Like much of the planet’s population (if the media is to be believed) I have done a certain about of reflecting and even mourning over the past week or so. Of course I am glad that Nelson Mandela did not die in prison. But at the same time I cannot help feeling a certain nostalgia for that time when he was incarcerated on Robben Island — at least for that part of my life, the 1980s, when I’d become aware of him, his plight and the broader struggle he was part of.
A couple of us recently traveled to Dublin to speak at the “Struggles in Common” conference organised by our good friends the Provisional University. While we were there we did a talk at the Seomra Spraoi social centre, for which we created this rather fetching poster. For this event we tried out some material which later ended up in our Rock ‘n’ Suicide article. The talk was well received and led to some really great discussions but looking back at the poster it’s apparent an important theme was lost between this talk and the subsequent article.
Political organisation in post-crisis UK
A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming issue of arranca, no. 47
The year is 1973. David Bowie, in the guise of his persona Ziggy Stardust, is on stage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. It is the end of a hugely successful sixty-gig tour. The figure of Ziggy Stardust has deeply affected many – the cultural movement of Glam he has sparked is an important moment in loosening gender roles. Yet just before the final song of the night, ‘Rock’n’Roll Suicide’, Ziggy announces: “Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.”
The concepts and words used typically to describe and understand our realities are inadequate to the task of interpreting, and accompanying, those societies in movement.
It is as if the capacity to name has been trapped in a period transcended by the active life of our peoples. Many of the assumption and analyses that shaped us during the struggles of the sixties and seventies have become, to borrow a phrase from Bruadel, “long-term prisons”. Quite often, they stifle creative capacity and condemn us to reproduce what already known and has failed.
A new language, one that is capable of talking about relationships and movements, must break through the tangle of inherited concepts to analyse structures and organizational frameworks. We need expressions capable of capturing the ephemeral, the flows that are invisible to the vertical, linear eyes of our masculine, legalistic, and rational culture. That language does not yet exist, and thus we must invent it in the heat of the various resistances and collective creations. Or, better yet, pitch it out from the underground of popular sociality so that it can grow out onto the great avenues, where it can become visible and, thus, be adopted, altered, and transformed by societies in movement.
In short, we need to name ourselves in such a way that is faithful to the spirit of our movements and that turns fear and poverty into light and hope; a magical gesture reminiscent of the zumbayllu (spinning top). Ernesto, the forlorn protagonist of Arguedas’s book The Deep Rivers, uses the zumbayllu as a means to escape the violence of his boarding school into what Cornejo Polar calls the “unusual movement of brotherhood”. I employ the image of the zumbayllu as a reflection of societies in movement that, in order to exist, to ward off death and oblivion, must move themselves from their inherited place. These societies must keep moving, because to stop means falling into the abyss of negation, to cease to exist. At this stage of capitalism, our societies only exist in movement as the Zapatista communities teach us so well, as do the Indians throughout the Americas, the landless farmers, and, increasingly, those condemned to the margins of the urban world.
Images like the spinning top bring us closer to the magic world of movements, which can move quickly from horror and hatred to fraternity, and vice versa. The double movement, the rotation on its own axis and the passage across a plane, are two complementary ways of understanding social change: displacement and return. Indeed, it is not enough just to move, to vacate its inherited material and symbolic place; a type of movement is also necessary that is a dance, circular, capable of piercing the epidermis of an identity that does not let itself be trapped because with each turn it reconfigures itself. Displacement and return can be understood as repetition and difference. The zumbayllu, as a reflection of the other society, is, philosophically speaking, committed to intensity over representation, destined always to sacrifice movement to the alter of order.
The spinning top of social change is dancing for itself. We do not know for how long to where. The temptation to give it a push in order to speed up its rhythm can bring it to a halt, despite the good will of those trying to “help”. Perhaps the best way to promote it is to imagine that we ourselves are part of the zumbaylla – spinning, dancing, all and sundry. To be a part of it, without any control over the final destination.
This fantastic metaphor is from the Introduction to Raúl Zibechi’s new (in English) book, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. Zibechi explores how the practices of movements such as the piqueteros and recuperated factories in Argentina, landless workers in Brazil and Zapatistas in Mexico challenge theories of social change centred on parties, trade unions and other institutions of the ‘working class’, the Left. What’s exciting is not only these movements’ insistence on being autonomous from the state and from state-oriented groups, but the way both territorialisation (i.e. creating and sustaining a territory) and social reproduction seem to be at the heart of their practices. These groups have all moved beyond the attempt simply to reappropriate wealth, demanding that the state to provide healthcare or education or food, for example. Instead they working out how to produce wealth.
Mark Fisher makes some really important points in this interesting blog post, The Happiness of Margaret Thatcher. The stuff about ‘outrage’ – and the important role papers like the Daily Mail play in creating it – seems particularly relevant. As he says, ‘Outrage is not merely impotent, it is actively counterproductive, feeding the very enemy we claim to want to defeat.’ It engenders weariness (‘we wake up in the morning … [and ask] what are we supposed to be outraged about today?’) – and I’d say this is part of a more general class war weariness.
It’s also an example of the way we (the Left, most broadly understood) have been drawn onto enemy terrain. Not only the discourse of ‘welfare’ (‘faring well’ is now bad, is it?), but also that of the economy and growth. Just think of the furore amongst the Left – and I admit it’s captivated me as well, but then I’m a professional economist as well as a communist, so that’s my excuse – over the ‘spreadsheet scandal’. It’s not just a furore: some liberal-left commentators have expressed jubilation that Reinhart and Rogoff’s results have been shown to be flawed. As Fisher says, it’s a ‘liberal leftist compulsion – rife in social media – to point to superficial contradictions in conservative ideology. “‘They believe in small government… until it comes time to control women’s bodies!’ Zing!”’
The question, as ever, is what should we do then? Fisher’s conclusion I think complements George Caffentzis’s argument that ‘speed is not is enough for political effect, momentum (mass times velocity) is necessary as well’ – an argument we repeat in our ‘On shock and organisation’ chapter in this book – and our interest in subjectivities and the affect of winning:
We must engage, just not on its terms. Instead of the ‘hot’ response of outrage (with its immediate nugget of satisfaction, achieved at the cost of a long-term political impotence), we need a cooler stance of appraising the enemy’s weapons and strategies, and thinking about how to counter, overcome and ultimately outwit them. Is a left-wing version of the Mail possible? If not, how could we construct a discursive hub that is as successful for the left as the Mail is for the right? This needs to be part of a broader strategy of devoting our energy and resources to goals and projects that will deliver change in the long term, breaking us out of the short-termism that has become endemic in the age of Twitter. What we need to overturn is something that has been the case since before Thatcher’s rise to power – the tendency for reactionary political forces to be pro-active, and for progressives to be reactive.
The following is the final section of our larger article Up We Rise: Reflections on Global Rebellion. We extract it here because it contains some arguments we’d like people to engage with and at 3,000 words it is slightly more blog (and one sitting) friendly than the original, which was written as a pamphlet:
At the beginning of 2012, as the promise of the global wave of protest began to fade, some asked just what had been gained from the events of 2011. Weren’t we back in the same state of impasse where we’d begun? The situation reminds us of a tale from the early 1990s of a football manager trying to introduce a more patient, continental style of football to players used to the directly attacking nature of the English leagues. During a training session the manager asks his attackers to pass and move in the final third of the pitch instead of launching the usual early cross into the box. After five minutes the centre forward pipes up: “What was the point of all that running, we’re back in the same positions as we started?” “Yes”, says the manager, “but the defenders aren’t.”
We suspect that the field of class struggle across the world has been fundamentally altered by a year of dramatic events. Yet much of that impact has taken place in the opaque and unpredictable realm of desires, expectations and the sense of what’s possible.1 Moreover, just as the economic situation has had waves of collapse, false recoveries and renewed crises, so the social struggles and movements thrown up in response have been through waves of intense activity followed by the dissipation of energies and then the re-emergence of struggle in new form. This problem has presented itself as a sense of a lack of continuity and cohesion, heightened by the geographical and temporal dislocation of struggles. Huge social movements are springing up around the world but they are peaking at different times. This, plus the geographical distances involved, makes it difficult for struggles to cohere together on a global scale.
As the crisis turns into a battle over ‘the new normal’ it’s ever more vital that these changes in class composition are given a political expression. Of course we can’t know for sure what form this will ultimately take but the events of 2011 point us to three distinct yet related problems that must be tackled along the way.
1. We need to develop ways to keep very different forms of struggles articulated together.
The cornerstone of austerity propaganda is that “we are all in it together”. The implication is that we all have to make sacrifices in order to get the economy moving again. Rising pay and bonuses for directors, bankers and executives reveal the lie behind this claim: the rich are simply still getting richer, at our expense. But the myth of unity is telling because it highlights the fractured way in which we experience crisis. Austerity is being rolled out by national governments at varying times and speeds. Even within national boundaries there are geographical differences and temporal lags, with the real effects of budget cuts not being apparent for several years. And different communities come under attack at different times or are pitted against each other in the battle for scarce resources.
Divide-and-rule is an age-old tactic, of course, but the problems of articulation have been compounded by the social decomposition wrought by neoliberalism. At times it can be hard for those involved in one struggle to even recognise the social field in which other struggles are being played out. The labour movement was slow to engage with the Occupy phenomenon, for example, and never achieved any sort of successful collaboration. That said, there have been moments when the different ‘tribes’ have appeared to move in concert. Even respectable union leaders, such as the head of Trade Union Congress Brendan Barber, have talked of supplementing strikes with civil disobedience, using UK Uncut as an example of the latter. There is a danger here of thinking only in terms of formal alliances and agreements, and falling back on the traditional terrain of organized politics (as happened in Wisconsin). The loose, horizontal networks so prevalent in 2011 risk being swallowed up or squashed in such an arrangement. Instead, it might be more useful to frame the problem as one of enhancing the resonance and avoiding the dissonance between different struggles. In this light we might look to create common spaces in which the different tribes can contaminate one another, while allowing for the possibility that quite new subjectivities will emerge.
In addition, however, we need to tackle the problem thrown up by the experience of the August riots in the UK. The weak ties which had helped build the movement during its upsurge in early 2011 were ill-suited to the aftermath of the summer. Instead of offering a pole around which oppositional social forces could cohere, the post-Millbank movement simply disintegrated in the face of an orchestrated backlash. Computerized social networks proved a poor medium for dealing with shocked metrosexuals who suddenly discovered their inner fascist. One tweet we received summed it up: it suggested the day after the riots be henceforth known as “The Great Day of De-Friending and De-Following”. So at the same time as developing ways of keeping different forms of struggles articulated together, we need to find ways to deal with the eruption of new social movements, in order to mitigate the effects of shock. In fact it’s not inevitable that those suffering shock will fall back onto comforting old tropes (such as the innate criminality of the urban poor). Shock can also provoke new thinking, knock us out of habitual patterns and make us question the usually unthought assumptions and presuppositions of existing society. In this light the problem becomes how movements can learn to respond to shock with open rather than closed affects.2
2. We need to recognize the scale and length of the crisis, and develop ways to sustain political organization across the ebb and flow of distinct protest waves.
The occupation of physical space, whether as street protests, camps or mass assemblies, was a repeated theme throughout 2011. We can see this as a move to supplement the weak ties of loose networks with the stronger bonds of long-term engagement. But the intensity and commitment of 24-hour occupations put up barriers to participation and inevitably run the risk of burn-out. Our forms of organization and collective analysis must be able to sustain themselves across movement downturns and transformations in motivating issues. The solution to this lies in adjusting our political imaginaries to the longer timescale of struggle created by the size of the crisis, but also in developing forms of consistency. As George Caffentzis has pointed out, the experiences of the last year have shown that speed alone is not enough for political effect. We need momentum as well. That can be achieved by a small group travelling very fast; but if we’re serious about change, it must also mean a much larger number of people moving at a slower pace.3
This problem of durability operates on two different levels. First, there is a growing tendency for groups to form in response to a problem and then dissolve without leaving a trace. This ‘firefighting’ pattern is nothing new (and of course the history of the radical movement over the last two hundred years is one of groups forming and dissolving). But by the early years of the 20th century, many parts of the workers’ movement had developed a whole range of institutions – clubs, bars, meeting halls, educational associations and so on – which meant that it was possible to live large parts of life within its orbit. Histories, practices and ideas were passed from generation to generation, in spaces which saw themselves as social and cultural as much as political. When groups collapsed and campaigns dissolved, people could still fall back into a left culture where it was possible to re-think and re-group. Two successive world wars and a massive change in class composition destroyed much of that world. And neoliberalism has done its best to obliterate the little which has survived: the attack on the organisations of the labour movement was also an attack on those institutional memories, the collective practices and values that had been built up over a century of struggle.
Here we come to the second level of the durability problem. Social decomposition is also carried through by the promotion of a neoliberal subjectivity. As neoliberal subjects we are expected to treat life as an economic project, constantly prepared to re-invent ourselves. There is little space for memory within that neoliberal subjectivity, because that would involve commitments and connections that make no economic ‘sense’. And neoliberalism has little to say about the future, either. In the boom years, there was no future because the only way to imagine tomorrow was as a repeat of today (history had ended, after all). In a time of crisis, it’s impossible to envisage any future at all. Instead, neoliberalism is always all about now, about the time of consumption. In a world that sees no past and no future, it’s hardly surprising that durability is a problem.
There is little point in mourning the death of the stable communities that produced the 20th century left and its over-arching narratives. Today communities are just as likely to form around disembodied networks as around location or employment, ideas circulate almost instantaneously, and social movements can erupt from apparently nowhere. Occupy, the Spanish indignados, and the Greek square occupations all emerged from this new composition. The problem is that movements can disappear almost as quickly as they spring up, which is why two recent attempts at re-invigorating Occupy are notable. The first, Occupy Sandy, is a coordinated relief effort to distribute resources and volunteers to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy.4 Stepping into the vacuum left by the official response, the group has been able to apply its infrastructure, techniques and skills to promote a “People Powered Recovery”. In this we can see a conscious effort to draw on the political capital made by Occupy Wall Street and inflect it in a new direction. The repertoire of techniques employed in Zuccotti Park– the assembly form, open mic and consensus decision-making – is proving well-suited for this project, where there is a clearly defined goal and a loosely shared set of values. Those forms, however, are less adequate for thinking strategically or shifting direction. The second example, Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee project, represents a more conscious attempt to re-invent a movement and open up new political terrain.5 It’s a step away from the open network model and towards a notion of distributed leadership, where a small group self-organises, researches the viability of an initiative and then presents it to a wider network.
Although Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt both grapple with the problem of re-invigorating social movements and building sustainable forms of organisation, neither offers a model that can be uncritically applied. Both depend on a continuity of individuals and groups that can not always be relied on. But they do show that it is possible for movements to consciously re-invent themselves, extend their reach and break new ground. Invention can be organised.
3. We need to face up to the crisis of political representation by moving struggles beyond simple protest, beyond the purely symbolic, to the direct satisfaction of material needs.
The mainstream consensus is that if our lives are to improve, we have to exit recession. In other words, ‘growth’ is the only way out of the crisis. There is a wilful amnesia at work here, as if the crisis was not itself a result of capitalist growth. Moreover, it’s clear that there are only two ways to achieve growth: either cut debt now by imposing a programme of austerity (Plan A); or defer the issue of debt and instead try to stimulate the economy (Plan B). The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that neither plan looks set to deliver. Within Europe, three years of rigid austerity have failed to stimulate EU economies; and Plan B’s neo-Keynesian approach harks back to a class composition that no longer exists.
In order to move out of this impasse, we need to recognize that, from an anti-capitalist perspective, we don’t experience the current crisis as negative GDP growth or a stock market slump. Instead it is manifested in falling wages, rising prices, home repossessions, cutbacks, increasing precarity and so on. In other words, the crisis is played out as a crisis of social reproduction. And we can understand social reproduction in two ways. First, the ways in which we are produced and reproduced as workers for capitalism (whether waged or unwaged), and at the same time the ways in which we produce and reproduce ourselves as human beings. Second, a focus on all the things that are necessary for a good life, like proper housing, healthcare, education, a sustainable environment, decent food and access to networks of care and support. At this point we can start to think of a Plan C, or multiple Plan Cs: attempts to move beyond protest and to make material improvements in our lives which do not depend on capitalist growth. In other words, Plan Cs are the beginning of a future, a way out of the permanent ‘now’ of neoliberal subjectivity.
These new struggles are emerging now across the whole field of social reproduction, from homes, health and education, to food, utilities and transport. In Greece, food exchange markets and social medical centres have been part of a wider experiment to develop new ways of living, as parts of civil society begin to collapse. In Spain, the anti-eviction campaign which grew out of the 15M movement has played a key role in forcing the banks to call a two-year moratorium on home repossessions, while an Andalusian mayor became a cult hero for leading farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic goods.
Inevitably these attempts at innovation have so far remained exceptional, confined to those hardest hit, but as the crisis deepens they may offer the shape of things to come. In this context, it’s possible that collective action around debt could unlock further fields of action, and create a space for the articulation of different struggles. A historical example of this can be found in the UK anti-poll tax movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.6 This formed around the slogan ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’. It expressed the articulation of a common strategy between those who couldn’t afford to pay the new tax and those, outraged by the tax’s unfairness, who would simply refuse to pay.
The movement’s success was founded on three elements. First, activists had noted the already low payment rates for the local tax which the poll tax was meant to replace. In other words, there was a pre-existing anti-capitalist dynamic, even if it wasn’t understood in that way. Second, by organizing on a street-by-street basis, the entry costs and risks of participating were kept as low as possible: in order to become part of the anti-Poll Tax movement, all people had to do was not pay a tax that many couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Many people agreed to sign up on the condition that more than half the people in their street joined. Once momentum had built up, it became virtually unstoppable. Finally, the third part of the strategy was to create a public, political campaign to provide a political narrative and context for practices that might otherwise be interpreted as individual, or non-political or simply criminal. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland and a year later in England and Wales, the tax lasted little more than a year, with the government announcing its repeal in early 1991. There are echoes of this three-element approach in the work of planka.nu in Sweden, in the idea of Strike Debt, and in the mass civil disobedience which marked the Quebec mobilisations.
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Underneath movement slogans, such as the Spanish indignados’ demand for “Real Democracy Now!” or Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%”, lies the crisis of political representation. The collapse of both the revolutionary and reformist projects has left political elites unable to either reform themselves or funnel movement demands into institutional change. Yet the types of action we have so far adopted, from symbolic one-day strikes to the occupation of non-vital public squares, don’t reflect this new reality. We need to develop forms of struggle that materially interrupt the roll-out of austerity while directly enacting other values.
The book is now available for free download: here. And last night Chickpea presented the Circled A radio show on Resonance 104.4fm; the show featured exerts from an interview with Brian and Keir of The Free Association and from the audio book. You can download the half-hour show here: MP3 link; OGG link.
Again, our warm thanks to Chickpea for suggesting and executing this project and to our friends and family who read chapters.
It has become a truism to say that we must adjust our political imaginaries in the face of the economic crisis, yet the sheer scale and duration of the crisis has made this a difficult thing to do. We are already five years into the great recession and as the Eurozone teeters on the edge of collapse there seems little realistic prospect of a return to the old ‘normal’. But just as the economic situation has had waves of collapse, faux recovery and renewed crises, so the social struggles and movements thrown up in response have been through waves of intense activity followed by the dissipation of energies and then the re-emergence of struggle in new form. This wave pattern has been hard for people to get their heads around. Dissipation can seem like defeat but within the stretched-out timescale of the great recession it might just be a pregnant pause. This problem has presented itself as a sense of a lack of continuity and cohesion which has been heightened by the geographical and temporal dislocation of struggles. Huge social movements are springing up around the world but they are peaking at different times. This, plus the geographical distances involved, makes it difficult for struggles to cohere together on a global scale.
A good example of this problem can be found in the seeming isolation of the hugely significant but preposterously under-reported three month long struggle against increased tuition fees in Quebec.
A student strike has been supplemented by road blockades and regular night marches of inspiring scale. But despite the scale and longevity of the movement, and the resignation of the education minister this week, the students’ victory is not yet assured. The Quebec government seem set on a strategy of escalation, passing draconian new anti-protest laws and seeking a version of the militarised roll-back of democracy in evidence right around the world.
It’s this context that made us so excited to receive a review of our book from a participant in the Quebec struggles. It’s a lovely review which proves that the concept of a moment of excess is easy to grasp when you are actually within one. Yet in many ways our attitude towards moments of excess has shifted since we first started writing about them. At first we were concerned with how to engineer moments of excess, how do you get into one? Now they seem to be generating themselves and the question has changed to how do you get out of one? Or rather how do you exit the high points of struggle with increased capacity for the struggles to come? How can we navigate these inevitable periods of movement dissipation and politicise the moments of collective sadness that follow collective joy?
As the Quebec student movement faces up to a crunch point of repression, these may seem premature questions but they seem apt from our viewpoint in the UK. The answers that the Quebecois eventually find might also help us answer our other question: how can struggles cohere on a global scale? After all, if movements are peaking at different times in different places, then it’s not just their high points that need to resonate but their modes of persistence as well.
PS yes, this post was just an excuse to link to the review.
No strangers to the outer reaches of technology we have recently recorded an audio-book version of Moments of Excess, as well as an interview with Dissident Island radio show. We’ll link to both when they go live. In related matters here’s a recording of the Leeds launch of Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere which includes a live version of the material in our previous post. All of which is just a shameless excuse to post this fantastic picture from Rome 1958. Here’s to the re-birth of Sci-Fi communism.
Hat tip to Jason Read for the picture