This is the text of a talk I gave at The Space at the Leeds launch of Occupy Everything, an excellent anthology of writings provoked by Paul Mason’s blog post ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere

Occupy Everything!

I’ve talked a lot in the last year about the magic of rupture, the little sprinkle of fairy dust that can turn an event into something explosive. I want to leave that to one side and instead think about the magic of consistency, how things hang together (or not) in the aftermath of that rupture. And I want to start by going back to the roots of Western materialist philosophy… and football.

For the Classic philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, nothing comes into existence out of nothing, and nothing disappears into nothing. For them, the only two entities are body and void. And this is how they present the universe – bodies raining down in straight lines, never touching, never deviating, through a bottomless void. Pretty grim. Actually Lucretius says, it’s not like that. If it was, nothing would ever exist except bodies and void, and we would be robots with every movement and action determined by unbreakable causal chains. Instead, there is what he calls the clinamen or swerve – a spontaneous tiny change of direction in the course of an atom’s downward fall which makes it lean into another atom.

This swerve is vital. Lucretius says: ‘If it were not for this swerve, everything would fall downwards like raindrops through the abyss of space. No collision would take place and no impact of atom upon atom would be created. Thus nature would never have created anything.’

What has this got do with ‘Occupy Everything’? Well, everything.

That vision of an atomised world, of single bodies falling in straight lines through a bottomless void seems very familiar if you’ve ever been on the Tube or stood in a checkout. But we’re also familiar with the idea of a swerve – a magic moment when bodies come together, when individuals coalesce and become a force. So in football we might say that swerve could be something like the Cruyff turn or a crunching tackle, a moment of brilliance (or brutality) that lifts a crowd to its feet and changes the game. Or it might be the audacity of seizing Tahrir Square or putting a boot through the window at Millbank.

Obviously that swerve is much easier in football where you’ve got a set of rules, a clearly identified opposition and 30,000 people who are already up for the encounter. But we can also think of the ruptures that happened at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 as swerves, as deviations in our falling bodies. People bumped into other people, new bodies were formed and those movements rippled outwards across the globe.

The promise of moments like Millbank or the Arab Spring is that they generate enough consistency between different social actors that new forms of class power, collectivity and organisation can emerge and then recognise themselves.

But there’s a problem. Bodies come together. They get hot. They get sticky. But then things cool. When that happens, bodies drift apart or go off looking for some other encounter.

So how do you keep very different forms of struggle articulated together? And how do you sustain political organisation across the ebb and flow of distinct protest waves?

There’s no easy answer but I think it has to do with finding some sort of consistency or coherence, one that enables bodies to literally stick around. Reading through ‘Occupy Everything’, there are two clear reasons why this is especially important now.

First, we have to take a long term view of the economic crisis that engulfed the world in 2007–8. Even in simple fiscal terms, we are going to be living through its consequences for at least the next ten years. And politically its impact may be even greater, as austerity becomes the new normal. In fifty years time, people might look back and see Keynesianism and social democracy as temporary blips in the normal, brutal functioning of capitalism. Over the next few years, then, there are bound to be waves of resistance followed by periods of quietism and troughs of defeat. Even now, the joy of Millbank and the Arab Spring seem a long time ago.

And when we take this long term view, we need to think again about the effect of speed on our bodies. During the events covered in this book, it was all about the speed of virtual politics – Facebook, Twitter and the power of the meme. But as George Caffentzis has pointed out, the experiences of the last year have actually shown that speed is not enough for political effect. You need momentum as well. If you remember your physics lessons from school, you’ll know that momentum is mass times velocity, so it can mean a small group travelling very fast – via tweets & BBM etc. But if we’re serious about change, it must also mean a much larger number of people moving at a slower pace. In the Arab Spring, for example, what was decisive in the end was massive numbers of physical bodies in physical spaces. So we can think of consistency as a way of bridging that gap between huge numbers of people and small groups moving fast.

And that brings us on to the second reason why finding consistency is crucial. It’s not just our bodies that are in movement. There are other bodies falling down as well. Any one of those can collide with us and send us spinning off in another direction.

In football, a couple of quick goals from the opposition can make a crowd turn in on itself. What was one body becomes 30,000 squabbling individuals, each with their own agenda.

And here we can think about the weak ties of network politics that are so celebrated in this book and in Paul Mason’s. Those weak ties are great because they make movements very elastic, highly responsive and able to grow exponentially. But without more coherent forms of organisation to back them up, those weak ties can make movements very vulnerable to disruption. For me one of the enduring images of late 2010/early 2011 in the UK was that brilliant photo of a boot going through a Millbank window. But fast forward a few months to the August riots. Those virtual social networks which had been so powerful couldn’t hold together all the shocked metrosexual liberals who suddenly discovered their inner fascist. The aftermath of the riots is summed up in those horrible photos of the ‘Broom Army’ – hundreds of people banging the drum for law and order.

So that’s another aim of consistency or coherence: to find ways to help our bodies deal productively with shocks, ruptures and collisions. One of the worst ways of tackling shock is to try and cope with it in an atomised and individual way. If we can develop some sort of consistency, or stickiness, then we can slow down the intensity, collectivise the experience, and create a space for us to take stock and analyse together. So we could think of forms of organisation as shock absorbers or even crumple zones. And for that, spaces like this, and books like this, are absolutely crucial.

So where does that leave us now? All this talk of long-term strategy, of regroupment, of a down-turn, of resignation seems a bit depressing compared to the excitement of the movements covered in this book. If that’s all we’re left with, maybe we should ask what exactly did we gain from the events of 2011? A few north African governments have fallen, but for most of us here in the UK, aren’t we back in the same state of impasse where we began?

Let me answer that with one of Keir’s favourite stories, another football analogy. Let’s call it Riff no. 9. Back in the early 1990s there was a football manager who was trying to introduce a more patient, continental style of football to English players used to a much more direct, physical game. During a training session the manager asks his attackers to pass and move, and pass and move in the final third of the pitch instead of just lumping the ball into the box as they usually do. So they do this, but after five minutes the centre forward pipes up: “Boss, what was the point of all that running? We’re back in the same positions as we started?” “Ah, yes,” says the manager, “but their defenders aren’t.”

Or as Lucretius might say, “nothing disappears into nothing.” The experience of 2011 is in our bodies. We just have to open up to it and use it.

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Allow us to present you with a review of our book Moments of Excess. The review is taken form the excellent Surrealist publication Phosphor and though it may seem a little vain to post it here we do so because it makes some great points in its own right…

Magic Moments – Gareth Brown reviews Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life by The Free Association (PM Press, 2011)

The Free Association is a writing/affinity group loosely based in Leeds, who all have a background in the anarchist movement of the 1990s. Four out of five of them were members of the Class War organisation and were instrumental in its dissolution in 1998, arguing that the organisation’s incapacity to properly engage with emergent social struggles (the anti-roads protests, for example) suggested that it had reached the limits of its usefulness. For a while, their activity was focused on group study (reading and discussing texts largely drawn from Marxism and in particular those associated with the open Marxist / post-operaist tendencies). In 2001, they commenced a series of written interventions centred on the ‘movement of movements’ (i.e. the difficult-to-pin-down set of interrelated struggles as diverse as the post-j18/Seattle movement in the global north and the Brazilian landless workers movement amongst other things)

Moments of Excess is an anthology of the interventions beginning with 2001’s ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ and ending ten years later with ‘Re:generation’. As such, the pieces of writing contained within were never intended to be timeless. Many of them relate not only to particular points in the trajectory of the anti-capitalist movement but were also written around particular events or mobilisations such as the G8 summit at Gleneagles (‘Moments of Excess’, ‘Summits and Plateaus’, ‘Event Horizon’) or the Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth (‘Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast’). Ideas change and develop as the anthology goes on. We can watch the movement of movements morph as we go, beginning with the cycle of summit-hoppings and ending in its disintegration as the financial (and political) crisis of the last five years cleaves great, bloody canals into the global social terrain. That isn’t to say there’s not consistency here. On the contrary, the essays fit together very well, and that they are the product of a collective that is developing cohesively is apparent throughout. There are key themes and questions that never seem to drift out of the eyeshot of the authors, such as the problematic of the event and the everyday (something they tackle head-on in all of the longer pieces in the book) and the necessity of working with a verb-based concept of ‘movement’ rather than a noun-based one (doing as opposed to being).

It is these central concerns, and their approach to them, that have kept me enthralled by the Free Association’s work since my first encounter with it (the freely-distributed booklet of the essay from which this collection takes its name in the run up to the G8 in Gleneagles in 2004). It’s certainly possible to perceive strong parallels between the Free Association’s exploration of the event and the everyday and the surrealist project to reconcile the common with the absolutely subjective and also, perhaps even more directly, in the idea of the marvelous, a concept into which the dance of the event and the everyday is deeply encoded. Interestingly, and as an aside given that it doesn’t relate to this anthology, the group’s recent work has been centered on notions of ‘fairy dust’ and ‘becoming supernatural’, which, in the strictly materialist context of their analysis, are conceptually very close to the ideas of ‘objective chance’ and ‘the surreal’.

The importance of doing as opposed to being is most directly addressed in the second essay in the collection, ‘What is the movement’. At the time of original publication in 2002, this was a vital debate in the anti-capitalist movement (vital both in the sense of essential and animated) and found articulation in a number of the more transformative pieces of writing emerging from it (such as John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power and Andrew X’s seminal ‘Give up Activism’, published in Reflections on J18 and then in a watered down form in Do or Die). It’s possibly fair to say that this dialectic has now reached the limits of its usefulness and begun to crystalise into a moral imperative that puts us at risk of missing the potentials offered by thinking instead in terms of ‘durations of being’ (given that ‘doing’ is not actually separate from ‘being’ but constitutes, rather, a string of momentary beings that fits a particular narrative). This is a musing rather than a criticism, however. One thing that is clear, reading this anthology, is the willingness of its authors to let ideas go or transform them into something else as the nature of capital, of class composition, and of their own milieu changes around them. Indeed, the final essay, ‘Re:generation’, can be read as a deepening of the problematics around the relationship between being and doing, in that it takes the form of an exploration of how political generations (and identities) form around shared struggles. What is important here for the Free Association is not that such ossifications shouldn’t occur but that they must be capable of disintegration. By the end of the anthology, the life cycle of a political generation is complete, from the beginning of summit-hopping to the collapse of neo-liberalism and the emerging struggles battling over the ground that capital is no longer able to hold, from the disbanding of Class War to the disbanding of the Camp for Climate Action. The reader is left having been posed new questions about how we move between movements, whilst avoiding becoming, to paraphrase Marx ‘a dead generation weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. A minor story arc brought to a satisfying conclusion and a major one left wide open but loaded with new potentials.

The authors also have a real knack for making complex ideas very accessible. Anyone wishing to understand Autonomist Marxism’s break with Leninism could do worse than treat ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’ as an introduction. Similarly, ‘Speculating on the Crisis’ contains a very readable nutshell summary of the neo-liberal deal (what it was a response to and why it’s fallen apart).

Hopefully, this anthology (despite being a decade in the making) is only a prelude to more substantial collective works.

Published in Phosphor issue three.

It’s a year or so since we started work on our re:generation article. It took us a while to finish; we didn’t sign off on it until early January. Now the magazine Arranca is translating it into German and as part of the process they’ve asked us to write a post-script. As such we’ve briefly looked back over recent events to see how the text stands up to them.

Some have suggested that 2011 will go down as a new ‘68. That seems doubtful, but then again history is in motion and the significance of events is only determined by what follows them. What we can say is that something epochal is in the air. For us this really became apparent during the period of our article’s incubation. The first draft was written from within the stagnant state of limbo that had reigned since the start of the crisis. Our intuition was that attitudes and desires were changing, while our analysis made us expect the return of antagonism, but how can you be sure of such things until events emerge to mark them. In the UK it was the storming of Milbank that marked the point of rupture. As we finished our article we were still trying to think through the explosive student movement that followed. Since that point we’ve had the Arab spring, the student uprising in Chile, the movement of the Indignants in Spain and Greece, and then the world- wide re-booting of those square occupations by the Occupy Wall Street actions. This list, of course, is far from exhaustive.

And yet, in our opinion, these subsequent events have not made the article redundant. If anything, the problems raised there have become even more urgent. A new political generation is certainly emerging and in many places it is clothing itself in the political forms of its antecdents. This inheritance is most visible in the widespread adoption of consensus decision-making process, particularly amongst the Indignants and Occupy movements. We could explain this phenomenon by highlighting the initiating role played in these new movements by veterans of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles. But the sheer breadth of the spread of consensus process, and the prominence it has been given, indicates that something more is at play. Consensus has moved beyond mere functionality to become a form of expression for the movement. Its adoption has become one of the ways through which the movement understands and delimits itself.

It seems clear that the participatory nature of consensus is incredibly attractive to subjects raised during the neoliberal era. Politics has, for a long time, been reduced to the tedious manoeuvring of a technocratic elite. As that period begins to crack then consensus process has become a means for people to rediscover the affect of democracy. On its own, however, consensus process is not the solution to the Spanish Indignados’ demand for ‘Real Democracy Now!’ We understand the strong temptation to short circuit the process of transformation and erect consensus as a new universal model of democracy. The experiences of past movements, however, reveal it as a tool that carries its own limitations and drawbacks.

Consensus is most useful for gathering and coordinating forces around an already pre-established objective. It has also proven to be a powerful mechanism for allowing new political subjectivities to show themselves and recognise each other. This ‘assembly moment’ appears to be a necessary staging post in the escape from a-political world. The very aim of seeking consensus, however, carries problems of its own. Since it is easier to find consensus closer to the status quo of a movement, the process is less useful for the task of strategising, of changing objectives and of challenging existing sense. These tasks also need moments of dissensus and rupture and it is these tasks that the movements must tackle next. If we want to avoid a farcical repetition of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles then the new movements must overcome the limitations of their inheritance, they must, in short, “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew.”

The clock, not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. (Lewis Mumford)

During the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city … there were people shooting at the clocks … (Walter Benjamin)

Just like the clocks, the debate about clock-time is going forward and back, forward and back. See this report here about proposal that Britain moves to Central European Time. Why does no-one ever suggest that we all work an hour a day less during the winter months? That way, we’d have both lighter evenings and lighter mornings with all the associated benefits. Let’s call it life-time saving… Let’s propose it!

In the context of all this, there’s another text by the English historian E.P. Thompson that is definitely worth reading, ‘Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism‘. Pasted below is John Holloway’s ‘prologue’, written for a German edition of Thompson’s article, which isn’t otherwise available in English. Obviously I like it because it says nice things about us, but quite apart from that it’s a fantastic piece.



Thompson and the Decomposition of Abstract Time

John Holloway

1. Perhaps the most striking thing about Thompson’s article on “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” is that it is such a pleasure to read.

In part, this is because of the elegance with which it is written. It is a beautiful article. The sense of fun, the extraordinary knowledge and the love of history leap at us from every paragraph. When one reads that the New English Dictionary (but not the Oxford English Dictionary) records as an example of pre-capitalist time measurement a “pissing while”, and then Thompson’s comment that this is “a somewhat arbitrary measurement”, one knows that the article was written with enjoyment and that it has been enjoyed by generations of readers ever since.

But our pleasure in reading the article also has to do with the substance of the argument. On the face of it, it is a sad story: Thompson tells us of the victory of abstract clock-time over lived time. There is nothing automatic about this victory. It is the outcome of a struggle that lasts for centuries. In the end, however, the workers come to accept the time of capital: “The onslaught, from so many directions, upon the people’s old working habits was not, of course, uncontested. In the first stage, we find simple resistance. But in the next stage, as the new time-discipline is imposed, so the workers begin to fight, not against time, but about it.” (1969, 85) When we come to that statement, we sigh with sadness, recognising it to be true. But that is the point, isn’t it? We take sides. We read of the clash between two times, the clock-time of capital and the lived-time (or whatever we want to call it, because, as Thompson points out, there is no agreed name for it) which is defeated as part of the struggle to impose capitalism. We take sides, we sympathise with the people who lived time in a different way. When Thompson tells us of the Rev. J. Clayton who bemoaned the fact that “’the Churches and Streets [are] crowded with Numbers of Spectators’ at weddings and funerals, ‘who, in spight of the Miseries of their Starving Condition … make no Scruple of wasting the best Hours in the Day, for the sake of gazing…’” (1969, 83), then we side with the gazers and silently (or perhaps loudly) boo the reverend gentleman.

But why, why do we take sides? Does this mean that the victory of clock time was not so complete as we sometimes think it was? Is the struggle between the time of capital and lived (or whatever) time still alive? And are we part of that struggle?

In the last part of his article, Thompson suggests that there is a decomposition of clock-time. After emphasising the role of Puritanism in imposing the internalisation of clock-time, he asks: “if Puritanism was a necessary part of the work-ethos which enabled the industrialised world to break out of the poverty-stricken economies of the past, will the Puritan evaluation of time begin to decompose as the pressures of poverty relax? Is it decomposing already? Will men begin to lose that restless urgency, that desire to consume time purposively, which most people carry just as they carry a watch on their wrists?” (1969, 95)

As we read the article now, nearly forty years after it was written, this is surely what we have to ask: is there a decomposition of clock-time? Is it something more than a decomposition? “Decomposition” suggests perhaps a process we do not control, but Thompson shows clearly that the imposition of clock-time was an active struggle, so that any “decomposition” too must be understood as an active struggle. Is that what engages us so actively when we read Thompson? Is there a revival of struggle not just about time but against time, a revival of the struggle between abstract clock-time and lived time? And when we read the article, are we taking part in that clash of times? Are we the decomposition of clock-time? Are we perhaps the crisis of abstract time?

2. Yes, we are the crisis of abstract time, the crisis of the separation of time from doing.

Clock time abstracts from our doing. Whereas earlier forms of time measurement tended to revolve around human doing (“task orientation” is the rather ugly phrase adopted by Thompson), the imposition of clock time separates time measurement completely from human activity. Clock time is not interested in pissing or singing misereres or boiling rice or frying locusts. A second is a second is a second; a minute is a minute is a minute. For the clock an hour is exactly the same whether we are living or dying, whether we are sitting in class or making love. The clock is absolutely indifferent to our passions, our intensities and boredoms, the rhythms of our living and doing.

Clock time could only come to dominate in a society in which doing itself abstracts from doing, in which doing itself becomes indifferent to its own content. Clock time, indeed, is part of the process by which doing becomes indifferent to itself: part of the transformation of doing into labour, that is, the metamorphosis of willed, project-laden doing into a labour that is imposed upon us, a labour that is indifferent to us. Labour is measured by time: in the morning the capitalist watches the clock to make sure that we arrive on time, in the evening we watch it and wait for the day to come to an end. The abstraction of time is inseparable from the abstraction of doing into labour.

We revolt against this: against the abstraction of doing into labour and against the abstraction of time. Inevitably and constantly. Our revolt is the endemic and permanent crisis of both forms of abstraction.

We revolt all the time against the transformation of doing into labour. Often we just refuse: we find ways of not going to labour or of disobeying instructions. Or we try to limit as much as possible the part of our lives subjected to labour, by working part-time or taking time off. Sometimes we do more than refuse; we try to find ways of doing that make sense to us, or that we feel we control. Often these efforts do not lead anywhere, but there is a constant theme in the lives of most or all of us: the antagonism between doing and labour, the search for a way of not subordinating our life’s activity to an activity that has no meaning for us.

We revolt too against clock time: quantitatively, of course, as we try to have more time “free” of direct alien control, but also qualitatively. In our relations with those we love, for example, we try to establish a different sort of time. Sometimes people speak of spending “quality time” with their children or loved ones, but what is meant is not just a better time, but a radically different time. Thompson suggests “lived time” to refer to the other time, but also helpful is the distinction that Richard Gunn (1985) makes between time-in-which and time-as-which: the time we reject is the “abstract and homogeneous progression leading from past to present to future”, the time for which we struggle is the “temporality of freely chosen actions and projects”. The aim is to live not “in time” but “as time”, when “time exists only as the rhythm and structure of what it is [we] choose to do”. This time-as-which is the time of a society that does not yet exist and therefore exists not-yet, as present struggle.

The existence of domination is inconceivable without resistance. The abstraction of labour is inconceivable without the revolt of doing. The abstraction of time constantly confronts time-as-which. In that sense the crisis of capital, of labour, of time, is permanent: we are that crisis. But is there something more than that going on? Is there an intensification of the endemic crisis at the moment, is there a heightened crisis of clock time, a decomposition of clock-time of which we are an active part?

I think so. In the last twenty or thirty years, time has become an overt issue in class struggle, not just in quantitative but in qualitative terms. There is a surge in the revolt of time-as-which against time-in-which, and a surge in the struggle of doing against labour. The rule of clock time and the abstraction of  doing into labour reached their crudest expression in the Fordist factory – caricatured in Chaplin’s aptly named Modern Times. Here the complete separation of labour from the person performing it is clear; clear too is the domination of clock-time, incarnated in the Taylorist measurement of each movement of the worker. The crisis of Fordism comes in a rise of class struggle that goes far beyond the traditional concerns of trade union struggle to question labour itself and the very meaning of time and life. The crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s is overtly a crisis not just of capital but of labour.

Since then, the nature of time has been a constant issue both in open anti-capitalist struggles and in the common experience of life. There is nothing automatic about this: the meaning of time is a two-way conflict. When Thompson speaks of the decomposition of clock-time, he emphasises the importance of learning “to break down once more the barriers between work and life” (1969, 95). But breaking down the barriers between work and life can be understood in two senses: either as the de-alienation of labour, its transformation into a doing which we control at the rhythm we choose, or as the spreading of factory discipline to the whole of society (to constitute the “social factory”). Some authors have hastened to argue that Fordism has now been replaced by a new mode of capitalist domination, post-Fordism, characterised by, among other things, a new regime of time in which all the hours of our day are now subordinated to the direct dominion of capital.

What we learn from Thompson, surely, is that such a conclusion is too hasty, too crude. He helps us to see that time is always a struggle, always a clash between times. He opens up time for us, shows that there is nothing pre-determined about it, that it is not just a field of domination but of struggle. Certainly there is at the moment a struggle by capital to extend its dominion more profoundly to every aspect of life, but there is also a struggle to break time, to subvert time, to create cracks in clock time. Sometimes the lines may not be very clear: it can be that just when we think we are breaking from capital, we are actually contributing to its reproduction in a new form. But that is true of all revolt: it forces a change in the pattern of domination, so that distinctions become blurred, and yet the antagonism and the revolt remain.

What is this time without name (time-as-which, lived time) that we oppose to clock-time? If capital rules through the abstraction of time from doing, then our struggle is to recover the centrality of doing, the centrality of ourselves as doers, as active subjects. But how does that happen, and how do we do it? Here are some thoughts.

Attacking duration: The reproduction of capitalism depends on its duration. By duration I mean the continuity between yesterday, today and tomorrow, the assumption that just because something existed yesterday, it will exist today and go on existing tomorrow. In a world of duration, the subject plays no role. She may have created the things that exist, but they have acquired an autonomy, their existence has separated itself from their constitution. The things themselves deny their own origin in human doing. So it is in capitalist society: the things we produce become commodities and the commodity, according to Marx, “is, in the first place, an object outside us”. In a world of duration commodities are, capitalism is. In this perspective the only way of thinking of revolution or radical social change is by abolishing capitalism.

Is this duration real or is it appearance? It is both, it is real appearance. Duration is based on the suppression of the creating subject. This is a real suppression: capitalism is the rule of things, the negation of human creativity (or its imprisonment within the cage of things, represented by money). And yet the things which rule actually depend on the doers who make them. In that sense the autonomy of the done from the doers is an apparent one. The apparent autonomy of things is an autonomy which we constantly reproduce and owes its existence to our repeated action. Duration exists only to the extent that we create and re-create it: it is a false appearance which is real only to the extent that we create and re-create it. Capitalism exists not because we produced it two or three hundred years ago, but because we produced it today: if we do not produce it tomorrow, it will cease to exist. The problem of revolution is not to abolish capitalism, but to stop producing it.

The struggle for human dignity (communism, in other words) is a struggle to recover our power-to, our creative capacity, a struggle therefore to break duration and all forms of dominance of the past over the present. In time-as-which, the past is not a history which determines but a memory which enriches. Our time is not a time of nouns but a time of verbs, a time in which doings do not become frozen in their results but remain open to change. Can we just shed the past like that, so easily? Of course not, but the struggle goes in that direction, as a struggle against abstract time and against history. As the total destruction of humanity becomes a more and more imminent threat, it is clear that revolution can no longer be seen as the culmination of history, but only as its breaking.

Opening the moment: To break duration is to open each moment as a moment of possibility, to seek to lift each moment from the general flow of time and push it beyond its limits. In abstract time, each moment is exactly the same as the next and the last; in doing-time, time-as-which, each moment is distinct. This does not mean that each moment is cut off from the surrounding flow of time, but that each moment is different from the preceding and the succeeding moment, and each has its own potential. Carpe diem becomes a revolutionary principle, but not in the sense of a Friday night escape valve which confirms the abstract time of the rest of the week, but as an opening which probes each moment of the week for its possibilities.

This is the time of the child, a time in which each moment is different from the last, in which each moment is filled with wonder, with amazement and possibility. And with horror: we see the killing of people (by violence, by hunger) and the deadening of people (by boredom, by repression) and we see it with amazement and say “that cannot be!” We cast off the blinkers that help us to survive in this society of horrors and open our eyes with the naïveté of a child and think “no, this cannot continue one moment more, the change must be now, not in the far-off revolutionary future”. “The child’s days”, says Vaneigem, “escape adult time – they are time swollen by subjectivity, by passion, by dreams inhibited by reality.” Even after the child has learnt school discipline, grown up and become imprisoned by adult time, “his childhood will remain within him like an open wound”. (1994, 222) The struggle for our time, the struggle against duration, is the stirring of this open wound, the awakening of a time repressed, a time in which the whole of existence is at issue in each moment. Our communism is indeed an infantile disorder.

To open up each moment is to go against institutions. Institutions seek to freeze the moment, to give duration to some agreement or some achievement, to bind today by the rules of yesterday. Even where the institutions are designed to give substance to the real achievements of past struggle, they quickly become oppressive, unless they are constantly re-created (and therefore de-institutionalised). The history of class struggle is full of such cadavers that live on, weighing like a nightmare on the struggles of the living. For how long did that dead, institutionalised result of the Russian revolution oppress and imprison the strugglers of the world?

Going for excess: opening up each moment means pushing each moment beyond its limits, trying to make each moment a “moment of excess” (as the Leeds May Day Group put it (Leeds 2004)), a moment in which we overflow the social relations and regulations of capitalism. This form of rebellion against time is reflected, for example, in a politics centred on events. The great political events of the movement against capitalist globalisation (Seattle, Genoa, Gleneagles and so on), or the great riots in France in 2005 and 2006, cannot be understood in instrumental terms (did Gleneagles make poverty history? of course not) but in terms of the breaking of time itself. They are events in which the world is turned upside down, in which everything becomes possible, in which our relations with those around us are transformed. That the events may be short does not affect the fact that a moment of time is opened up and transformed into our time, and that requires no sort of justification in instrumental terms.

Giving ourselves time for the patient creation of different social relations: Moments of excess cannot be everything. A politics of events is important in breaking the sense of duration created by capitalism, but if we are going to stop making capitalism, we must do something else instead. The creation of this other can only take place now in the interstices of capitalism (the old idea that communism could not grow interstitially no longer stands), and this requires a long and patient practice of creating other doings, other social relations. If the moments of excess are a sort of concentrated performance-time, perhaps one can think of this second temporality as gardening-time or weaving-time. It involves processes of creation that cannot be rushed. The Leeds group (now called the Free Association) follow Deleuze and Guattari in speaking of this time as a time of refrain: after the intense creativity of a jazz improvisation, for example, the refrain restates and develops the basic melody (Free Association 2006). Struggling for time-as-which cannot be a question only of intensities or of just running from one event to another but must also involve times of relaxed and thoughtful creation. The two temporalities are necessary – but first the impatience and then the patience (and not the other way around, as in traditional revolutionary theory). Revolution can only be now: the idea of a future revolution is a contradiction in terms, precisely because it remains locked in clock-time.

Creating a world of social self-determination requires in many ways a more relaxed time than capitalist time. It requires time for thinking and discussing. In the initial dialogue between the EZLN and the Mexican government, the Zapatistas at one point said that they would need to consult their communities. Given the bad conditions of communication in the Lacandona Jungle, and the need to discuss everything thoroughly, the principle of ‘mandar obedeciendo’ meant that the decision would take time. When the government representatives insisted on rapid replies, the zapatistas replied that they did not understand the indigenous clock. As recounted by Comandante David afterwards, the zapatistas explained that ‘we, as Indians, have rhythms, forms of understanding, of deciding, of reaching agreements. And when we told them that, they replied by making fun of us; well then, they said, we don’t understand why you say that because we see that you have Japanese watches, so how do you say that you are wearing indigenous watches, that’s from Japan’ (La Jornada 17/5/95). And Comandante Tacho commented: ‘They haven’t learned. They understand us backwards. We use time, not the clock’ (La Jornada, 18/5/95). This is important not because the Zapatistas are indigenous, but because rebellion itself, and especially a rebellion that has self-determination as basic principle, must necessarily confront the clock with a quite different time.

Setting the agenda: Class struggle (or, more simply, living, trying to live a human life in, against and beyond a society that negates our humanity) is a struggle to set the agenda, to set the priorities and the temporalities. Once we accept the agenda of capital, once we agree to fight on their spatial or temporal terrain, we have lost, whether or not we win on a particular demand. In Thompson’s terms, a struggle about time that is not also a struggle against time is already lost, because, although it may change the relation between labour and its twin, leisure, it does nothing at all to create freedom, to weaken the abstraction that deprives our lives of meaning and humanity. Most of capital’s struggle to dominate us is concerned with pushing us on to its terrain: the very existence of the state seeks to lure us into logic of spatial divisions between states and the temporalities of bureaucracy and elections; state violence too pushes us towards the violence of violent response. Any response that remains within the space and time of capital is lost before it begins. The very existence of humanity itself now depends on our ability to break the time and space of capitalism, to stop making capitalism and make something else, a society based on our creative power, and therefore a society with a new space and a new time.

3. All these points are not just taken from my imagination, but seem to me to be very much part of the general air of anti-capitalist struggle in recent years. If so, then there is indeed a decomposition of clock time, as Thompson suggests, and we are the active ingredient of this decomposition.

The argument here seems to me to be implicit in Thompson’s analysis. But perhaps not. In any case it is a wonderful article and should be enjoyed – and as you enjoy it, ask yourselves why you are enjoying it.

References (stated and unstated):

Benjamín, Walter (1973): “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books)

Bloch, Ernst (1993): Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp)

Free Association (2006): What is a Life? (Leeds: Free Association)

Gunn, Richard (1985): “’The only real Phoenix’: Notes on Apocalyptic and Utopian Thought”, Edinburgh Review, no. 71, 1.

Hardt, Michael and Negri, Toni, Empire, (Cambridge: Harvard U.P.)

Leeds May Day Group (2004): Moments of Excess (Leeds: Leeds May Day Group)

Vaneigem, Raoul (1994): The Revolution of Everyday Life (London: The Rebel Press/ Left Bank Books)

Virno, Paolo (2004): A Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext(e))

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Besides the ‘quiet crisis’, the other term Ed Miliband seems to be using quite a lot at the moment is ‘moral economy’. Though it seems it was his brother David who used it first, in a speech at the LSE in March and in a speech he would have given this time last year had he won the Labour leadership:

[O]ur purpose is higher and harder. It is to use all the ingenuity of modern society to honour the dignity that should be common to all human beings. It is to build a moral economy and a good society.

It’s quite a nice term. But I first came across it in an excellent article by the English historian Edward Thompson, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century‘. (The Miliband brothers probably got it from Thompson, too, via their father Ralph: both Ralph Miliband and E.P. Thompson were influential anti-Stalinist Marxist intellectuals in the 1960s and ’70s .) Thompson counterposes moral economy to the nascent political economy and, most importantly, uncovers the contours of the (class) struggle between the two. Tactics employed by the ‘crowd’ included the food riot and the hijacking of merchants on their way to market: these merchants were forced to sell their grain (or whatever) at what the crowd considered ‘fair’ or ‘moral’ prices. Is this what David and Ed Miliband are on about?

Rather than write any more on this, I’d just like to reproduce an excellent blog post by Terence Renaud, written just after August’s riots, ‘The moral economy of the English crowd in the twenty-first century‘:

Yesterday British PM David Cameron characterized the riots that swept across England this past week as a “deep moral failure” and promised to restore a “stronger sense of morality and responsibility — in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He denied that the riots were the result of impoverishment in the face of the current economic recession: “This is not about poverty, this is about culture. . . . [The rioting was] not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Let’s assume for a moment that the conservative PM is correct: this week’s riots, the worst popular violence that England has seen in decades, were not about poverty, politics, or protest, but about “culture.” It is clear from his remarks that the problem lies in some deficiency or immorality of culture, especially among England’s youth. He implies that a moral English culture does not abide street violence — that, in fact, the marauding, black-hoodied youths lack culture, are uncivilized, and should be punished to the full extent of the law. Therefore the police will remain in force on English city streets until further notice.

In 1971 the British Marxist historian E. P. Thompson published an article in Past & Present called “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in which he argued that the current understanding of the term “riot” as a spasmodic outbreak of irrational sentiments among the masses was a gross misunderstanding of what actually goes on during a riot. Taking the pre-industrial food riots of the 17th and 18th centuries as his example, Thompson showed that the motivations and conduct of the rioters could be reduced neither to economic despair (i.e. starvation) nor to spontaneous irrationality. Rioters actually demonstrated a high degree of organization, discipline, and restraint. They may not have planned in advance their protests against millers and farmers whom they suspected of withholding grain, but they did act according to certain rules of conduct and to a particular “moral economy” that dated back centuries. The popular consensus was that bread pricesshould be kept at a reasonable level with respect to the subsistence of the population and that if they got too high, then the people have a right to set them back to normal, by violent means if necessary. Involved in the food riots of early modern England was therefore a moral understanding about prices and consumption that had not yet been replaced by the free market ethos of Smithian political economy. Even in the 19th century, when industrialization changed forever the social composition of England, the old moral economy of the poor survived in various guises, not least of which was the organized labor movement. The point is that riots are complex events that draw on both new and traditional fears, hopes, and demands for justice that sometimes run contrary to the moral assumptions of the state and ruling classes.

There can be no equivocation about the fact that the burning, looting, and physical violence that has terrorized neighborshoods in London, Manchester, and elsewhere is unacceptable from the point of view of public safety. But Cameron’s unwillingness or inability to understand the deeper cultural significance of the riots means that we can expect to see more of this sort of street violence. Turning England into a police state, like what happened in the early 19th century amidst fears of a Jacobin revolt, cannot solve larger socioeconomic problems. Nor can the PM’s narrow concept of culture and his specious appeals to morality and responsibility.


One of the triggers for my post on Ed Miliband’s “quiet crisis” (published in revised form on the Guardian’s CIF site yesterday) was a Guardian Comment by Costas Lapavitsas. Lapavitsas suggests that the “return to agriculture” in Greece is “a sure sign of social retrogression”.

We begged to differ. No doubt, those erstwhile urban proletarians resorting to this are facing many difficulties in making this move. But we reckon it raises the urgent question (or problematic) of decoupling. That is, how can we disentangle our own lives and livelihoods from the circuits of capital?

Our suggestion that this “return” might be full of potential has turned out to be one of the most controversial points in our piece. One commentator on the CIF site mentioned the Khymer Rouge and Pol Pot comments spiralled from there. (Our take on gift economies: Pol Potlatch? Seriously, we do know about Pol Pot: this is part of our generation’s soundtrack.) But it wasn’t just those contributors. Another comrade of ours wrote and said he liked the piece, except for our “return to agriculture” remarks.

Why don’t we — “the Left”, Costas Lapavitsas, the comrade who wrote — take decoupling more seriously? (A great exception is Chris Carlsson, especially in his book Nowtopia.) We’re all in favour of strikes and “industrial struggle”. But a strike was a great tactic if you were a sailor (the term originates with tars who withdrew their labour by striking sails) or a car worker. Those sailing ships carried mostly luxury goods (or human “cargo”) and no one but capital gets hurt if there are fewer cars for sale on the forecourt. But with our lives (our social reproduction) so tightly bound to markets and capital, strikes raise all sorts of problems, as nurses, teachers, ambulance drivers/paramedics and others have learned. Lorry drivers and oil-refinery and depot workers have also discovered that they have a great deal of power to disrupt capital’s circulation. Remember when the supermarket shelves were empty of bread and milk — despite wheat growing and cows grazing just a few miles away? What would happen if farmers went on strike?

I’m not suggesting we need to consider decoupling so as to reduce the industrial power of teachers, nurses, etc. That way lies the terrain of Cameron’s Big Society. I am saying we need to take these questions far more seriously. The present extent of social reproduction-capital reproduction coupling makes us all (well, the 99%) weaker: both a teacher or farmer who might strike and an “ordinary person” who needs to put food on the table and socialise their kid.

So, returning to the “return to agriculture” question. Donald Rumsfield’s “known unknowns and unknown unknowns” remark is frequently repeated. I’m going to quote an earlier US conservative and neoliberal, Ronald Reagan, though in a different context. To those who think “returning” to agriculture is a stupid idea or socially “retrogressive” or whatever, my question is, in the words of the “great communicator”:

 If not us, who?

A Quiet Crisis sounds like the title of a John Le Carré novel. At least from Le Carré we might get some real insight into the murderous logic of capital and the complicity of the British establishment, along with a good dose of well-directed cynicism. But this is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s new ‘focus’. What’s he’s talking about is a crisis of social reproduction.

In many senses, Miliband is — alas — correct. After three centuries of capitalist development and three decades of neoliberalism, our own individual and collective ability to access social wealth is so entwined with the market that capitalist crisis spells, for many of us, an inability to reproduce ourselves as 21st century humans. (‘Must the molecules fear as the engine dies?‘, ask Siliva Federici and George Caffentzis.) He’s also correct that we mostly, at least in the UK, live and experience this crisis individually, and have been pretty quiet about it. Of course, for Miliband this is just fine. The most important way for us to express ourselves is through the ballot box, with a cross next to his party’s name. And when things have got a little noisier, as with June 30’s one-day public sector strike or August’s riots, Miliband isn’t quiet in his condemnation.

On the topic of the Labour party, it’s worth noting a few debates which seem to be getting an airing. One Miliband strategist apparently argues that

the financial crisis signals the obsolescence of the neoliberal economic model and that the government’s difficulties in responding to the crisis reflect Tory and Lib Dem inability to conceive of an alternative way of structuring capitalism. Ed’s plan is to define that new structure and sell it to the country. “Building an alternative to the neoliberal settlement should be the frame for the debate within our movement” is how Lord Wood puts it. “Ripping up the rule book” is Miliband’s distilled version.

And shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander is spot-on in his suggestion that:

There are moments in politics when the common sense of the time is up for grabs. The deteriorating economic situation here in Britain, in Europe and globally means now is such a moment.

This is what we talking about two years ago in ‘Life in limbo‘ when we argued that the ‘centre cannot hold, the middle ground is broken’ — that neoliberalism had lost its ideological justification, that it simply didn’t ‘make sense’ anymore.

But, of course, these Labour party thinkers are only looking for an alternative way to structure capitalism, they’re not looking for an alternative to capitalism, an alternative way to structure society. Alexander continues:

To seize that moment … we don’t need to shout louder, but explain more. Explain what we got right and wrong before the crash, explain how we would get the economy growing and so deal with the deficit, and explain how we will deal with social justice with less money around.

Economy growth economy growth economy growth… what happened to Alexander’s challenge for ‘the common sense of the time’? Even David Cameron has acknowledged there’s more to life than GDP, FFS!

But back to Miliband’s quiet crisis and social reproduction. In Greece, of course, the crisis had been a lot louder. The cacophony of dissent from Syntagma Square and other places has been heard across Europe and beyond. (Though, according to Paul Mason, many middle-class people have been as quiet as in Britain.) In many many countries across the planet the financial and economic crisis of 2007 onwards has engendered a crisis of social reproduction. But what’s happened in Greece and a few other places is that proletarians (or ‘the 99%’ , to borrow the term of the Occupiers of Wall Street) have made their own crisis of social reproduction matter for capital. By screaming ‘WE WON’T PAY FOR YOUR CRISIS!’ they have pushed crisis back onto capital. The Greek ‘indignants’ are still very much living through crisis at the moment, but so is ‘European capital’ (I know it’s a sloppy term and quite incorrect, but I can’t think of a better one): there is now a real possibility of a break-up of the eurozone and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Europe’s largest and ‘strongest’ economy is having almost as tough a time of the Greek crisis as George Papandreou.

The other interesting thing emerging from Greece is the way people are attempting to decouple their own social reproduction from that of capital. Probably as a result of necessity as much as anything else – an example of acting in a cramped space – but full of potential nonetheless. The prime example here is the migration from city to countryside, as urban folk take up farming. I don’t really know too much about this, but perhaps from this will emerge new collective struggles for food sovereignty. What I do know is that the following paragraph, by Marxist political economist Costa Lapavitsas, sums up not only Greek’s crisis of social reproduction, but also a widespread inability to even imagine a future for humanity disentangled from capital, markets and wage labour:

The social implications have been catastrophic. Entire communities have been devastated by unemployment, losing the means to live as well as the norms, customs and respect of regular work. Barter has appeared among the poor and the not so poor. Medical services in working-class areas are running low on basic provisions. Schools and transport are disintegrating. People are abandoning cities to return to agriculture, a sure sign of social retrogression.


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You can, if you so desire, listen to a recording of the talk we did in London last week. If you can’t be bothered to listen then we can provide a summary: Keir plays fast and loose with thirty years of history, while rolling out some of our favourite riffs.

The event itself was great. It managed to pull of the difficult trick of not looking like a squat. There was an exhibition of old copies of the Class War newspaper, along with other ‘autonomist’ publications from the 1980s, notably the seminal one off paper ‘Attack’. The same page also contains an interesting recording of Ian Bone talking about the exhibition.

I think we attracted a reasonable crowd for 1pm on a Thursday afternoon, however the event that evening, a talk by Marina Vishmidt and Mark (Kpunk) Fisher, was rammed. In fact it was a little over crowded and too damn hot. It seemed significant, however, that so many people turned up. Perhaps it was due to the event featuring in the Guardian’s top ten art events for the week. But it’s worth considering whether the event itself, and the response it got, tells us something about the explanatory  purchase that ‘autonomist’ ideas have on the present situation.

It seems unlikely, for instance, that the Guardian would have been interested in publishing our recent piece on Zombie-liberalism if we had sent it to them a few years ago. Isn’t that because the narratives that made sense then have lost traction on the world? As a contributer said in the Guardian today, recent events have lent:

“credence to a somewhat counterintuitive observation. Contrary to the common assumption that the global economic crisis has politically benefitted the centre-right – as visualised in this interactive map – we now witness a crisis of conservative ideology emerging on the horizon… there is no coherent conservative narrative explaining the crisis and the responses to it.”

But as we have mentioned before a collapse of ideological faith in neoliberalism or even our narrative being proved right by history, just isn’t, on its own, enough to save us. As is argued in our talk mentioned above the task is to find the political forms that can take advantage of this ideological void by expressing the widespread discontent while at the same time overcoming the blockages to the circulation of struggle that come with our neoliberal inheritance.

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Short notice, I know, but here’s the blurb for a talk we’re giving this Thursday in London, at ‘We have own concept of Time and Motion’. It’s a four day event devoted to the idea and practice of self-organisation: full programme here.

Living with an earthquake: from punk and autonomia to the present

A talk and discussion on the continuing relevance of autonomist ideas and practice. Free Association member Keir Milburn traces a red thread that runs through … deep breath… the Italian movement of ’77, punk-rock in the UK, urban riots, Class War, Reclaim the Streets, the counter-globalisation movement and the struggles of the present crisis. He asks whether thinking about things like ‘class composition’ and ‘auto-valorisation’ can help us escape from the present impasse.

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.