(Note to self: must use this blog more often)

We’ve recently re-worked our piece on anti-capitalist movements for inclusion in a book scheduled to come out next year (we’ll post it, along with the book details, once it’s been finally accepted). The original article was written some five years ago, and it was strange coming back to it after such a gap. For one thing, some of it was awfully clunky – reflecting our own lack of confidence, I think, and the fact that we had yet to develop a style of our own. But I was surprised how well some of the ideas still stood up, especially the whole movement-as-thing which we’re always banging on about. We’d already gone back to the piece for What is a life?, so maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. All the same, I find this sort of ‘consistency’ (continuity?) quite reassuring: we might be barking up the wrong tree, but at least it’s the same damn tree and we haven’t (yet) started chasing cars or howling at the moon…

There’s some link here to that notion of durability which we’ve been mulling over, altho’ I’m not really sure what that link is. How do you stay working together as a group without blood-letting or clinging to some doctrinal purity, and yet still remain open? I don’t think we’ve cracked it, although we’ve had our moments.

Finally I stumbled across this which has some smart things to say on the ‘identity politics of class’ and the thing-like nature of, well, things… I got really giddy until I saw that Nate had already been there, marking his territory. Arf, arf!

I recently finished the new Althusser collection, the Philosophy of the Encounter. In it Althusser sketches what he calls “aleatory materialism” or “materialism of the encounter.”

Althusser draws upon ancient atomist philosophy as a metaphor for what he means. In atomism there are two initial components before the world existed, atoms and the void. Atoms fall through the void, empty space, parallel to each other. They never touch each other and they have no relationships with each other. These two components do not suffice to form a world. A third component is needed, which will bring about relations between atoms. At least some atoms must encounter each other for a world to exist. That means at least one atom had to deviate from its path parallel to all the others, in order to run into another atom or atoms. The name of this swerving off of the parallel line is “clinamen.” It means “swerve,” and that’s the term I’m going to use. The swerve of one atom is what makes encounter between atoms possible.

Encounter alone is not enough to form a world. The atom which swerves might bounce off the atom it encounters, and get bumped back into its original path or some other path parallel to all other atoms. To form a world, there must be a relationship established during the encounter. The encounter or its effects must last.

There is no guarantee that an encounter will happen or that it or its effects will last. Even if they do last, there is no guarantee that the effects will continue to last. There is a world, so swerve must have happened, which means encounters must be possible, and lasting encounters or encounters with lasting effects must be possible. Still, none of this had to happen. The world could have not come into existence at all, or it could have come into existence with different traits. Its current make up may change. It may cease to last, that is, cease to last.

None of this is intended as a claim about actual atoms and void. The point is one about possibility and guarantees. There are no guarantees.

Althusser uses ancient atomism to think his way out of some bad habits of thought within the Marxist tradition and within philosophy. The habits basically consist of being too sure and thinking there are guarantees. One such habit is taking the accomplished fact of something’s existence – say, the world – as if to mean it had to exist this way, or that it had to exist. Another version is a certainty as to outcomes – what will and will not, can and can not, happen next.

In atomism, under Althusser’s discussion of it, in a sense the world already contains everything it needs. The pieces need rearranging, certainly, but such a rearranging is possible. Aatoms are capable of swerve. They are capable of encounters, and they are capable of making encounters last. They are, of course, also capable of continuing to fall parallel to each other such that encounter do not occur and they are capable of disentangling themselves from encounters such that the effects do not last.) The point is that there are capabilities. Capabilities do not determine outcomes, and outcomes do not indicate the absence of capabilities. To think otherwise is a mistake.

A former student of Althusser’s provides something that can serve as an example of this point, although it wasn’t intended as such an example, as far as I know. Jacques Ranciere discusses intelligence in his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. (I recommend this book very highly. If I can recommend only one book to you, I recommend Marx’s Capital in all three volumes. If I can recommend one additional book, it is this book by Ranciere.)

Imagine a pair of twins, taking all the same classes in school, with all the same teachers. One twin gets better grades than the other. Someone could point to these twins and say “one twin is more intelligent than the other.” One can easily agree to this, as long as one takes it as an assertion of synonymy: “intelligent” means “gets good grades”, and vice versa, so “more intelligent” means “gets more good grades” or something like that. Using a synonym doesn’t really tell us much more than the original term does, but one is free to use synonyms.

The problem comes when it is forgotten that the terms are synonyms, and someone says “this twin gets better grades because this twin is more intelligent.” This doesn’t make sense, because a synonym can not be the cause of another of its synonyms. (”Why is it so cold outside?” “Because it’s chilly.” That doesn’t explain anything.)

The thought process goes something like this. The person first says, at least implicitly, “I will say ‘is intelligent’ about someone who gets good grades.” They then say, “this one gets good grades, therefore this is intelligent.”Then they say “Because this one is intelligent, this one gets good grades.” The presence of good grades is asserted as evidence for the quality called intelligence (and more good grades or means more of the quality called intelligence), and the quality called intelligence is taken as the cause for the good grades.

The function of this argument is to say two things. First, “this one gets good grades because of a capacity to get good grades.” This partially right. The presence of something means there must be a possibility for that something. That can not be argued against. (To say something is actual but impossible is to contradict oneself.) But this is also partially wrong. Capacity does not cause something. That there is a possible outcome does not mean that outcome will occur. Something has to happen to make a result, and this happening is not and was not guaranteed to take place. Much of the time, possibility is noted after the fact.

The second thing this argument says is more pernicious. It say “That one did not get good grades because that one was not capable of getting good grades.” This is false. There is often very little way to identify genuine incapacity and impossibility, if there is such a thing at all. That good grades are not gotten says nothing about whether good grades could have been gotten. “Not gotten” does not mean “could not have been gotten.” This argument is essentially a claim and justification of inequality and hierarchy. It is thus politically to be opposed. It also, happily, does not hold philosophically. Similarly, that atoms do not or did not swerve does not mean swerve is or was impossible.

What is shut out in the assertion of incapacity is the aleatory, the openness of possibility, the prospect for swerve, encounter, maintaining of encounter or its effects, and dissolution of encounter or its effects. The world has (the atoms have) all the capacities they need. They can swerve, encounter, maintain encounters, and construct worlds. And dissolve them.

To say the world has all the capacities it needs does not, of course, mean the world is fine. The world needs a lot of different actualities, and a lot of actualities in the world need to be dissolved. The point is that the path from this world – a far cry from the best of all possible worlds – to better worlds starts here. To get from point A to point C starts at point A. That is to say, what is valuable in this perspective is to orient us toward what is as our starting point. The problem is not one of impossibility – inability to pierce ideology, incapacity to free ourselves from consumerism, and any of a number of despairing lamentations. The problem is that the current actuality must be abolished and – which is to say the same thing – a new actuality is to be produced using our capacities. Asserting impossibility is simply to state that one hasn’t started.

Again, though, there are no guarantees. Encounters may well not happen or not last last. Encounters that last for a time may cease to last. The point is that one must try. “Keep going” is what, Alain Badiou, another former associate of Althusser, takes as the primary ethical injunction. Of course, one must also try better and try to learn from experience as best one can. Part of keeping going is to never mistake “did not happen” or “has not happened” for “could not have happened” or, even worse “can not happen.”

The swerve of the atoms essentially serves for Althusser to distance himself from a certain of causality as centrally important. The point is not so much why something did or did not happen, and certainly not that something must have happened or could not have happened, but rather simply that it did happen or did not happen, or does happen or does not happen. Actuality, the material world as it is, that’s the starting point.

Along these same lines, it’s important not to read the swerve of the atom as an external occurrence, a hand which reaches down and knocks the atom out of its parallel course. That reintroduces a causal perspective, a “must be” or “can not be,” the logic – or rather, the fantasy – of the guarantee. The emphasis is simply that atoms swerve sometimes. If we can identify conditions when swerve seems to happen more often, then we can seek to replicate those conditions, remembering, of course, that outcomes are not guaranteed of pre-determined.

I want to read the atoms and their encounters rather simplistically as an analogy for people and encounters between people. There is a partial truth to despairing pictures of society, where people are alienated, isolated, atomized, falling along parallel lines with no relation to each other. Many people do not encounter others, do not talk to others very much, develop new connections. But this does not mean it has never happened, that it can’t happen, that it doesn’t sometimes happen.

People have a power like that of atoms to swerve (and to encounter, maintain encounters, continue to maintain encounters). This doesn’t mean people will swerve and so on, but they can. Badiou calls this a power of thought, as a power to disrupt established orders, and he vigorously asserts that people have this power. Ranciere similarly asserts that people have a power which can be read as akin to swerve, which is to say encounters may happen and orders can be disrupted, parallel lines can be deviated from. This power is not a conclusion or something deduced, something to convince anyone of, so much as is the starting point for meaningful activity.

When any outcome occurs, it’s reasonable to ask why it happened. Despite my earlier remarks downplaying causality, there is a value to asking why. It can help suggest better ways to act next time. It can help suggest responses in the present. It can help preserve a sense things could have gone differently, and things can be made different.

I find all of this resonant with my involvement in organizing. The basic unit of organizing as I see it is the one-on-one meeting. This is akin to the encounter between atoms. The goal is for the encounter to last. For an encounter to last, there must be an encounter. For there to be an encounter there must be a swerve, an atom must deviate from its trajectory falling parallel to all other atoms. A person or people must deviate from the lines along which people fall in relative non-relation to each other – lines including the grooves along which capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and other systems of power-over flow, as well as lines which are more mundane and more of an immediate obstacle: lack of confidence, lack of ideas on how to start or what to do, and various habits. These lines can be addressed by encouragement, training, success stories, invitation to first-hand experiences of actions and meetings, and so on, but as noted repeatedly there is no guarantee.

Swerve sometimes does not occur. (I want to note here as well that swerve is something atoms do. The swerve, they do not get swerved.) Absence of swerve may later be replaced by swerve, but it may not. We should neither despair nor think we can automatically condition swerve. It is a general safe working assumption that swerve occurs around other occurrences of swerve. Action occurs more around action, and the answer to inaction is action. The answer to falling in parallel lines is swerve.

When swerve does occur, it only leads to encounter when another atom is present. Otherwise the swerving atom just follows a different course through empty space. Concretely, in organizing, this means one must be able to talk to workers. Not as in “have the capacity” but as in “be in the presence of.” A site and a time to talk is required. This can be at work sometimes, but mechanisms exist to prevent or attack encounters at work, and early on – when encounters are fewer and the number of swerving atoms are fewer – we are more vulnerable.

Some means of getting workers’ contact information include going through dumpsters at the workplace to find information, following workers carefully, being given contact information, and looking in the phonebook. Other methods exist and should be documented, discussed, and experimented with. All of them take time. This is part of why I find ideology uncompelling as an explanation for problems in the world. It’s largely not needed. Capitalism steals our time. Attacking capitalism takes a lot of time, which many of us are hard pressed to come up with or don’t want to use for those purposes. If we worked half as much we would have more time to fight the bosses, among other things. Hence the extension of worktime not only can boost profits but can serve to make organizing harder.

When an encounter does happen, what happens? On the one hand, every encounter is absolutely unique. Every atom is unique, which means every encounter is also unique. There are more possibilities for encounters and combinations than there are atoms. (If one starts with a group of just four items with no qualities but their names, A, B, C, and D, the combinations of them exceed the number of items: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD, ABCD. In a similar sense, possibility exceed actuality, or in another sense, thought exceeds being.) That uniqueness is very important. Still, we can identify general procedures for the conduct of some encounters. This does not make encounters identical, it just provides us with some points of orientation, a framework with which we can try to act in ways to generate the encounters that produce actually existing differences. One of the values of aleatory materialism is that it orients toward practice. It looks what happens (this is the materialism part), tries to identify consistencies, qualities, things in common and different, things resonant and things opposed, across the range of what happens. It also tries to propose conducts (this is the aleatory part, the part about encounters) or experimentation with conducts, the generation of procedures. Another term for this is to say it is praxiological, it takes the study and production of practices as its object.

Every one-on-one meeting is unique, singular. But these singularities, these encounters, can still interact with others. They can last and in their lasting be part of forming bodies which can encounter others and form other bodies. This means they are not absolutely singular, atomic in the sense of unable to relate to each other. They have relationships with each other, or they can. The elements composing an encounter – the atoms, the people – are themselves unique, singular, but they can still encounter. The goal is for that encounter to form something which can itself swerve, encounter, and have encounters last.

I would like to suggest that swerve should be thought of as a power or a likelihood, the ability to actualize the possibilty of swerve. This power can be increased by exercise, and can be excited or encouraged by being in the presence of the exercise of this power. For this reason, after more people are swerving and encountering as individuals, in one on one meetings, the next step is a group meeting. This facilitates the composition of larger bodies, multiple encounters, and an increased rate of individual encounters. All of these are small steps toward confrontations which are themselves small steps toward replacing the world as it is, replacing it at least in part with actualities generated during the process of composition already described.

Althusser takes primitive accumulation, as the logic and the moment of the beginning of capitalism as well as the logic and the occurrences of the reproduction of capitalism, as an example of one form of encounter, of aleatory processes. Capitalism could well have not happened, or happened in different places and times, and it could well cease to be. I have in these notes tried to suggest another place to view the type of aleatory processes Althusser discussed, and I would like to suggest this is a site which could be productive if attended to more directly, the site of production of the encounters with which capitalism will be overturned. The goal is an accumulation of power direct against capital.

I don’t claim that the idiom used here is required for the carrying out of any of the proposals and practices suggested here. I think the theoretical idiom of aleatory materialism lends itself to the practical suggestions and practical idiom I favor, but the practices and practical idiom do no require the theoretical idiom and the theoretical idiom could also encounter and relate to other perspectives than mine. One could well ask, why use this theoretical idiom? This is fair question and one I don’t have a satisfactory answer for. I use it, and sometimes it’s useful to me. If anything, my view is that aleatory materialism should orient itself toward addressing and trying to practice the self-subjectification of the working class, more than the working class requires aleatory materialism.

There are two additional things that make aleatory materialism attractive to me. First, it does not assess people as atoms, as object, but as active, in motion, dynamic. People as actors of swerve. The emphasis is not class consciousness or proclivity to this or that position or ideological beliefs (all of which suggest not starting, staying in a position of incapacity), but rather on encounters and their outcomes and additional encounters. The second strength is that the focus is internal – the criteria are based on what happens in the encounter, inside the world or body formed, rather than external, subject to the dictates of leadership or the need to harm an enemy in combat – but not absolutely internal, because the encounter can produce bodies which then can encounter and produce (with) others.

I just got the copies of What is a Life? in the mail. Thanks for sending them. It looks good and as always I’m happy to be part of it and wish I had more to contribute than “fuck yeah!”

I was looking over a hardcopy of the thing today (it’s great how a hold-able object is different than a computer screen), then read the stuff on refrains in the earlier post. I’m curious if what I’m about to describe counts as a refrain.

I’m rather shy by inclination. I’ve worked a long time in different affective labor and in these – in particular my time working for one of the business unions – I got a lot better at managing socializing, and coming off as confident even if I don’t feel it. Partly this is because I had to mix in with lots of different folks than I had before and do so successfully (as measured by rather draconian bosses) and I got to feeling a lot more confident as a result. But also because I had a framework: there’s an agenda to the conversations. Figuratively (a goal, usually to get the person to convince themselves to sign a union card) and literally (broken up into five sections). Successfully navigating the agenda means asking lots of questions, getting the person to talk, knowing when to ask a follow up question (“I haven’t had any major run ins with the boss.” “It sounds like you have had some minor ones, though. What are some of those?”), etc.

After I did this for a while I got a lot better at situations, like being at parties and so on. “Where are you from? Where do you live? How long have you lived there? Where do you work? How long have you worked there?” Etc. Folk generally like the attention, and begin to feel like “this guy’s listening to me, he’s interested in me.” It made social interaction way easier for me. Not quite a refrain, I think, so much as a key or a scale or a chord – a few things one can do instinctively. The goal is to get people to tell stories, and to elaborate on those stories, and when appropriate tell corresponding stories, and if one does it enough one establishes a few techniques (which form an ensemble) one can use with some measure of success and confidence. It’s a way to provide one of the shapes required for a flow to happen in a social setting, since without any form or channel there can be no flow (just dissipation at infinite speed). It’s also ambivalent, something functional for positive as well as for negative ends, like the business unions’ instrumentalization of this mechanism.

There’s also a particular enjoyment of interacting with folk in a visit, sharing a refrain – the same feeling as in playing music with people, being in synch in time together, someone makes a change and it just fits and you make a change with them or in response. It’s complicated in this model, though, because the organizer has the agenda consciously and the other person doesn’t.

I really like this photo. A friend who suggested it illustrated smooth space sent it to me. If you look at desert part though it’s not smooth like a pool table but is marked by the flow of sand. It’s a space of flows but unlike the striated space on the right which has a transcendent grid imposed on it, the deserts dunes are self organised according to an immanent logic. It’s the flow of energy, transmitted as wind and gravity, through a substance whose cohering traits lead to the formation of dunes.

The overlaying of the body of the earth with a grid relates to a wider hylomorphism and paying attention to the self-organising traits of matter is the difference between an architect and an artisan for Deleuze and Guatarri. Sometimes when you’re flying on bright days you can be really struck by the gridding that marks the body of the earth. Flying over towns and villages is the only times that you get an architects eye view of town plans, the viewpoint (and judgement) of God. I remember flying over Spain on a clear day and seeing a wind farm on a mountain range. It looked quite unlike a man made design, a very odd shape. Then I realised that it was about harnessing flow and it had to take the dynamics of that flow into account in its design. So the wind turbines were positioned at highpoints that had uninterrupted wind flow and this dictated the shape of the roads servicing them. Of course all assemblages are mixed and the wind farm still had an architect who was bound up by wider flows of capital and indeed the flows of our struggles and desires. Anyway nothing ground breaking but a couple of pretty pictures none the less.

This post is in the spirit of tidying up the blog and making it intelligible to any poor bastard who happened to stumble across it.

The Free Association is, amongst other things, a collective writing project. The way of working that we’ve settled on is to decide on a vague area for a project and then blog on topics that seem related. We then have a discussion meeting on the general area. We record that discussion and then transcribe the recording, précising it a little as we go. The last few entries on the blog have been such transcriptions, which is why they don’t make much sense.

What we’re aiming for is a boiling down process where we discuss the previous transcript, transcribe that discussion and then discuss that. This goes on until it gets to the stage when someone has to go away and write a first draft, but when they do they have a lot to draw on. It always seems to be that we’re struggling to grasp the problem we’re approaching and it’s only during the actual writing process that it starts to become clear. For many years we were a reading group. The book we were reading was the object around which we transformed ourselves but making the move to collective writing makes the transformation much more active. Although, the turn to collective writing was bound up with a more interventionist, re-engagement with social movements on our part, so I suppose that inevitably would be more active.

Anyway the piece that we produced is here; it’s sort of the final installment of a trilogy. We’ll now return to occasional posts on things that come up.

We’ve all experienced those moments of excess, moments – such as Seattle, Genoa, Evian, Gleneagles – when we’ve put our lives on the line, or felt like we have. Felt the vulnerability of our tender human flesh. This feeling is real. Demonstrators in the global South have always risked bullets. Since the repression of anti-EU summit protests in Gothenburg in June 2001 and the murder of Carlo Giuliano in Genoa a few weeks later, this risk has become real for us in the North too. And even without ‘live’ ammunition, police batons, boots, tear gas, water cannon can still do mortal damage to our bodies… the risks may be low, but our lives could be snuffed out in an instant.

We’ve all experienced those moments of excess during which we feel that total connection with our fellow human beings, when everything becomes possible, when absolutely anything could happen! Those moments when our energy threatens – or rather promises – to spark a cascade of changes which sweep through society, opening up a whole new range of possibilities. When we rupture capital’s fabric of domination: breaking time. Rapture!

But these events – these moments of excess – don’t last forever. It’s simply not possible for our bodies and minds to survive that level of intensity indefinitely. And indefinite ‘events’ probably aren’t even desirable. We frequently leave lovers and/or loved-ones behind to travel to such gatherings. And we miss them! Or we know our allotment or garden needs tending. Or there’s a favourite cycle ride or view or cityscape we need to enjoy again. ‘There is a rose and I should be with her. There is a town unlike any other.’

So what happens when we ‘return’ to the ‘real world’? Counter-summit mobilisations (say) allow this immensely productive focusing of our energies, but how can we sustain this movement in our ‘habitual lives’. How can we ‘do politics’ in the ‘real world’? How can we live a life? And we don’t mean simply survive, hanging on in there until the next event… or our fortnight’s holiday in the sun, or our Friday-night bender, or our Sunday-afternoon walk in the park, or our ‘adventure weekend’ – none of which are any real escape from capitalism at all, but simply another form of capitalist (re)production, recreation of ourselves as workers. We mean live: life despite capitalism.

We don’t really have too many answers to these questions. But we believe that thinking about them can help us to better understand the function of social centres, say, and the way we conceive the borders between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, between what is ‘pure’ and what is not. Thinking about these questions can help us understand the potential of various issues and struggles – urban development and ‘regeneration’, climate change, precarity and so on – perhaps help us recognise our own power in a productive way, that is, in a way which allows it to resonate and become amplified. It involves recognising that we always live in the real world, that there are no ‘pure spaces’, there is no ‘pure politics’, and that we should welcome this. Because purity is also sterility. It’s the messiness of our ‘habitual’ lives which gives them their potential. This messiness, this ‘impurity’, the contaminations of different ideas, values and modes of being (and becoming) are the conditions which allow mutations, some of which will be productive. It’s from this primordial soup of the ‘real world’ that new life will spring. ‘Only in the real world do things happen like they do in my dreams.’

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In an article “On the New Philosophers” Deleuze sticks the boot into Bernard-Henri Levy , et al, saying:

“We’ve been trying to uncover creative functions which would no longer require an author-function for them to be active (in music, painting, audio-visual arts, film, and even philosophy). This wholesale return to the author, to an empty and vain subject, as well as to gross conceptual stereotypes, represents a troubling reactionary development… That’s how things go: precisely when writing and thought were beginning to abandon the author-function, when creations no longer require an author-function for them to be active, the author-function was co-opted by radio and television, and by journalism. Journalists have become the new authors, and those writer who wanted to become authors had to go through journalists or become journalists themselves.”

Well this immediately made me think of some of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, et al. Just as contemporary art practice and theory does away with the author-function then it’s re-imposed in an emptied out and corrupted form as a subsection of journalism.

Interestingly the artist as producer has been proposed by some as a paradigmatic figure of immaterial labour and precarious work, just look at this snippet from a larger interview

“Atelier Europa Team: One of your theses is that conceptual artists are “the blueprint’s for today’s “affective labourer”. Why do you focus explicitly on the conceptual artists?

Marina Vishmidt: To be quite concise and general, conceptual art heralded the de-materialisation of the art object, focusing instead on the symbolic mediations that instantiate art as an event and mode of communication. The object has also been displaced from contemporary capitalist production as it concentrates on branding, differentiation, lifestyle marketing, attention management and so forth. Both share the feature of valorising information, and some conceptual artists practices were in many ways prototypes of today’s standard IP regulations. In fact, it could be argued that the de-materialised object is actually information, as it is subject to the same forms of proprietary relations.”

Perhaps this opens out more widely onto the role of the celebrity in our culture. Just as immaterial labour and the dissolving of the object reveals all production to be collective and all of life to be creative then the author-function or even the genius-function is killed but comes back to haunt us, zombie like, through the figure of the celebrity. I mean, what is the celebrity but the hollowed out genius-function, famous for being famous, for being empty, for being non-productive or rather corruptive of the collectivity of production.

The celebrity and ‘intellectual property rights’ are partners in crime. Our regulatory and juridical systems but also our political imaginaries haven’t escaped the outdated figure of the abstract, autonomous liberal individual. But let’s not underestimate the unholy power of Paris Hilton’s rotting corpse. Just because these forms are corrupt and are, to some extent, based on an illusion, doesn’t mean they aren’t concrete. There’s no easy way out. Zombies can be brought down with a bullet to the head but don’t take this too literally, tempting though it may seem to Dando a few celebs, the only real answer is to separate our heads from their bodies and dissolve them into the living flesh of the multitude, something much more monstrous. In fact perhaps we’re living a B-movie, fuck ‘Aliens versus Predator’ this is ‘Zombies versus the Blob.’

Such comment as there has been in the mainstream UK press has uniformly cast the current French anti-CPE struggles as wrong headed and conservative. As the editorial in the Independent puts it:

“This is not the expansive internationalism of 1968. Rather this modern leftism is inward-looking; it wants state intervention to preserve a jobs-for life system.”

Lets ignore the revisionism in how such a paper would really have covered 1968, what’s important here is the ever-familiar voice of TINA. Neo-liberal capitalism is the only future that is even thinkable let alone possible. All struggles against it are merely anachronistic, last man spasms.

The trouble is history refuses to end. “History isn’t a straight line. It moves in a series of uncontrolled breaks, jolts and ruptures.” And it’s precisely events like this French movement, such ‘Moments of Excess’ that can snap history in half and force it to re-organise. The starkness of the Independent’s editorial shows that a little glimpse of this has crept into the journalist’s peripheral vision. During such moments all subtlety and ambiguity is dropped, all pretence at objectivity vanishes and they openly state that they are neo-liberals and that there is no alternative. Like Simon Bates smashing a Sex Pistol’s record, such starkness is partly born of the unsteady wooziness brought on by history moving.

I’m getting that feeling full in the face, a vertiginous exhilaration that’s being held in check because I can’t find a way to concretise it in my habitual life. But I can still feel it re-casting recent history. It’s hard to look at last November’s riots in the banlieue as a clash of civilisations any more because there is an obvious potential for commonality between them and the present anti-CPE struggles. And even more directly the whole cycle of Counter-globalisation struggles really comes into focus. Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, sort of thing. To paraphrase an abstract I wrote last week for an unwritten paper:

“In recent years the counter-globalisation movement has been able to constitute itself by finding, in international summits, a figure that could stand in for the abstraction of neo-liberal global capital. While this provided the moment of focus through which the common of the movement could emerge, it also imposed a particular form on the movement, namely that of existing through a series of events. The problematic then becomes: how do such events relate to the experience of daily life? How can the common of the movement be concretised outside of those events to find resonances in wider society? How can the movement overcome the limits of its form?”

A series of social movements in Europe proposed precarity as a concept to solve this problematic and now the anti-CPE struggles have pushed that on to a whole other level. We can now see that the Anti-war movement couldn’t find a way out of the counter-globalisation movement’s problematic because it also moved from event to event. Struggles have to resonate into habitual life if foundational rupture is to occur. Increased precariousness in habitual life is how the global north experiences neo-liberalism and what provides the potential of a commonality with struggles in the global south.

Let’s be clear on this, precarity isn’t a sociological category. It’s a political concept; it deals with the potential for resonance of struggles. It isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about an already existing common condition in the world around which a unified struggle can be created. Rather it’s a sense that different struggles, starting from the particular circumstances people find themselves in, might have the chance of entering a relationship of resonant amplification.

And this brings me to the main point about Moments of Excess and the reason they can re-cast history – They are moments of intense creativity and generation. It’s only the cauldrons of social movements that can give birth to the new social forms that can provide an exit from the binary of Neo-liberalism or post-war Fordism.

I know I risk becoming trop français here, but I couldn’t let this one slip through… Spotted this on the libcom forums yesterday, which is proving a great place for first hand reports as much as analysis & debate. Anyway, this comes from someone who’d just spent five days in Rennes and picks up as they’re leaving a demo/march/riot:

As I left with the militants I had come with, yesterday afternoon, we saw a manif (=demo) of 1000 lycées (=schoolkids) The militants didn’t have a clue what it was about. It seemed to be heading to the centre comerciale (=shopping centre), where a blockade had been organised for the next day. But it was a day early. When people refuse to wait for organised days of action but just begin; when militants don’t know every demo’s time and place; when the cry of ‘vive la commune‘ goes up from 2000 on a spontaneous demo in Paris against the propagation of the CPE – we live in interesting times.

Again, if we see movements as things, then we need to know who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. But when we see movements as a verb, as the moving of social relations, then of course they have no boundary, no inside and no outside – which is precisely why they are social movements, not discrete lifestyle pockets (hmm, sounds like a fashion tip). And also why social centres is something of a misnomer: when things really start to happen, then those centres will be outflanked and outmoded (which is great). And finally, this reminds me of a discussion about Gleneagles/Stirling last week where someone complained that meetings made (at the camp) on the Monday evening “weren’t implemented” (on the roads) on the Wednesday morning – as if it’s some sort of conference where policy is discussed, ratified and set in stone. I can just see this fellow in Rennes trying to turn back a mob of schoolkids with the anguished cry of “No, no, no, I thought we had consensus on this – this isn’t planned for today, please go home…”

Good meeting last night at the CommonPlace about recent events in France. Made me return to some nagging questions about identity, definition and movement. One person (old anarcho-type) made a strong intervention denouncing the ‘statist trade unions’ and their stewards who’d pointed out troublemakers to the riot cops. He insisted that the key point now was for the movement to define itself in opposition to all those who would ‘recuperate’ it or sell it out.

Fair enough, in some ways. But in other ways what’s been exciting about France has been how the movement has kept exploding outwards, jumping over all definitions imposed on it (from within & without). So while it’s nominally over a change to labour law, it’s quickly blowing up into something more general, a questioning of widespread ‘precarity’ etc etc. And so (jumping back on a hobby horse) we return to the idea of ‘movement’ as a moving of social relations, not a thing, but a process – and a process that has no end. One of the great pieces of graffiti from France is ‘I don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’. Apart from being punk as fuck, it’s also a great take on ‘many yeses, one no’ and ‘walking we ask questions’.

Of course part of that moving (walking?) will involve setting limits, defining ourselves etc. In D&G terms these are moments of territorialisation. These are inevitable and can be really productive. They can be pretty big & therefore more ‘permanent’ (setting up a social centre) or small & more ‘negotiable’ (eg a social centre refusing to become an ’employer’). In Paris, for example, that process of definition would enable people to defend themselves against CRS attack or those anti-social elements that the the press have seized upon – literally creating safe spaces. Or here in Leeds, setting up a social centre has involved real moments of constraint (jumping through bureaucratic and legal hoops, never mind integrating ourselves into the money economy). But it shouldn’t stop there. As soon as we draw lines in the sand they should immediately become outdated, irrelevant or obstructive. Or to put it another way, these moments of constraint are themselves productive, creating the space for us to push through them and move on again (de-territorialisation).

This is the ‘rhythm of the multitude’ (© DJ Milburn), an alternating process of contraction and expansion that’s going on all the time. Or a (non-dialectical) pulsing. We set limits but then immediately try to overcome them. The danger is that we get stuck within those definitions and stop moving. Some people from the 1 in 12 were at the meeting and they talked about how the 1 in 12 has got stuck in a very fixed identity, and is inward-looking and energy-sapping (I’m paraphrasing here). I suspect this is a common social centre problem: the building gets established and then builds its own momentum, becoming something to be defended at all costs. The CP seems to be still on an upward/outward move, but already you can see the first traces of institutionalised thinking: ‘We must have a cafe’, ‘We must have gigs’, ‘We must open during the week’ instead of asking ‘Why?

Anyhoo, I’ll end on an upbeat note. This is from a blog from Montpellier (emphasis added). It speaks loads about what the moving of social relations can mean:

The road to the station is blocked by a line of CRS police vans, in front of which is a small pro-CPE demo of about 10 – 15 people, in front of them there’s a line of CRS on foot, and in front of them a double line of demonstration stewards preventing a confrontation. Most of the demonstrators are not up for a confrontation, but some chuck eggs, cans, fairly light things at the pro-CPE demo. The stewards, who are mainly students, are urging demonstrators to continue quickly past – they’re really enthusiastic about giving orders. Someone ironically shouts ”Be submissive! Do as you’re told!” One of the stewards I know personally – he’s the son of anarchist friends: I shout angrily at him, ”Have you got no shame? How can you protect your enemies?” He looks upset. Lycee and technical college students hold a sit-down meeting in the big square in the centre of town, lots of different youths getting up to speak, though nothing beyond youth precarity is talked about. A cry goes out – ”To the station!”, echoed by a 16 year old girl from my village, who says she wants to occupy the railway tracks. Having given her a few English lessons a year or so before, I had no idea she was rebellious. Funny how you don’t know people until there’s a situation like this – and perhaps people don’t really begin to know themselves until there’s a situation like this …People return to the main square, where already people are drifting off towards the Corum Theatre in order to occupy it. Some think the call to go to the station was a manipulation so as to have time for the cops to get to the Corum … I see the guy I knew who’d been a demo steward protecting the pro-CPE demonstrators three hours earlier, the son of anarchist friends, and he waves me over, saying, ”What I did earlier back there was stupid, really stupid, but I was the first to get truncheoned by the cops here, trying to get into the Corum”. If I was religious, I’d call it ‘redemption’, but let’s just call it ‘radicalisation’: sometimes radicalisation only takes a few hours.

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.