Post by keir

  • Post by /
  • Comments Off on Precarious Superheroes

On the 28th of April 2006 a group of activists dressed in Superhero costumes burst into the insanely expensive Hamburg delicatessen, Frische Paradies and ran out with 1500 Euros worth of expensive food. Despite several police cars and a helicopter rushing to the scene, the culprits they got clean away. Not, however, before they posed for the photo above, which they release along with a communiqué explaining that the food was given away to some of the city’s precarious workers. Months later the police raid some houses and arrest a woman in relation to the incident. The evidence against her wasn’t the strongest; they claimed that she sometimes wore her hair in a ponytail, as did one of the superheroes, and that on her computer were documents that mentioned precarity, which was also mentioned in the Superheroes communiqué. The case against her has recently been dismissed.

It’s a nice story but I want to use the incident to think through some recent concerns. Firstly, responses to the current crises. Secondly how to act without that acting seeming like specialised work for activists. And thirdly, how mediatised figures can change the way people think about themselves by allowing them to recognize commonalities with others.

In many ways the incident chimes with other recent actions and suggestions, which are all variations on the tradition of self-reduction struggles. In the UK there has been a suggestion for a Price Reduction Campaign, we’ve mentioned this before. The idea is to organize mass meetings outside supermarkets to decide what a fair price for essential goods should be in these exceptional times. One of the problems with this idea is how to avoid getting trapped in the identity of ‘consumers’ or ‘customers’. Another recent practice has been that of the Greek Robin Hoods, who have conducted mass raids on supermarkets, leaving the goods outside for the general public to help themselves. A problem with this, however, is that it is acting on behalf of other people, which could reinforce the identity of the activist as separate from passive category, ‘ordinary people’.

The precarious superheroes incident might seem similar but they try to overcome such problems by inventing identities meant to represent common experiences of precariousness. The superheroes call themselves names like Spidermom, Multiflex, Santa Guevara and Operaistorix. The idea is that you need super human abilities just to survive in this world of insecurity and precarity. As they explain:

“Superflex is familiar with every type of job contract: part time, full time, internship. All the stress led him to a pleasant mutation of his molecules… Operaistorix survived the last few years with the help of his unemployment module… Spider Mum’s mutant body developed somewhere between the kindergarten and unpaid and paid cleaning jobs. In her hands, Ajax and a mop turn into merciless weapons… Santa Guevara dodges all control checks and disappears without a trace. With this power, he is able to escape from the boredom of call centers and university seminars.”

We could think of the superheroes as P2P icons, a concept first raised in the context of San Precario, the patron saint of the precarious. San Precario was invented as a symbol or icon in which all the different experiences of the precarious could invest their desires. Large models of San Precario have been carried round on demonstrations, like the saints parades of Catholic countries.

The superheroes are a variation on this theme that address the problem of how people’s subjective understanding of themselves can limit their possibilities. Or as Mario Tronti put it: ‘As a matter of urgency we must get hold of, and start circulating, a photograph of the worker-proletariat that shows him as he really is – “proud and menacing”‘. The certainty and dignity of the job for life, that was some small compensation for the world of the mass workplace, has become increasingly rare. The precarious superheroes want to create a new “proud and menacing” photograph by reframing our precarious experiences as training for a world when we are in control of our lives and can be as flexible as we want. With the crumbling of the financial sector, the erstwhile ‘masters of the universe’ have been revealed as small men who wasted their lives building pointless pyramid skills. Our greatest revenge would be the menacing prospect of a new class of people stepping on to the world stage. As Spidermom says:

“We don’t care for the romanticism of the lonely hero type, we’d much rather bump into more and more superheroes in our daily lives.”

I went to a great evening of talks and films put on by the Leeds Surrealist Group yesterday. They presented material from their new journal Phospher, which includes a positive review of Turbulence 3. There was a load of interesting stuff but the main focus was on surrealism and games, including a talk on the subject by our good friend Gaz. The talk is reproduced below but before we get to that I just want to riff off on the theme a little.

To give you a flavour of what they mean I’ll describe a little of what happened. One of the games the group has played was called Explorations of Absence which involved collective interpretations, of what they called, atopoi or non-places. “The unused or abandoned interspaces between different planned spaces”. The sort of places that children seek out. A photo was taken of such a place and then different reactions to the photographs were made, these then sparked of the collective creation of an object that was left at the non-place. Last night a picture of an over grown path was shown and then people took it in turns reading out their reactions and responses to it. It really worked for me and reminded me of the optical illusion rabbit/duck or two faces/vase pictures. You would look at the path one way and then someone’s interpretation would go up a level of scale and all of a sudden you could only see it as a landscape with trees and alluvial fields of boulders.

Anyway Gaz’s talk really got me excited as he talked about surrealist games as the combination of collectivity and chance and called surrealism the communism of genius. You can read all that for yourselves but I was struck by how that resonates with our own concerns and indeed one of the central concerns of contemporary theory and indeed social movement practice, namely how do we get a politics adequate to the event. We have tried to think this through in terms of moments of excess.

I asked a question about the possibility of the games bursting the bounds of the participants, that is getting out of control. But I suppose what I was really asking was what relation do such games have with wider social transformation. Gaz’s answer was that revolution was the biggest game of all and I suppose we are all looking for a way to get that game started, while making sure everyone else is able to join in.

Surrealist Games

Gareth Brown

Samantha, blithely disregarding even the slightest pretence of playing chess in the usual manner (she was, it is true, only three or four years old), announced that as far as she was concerned, it was vastly more fun to put the pieces into a small wagon and give them wild rides around the yard. This incident strongly affected me at the time. Recalling it now, I am reminded of Andre Breton’s admonition, also regarding chess, that “it is the game that must be changed, not the pieces”

That’s from a bit of writing by Franklin Rosemont called ‘The Only Game in Town’

I’m going to talk to you a bit about surrealist games. Kenneth has already talked about the fact that surrealism isn’t an aesthetic movement or an art movement or anything like that. In fact, the absence of surrealist artefacts (texts, images, objects, etc) would not in any way imply the absence of surrealism since these things are, by and large, simply a means for communicating or for helping to understand, the results or revelations of surrealist games or they’re by-products created by the processes of game playing, the excrement of game playing if you like. And, although surrealist artefacts are constantly created, they are not a vital organ of surrealist activity. Games however, are. If there is one activity that remains absolutely essential to us as surrealists, it’s game playing and certainly this is something that’s glossed over in the popular understanding of surrealism which is very much an understanding derived from that of the gallery owner who of course needs to fill the gallery with artefacts so who can blame them for skewing it in their favour.

In one of his books, (I forget which), Freud talks about a game beloved of children (although I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any children playing it) to which I think he gives the name Fort Da (Fort – ‘Off you go’, Da – ‘Here you are’). It’s a game that involves a bobbin with a piece of string tied around it. The bobbin is allowed to roll off accompanied by an exclamation of the word ‘Fort!’ and then reeled back in accompanied by an exclamation of the word ‘Da!‘ The point of this game is to play with chance (and really with fear) in a way that is totally inconsequential. The bobbin always returns but the fun is derived from the unconscious fear that it might not and relief when it does. This kind of game is in keeping with the ideas of game play developed by Johann Huizinga and Roger Caillois for whom the defining element of a game is that they end in a situation identical to that prevailing at the beginning. This, it seems to me describes one of three totally distinct forms of game. It’s the form that in capitalism gets sectioned off and isolated as leisure or pastime for the two-fold reason that its lack of productivity means that it’s of no use in the work place and of much use in ensuring that nothing transformative ever happens outside of the work place (pastime – to pass the time when not at work). We mustn’t forget, of course, that even though these games are unproductive in themselves, huge markets form around them. It’s not all bobbins and string any more.

The second form of game is the competitive game, which is concerned with the acquisition of individual wealth (I know this category also includes team games but the principle is still the same) and therefore doesn’t fit with this idea of games as inconsequential although it’s only semi-transformative which is why it is still exalted in present day society. The need to compete and to win is important to capital but actually the winners and competitors are of no importance at all. It’s the taking part that counts. In stark contrast with Freud’s Fort Da, It’s also concerned with the domestication or elimination of chance. This is in stark contrast too with the third form of game, a form of which the surrealist game is representative, a form of game that‘s the only form of the three that’s transformative in a way that is potentially subversive. This form of game is concerned not with acquisition but with expenditure.

The Portuguese poet Mario Cesariny once remarked that the whole world is organised on the model of the Exquisite Corpse.

Exquisite Corpse is one of the earliest games developed by surrealists based around the idea that you have a set of players who each write an element of a sentence without being aware of the previous player’s contribution so that you get a sentence like ‘The exquisite corpse drinks the young wine’ (the sentence from which the game gets it’s name) where each adjective, each noun, and the verb are all contributed by different players. I used to play something not dissimilar in school only it was known as ‘consequences’. There are, of course, countless possibilities for variants of this game. Indeed, you will find few coffee-table art books on surrealism that don’t contain at least one example of exquisite corpse played as an image-based game.

The Portuguese poet Mario Cesariny once remarked that the whole world is organised on the model of the Exquisite Corpse.

This is illustrative one of the fundamental positions of surrealism: that the world is created and life is transformed through the interplay of collectivity and chance. (An essentially Marxist position but one that focuses on the aleatory as opposed to the deterministic) and it’s certainly true, whether you’re talking about the natural world or capitalist production. Horizontal, non-hierarchical modes of organising such as that employed by the surrealist movement and in Anarchism simply lay this fact bare but it exists everywhere else as well. That’s why Svejkism (also known as work to rule) is such an effective form of workplace sabotage. Svejk comes from a book by a Czech author Hajek called ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’. He’s basically a soldier who brings about the downfall of the Czech military by following orders to the letter. What this tactic does is pull the reins on all the collective creativity that forms the essential part of any process of production thus exposing the illusion at the heart of capitalism: that the world is created and transformed via a process of competition between corporations and sovereign individuals. This is why surrealist game playing is subversive. It exposes the process vital to the transformation of life.

I said that surrealist games focus on the aleatory, on chance. Really this is an extension on their focus on collectivity. It enables the collectivity to exceed the boundaries of the actual participants themselves, resulting in play that encompasses the weather, the urban landscape, nature, detritus, relationships with other human beings etc, etc and most importantly the marvellous, that which can be found when objective chance throws out unlikely tendrils between objects or ideas or sounds etc. that create moments of disturbing friction that seem to tear big strips out of the functionalist form of reality and jar with time and space in a way that can be extremely arresting. So objective chance, in a sense, is the invisible participant in all surrealist games.

Largely, as is certainly the case with ‘Exquisite Corpse’ they are ways of exploring a collective intelligence, a collective creativity that goes far beyond the sum of its parts. Surrealism has been described as ‘the communism of genius’. The surrealist position is that genius as a thing to be found in a select smattering of golden selves is a scam, a great big charade, with social atomisation and the creation of the specialist at its heart. In fact it is in the in-between spaces that genius is to be found. When Lautreamont said ‘the conditions must exist whereby poetry can be made by all’ I don’t think he meant ‘whereby poetry can be made by each’, I think he was trying to emphasise the same collective intelligence that surrealist games attempt to investigate rather than being a simple, anti-hierarchical gesture about equal rights. (Comte de Lautreamont, real name Isadore Ducasse, is an important influence for surrealists. That quote comes from ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’).

So Kenneth also pointed out that the surrealist movement and surrealist activity is strongly internationalist. Certainly many of the games we play cross national boundaries and it was really in 1968 with a document entitled ‘the platform of Prague’ signed by members of the surrealist groups in Prague and Paris that games became the most important focal point for surrealist activity (although they’d always been important). I’ll just read a little bit from that document.

As regards the sharing of thought, which remains one of our specific pre-occupations, the most lively impetus will be given, in surrealism, to game playing and experimental activities. We place all of our intellectual hopes in both of them. Animating the life of groups, exalting friendship by integrating it with spiritual exchanges, they establish each spirit in a state of intersubjectivity where the facts of the present and individual history resound in a consonant way. Surrealist games are a collective expression of the pleasure principle. They are increasingly necessary since both technocratic oppression and the civilisation of computers do nothing but inexorably increase the weight of the reality principle. Intellectual blood regenerates itself through experimental activity. We appeal constantly to individual initiatives to propose the axis of research for all.

In The Platform of Prague they talk about the importance of experimental activities but I prefer to think of games as exploratory since experimental can carry with it a sort of positivist connotation which is very much at odds with surrealist exploration. Similarly, it’s often said that surrealist games are revelatory (in fact I think I used this word myself earlier) but again this is an idea that for me is problematic or at least it is if this is seen as a function of surrealist games because of course, it’s not really about revealing something that’s already there. Revelation if anything, has even stronger positivist connotations that experimentation. The point of the surrealist game is very much to cut the string and throw the bobbin and see what happens. You may never see it again. You may find the bobbin years later covered in moss and lichen. The bobbin may be carried off in the stomach of a horse or an owl. Most importantly, you don’t know. You have no idea what you’re hoping to find or where it might be. Alternatively it could be to wander round looking for string to pull without knowing what might be on the other end. The point of competitive game playing is the opposite. It is to do what ever you need to do in order to make the bobbin reappear. You know precisely what you are looking for (presumably victory). Precisely where you’re going.

The other main aspect of the surrealist game is as a sort of symbolic exchange between players. This point is clearly very important for the authors of The Platform of Prague. Through games, this sort gift economy develops within the movement, a permanent reciprocity through which bonds are formed and strengthened and collective activity is ensured.

  • Post by /
  • Comments Off on The building blocks of China’s neo-liberalism
  • / Tagged as

Seeing as we have our own history of political lego in Turbulence, I couldn’t pass this picture without nicking it (apologies to Jane Dark’s Sugarhigh).

The non-lego version of this image came to represent the Tiananmen square events in the West. It seemed to sum up the narrative that the western press had forced onto the events, of the merciless Stalinist state apparatus being stopped by a symbol of individualism. At the time I remember the picture being put on a poster by the Federation of Conservatives Students with some slogan like “Stand up to Socialism”. This was alongside their “Hang Nelson Mandela” posters.

However another version of events has gradually emerged which puts those conservative students on the other side of the barricades. In the “The Shock Doctrine”, Naomi Klein quoting Wang Hui, a leading figure in the protests and now a well known Chinese leftist critique of the Chinese Communist Party, puts it like this:

What ignited the protests, he recalls, was popular discontent in the face of Deng’s “revolutionary” economic changes, which were lowering wages, raising prices and causing “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment.” According to Wang, “These changes were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilisation.”

The demonstrations were not against economic reform per se; they were against the specific Friedmanite nature of the reforms-their speed, ruthlessness and the fact that the process was highly antidemocratic. Wang says that the protesters’ call for elections and free speech were intimately connected to this economic dissent. What drove the demand for democracy was the fact that the party was pushing through changes that were revolutionary in scope, entirely without popular consent. There was, he writes, “a general request for democratic means to supervise the fairness of the reform process and the reorganization of social benefits.”…

Before Tiananmen, (Deng) had been forced to ease off some of the more painful measures; three months after the massacre, he brought them back, and he implemented several of Friedman’s other recommendations, including price deregulation. For Wang Hui, there is an obvious reason why “market reforms that had failed to be implemented in the late 1980s just happened to have been completed in the post-1989 environment”; the reason, he writes, “is that the violence of 1989 served to check the social upheaval brought about by this process, and the new pricing system finally took shape”…

It was this wave of reforms that turned China into the sweatshop of the world, the preferred location for contract factories for virtually every multinational on the planet. No country offered more lucrative conditions than China: low taxes and tariffs, corruptible officials and, most of all, a plentiful low-wage workforce that, for many years, would be unwilling to risk demanding decent salaries or the most basic workplace protections for fear of the most violent reprisals” (From The Shock Doctrine p.187-190).

It seems timely to go back to this event in history as we sit amidst the multiple crisis of neo-liberalism. The production of cheap consumer goods in China was the other half of the story of a boom created at the cost of our personal indebtedness in the West. Every now and then we have to step back and realise just how rooted in class struggle these crisis are, even if we have to trace it back over decades. It also shows how contingent history is, something to remember as we contemplate how to intervene into the present mess.

Or the incredible credit crisis.

And so the dominoes begin to fall. In many ways this is a classic capitalist crisis, the popping of a 15 year credit fuelled consumer spending bubble, but it is also a singular event. It is singular because, the ‘credit fuelled’ part of the sentence is not some foolish excess or avoidable side effect but is inherent to the neo-liberal wave of accumulation over the last 30 years. Real wages in the developed world have fallen since 1979. Actual wages might have gone up a little but they don’t go anywhere near enough to cover the rollback of the social wage during that period. You might have more theoretical cash in your hand (although most is taken out by direct debit before your hand gets anywhere near it) but you have to pay directly for stuff the state used to provide and that you paid for indirectly through taxes but now you have to pay much more for that stuff (housing, etc). Since real wages have declined, increased consumer spending has only been possible through increased indebtedness. And that indebtedness in the UK and US is what has driven ‘development’ in China and India. Once credit dries the pyramid crumbles.

The credit crisis is also singular because, as we have pointed out in Turbulence, it is just one of a series of overlapping and interpenetrating crises; the food crisis, the energy crisis and perhaps most difficult of all the climate change crisis. This does indeed seem to be the playing out and the coming to a head of the contradictions of thirty years of neo-liberalism. In many ways the social movements have been ahead of the game here. There has been awareness for years that Seattle marked the beginning of the end of ‘the end of history’, of neo-liberalism in its modernist phase. Neo-conservatism was the attempt to restructure neoliberalism through a populist supplement based on permanent war. This seems to have stumbled to a halt but I suppose it could be picked up again. After all military Keynesianism is what got the US out of the 1930’s great depression – hard to see where the resources would come from though. Well, the same place it always does I suppose – our pocket – but war capitalism is a high risk strategy, that needs a Staussian uniting of the nation against a common enemy: Al Quida has never really fit the bill.

There is something that might though, although the neo-cons can’t quite get to this enemy, that’s global warming. This is what makes the Copenhagen summit to sign a new post-Koyoto agreement, so important. One of the most likely new regimes to emerge is a green Keynesianism, based around ameliorating the most catastrophic possibilities of climate change, while imposing a new austerity, that is a Keynesianism but not one based on social provision. As Naomi Klein reminds us it is just such shocks as we are going through that are used to change the normally unchangeable.

So it seems very likely we are at a new conjuncture and that a new regime of regulation will have to emerge and no-one knows what that new regime will look like. What is certain is that the amount of struggle taking place will have a huge influence on this and that the forms of struggle will have to change dramatically to accord with and influence the new situation.

Britain has the highest personal indebtedness of any country in the world. Now debt is normally a disciplining mechanism, it makes you stay on the straight and narrow, but it does get to a stage where it has the opposite effect, where it gets to the size where it can’t be dealt with under the rules of the game. Many people must be fairly close to that. This is also inherent to neo-liberalism, which was about privatising risks that used to be socialised, (as welfare provision, national insurance schemes). Well, that is for most of us; for the banks and the rich it’s been privatising profits while socialising losses. We have an interesting antagonism emerging when we are confronted with the truth of this. The hatred and Schadenfreude against the bankers is very apparent on talk radio, blog comments, etc.

There is also no clear idea how far this crisis goes, some are talking about a hundred year event, the wiping out of the global financial architecture. We can’t know if that’s true because nobody can: nobody knows how much Lehman brothers is worth, or what its debts are and nobody knows what other banks’ liabilities are. You’d always imagine that techniques of governance are sophisticated enough that global meltdown won’t be allowed to happen but the overlap of these various crises make that a difficult task too.

We can look to the experience of the Argentinazo to think how that could play out and also for the forms that struggles might take. Of course we in the UK have our own history of debt struggles and the anti-Poll tax movement might be an interesting period to revisit. There might also be increased opportunity for the cross-pollination of the UK and European movements, especially around the concept of precarity. There have been some suggestions along those lines, originating from some unlikely sources. There was even a little discussion on Ian Bone’s blog about how the timing might be good for price reduction struggles. The previous attempt to import Euro-mayday style precarity actions into the UK being a little mistimed and so not resonating widely.

But that would mean a little joined-up thinking and the overcoming of a lot of the parochial baggage that we have inherited from the UK anarchist scene and indeed a shift in the level of thinking at least to the European level. And here we come back to Copenhagen, the ESF in Malmoe this weekend and the possibilities of a new green Keynesianism. The time does seem right for a cross-pollinating of the green orientation of a lot of the UK movement, with the focus on work, in particular the new conditions of work, of movements on the continent.

For some in the class struggle anarchist tradition that means overcoming the class-as-identity, class-as-culture orientation of the UK and starting to look at class composition, class as a tool of anti-capitalist analysis. That means the end of hiding behind all the lazy, comforting, bullshit rhetoric about “woolly jumper wearing yogurt weavers” and moving to think about climate change as a fundamental front in the class war. In fact the inability to make a similar leap was the reason we were involved in trying to dissolve the Class War Federation a decade ago.

The parochialism of the UK anarchist scene is only one of the things we have to take into account, however. The UK is in a funny position at the moment, as the political parties are almost entirely absent from the field. The Labour party looks like it will be wiped out at the next election, the Liberal Democrats have decided that the time is right for a move to the right and are promising even more fundamentally neo-liberal policies. The secret of great comedy – timing. At the same time the largest, but also most pernicious of the left groupuscles, the SWP, is in a state of virtual collapse and is turning in on itself, in order to regroup and survive as a rump. This all offers great opportunities but also great difficulties, for the social movements, as much as they exist, and the autonomous left in the UK.

The chances of the autonomous left getting at least some sort of workable relations with the traditional left is probably better with the SWP less confident and in regroupment. And that actually matters to some degree, they are part of the field we have to play in. If we can’t work together, then we have to at least be in control of our relationship. This goes for institutional parties although there are hardly any for us to have even very critical relations with in the UK, except perhaps the Green Party, who end up in the same tents at the climate camp. And despite the distorting effects they have on our ability to analyse things, we have to remember that they and the local MPs provided some protection for us at Kingsnorth. After all NECTU are leading a pre-emptive strategy against us to try and increase their fiefdom, and that, which in itself provides both opportunities and problems for us, has to be taken into account in how we act.

One of the questions we keep tripping up on when we talk about antagonism is whether there is a real antagonism that is masked by false antagonisms. Of course this makes us nervous given the left’s history of subsuming other struggles so that class struggle (narrowly defined) is primary and women’s issues, for example, are classed as secondary. This is related to treating class as a fixed identity and produces the countervailing tendency to treat class as just one identity amongst others, such as gender, race all of which are equivalent.

Against this we don’t want to think in terms of real or false but we do want to assert that there is a central antagonism to capital, but one that gets (re)composed in different ways. Capital forms from an original encounter between deterritorialised labour and deterritorialised capital, this is the foundational antagonism of the capital relation. It’s the fundamental axiom that all the other axioms of capital are built upon. In times of crisis we can see this original axiom reasserting itself; capital returns to its liquid form and labour gets ripped from the means by which it thought it had protected itself, laws, pensions, house prices, etc. Labour is also freed from the beliefs tied to this security.

We can see the outlines of this now with the effects of the credit crisis provoking a reaction at the polls – the revolt of the suburbs – leading to Brown immediately ripping up the green axioms and measures that seemed so certain and solid just months ago. This is why the climate change movement needs to take account of capitalist crisis, as I tried arguing last year at the climate camp meeting. Moreover it’s why the climate change movement has to come to terms with capital’s axioms, dynamics and central antagonism. And why movements have to be based on freedom, on an increase in capacities and through that orientated to how capital cramps our lives by imposing endless work.

Endless work causes climate change – no shit Sherlock.

But isn’t that arguing that green issues, or Queer issues,or feminism should be subsumed by class politics? No, I don’t think so. We aren’t saying they are mystificatory antagonisms. All these antagonisms are real. The point is that they are composed and recomposed through the dynamics of capital, as well as, of course, our struggles, which exceed those dynamics.

We’re not arguing that the post-war agreement between capital and some sections of the organized industrial working class is the central antagonism of capital.

The foundational antagonism is between liquid money and vogelfrei workers, the post-war settlement was just a particular composition of it, just as the present composition is. The route to unveiling the central antagonism isn’t through some frozen class fundamentalism, which is retrieving some 1950s version of the antagonism and holding that up as the essence of capital.

When we look at the antagonisms that emerged with the autonomous struggles of the 1960s and ’70s – young/old, gay/straight, male/female – can we say that these are the displacement and recomposition of capital’s antagonism? Don’t they pre-exist capital?

We might approach that question by asking weren’t there young people before capital? The answer to that one is NO, not in the sense of that category as it emerged from the 1950s and ’60s. Gay, youth, women are all socio-political categories, they have all been fundamentally recomposed by capital. That doesn’t mean they are reducible to capital or that they are just an effect of capital – humanity exceeds capital but it folds what exceeds it into its BwO.

The important thing is to take into account capital’s effects on these antagonisms and then try to escape them. Lazzarato argues that the route is not through class, which he sees as structurally pre-defined and therefore incapable of escaping capital, but through the minor/major distinction and then the minoritarian line of flight that leads beyond capital’s BwO.

impossible bottle

We’ve talked before about how “Social movements produce their own problematic at the same time as they are formed by them.” Then recently, in an as yet unfinished piece called ‘Six impossible things before breakfast’, we’ve been trying to write about antagonism. These are just some notes to try and think through how those are related. That is the link between movement problematics, the recomposition of antagonism, the specific impossibilities of each specific problematic and the relationship between impossibilities, cramped space and creativity.

One of the things we’ve been arguing is that the problematics that groups or movements form around involve a recomposition of antagonism. And that antagonism involves the simplification of social space, a simplification that is necessary to get some purchase on the world and so allow political action. The point is that those simplifications have an excess to them, which we might think of as their impossibilities – certain things become possible and other things become less possible. This is the cramping that each problematic contains.

Deleuze made the link between cramped space and creativity when he said, “Creation takes place in bottlenecks” and “We have to see creation as tracing a path between impossibilities.” In fact we can see the movement of problematics as us pushing forward and finding our own cramped space. As Deleuze goes on to say: “A creator’s someone who creates their own impossibilities, and thereby creates possibilities.”

We have to bring out this relationship between the recomposition of antagonism as the creation of impossibilities and the creativity provoked by cramped space. Antagonism creates the impossible things, which is why we have to be able to displace the antagonisms and move from impossibility to impossibility or even “trace a line between impossibilities”. Isn’t this a conception of antagonism as stratification? Or as a mechanism of stratification. A productive simplification that has to be escaped to allow increased complexity.

Then there is the relationship between the movement’s impossibilities and capital’s impossibilities. Social movements create their own problematics, acting as creators by creating their own impossibilities and thereby possibilities. Creating their own cramped space. But they don’t do that from a position of absolute freedom of movement: we are cramped by capital’s impossibilities, or even different actualizations of capital’s fundamental impossibilities. So, for neo-liberalism, capitalism isn’t an inherently antagonistic system it’s just the best of possible systems. That fundamental antagonism is an impossibility.

We might think of these impossibilities as the limit point of sense, of what makes sense in a group, movement or socius. As such I think it’s related to Deleuze and Guattari’s impossibly complex concept of the Body Without Organs, which we might think of as the de-territorialised limit of an organised body. “It’s what remains after you take everything away.” So capital has its own BwO, which isn’t capital as in plant or stock but capital as a social relation, acceptance of capital as a model of right. The BwO can be thought of as the point of stupidity of any organized body. Beyond its limits of sense lays its impossibilities.

So when movements form around problematics, they form their own BwO, their own limits of sense.

To the extent we can effect the creation of movement problematics we have to try and orientate them towards escaping capital’s impossibilities, or at least returning capital to its BwO and so posing the fundamental question: “How do we want to live?”


“It’s true that there is in you a kind of air of communist youth, summer camp, ‘onward comrades!’ and all that. It’s leftist kitsch. But this is only one of your aspects, because, on the other hand, what moves you in all of this is a kind of passion for the currents of active energy that blow gusts of air into the social body, which then starts to pulsate, in an alternation between the destabilization of the reigning cartographies and the mobilization of a blast of collective intelligence which invents new forms of life. Every time it happens, you become chidlike. Godard said that men don’t have much childhood and are very childish. Well, if what mobilizes your childhood can be called a “people,” making you radiant, running in all directions, in this case the “people” isn’t a thing – it isn’t a class, or group, or nation. “People” is the name of these currents, which are not to be confused with the places that they agitate, with the historical contexts that they help to create…

It’s toward these currents that you have spent your life travelling. It has more to do with comets, as Teca said, with a “becoming-comet,” than with a “becoming-scout” or a “becoming-priest.” Perhaps the boy scout and the priest appear because they are the only way, or the age-old way, that we have for dealing with this kind of thing, which lacks a language of its own. That’s why they’re so kitsch. But, behind or through this priest and/or scout, what most draws the attention in the quality of your presence is precisely the opposite of these figures: your insistence on the importance of being attentive to the creation of a different logic, new languages – “minor languages” as you and Gilles call them – your desire to participate actively in this creation.”

(from Molecular Revolution in Brazil)

I really like this quote. It’s Brazilian psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik complimenting Felix Guattari, after a 1982 trip they made through Brazil where they met and discussed with different activist groups and in particular with members of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores – Workers Party) including with a young Lula, now the Brazilian president. I like the image of active forces gusting through different bodies and animating them. I also like this concept of becoming-comet, as a subjectivity that starts blazing when it comes into contact with active forces, but has to take its place alongside the child-like enthusiasm of the becoming-scout and the holder of received wisdom of the becoming-priest. As Rolnik says you need: “the coexistence of all these characters and many more still.”


What would a diagram of a becoming-comet look like? Well it can’t be seen when it’s moving through the stillness of the outer solar system but when it comes within the influence of solar heat and wind it bursts into visibility. In fact it makes those active forces visible. We can only see such forces in their effects on bodies and at certain times, particular bodies have affects that illuminate particular forces. Guattari might have been one and Johnny Rotten at a very particular point in time and space might well have been another comet, one that gave off such a bright detritus that you can still just about make it out. But the important point is we mustn’t mistake the body for the force. Those forces move on or change direction and effect; the body in turn might stop being receptive or be unable to find the right affect or combinations to detect those forces. Then all you are left with is the burnt-out husk, a mere cinder of what was. Such is the present-day John Lydon – trapped in a caricature of his younger self, not the vital embodiment of the emergent common that he once was.

Comets have historically been seen as the harbingers of doom but perhaps that’s just a way to talk of them as the harbingers of change. They accompany momentous events. Of course we think we know about comets now, that we can predict their arrival but there are plenty of comets out there with such large orbits that from our historical perspective they are for all intents and purposes unpredictable in both their arrival and their course.



The band Crass had a big effect on some of us Free Associator’s lives. Indeed we’ve had a bit of talk about them here of the years. We’ve discussed the chances of a Crass revival, or whether, in fact, Crass are beyond recuperation. In fact Brian brought up the topic just the other day. Well M’lud, I present above exhibit A, nicked from the ever interesting Uncarved Blog. Angelina makes a strong case for the recuperation argument. The important point though is does it matter 12_crass_songs_-_cover.jpgThis seems timely because Crass have actually had a bit of a revival recently. Firstly Anti-Folk Anti-star Jeffery Lewis released a great album of 12 Crass covers. Then ex-Crass lead singer Steve Ignorant did a couple of gigs playing the Crass album “Feeding of the 5000”, alongside a load of reformed anarcho-punk bands from the time. Check out this video of him doing “Big A, Little A”. Given the heavy moralism of the scene around them at that time, these events have caused plenty of discussion. Out of it all I particularly liked this post:

Also, those early Crass gigs weren’t just about the people on the stage playing instruments and singing, it was about the whole event – being in small, claustrophobic venues, with all the rumours flying about that there was going to be trouble, but still choosing to be there, the people going around selling their hand-produced fanzines and cassettes, the films, the poets, the handouts and badges, mingling with all the odd-balls, misfits, hippies, punks and creatives and general outsiders to mainstream society who would turn up, being introduced to often new and challenging ideas and ways of thinking, the tension and energy and that whole sense of being ‘in the moment’ and not quite knowing what was going to happen, either during that evening or in terms of where ‘the movement’ might be headed – sometimes it really did feel like being part of a revolution… naive though that sounds now that was the kind of energy and buzz that you’d get at a Crass gig back in the day. Sometimes it was about the empowerment of realising that you weren’t the only one who thought this way, and gaining confidence from the whole DIY and ‘there is no authority but yourself’ ethic to believe in yourself. A revivalist Crass of old geezers on a stage going through the motions would no more recapture that spirit than The Sex Pistols doing huge stages in public parks recaptures what it must have been like at the 100 Club Punk Festival or Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976, or that real sense of ‘Oh shit, society is about to collapse!!’ I had as a kid when Steve Jones swore on the Bill Grundy show… Which isn’t to say the Crass night wouldn’t be a ‘right good laugh’, but it does feel as if theres something slightly sad about the whole thing.

In a way this guy is right. These are singular moments in time and space, that can’t just be recreated. It’s a contingent coming together of ideas, subjectivities, bodies, technologies, practices that at a particular moment in time opens up potential for the creation of something new, that elevates a time and place as a singular moment. It’s not something that is carried in one person as though you can find the reason for singular moments in a person’s biography. On the other hand such moments are fairly rare and perhaps you can re-visit events to re-examine their potential, to see if that potential can be re-actualised in different conditions, which I think was partly the idea that Jeffry Lewis was playing with on his album. He even has a comic strip about Trojan horses on the album cover and wonders if you can smuggle the ideas across without the harshness of the original presentation. I mean who can tell what would spark off those affective refrains in someone.

The other thing it makes me think is just how strange it is that a certain style of dressing or a style of music can carry such potential at a certain times and places and not in others. I was reminded of it earlier this week when I went to see a play by the Belarus Free Theatre. Back home in Minsk they perform underground, that is in semi-secrecy, with the constant threat of arrest for them and their audience. To recreate that atmosphere they followed the practices they do at home in Leeds. We had to gather at a redirection point and then follow a guide to where the play would take place. Of course we’re familiar with these tactics from political actions such as Reclaim The Streets. The group then performed a medley made from Harold Pinter’s plays, alongside excerpts from Pinter’s Nobel acceptance speech as well as testimony of torture from their own country. It was pretty powerful and vital stuff: the staging and performance left you with an overwhelming sense that this stuff really mattered, that Pinter’s plays and style really resonated with their situation and that underground theatre was an important art form in their country. This must reflect the cramped conditions in which it’s made but you wonder how long it would stay so vital under different conditions. So does recuperation matter? Well recuperation does describe something that happens, it is a material process but it isn’t the only process that occurs or come to that the most important one. Perhaps what we need to think about is whether the recuperation prevents the new from emerging. I quite like the way Sadie Plant puts it in an old interview:

I used to be fascinated and very concerned by this dilemma – the situationist notion of recuperation is still a very good way to think about it, and that’s how I came to be so interested. But I now think that what is really important is the sense of momentum and dynamism in the system – the fact that small scale, grass roots movements continue to emerge. Even if or when they do become absorbed into the establishment, political or artistic, there are always new tendencies coming up behind them. If one looks at dance music, for example, which moves very fast and continually changes, it is probably a mistake to regret the fact that, say, jungle or drum’n’ bass get absorbed or recuperated into the mainstream – what is vital is the emergence of new music, new undergrounds in their wake. Even if they are destined to become part of standard culture, they can still stir things up in the meantime. What I really fear, and what it is perhaps most important to oppose, is the possibility that such a dynamic would cease to operate: it’s the movement, the continual emergence of activity, that is really important.

Oh yeh and as to Brian’s suggestion that we call an anthology of our stuff “When Two sevens Clash” – here’s a potential front cover.


skinsb1.jpgSeeing as Brian brought up Max Gogarty I wanted to add my two peneth worth to an affair that has been sorely under reported. I mean I basically agree with everyone else that the whole thing was thoroughly heart warming. Still I want to waste a bit more bandwidth doing so.What I liked was the unveiling of the utter hatred that Guardian readers have for Guardian journalists. I suspect (hope) that it reflects a wider hatred people have for media land’s hegemony. One commenter talked about a Ceaucescu moment, the look of shock and disbelief that came over the dictator’s face as the crowd booed his speech was evident in the Guardian journalists’ cynical avoidance and misrepresentation of what was happening. At first I thought they were just trying to fan the flames at poor Maxie’s expense but on reflection I think they just couldn’t comprehend the sheer resentment at their shitty practices of class reproduction. Their response was an attempt to engineer a moral panic about Cyberbullying to deflect attention away from concrete media practice.They seem to have cast loose that particular sinking ship now though and the last couple of pieces on the affair have drawn the focus back to the practices of hegemony. This guy even cites Chomsky.

“Now, a Chomsky might say that if someone’s calling for one aspect of the media to be controlled, odds are they have an interest in the rest of the media; specifically that they want the message from their portion to get through; to swamp, devalue, undermine, counter the uncontrolled message. Chomsky always draws back from claiming an active overarching conspiracy – I do too; I can’t see how an orchestrated conspiracy could pervade every aspect of the mainstream media. Far easier to postulate a series of hidden hands – recruitment that favours those like yourself, training practices – like internships – that favour those with money, commissioning policies that – sorry Max – favour the well connected.”

It’s serendipitous that this storm in a teacup has occurred just as Nick Davies’ book on media practice gets reviewed and the word churnalism enters the vocabulary. Not that this hegemony stuff should be the basis of our politics but of course it has an effect and it’s interesting when its concrete workings get an airing. Not least because we’ve had our own dealings in that world.

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.