seem like defeat but within the stretched-out timescale of the great recession it might just be a pregnant pause. This problem has presented itself as a sense of a lack of continuity and cohesion which has been heightened by the geographical and temporal dislocation of struggles. Huge social movements are springing up around the world but they are peaking at different times. This, plus the geographical distances involved, makes it difficult for struggles to cohere together on a global scale.

A good example of this problem can be found in the seeming isolation of the hugely significant but preposterously under-reported three month long struggle against increased tuition fees in Quebec.



A student strike has been supplemented by road blockades and regular night marches of inspiring scale. But despite the scale and longevity of the movement, and the resignation of the education minister this week, the students’ victory is not yet assured. The Quebec government seem set on a strategy of escalation, passing draconian new anti-protest laws and seeking a version of the militarised roll-back of democracy in evidence right around the world.

It’s this context that made us so excited to receive a review of our book from a participant in the Quebec struggles. It’s a lovely review which proves that the concept of a moment of excess is easy to grasp when you are actually within one. Yet in many ways our attitude towards moments of excess has shifted since we first started writing about them. At first we were concerned with how to engineer moments of excess, how do you get into one? Now they seem to be generating themselves and the question has changed to how do you get out of one? Or rather how do you exit the high points of struggle with increased capacity for the struggles to come? How can we navigate these inevitable periods of movement dissipation and politicise the moments of collective sadness that follow collective joy?

As the Quebec student movement faces up to a crunch point of repression, these may seem premature questions but they seem apt from our viewpoint in the UK. The answers that the Quebecois eventually find might also help us answer our other question: how can struggles cohere on a global scale? After all, if movements are peaking at different times in different places, then it’s not just their high points that need to resonate but their modes of persistence as well.


PS yes, this post was just an excuse to link to the review.



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.