Allow us to present you with a review of our book Moments of Excess. The review is taken form the excellent Surrealist publication Phosphor and though it may seem a little vain to post it here we do so because it makes some great points in its own right…
Magic Moments – Gareth Brown reviews Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life by The Free Association (PM Press, 2011)
The Free Association is a writing/affinity group loosely based in Leeds, who all have a background in the anarchist movement of the 1990s. Four out of five of them were members of the Class War organisation and were instrumental in its dissolution in 1998, arguing that the organisation’s incapacity to properly engage with emergent social struggles (the anti-roads protests, for example) suggested that it had reached the limits of its usefulness. For a while, their activity was focused on group study (reading and discussing texts largely drawn from Marxism and in particular those associated with the open Marxist / post-operaist tendencies). In 2001, they commenced a series of written interventions centred on the ‘movement of movements’ (i.e. the difficult-to-pin-down set of interrelated struggles as diverse as the post-j18/Seattle movement in the global north and the Brazilian landless workers movement amongst other things)
Moments of Excess is an anthology of the interventions beginning with 2001’s ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ and ending ten years later with ‘Re:generation’. As such, the pieces of writing contained within were never intended to be timeless. Many of them relate not only to particular points in the trajectory of the anti-capitalist movement but were also written around particular events or mobilisations such as the G8 summit at Gleneagles (‘Moments of Excess’, ‘Summits and Plateaus’, ‘Event Horizon’) or the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth (‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’). Ideas change and develop as the anthology goes on. We can watch the movement of movements morph as we go, beginning with the cycle of summit-hoppings and ending in its disintegration as the financial (and political) crisis of the last five years cleaves great, bloody canals into the global social terrain. That isn’t to say there’s not consistency here. On the contrary, the essays fit together very well, and that they are the product of a collective that is developing cohesively is apparent throughout. There are key themes and questions that never seem to drift out of the eyeshot of the authors, such as the problematic of the event and the everyday (something they tackle head-on in all of the longer pieces in the book) and the necessity of working with a verb-based concept of ‘movement’ rather than a noun-based one (doing as opposed to being).
It is these central concerns, and their approach to them, that have kept me enthralled by the Free Association’s work since my first encounter with it (the freely-distributed booklet of the essay from which this collection takes its name in the run up to the G8 in Gleneagles in 2004). It’s certainly possible to perceive strong parallels between the Free Association’s exploration of the event and the everyday and the surrealist project to reconcile the common with the absolutely subjective and also, perhaps even more directly, in the idea of the marvelous, a concept into which the dance of the event and the everyday is deeply encoded. Interestingly, and as an aside given that it doesn’t relate to this anthology, the group’s recent work has been centered on notions of ‘fairy dust’ and ‘becoming supernatural’, which, in the strictly materialist context of their analysis, are conceptually very close to the ideas of ‘objective chance’ and ‘the surreal’.
The importance of doing as opposed to being is most directly addressed in the second essay in the collection, ‘What is the movement’. At the time of original publication in 2002, this was a vital debate in the anti-capitalist movement (vital both in the sense of essential and animated) and found articulation in a number of the more transformative pieces of writing emerging from it (such as John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power and Andrew X’s seminal ‘Give up Activism’, published in Reflections on J18 and then in a watered down form in Do or Die). It’s possibly fair to say that this dialectic has now reached the limits of its usefulness and begun to crystalise into a moral imperative that puts us at risk of missing the potentials offered by thinking instead in terms of ‘durations of being’ (given that ‘doing’ is not actually separate from ‘being’ but constitutes, rather, a string of momentary beings that fits a particular narrative). This is a musing rather than a criticism, however. One thing that is clear, reading this anthology, is the willingness of its authors to let ideas go or transform them into something else as the nature of capital, of class composition, and of their own milieu changes around them. Indeed, the final essay, ‘Re:generation’, can be read as a deepening of the problematics around the relationship between being and doing, in that it takes the form of an exploration of how political generations (and identities) form around shared struggles. What is important here for the Free Association is not that such ossifications shouldn’t occur but that they must be capable of disintegration. By the end of the anthology, the life cycle of a political generation is complete, from the beginning of summit-hopping to the collapse of neo-liberalism and the emerging struggles battling over the ground that capital is no longer able to hold, from the disbanding of Class War to the disbanding of the Camp for Climate Action. The reader is left having been posed new questions about how we move between movements, whilst avoiding becoming, to paraphrase Marx ‘a dead generation weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. A minor story arc brought to a satisfying conclusion and a major one left wide open but loaded with new potentials.
The authors also have a real knack for making complex ideas very accessible. Anyone wishing to understand Autonomist Marxism’s break with Leninism could do worse than treat ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ as an introduction. Similarly, ‘Speculating on the Crisis’ contains a very readable nutshell summary of the neo-liberal deal (what it was a response to and why it’s fallen apart).
Hopefully, this anthology (despite being a decade in the making) is only a prelude to more substantial collective works.
It’s a year or so since we started work on our re:generation article. It took us a while to finish; we didn’t sign off on it until early January. Now the magazine Arranca is translating it into German and as part of the process they’ve asked us to write a post-script. As such we’ve briefly looked back over recent events to see how the text stands up to them.
Some have suggested that 2011 will go down as a new ‘68. That seems doubtful, but then again history is in motion and the significance of events is only determined by what follows them. What we can say is that something epochal is in the air. For us this really became apparent during the period of our article’s incubation. The first draft was written from within the stagnant state of limbo that had reigned since the start of the crisis. Our intuition was that attitudes and desires were changing, while our analysis made us expect the return of antagonism, but how can you be sure of such things until events emerge to mark them. In the UK it was the storming of Milbank that marked the point of rupture. As we finished our article we were still trying to think through the explosive student movement that followed. Since that point we’ve had the Arab spring, the student uprising in Chile, the movement of the Indignants in Spain and Greece, and then the world- wide re-booting of those square occupations by the Occupy Wall Street actions. This list, of course, is far from exhaustive.
And yet, in our opinion, these subsequent events have not made the article redundant. If anything, the problems raised there have become even more urgent. A new political generation is certainly emerging and in many places it is clothing itself in the political forms of its antecdents. This inheritance is most visible in the widespread adoption of consensus decision-making process, particularly amongst the Indignants and Occupy movements. We could explain this phenomenon by highlighting the initiating role played in these new movements by veterans of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles. But the sheer breadth of the spread of consensus process, and the prominence it has been given, indicates that something more is at play. Consensus has moved beyond mere functionality to become a form of expression for the movement. Its adoption has become one of the ways through which the movement understands and delimits itself.
It seems clear that the participatory nature of consensus is incredibly attractive to subjects raised during the neoliberal era. Politics has, for a long time, been reduced to the tedious manoeuvring of a technocratic elite. As that period begins to crack then consensus process has become a means for people to rediscover the affect of democracy. On its own, however, consensus process is not the solution to the Spanish Indignados’ demand for ‘Real Democracy Now!’ We understand the strong temptation to short circuit the process of transformation and erect consensus as a new universal model of democracy. The experiences of past movements, however, reveal it as a tool that carries its own limitations and drawbacks.
Consensus is most useful for gathering and coordinating forces around an already pre-established objective. It has also proven to be a powerful mechanism for allowing new political subjectivities to show themselves and recognise each other. This ‘assembly moment’ appears to be a necessary staging post in the escape from a-political world. The very aim of seeking consensus, however, carries problems of its own. Since it is easier to find consensus closer to the status quo of a movement, the process is less useful for the task of strategising, of changing objectives and of challenging existing sense. These tasks also need moments of dissensus and rupture and it is these tasks that the movements must tackle next. If we want to avoid a farcical repetition of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles then the new movements must overcome the limitations of their inheritance, they must, in short, “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew.”
You can, if you so desire, listen to a recording of the talk we did in London last week. If you can’t be bothered to listen then we can provide a summary: Keir plays fast and loose with thirty years of history, while rolling out some of our favourite riffs.
The event itself was great. It managed to pull of the difficult trick of not looking like a squat. There was an exhibition of old copies of the Class War newspaper, along with other ‘autonomist’ publications from the 1980s, notably the seminal one off paper ‘Attack’. The same page also contains an interesting recording of Ian Bone talking about the exhibition.
I think we attracted a reasonable crowd for 1pm on a Thursday afternoon, however the event that evening, a talk by Marina Vishmidt and Mark (Kpunk) Fisher, was rammed. In fact it was a little over crowded and too damn hot. It seemed significant, however, that so many people turned up. Perhaps it was due to the event featuring in the Guardian’s top ten art events for the week. But it’s worth considering whether the event itself, and the response it got, tells us something about the explanatory purchase that ‘autonomist’ ideas have on the present situation.
It seems unlikely, for instance, that the Guardian would have been interested in publishing our recent piece on Zombie-liberalism if we had sent it to them a few years ago. Isn’t that because the narratives that made sense then have lost traction on the world? As a contributer said in the Guardian today, recent events have lent:
“credence to a somewhat counterintuitive observation. Contrary to the common assumption that the global economic crisis has politically benefitted the centre-right – as visualised in this interactive map – we now witness a crisis of conservative ideology emerging on the horizon… there is no coherent conservative narrative explaining the crisis and the responses to it.”
But as we have mentioned before a collapse of ideological faith in neoliberalism or even our narrative being proved right by history, just isn’t, on its own, enough to save us. As is argued in our talk mentioned above the task is to find the political forms that can take advantage of this ideological void by expressing the widespread discontent while at the same time overcoming the blockages to the circulation of struggle that come with our neoliberal inheritance.
As the initial shock of the riots subsides then a little room for thought emerges. To help this process here is a collection of some of the more interesting initial reactions we have come across. It was mostly put together by our friend and comrade Andre and nicked from his Facebook page to increase the potential audience. If you have any suggested additions then we will attempt to include them, at least until the whole thing becomes too unwieldy. The list is rather unorganised, although there are some videos and a radio show placed at the end. The only other thing we have done is to place a couple of interesting pieces from right wing commentators at the front. We have done so because they are reactions that we wouldn’t expect to see from such quarters. When added to this earlier piece on recent scandals and crises from right wing commentator Charles Moore then we can get the impression that something is going on here, a disorientation within right wing thought perhaps? This is a possibility that is worth revisiting at some point.
The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution.
Me and Dave have re-hashed a version of the previous blogpost for the Guardian. It seems to have stirred up a whole nest of the undead on Comment is Free but Financial Crash Two (this time it’s personal) might have something to do with it. It must be really pushing the sense-making limits of that particular undead ideology. I do believe in fairies, I do, I do.
As the phone hacking scandal unfolds and taints a whole political elite it becomes important to think through its exact political significance. On the most optimistic pole of interpretation some have claimed it as a British Spring, the UK equivalent of the revolutions in the Maghreb or the movements of the indignants in Spain and Greece. One important difference, however, makes this interpretation a mistake. Unlike these other moments the ‘public’ has not been an active agent in the Hackgate scandal, its role has been largely reduced to that of passive spectator. It would be an equal mistake, however, to claim this scandal changes nothing. The temptation to take such a world-weary ‘skeptical’ position might seem ‘radical’ but it is in fact a deeply conservative impulse that threatens to reinforce the neoliberal ‘end of history’ doctrine that change is impossible. At the very least Hackgate signifies that we are in a political situation that has changed quite fundamentally from the one that reigned before the 2008 financial crisis.
To explore this more fully we should position Hackgate as the latest in a series of scandals that have engulfed Britain’s ruling institutions over the last four or five years. In this sense, despite the unprecedented nature of recent events, there is still a certain sense of familiarity to proceedings. We have seen similar scenes around MPs expenses and, of course, with the public outrage directed towards bankers following the financial crisis. In addition we have witnessed not one but two media feeding frenzies around the repression of protestors. The first followed the police attack on the G20 protests and the murder of Ian Tomlinson, with the second erupting around the outing of Mark Kennedy, leading to the unprecedented unmasking of another five undercover police officers acting within the protest movement. The refusal of the Metropolitan Police to investigate the full extent of phone hacking is, then, the third scandal revealing the political character of contemporary policing.
The phone hacking scandal, and particularly the web of complicity revealed in its cover up, is undoubtedly more significant than some of these other scandals but positioning it amongst this series allows us to raises a question that has rarely been posed: Why now? Why are these serial scandals erupting now?
In answer to this question some have pointed to certain technological changes such as the popularity of camera phones or the advent of social media. In fact Paul Mason argues this position in a blogpost titled, Murdoch: The network defeats the hierarchy. There are some attractions to this argument but it seems totally inadequate to me. There is something much more epochal going on. It seems patently obvious that these scandals are part of a more general social and economic crisis sparked by the credit crunch of 2007-8. But while that much seems obvious the exact nature of the relation and so the political significance of the scandals is less clear.
To think through this question of “why now?” I want to raise the example of the Italian Mani Pulite or Clean Hands affair of the early 1990s. This political corruption scandal brought down the existing political system in Italy and destroyed every mainstream political party. The odd thing about the affair is that there had long been incredible levels of political corruption in Italy. Graft was endemic, mainstream parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party had well-established links to the Mafia and the secret service had worked closely with neo-fascist terrorists to bomb their own citizens. This had all been an open secret since at least the Second World War. So why did the arrangement fall apart at that point in history? There are of course specificities to the events but broadly speaking we can attribute it to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of the Italian Communist Party. The whole of post-war Italian politics is only understandable as a settlement arranged to prevent the Communist Party taking power. As soon as its raison d’être was removed the whole arrangement began to lose coherence. Practices that seemed tolerable as part of a wider settlement suddenly appeared as intolerable corruption.
In similar fashion Hackgate reveals the precise mechanisms of a network of corruption whose broad outlines were already understood. What we see, however, is not a distortion of an otherwise functional system but one instantiation of a system that can only operate through such corrupt mechanisms. What we are seeing, through its moment of decomposition, are the parochial arrangements through which neoliberalism was established in the UK.
Neoliberal governance has traits that are common right across the world yet its instantiation in each individual country has been shaped by the specificities of that country’s history. In each country a different (re)arrangement emerged between sections of the ruling class that would enable the imposition of neoliberal policies on populations that, on the whole, didn’t want them. Rupert Murdoch, and the tabloid culture he helped to establish, was central to this process in the UK, not least with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping. Other elements of that compact include a Thatcherite Conservative Party and a neoliberalised Labour Party, a highly politicised police force and, especially after the 1986 Big Bang deregulation of the stock market, the dominance of finance capital. It is no coincidence that each of these elements has been racked with scandal since the economic crash of 2008.
Neoliberalism, however, is more than the parochial arrangements of a specific national ruling class. Each semi-stable form of capitalism also needs some sort of settlement with the wider population, or at least a decisive section of it. As we have previously argued, in distinction to the post-war settlement that contained an explicit deal linking rising real wages to rising productivity, neoliberalism contained an implicit deal based on access to cheap credit. Despite the stagnation or decline of real wages since the late 1970s, the mechanisms of debt allowed living standards to be maintained. An accompaniment to this deal was the necessary abandonment of any pretence to collective control over the conditions of your life. It meant the end of democracy in any meaningful form and the reduction of politics to technocratic rule. The financial crisis broke the central component of this deal, access to cheap credit. Living standards can no longer be maintained and without it the parochial ruling arrangements in the UK have started to lose coherence.
Rather than a symptom of renewal, however, we should read these scandals as a symptom of neoliberalism’s undead zombie-like status. As we put it in Turbulence:
Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. If no new middle ground is able to cohere sufficiently to replace it, this situation could last a while… all the major crises – economic, climate, food, energy – will remain unresolved; stagnation and long-term drift will set in (recall that the crisis of Fordism took longer than an entire decade, the 1970s, to be resolved). Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. A zombie can only act habitually, continuing to operate even as it decomposes. Isn’t this where we find ourselves today, in the world of zombie-liberalism? The body of neoliberalism staggers on, but without direction or teleology.
The scandals represent the zombie’s body decomposing even as it continues its habitual operation. The example of the Clean Hands scandal, however, shows that exposure of corruption is not enough to produce something better. A crisis can remain unresolved and that situation can settle down into a new semi-stable state. In Italy the collapse of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists lead to the emergence of the racist Northern League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Italian politics since the scandal has been subordinated to Berlusconi’s attempts to escape the corruption charges arising from that time. A huge new compact of corruption has been established to achieve that goal.
The only way to avoid a similar outcome to our present situation is to spark mass political action such as that glimpsed in Greece, Spain, and the Maghreb, as well as the student movement in the UK. Any prospect of this reaching the level of social force needed to finish off neoliberalism is predicated on the hope that the embrace of tabloid and celebrity culture is a symptom of the powerless position neoliberalism places us in and not its cause. The collapse of neoliberal ideology and the revelation of the corrupt nature of contemporary policing and politics must be taken into account in any new invocation of the fairy dust that can spark social movements. But left on its own it is just as likely to collapse back into the sense of passive impotence that pervades our contemporary situation.
In a recent blog post asking why some forms of action resonate and others don’t, Brian dismissed the idea that there is ‘some magic pixie-dust that will guarantee success’. He’s right of course but perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss pixie-dust too quickly. In fact during our collective discussions the Free Association has frequently toyed with the prospect of a materialist analysis of pixie-dust (née fairy-dust). It’s one of our favourite riffs.
The roots of the riff lie in the annals of pop history, more specifically, in a famous bootleg tape of the Troggs (a popular beat combo, m’lud) having a hilariously sweary argument at a recording session. The sound engineer, who failed to press stop on the tape player, captured a band trying desperately to grasp what turns any particular song into a hit record. The conclusion reached is legend: “You got to put a little bit of fucking fairy-dust over the bastard.”
I always thought fairy-dust was just a nice metaphor; I liked it because it contained pop music and swearing, but reading a new book called “Capitalist Sorcery” makes me think there may be a more substantial concept in it. In fact the book, of which I’ve only scratched the surface, argues for the utility of certain ‘supernatural’ concepts in moments that make us question what we had previously taken as ‘natural’. Of course we are talking about a materialist reading of the ‘supernatural’: “There is a tendency to put everything into the same bag and to tie it up and label it ‘supernatural’. What then gets understood as ‘supernatural’ is whatever escapes the explanations we judge ‘natural’, those making an appeal to processes and mechanisms that are supposed to arise from ‘nature’ or ‘society’” (Pignarre, Stengers 2011: 39).
This seems like a useful way into the political problems of the current situation because the economic crisis, which began in 2007, has severely dented belief in the ‘naturalness’ of the neoliberal world-view. Indeed the series of revolts that have followed, from Athens to London, from Tunis to Cairo, have allowed us to glimpse a different, re-potentialised world. Is this a glimpse of the ‘‘supernatural’? Of course neoliberalism isn’t dead, its current zombie state seems stubbornly persistent. Meanwhile our political and media elites continue to broadcast from within the old worldview, as though such events never happened. The introduction to Capitalist Sorcery describes this last point nicely: “Politicians within the parliamentary-democratic system (or its near equivalents) are entirely caught up in the logic of killing politics [a logic we can] associate with capitalism. It is a logic that aims to ‘naturalise’ – and hence automate and de-politicise – political decisions.”
Isn’t this the logic that is justifying austerity? The political possibilities opened up by the crisis have been disappeared behind a veil of apparent necessity. The mantra of neoliberalism remains the same: There Is No Alternative. We have to smash this mask of naturalness, to show that these decisions are political and that there are many other possible forms of social organization. This is, however, far from a simple task. Politicians (and indeed the rest of us) are not the freely choosing agents presupposed by liberal ideology. They are caught up in this logic of killing politics and even if they wanted to escape it they simply wouldn’t know how. Marx and Engels captured this point when they channeled Faust in the Communist Manifesto: “Modern bourgeois society is… like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Capitalism isn’t just greed; nor is it reducible to the nefarious plans of individual capitalists or politicians. It is a set of logics that we are all caught up in, a series of abstract dynamics that have been summoned forth but which, during their operation, come to appear as natural and eternal. Isn’t this what we might understand as Capitalist Sorcery?
We are all caught up in forces that we can’t quite get at. As we go about our everyday lives, as we go to work or to the shops, we presuppose, for instance, that money will be the basis of our interactions. Because we presuppose these things they seem beyond our control. Of course we also know that our interactions contain something in excess of capital, something human, but we are continually encouraged to discount this excess. Such dynamics are facets of capitalism but they are made worse by neoliberalism. As politicians impose competitive markets in ever more areas of life, as we are put into situations that force us to see others as competitors, as we repeat behaviours over and over, then it becomes harder to make out where capital ends and we begin. As the Gang of Four put it: ‘Each day seems like a natural fact.’ The paradox is that the effects of capital become hidden and ungraspable and yet they act concretely to limit our lives.
Anti-capitalist politics is about breaking with these limitations, it is about re-potentialising the world. However to most people, most of the time, anti-capitalist politics don’t quite make sense. The individual components might be sensible enough but as a whole it just doesn’t seem viable. It is, after all, an ‘unnatural’ position to take, so much in our everyday lives argues against it. Events and crises, however, put the continuation of our previous everyday lives into doubt. When the ‘naturalness’ of the current state of things begins to lose its grip then the space opens up for ‘supernatural’ solutions.
Despite the disappearance of the crisis behind the veil of necessity we still feel something changed in 2008. It is hard to make out what that something consists of; it has after all remained largely mute. With some analysis though we can begin to guess at its contours. The ‘natural’ state of things once seemed to promise an improved life, if not for us then at least for our children. Now that promise appears unviable and the ‘natural’ state of things seems more like a trap. If the path to what we currently understand as ‘the good life’ becomes blocked then we can come to doubt if it was such a ‘good life’ after all. This is why it has been so hard to make out the something that has changed; it is a change in the underlying structure of contemporary desire. What we once desired, and the mechanisms that produced those desires, have lost their coherence.
This means that new desires are being produced and with them new political possibilities. We can be sure of this because of the change in recent struggles. We have seen the unexpected resonance of previously minority ideas. We have seen the emergence of the kind of movements not seen for a generation. We have seen cascades of events that have broken forty-year stalemates. Yet we still don’t know how far the new possibilities go because they have not been given full expression. Only collective political action can do this and our task, if we have one, is to see if we can trigger it. The problem, of course, is that we also caught, to a greater or lesser extent, within the current sense of things. As such we, as anti-capitalist militants, are also sorcerers. We are trying to conjure up something beyond ourselves, something we can’t wholly know, something beyond the existing ‘natural’ limits of society; something ‘supernatural’. It is in conditions like these that concepts like fairy dust begin to make sense. Fairy dust invokes the need for a gamble, a roll of the dice, an experiment. For this we need to leave our safety zones. “’We don’t know’ thus makes us leave the safety of the regime of judgment for one of risk, the risk of failure that accompanies all creation,” (Pignarre, Stengers 2011: 39). This does involve the element of chance, however it is not a question of just trusting to luck. We might better think of the process of putting ‘a little bit of fucking fairy dust over the bastard’ as a kind of incantation that draws on past experience in order to exceed it. Even the Troggs knew that the path to fairy dust lies between knowledge and cliché. “I know that it needs strings, that I do know”.
Given this we can see the Milbank occupation as an invocation. That jubilant show of defiance as boots went through windows crystallised a new mood of militancy. By doing so it conjured up a movement no one was expecting. Yet that movement has stuttered as it has failed to generalise. Another example of actions sprinkled with fairy dust can be found with UK Uncut. Who could have predicted that occupations of Vodafone shops would resonate so widely and spread so virally? Was it the result of fortuitous circumstances? Or did the specifics of its incantations facilitate its spread?
UK Uncut certainly shows us some of the elements needed for a contemporary invocation of politics. Firstly it manages to capture a spreading desire to take part in direct action. There is a deeply felt need for a new collective, participatory politics to counter the parliamentary-democratic system’s killing of politics. Yet UK Uncut’s actions also spread because they are easily replicable. They have a low entry level. Taking part isn’t too difficult. It doesn’t require too much preparation or specialist knowledge. The risks involved are not too high. Secondly, although the actions contain a ‘supernatural’ element they also make immediate sense. The argument is instantly grasped: austerity is a political decision and not the result of a ‘law of nature’. It is a political decision not to tax corporations and the rich as rigorously as the rest of us. It is a political decision to impose the costs of the crisis onto the poorest of society and those who did least to cause it. The UK Uncut actions, and the police response they provoke, reveal some of the dynamics of capital that neoliberalism seeks to deny. They reveal, for example, that capital contains different and antagonistic interests and that politicians, the police and contemporary structures of power align themselves with certain interests and against others. It is a political decision to do so.
Yet there is a danger here. The actions must be instantly understandable but that means they can only push so far into the boundaries of what it is currently possible to say. They must by necessity still contain many of our societies hidden presuppositions to thought. If the actions don’t contain a dynamic that pushes further and generalizes wider then the movement risks collapsing fully into the sense of the old world. We are all too familiar with this. “Of course we’d love to tax the bankers”, says the government, “but if we did they’d simply move to Geneva.” The parliamentary-democratic system seeks to kill every revelation of a political decision with a new ‘naturalisation’.
Now we can make out the third necessary element of our incantations. Our forms of action must include mechanisms or moments that set the conditions for collective analysis. Perhaps they must build in spaces, physical and temporal, which can maintain collectivity while slowing down the level of intensity. We need that familiar rhythm between the high intensity of action and the cooler pace of discussion and analysis. Only by maintaining this rhythm can we push further through the dynamics of capital that limit our lives. In such conditions movements can change and adapt in order to generalise. During the student movement the occupations played something of this role but on their own they weren’t enough. For a movement to move it must exceed the conditions of its own emergence. While a small group might stumble across a workable incantation they must conjure up forces that make themselves redundant. The aim must be to make the mass its own analyst, to spread the potential for leadership across the whole of the collective body. After all if a Genie gives you three wishes then your last wish should always be for another three wishes.
 What makes this all the more appealing is that the book, which talks about Sorcery and the ‘supernatural’, is co-authored by Isabelle Stengers, eminent philosopher of science who co-wrote the best known book on complexity theory: “Order out of Chaos”.
Like many people who reach our ‘advanced years’ we in the Free Association have turned our attention to the question of inheritance and new generations. What we’re interested in, however, is the prospect of a new cycle of struggle and the emergence of new social movements. Using the concept of a generation to think this through leads to questions such as: How does a political generation form? And what role can the experience of past generations play in this? Let me explain why we think these are apt questions for this moment in time.
Some of us have argued previously that the world is trapped in a state of limbo, and has been since the economic crash of 2007-8. The ongoing social and economic crisis has shattered the ideology of neoliberalism that’s dominated the world for thirty years. Any notion that neoliberal globalisation will solve the world’s problems has simply collapsed. Instead neoliberalism stands naked, exposed as a simple smash and grab, which has concentrated social wealth into a tiny number of hands. Far from being a modernist project, leading to inevitable social progress, neoliberalism is revealed as a decadent, and perhaps always doomed, deferral of the unresolved crisis of the 1970s. Yet despite this ideological collapse the neoliberal reforms of the public sector continue to be rolled out and with the forthcoming cuts are even being speeded up. This is not because the general population believe it to be the best way to organise the world, it is, rather, because no other conception of society has been able to cohere and gain the social force needed to replace it. The result is that neoliberalism staggers on, zombie like, ideologically dead, shorn of its teleology and purpose, containing no hope of a better future, yet with no opposition strong enough to finish it off.
Why have we ended up in this position? In part it is because, particularly in the US and UK, neoliberalism has been extremely effective at decomposing society and removing the preconditions for collective action. One of the primary aims of the neoliberal project has been to change our common sense view of the world, or to put that in a different language, the neoliberal reforms of society aimed to produce neoliberal subjectivities. In the absence of a change in the organisation of society neoliberalism continues to operate, markets are imposed on ever-wider areas of life and participation in those markets trains people in a neoliberal world-view. To explain this further: when you participate in a competitive market you are forced to act as a utility maximising individual, you have to act in ruthless and heartless competition with others over scarce resources. The more we do this the more we come to adopt this outlook as natural; this is what is meant by a neoliberal subjectivity. The difference now, however, is those trained in this world-view are finding it increasingly hard to make sense of world.
We can gain another angle on this through the concept of antagonism. The transfer of social wealth into the hands of the very, very rich would tend to provoke antagonism in those whose wealth is being taken away. Neoliberalism deals with this problem by obscuring these antagonisms, partly by inculcating a world-view that can’t recognise them but also through mechanisms that displace or defer them. We have talked previously about the central role that cheap credit has played in the neoliberal deal. Real wages in the West have been in stagnation or decline since the late 1970s. Yet access to cheap credit has helped to maintain living standards in the present and so defer the consequences of neoliberalism, displacing the antagonism over social resources into the future. With the massive cuts in public spending it seems that the debts are being called in, but can we expect the displaced antagonism to arrive at the same time?
The prospect of the arrival of antagonism, and with it a new generation of struggle has been dominating Britain over the last few months. In fact in recent weeks, a sort of phoney war has settled in. The phoney war is the name given to the first few months of World War Two before the invasion of France and the start of real fighting between France, Britain and Germany. In our case, of course, we are still not sure whether this sensation of phoney war is merely a nostalgic expectation. Large-scale class warfare has erupted across a swathe of Europe but we simply don’t know yet if it will spread to Britain. To put this differently, we still don’t know how deep the neoliberal decomposition of society goes. To me it seems likely that the breaking of the neoliberal deal will provoke an upsurge in struggle and collective action. However I doubt it will appear in the form or shape that people are expecting. Because of the transformations in society it seems unlikely that these struggles will resemble the 1980s. The response to austerity will likely take an unexpected, or even displaced forms, indeed we might not perceives some struggles as responses to public service cuts, even though they are.
So the question arises: how can we best prepare for an event of unknown shape and time of arrival? Or from another perspective, how do we, who have been through previous generations of struggle, prepare ourselves for the emergence of new movements? What role can our past experiences play, or will the expectations our past experiences produce obscure what is new about the situation?
Second time as farce…
Luckily for us in the Free Association these questions seem to fit with a project that we are already committed to. Early next year PM press is publishing a collection of our writing and we have to write an introduction and epilogue for it. Most of the pieces in the collection were written as interventions into particular moments in what might loosely be called the alter-globalisation cycle of struggles (although it took many other names, movement of movements, etc,). Writing the epilogue has allowed us to revisit those texts with an eye for what remains useful and what was simply of its time. In turn this has provoked the question of how the lessons of previous generations can be learnt and repeated in a useful and productive way. After all, from a certain angle the existing state of limbo, and indeed the sensation of a phoney war, can be seen as a pregnant pause between the exhaustion of one cycle of struggles and the emergence of a new one.
One of the resources with which we can conceptualise this problem is Marx’s great text on historical repetitions, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which contains this famous passage:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in their time-honoured disguise and in this borrowed language (Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 1968: 97).
The starting point here is that we only rarely get the chance to become historical actors. We only rarely face the possibility of breaking with the historical conditioning that limits how our lives can be lived. The Free Association want to call these moments, when we collectively gain some traction on the world, moments of excess. What Marx is noting above is the tendency within such moments to draw on, and repeat the traditions of past generations of struggle. During moments of excess people are confronted with experiences, problems and degrees of freedom that they won’t have previously faced. It makes sense in this situation that people seek out antecedents to help orientate themselves. In fact it’s a well-noted phenomenon that those engaged in large-scale collective action soon discover affinities not just with their direct antecedents but also with other struggles right across the world. Failure to learn from and repeat the experience of those who have faced similar problematics would leave you disoriented and unarmed in the face of historical conditioning, helpless to stop the old world re-asserting itself. There are, however, different forms that this repetition can take.
When Deleuze (Difference and Repetition 2001: 92) reads the passage from Marx he finds that:
[H]istorical repetition is neither a matter of analogy nor a concept produced by the reflection of historians, but above all a condition of historical action itself… historical actors can create only on condition that they identify themselves with figures from the past… According to Marx, repetition is comic when it falls short – that is, when instead of leading to metamorphosis and the production of something new, it forms a kind of involution, the opposite of authentic creation.
The comic repetition that Deleuze speaks of here refers to the famous line from Marx that precedes the passage above: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” A farcical repetition then is one in which the organisational models, forms of acting and interpretive grid of a previous generation of struggle are simply over laid onto the new situation, forcing the new movement to fold in on itself, obscuring the potential for authentic creation. We are all too familiar with the farce of treating each new movement as a simple repetition of 1917, 1968, or even 1999. If present generations of struggle are to prevent the inheritance of past generations from weighing “like a nightmare upon the brains of the living” (Marx Eighteenth Brumaire 1968: 97), then they cannot repeat those traditions uncritically. Authentic creation requires forms of repetition that “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew” (Marx Eighteenth Brumaire 1968: 100).
Talking about my generation…
Perhaps at this point we should attempt to pin down what we mean by a generation. We can start thinking about this through the perhaps unlikely figure of Thomas Jefferson, who despite being the second President of the United States, was, we should remember, also a revolutionary leader grappling with revolutionary problematics. Jefferson approaches the concept of a generation by extending the logic of the American war of independence. If one country can’t be bound by the laws of another, then one generation should not be bound by the laws of its antecedents. It is from this notion that Jefferson proposes, “The earth belongs always to the living generation… [e]very constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.” The problem here, of course, is that births don’t actually occur in twenty-year bursts, they happen continuously; as such, the concept of a generation only makes sense if we say they are formed in relation to certain seminal shared experiences. Jefferson’s generation, for instance, was formed through the experience of the American Revolution. From this we can argue that generations are generated through events. This implies, of course, that the same groups, or individuals, can partake in several generations of struggle. When we talk about the traditions of past generation weighing “like a nightmare upon the brains of the living”, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to count ourselves amongst the ranks of the living.
We can see already some failed and potentially farcical repetitions of past struggles in the attempts to adjust to the present crisis. One of the more sympathetic of these has come from the Camp for Climate Action, which over the last couple of years has tried to incorporate financial institutions within the scope of its actions, most recently a camp outside RBS in Edinburgh. It is fair to say that this attempt has been a bit of a failure. The camp has not been able to adapt its interpretive grid to adequately cope with the new situation. The economic crisis is still seen only through its environmental consequences. As such the camp has turned in on itself, it’s been unable to connect to the rest of the population’s experience of the crisis. For one generation to participate in the generation of a new generation a lot must be given up – often it is only the shock of an event that can complete that process and allow the displacement from one, saturated problematic to a new one.
The Climate Camp is an interesting example because it is the repository of a lot of the direct action experience developed in Britain over the last 15 years. This can be seen in the blockade of the Coryton oil refinery, which seemed fantastically well executed. However the fact that it coincided with a huge wave of strikes and protests in France, in which oil refinery blockades have been pivotal, raises certain possibilities. Wouldn’t the Coryton blockade have had a bigger effect if it had also been done in solidarity with the French?
The prospect of this kind of repetition of the climate justice and alter-globalisation movement came to mind during the recent TUC conference, when the general secretary Brendan Barber suggested that a campaign of civil disobedience could act as a supplement to union led strikes and protests during forthcoming anti-austerity struggles. Such a scenario does seem feasible. In fact something like this, though no doubt not what Barber had in mind, began to emerge in Sweden 4 or 5 years ago. The Swedish anti-globalisation movement suffered serious repression following the 2001 anti-EU summit protests, including the shooting of two activists. In response the movement shifted resolutely away from summitism, and experimented in using the direct action tactics of the movement within more traditional syndicalist struggles.
The danger in this is that one tradition becomes subsumed within the repetition of another. There is after all a long traditional of seeing the unions as the leading sector, to which all other struggles must subordinate themselves. However, the unions have drastically reduced social power these days and this is partly because they have been unable to adapt to the changed composition of society. The alter-globalisation cycle of struggles, for all its faults, contained useful experiments in how you can produce collective action in a neoliberalised world. These would be lost if these experiences became subsumed under a nostalgia for a lost 1970s social democracy. It was after all neoliberal globalisation that did for that world.
If these forms of repetition seem inadequate then perhaps that’s because there remains a lot that need addressing, for instance:
– Are the conditions for a global cycle of struggles in place? Or do the different post-crisis experiences in different parts of the world and the decomposition of a unified neoliberal global project make such common action impossible?
– Relatedly for those form a more autonomous background, what should the relationship be with existing institutions, and indeed the more institutionally oriented left? It seems obvious that fighting cuts in public services requires a different and more nuanced relation to state institutions than the alter-globalisation cycle of protests required. The climate justice movement has already begun to work through this problem, first at the Cop15 in Copenhagen and then with the Morales inspired climate conference in Cochabamaba. It is, however, far from straight forward.
– Is it enough to problematise the neoliberal responses to the crisis, or indeed the various proposals for neo-Keynesian solutions to the crisis? Won’t this mean that fighting the cuts will lead to defending the status quo? Is it possible to propose reforms, directional demands as a means of making another world seem possible? Or will this obscure the main task of transforming the possible all together?
– From a different perspective, how is it possible for one generation to help create another generation? (Well apart from the obvious, keep it clean people). Are you formed by your first foundational event? Do you only get to really belong to one generation? Is the perspective of veterans always different to event virgins? As you go through life do you become saturated with experiences, which excludes you from full participation in new generations?
Oh dear, last weeks wide-eyed talk of green shoots have already been replaced by a new sense of gloom and talk of a double dip recession. That must rank amongst the shortest, least noticeable economic recoveries in history. I suppose wishful thinking can only get you so far. Ultimately the pundits and spinners are going to have to face up to the idea that the present economic crisis is not just a normal moment in the usual cycle of boom and bust but is a more fundamental and potentially epochal affair.
What do I mean by this? Well the first thing to say is the crisis doesn’t, on its own, mean the end of capitalism, it is, however, an interruption in the general direction in which global society has been pushed over the last thirty years. That is to say it does seem to be a fundamental crisis for the neo-liberal mode of capital accumulation. Central to this assessment is the way the crisis has broken the implicit neo-liberal deal of compensating for stagnant wages through access to cheap debt. We have talked about this deal elsewhere but it was also outlined with surprising accuracy in a recent article in the Financial Times titled: Debt is capitalism’s dirty little secret.
The FT article goes as far as admitting that neo-liberalism is fundamentally about the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and argues that cheap debt was the only thing that prevented revolution. This seems like a vindication of David Harvey argument that neo-liberalism is based on ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and of course this process hasn’t ended with the crisis. The bank bailouts are a huge and naked transfer of wealth to the wealthy. Indeed some have argued that the bailouts in the global north are playing the role that Structural Adjustment Programmes have played in the global south. There is a lot of truth to this. The bailouts are a neo-liberal solution to the crisis in neo-liberalism, in this sense they are just neo-liberalism intensified. But it is this degree of intensity that indicates it is more than neo-liberalism in normal operation. After all it’s when a system enters a crisis situation; when it is far from equilibrium, that we can see most clearly the intensive processes that make it up. The socialisation of risk to defend the privatisation of profits follows neo-liberal logic but destroys neo-liberal ideology. It is for this reason that the underlying processes of neo-liberalism have become apparent not just to us but to the Financial Times. Neo-liberalism has been stripped of the fetishisms that would normal disguise it and this has caused a real, ongoing ideological crisis. At the very least there’s been a significant wobble, if not a total collapse, in the religious hokum of the invisible hand of the market magically producing the common good. The ideas and practices that have formed the middle ground of society are ceasing to make sense, even on their own terms.
Of course this raises the question of what happens now?
One common assumption is that when the middle ground of society is in crisis then a new middle ground will have to emerge; a new deal will have to be struck. There is an expectation that some version of Keynesianism must follow, a New, New Deal or perhaps a Green New Deal. There are however several serious obstacles to this scenario, not least amongst them is that the world still has a fundamentally neo-liberal composition. The common sense of society, how we understand the world and ourselves, (within which the political middle ground develops) has been fundamentally transformed by thirty years of neo-liberal governance (although this is true to greater or lesser degree in different parts of the world).
One important point we should recognise is that neo-liberalism has only a limited role for its own ideological argument. Such argument is used to create neo-liberal ideologues and activists but this isn’t how it transforms wider subjectivity or our common sense understandings of what is possible. These changes are brought about more operationally than ideologically. That is to say that neo-liberal common sense is actively brought about by interventions into class composition rather than through ideological argument. Neo-liberalism re-organises material processes, it intervenes into society to try and bring about the social reality that its ideology claims already exists. It actively tries to create its own presuppositions.
Instead of being persuaded by the power of argument, people are trained to view themselves as homo-economicus by being forced to engage in markets. It is in this way that people come to view themselves as human capital; that is as little enterprises locked in competition with others. Indeed this is increasingly true not just in our economic activities but throughout our whole lives. Thus we have the imposition of markets into more and more areas of life, which mean increasingly huge bureaucracies and more and more corruptive systems of measure. This is the Market Stalinism has taken hold in the public services.
Foucault, in his lectures on neo-liberalism, talks about changes in Governmentality, that is the manner or mentality through which people are governed and govern themselves.
Governmentality is multi-scalar; it isn’t just about global governance or how to govern states but also about the management of individuals. It is about how you should live. It sets up a model of life and then establishes mechanisms whereby you are shepherded towards ‘freely’ choosing that manner of living. If you want to participate in society you are force to behave as homo-economicus. The markets are rigged to make certain actions make more sense and other actions less sense. The dice are loaded.
Of course, despite the circularity of its self-fulfilling and self-affirming prophecy, there have always been large areas of life that haven’t accorded with neo-liberalism. However held in place by the neo-liberal deal it has seemed quite stabile for a long time. Access to cheap credit was essential for neo-liberalism to solve the problem of effective demand, to make sense on its own terms and to disguise the huge transfers of wealth and power that were taking place. This manner of living is now in real crisis and many of the things that were previously rigged to make sense, no longer do. A couple of years ago in the UK you were acting irrationally if you rented a house when you could afford to buy, now the reverse is true.
Neo-liberalism no longer ‘makes sense’, yet its logic keeps stumbling on zombie style. Just look at PFI schemes in the UK, where private finance is supposed to supply the money for government infrastructural spending, with the state renting back infrastructure for vast sums over a thirty-year period. Except now there is no private finance so the government has to lend banks the money to lend to private firms to build infrastructure, which it will then rent back to the state that lent the money in the first place. At every stage huge sums are skimmed off in to private hands. It doesn’t make sense yet the scheme is still being rolled out at the same rate it was before the crisis. There isn’t another logic or common sense to guide policy so neo-liberal logic is twisted through amazing contortions just to keep it all going.
Any new common sense, any new middle ground for politics, has lots of problems to overcome. It would have to operate in a similar multi-scalar fashion to neo-liberalism, that is, it would have to be tied to a new manner of living. It would also have the difficulty of starting from the composition we have now, with large parts of the world’s population still in the grip of neo-liberal common sense and modes of living. This is one of the greatest problems facing those advocating a New, New Deal. We aren’t talking about a few changes in elite thinking or some dabbling with government spending but the global re-composition of society.
Neo-liberalism is in crisis ideologically, it no longer ‘adds up’ on its own terms, yet it doesn’t seem to know it is dead. I could imagine it stumbling on for a considerable period, as no new middle ground is able to cohere and replace it. We face zombie-liberalism. This raises the prospect of no resolution being found for the crisis as we end up stuck in a long 10 or 20-year period of stagnation and drift. Even in its heyday neo-liberalism could actually be seen as a period of stagnation, it never reached anything like the growth levels of the post-war settlement years, but it still had its modernist side, the idea that neo-liberalism would solve the worlds problems. Without an overarching project we might just get a series of phoney recoveries, repeated crashes and a slow fragmentation, with some fractions of capital seeking to extend neo-liberalism and others trying to replace it but with nobody really succeeding.