As part of a debate elsewhere, somebody asks whether the “August days of 2011 [i.e. last weekend’s rioting and looting] can be considered in terms of moments of excess”. It’s a good question.

For us a moment of excess is an intense collective experience, a moment in which we feel — viscerally — our own collective power, a moment in which we glimpse other worlds outside and beyond capitalist social relations. So in this sense there’s no doubt the nights of rioting and looting were moments of excess for many of the participants. They experienced that collective power, they took over the streets, they cocked a snoop to the “Feds” (“Annoyed that the rioters call the police ‘feds’,” tweets Ben Liddell. “What happened to proper British nicknames like old bill, pigs and filth?”), and they took according to their needs (one half of Marx’s understanding of communism).

But moments of excess aren’t “pure”; they don’t stand “outside” of capitalism. The glimpse of other worlds we get in a moment of excess is from the standpoint of where we are now, i.e. within a fucked-up, capitalist world. And there’s no doubt a lot of fucked-up stuff took place over the four nights of rioting. From relatively minor incidents, such as the robbing of the young Malaysian by people pretending to help him or the pulling of cyclists from their bicycles, to really major instances of fucked-up, anti-social behaviour — the cases of arson and the killing of the three young men in Birmingham. (More pervasively, one outcome maybe more gentrification and more concentration of capital in the retail sector.)

We’re not interested in drawing up criteria which determine whether events qualify as moments of excess, or which can categorise their content as “progressive” or “revolutionary” or “anti-social” or “reactionary” excess. There’s a  danger here of simplifying the notion of moments of excess so that they become a glimpse of some pure liberated zone, a taste of milk and honey. The streets of Tottenham, Hackney, etc. were certainly not pure liberated zones.

In many ways, for us, the more interesting question is not: what are moments of excess and how can we get into them? Rather it is: how can we get out of moments of excess? I.e. what happens afterwards, and what is the relationship between a moment of excess and “everyday life”?

And these questions are certainly the ones we need to be addressing right now.

We’re in the midst of a furious, knee-jerk reaction on the part of the British state. Cameron and the Tories are fuming, and magistrates seem to have responded with gusto to the instruction to “disregard the guidelines” and are delivering their “disproportionate” sentences. We need to be able to counter that. In large part, this will depend on what happens from the bottom up, that is, in the neighbourhoods at the heart of the unrest. Will people hunker down and hope that theirs isn’t the next door to be kicked in? Or will they organise in some way, countering the state’s age-old strategy of individualisation? (Out of 1990’s poll tax riot, for example, emerged the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign, which became a model for political activists over the subsequent two decades.)

Also interesting and important are the discursive cracks which have opened up within the Establishment — in spite of, or maybe because of, the state’s totalising clampdown. I’m not thinking so much of the Liberal Democrats’ “bonkers, bonkers, bonkers” comments — they clearly need to put some clear blue water between themselves and the Conservatives and Clegg is probably a little nervous that his own arson conviction might be brought up again.

More I’m interested in the journalists who are starting to join the dots. In BBC Radio Nottingham’s interview with Clegg, for example, the presenter, having rattled the deputy PM, says that, yes, he does feel empathy for the rioters. And here is Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Riddell:

It is no coincidence that the worst violence London has seen in many decades takes place against the backdrop of a global economy poised for freefall. The causes of recession set out by J K Galbraith in his book, The Great Crash 1929, were as follows: bad income distribution, a business sector engaged in “corporate larceny”, a weak banking structure and an import/export imbalance.

All those factors are again in play. In the bubble of the 1920s, the top 5 per cent of earners creamed off one-third of personal income. Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since then. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion.

She goes on to propose social democracy as the only solution:

The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution.

Here’s another Telegraph columnist, suggesting that “the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society”:

Our politicians – standing sanctimoniously on their hind legs in the Commons yesterday – are just as bad. They have shown themselves prepared to ignore common decency and, in some cases, to break the law. David Cameron is happy to have some of the worst offenders in his Cabinet. Take the example of Francis Maude, who is charged with tackling public sector waste – which trade unions say is a euphemism for waging war on low?paid workers. Yet Mr Maude made tens of thousands of pounds by breaching the spirit, though not the law, surrounding MPs’ allowances.

A great deal has been made over the past few days of the greed of the rioters for consumer goods, not least by Rotherham MP Denis MacShane who accurately remarked, “What the looters wanted was for a few minutes to enter the world of Sloane Street consumption.” This from a man who notoriously claimed £5,900 for eight laptops. Of course, as an MP he obtained these laptops legally through his expenses.

Yesterday, the veteran Labour MP Gerald Kaufman asked the Prime Minister to consider how these rioters can be “reclaimed” by society. Yes, this is indeed the same Gerald Kaufman who submitted a claim for three months’ expenses totalling £14,301.60, which included £8,865 for a Bang & Olufsen television.

Or take the Salford MP Hazel Blears, who has been loudly calling for draconian action against the looters. I find it very hard to make any kind of ethical distinction between Blears’s expense cheating and tax avoidance, and the straight robbery carried out by the looters.

From the Daily Telegraph this is incredible stuff!

Perhaps, slightly less unlikely, here is Channel 4 newsreader/journalist Jon Snow, pointing out that there is “one law for the rich and another for the poor”:

There is a sense in Britain too of a widening gap in both wealth and law – that there is a that there is one law for the elite and one for the poor. Take the MPs’ and Peers’ expenses scandal. A tiny handful of the expenses abusers have gone to jail. The vast majority have been allowed to pay stuff back or retreat to the political undergrowth. How many of the looters will be allowed to bring their plasma screens and running shoes back in return for their freedom? And yet it is the very unpunished abuse of the state by its elected and unelected elite which many argue is part of the landscape that the recent riots played out across.

We are told over two and a half thousand rioters and looters have been arrested. Hundreds have been charged, some have already been punished – many cases are still in train.

Many have pointed to the reality that an even smaller handful of bankers have faced the law even than those  politicians who have been prosecuted. No British banker is in jail for what happened in 2008. And as financial upheaval cascades before us all over again, almost no serious measures have been taken to stop the same people from doing it to the people all over again.

To keep replicating that meme, I think these cracks, these discursive spaces, have opened up because neoliberalism has become zombie-like, it no longer makes sense. So we need new stories to help us make sense of our lives: it’s only if we can get a (collective) grip on what’s going on in the world, that we’ll be able to (collectively) change the world. So, it’s important that we keep the cracks open.



As the  initial shock of the riots subsides then a little room for thought emerges. To help this process here is a collection of some of the more interesting initial reactions we have come across. It was mostly put together by our friend and comrade Andre and nicked from his Facebook page to increase the potential audience. If you have any suggested additions then we will attempt to include them, at least until the whole thing becomes too unwieldy. The list is rather unorganised, although there are some videos and a radio show placed at the end. The only other thing we have done is to place a couple of interesting pieces from right wing commentators at the front. We have done so because they are reactions that we wouldn’t expect to see from such quarters. When added to this earlier piece on recent scandals and crises from right wing commentator Charles Moore then we can get the impression that something is going on here, a disorientation within right wing thought perhaps? This is a possibility that is worth revisiting at some point.


‘London riots: the underclass lashes out’ Daily Telegraph. Incredible stuff from the ‘Torygraph’, e.g.

The failure of the markets goes hand in hand with human blight. Meanwhile, the view is gaining ground that social democracy, with its safety nets, its costly education and health care for all, is unsustainable in the bleak times ahead. The reality is that it is the only solution.

The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as the bottom By Peter Oborne


Interesting stuff from less unexpected sources (new stuff will be at the top):

Talk by Paul Gilroy

David Starkey is right, by ‘a close brother of Sons of Malcolm’

These riots reveal some unpalatable home truths by Hari Kunzru (The Guardian)

The other side of ‘we’re all in it together.’ By Rodrigo Nunes

The London Riots – On Consumerism coming Home to Roost – by Zygmunt Bauman

In Broadway Market – James Meek (London Review of Books)

Feral Capitalism Hits The Streets, by David Harvey

‘Nothing to lose, nothing to win’ by David Broder (The Commune)

‘In defense of Anarchy’ by Boff Whaley (The Independent)

The Salford riots and the greed of the disenfranchised (The Guardian)

An eyewitness perspective on the riots in Salford and Manchester (Indymedia)

#riotcleanup or #riotwhitewash? by The University of Strategic Optimism

#Riotcleanup: a physiognomy of an old fascism restored (The Third Estate)

London rioters resent media image of hooded teen thug (Reuters)

An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part one) by Socialism and/or Barbarism

An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part two) by Socialism and/or Barbarism

Eyes Wide Open in London by Occupied London

 Riot Thoughts by Spillway

A FITWatchers view of the riots

“Recreational looting” in perspective by John Naughton

Riots: The left must respond by James O’Nions (Red Pepper)

The Riots: A grim mirror image of neoliberal Britain by Tom Fox (Red Pepper)

Criminality and Rewards by Max von Sudo

 Britain and its Rabble (As I Please blog)

Violence at the Edge: Tottenham, Athens, Paris by Illan rua Wall (Critical Legal Thinking)

From Self-Mutilation to Self-Organisation (Nomadic Utopianism blog)

North London Solidarity Federation’s Response to the London Riots

There is a Context to London’s Riots which Cannot be Ignored by Nina Power:

‘Panic on the Streets of London’ by Laurie Penny

‘AA+ for the Rioters?’  by The Free Association

Statement by Arts Against the Cut

‘A Message to a Country on Fire’ statements by London Anti-Cuts Space

‘Five Quick Points on The Riots’ by Kenan Malik

‘Don’t Moralise, Don’t Judge, Don’t Take Pictures – It’s Time for the Riots to get radical Daniel Harvey (The Commune)

Report from members of The Commune about rioting in Hackney (The Commune)

Tottenham: Neoliberal Riots and the Possibility of Politics by William Wall (Critical Legal Thinking)

London Riot Pt 2 Arts Against the Cuts


Other stuff:

Badiou article about the ‘Banlieue riots’ in France (2005). Worth a read now.

This radio show contains a very interesting discussion of the context of the riots.

Darcus Howe on the BBC

Interesting interview from the London Streets

Interview with Tottenham local the morning of Sunday 7th August

“Truly extraordinary speech by Fearless and Brave Lady to Hackney London rioters:”

Darcus Howe and Richard Seymour on Democracy Now: Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We’re in the midst of two enormous news stories.

First the London burning story: three nights of rioting (and counting) in the capital, spreading from borough to borough and, now, to other cities (Birmingham). What a finance type might describe as a serious case of contagion.

Second, financial meltdown 2. Plummeting share prices, a deepening of the eurozone crisis and the downgrading by a notch of US government debt (for the first time ever) from the highest ‘triple A’ rating to AA+. (The credits ratings system is quite arcane – Wikipedia’s explanation is here.)

Most of the reporting on and analysis of the riots has been (predictably) poor. Comparisons have been made with the series of inner-city riots of the early 1980s. However most of the discussion is couched in terms of ‘criminality’; few commentators have bothered to mention the economic backdrop. But it’s no coincidence that that series of riots happened during the period when neoliberalism was being imposed on Britain’s population by Thatcher’s first government, when class antagonism was most naked and when Thatcherism/neoliberalism was arguably most fragile. Now, three decades later, neoliberalism is in crisis (as we’ve argued in Turbulence, a zombie — or here for our Comment in The Guardian) and we’re seeing more riots and more unrest. A great exception is Nina Power’s piece in The Guardian.

In fact, a year or so ago, parts of Britain’s Establishment were making the connections, e.g. an ACPO spokesperson in April 2009, Nick Clegg just before the election. Of course, now their predictions have come to pass they (the ruling class) have to pull together. Restoring order is the priority.

So that’s the riots then. Now let’s move on to consider the financial maelstrom…

In fact, the turmoil in the financial markets is all part of the same, much broader story.

What the commenters say is that there are doubts whether governments can repay their debts. Exactly. Those who trade in the financial markets, particularly those who buy and sell so-called sovereign debt — basically the IOUs, known as bonds or bills, that governments issue –think that there’s a risk that governments won’t actually be able to honour these IOUs. They fear default. And because they think there’s a risk of default they’re less willing to lend to governments. To persuade the people and institutions who lend to governments to overcome their reluctance, governments must offer a little extra compensation, a higher reward. In other words governments must pay a higher rate of interest, the lenders receive a higher yield. That’s why the yields on Greek and Spanish and Portuguese and Irish (the so-called PIGS) government debt, and now Italian and Cypriot government debt, have gone sky-high. Because financial investors think there’s a high chance these governments will default and they want additional reward for taking on that risk. Yields on US government debt haven’t reached Mediterranean levels, but nevertheless, they believe there’s a slightly higher risk — the reason why on Friday Standard and Poor’s (one of the three rating agencies) downgraded US government bonds from AAA to AA+.

So far so orthodox. But why the doubts? Why do ‘the markets’ fear that governments won’t be able to repay their debts? Because, to do so, governments must either increase their revenue (raise taxes) or reduce spending (make cuts). As we know, most governments are ruling out meaningful tax increases on the wealthy (individual rich people) and on capital (corporations), preferring instead to attempt to impose austerity. But this is where they’re running into trouble, particularly in southern Europe. Essentially governments aren’t able to impose as much austerity as ‘the markets would like’. And that’s because of class struggle — the occupations, the demonstrations, the social unrest, that we’ve been witnessing over the past couple of years.

And from here, we can travel north again, to this weekend’s rioting in London. Nick Clegg today claimed that ‘the international debt crisis vindicates the coalition government’s decision to prioritise cutting Britain’s budget deficit’:

Clegg insisted the crisis showed why the government was right to introduce sweeping spending cuts in a bid to eliminate the UK’s structural deficit by 2015.

“All governments around the world need to get to grips with their public finances and, at the same time, to put in place the long-term reforms that create growth and prosperity for millions of people around the world,” he said.

“If anyone had any doubt about the need for this coalition government first to come together in the national interest in times of great economic uncertainty and then to get on top of our public finances, I think that recent events should demonstrate the necessity of the steps that we took last year.”

Clegg is saying here that the British government has done — or is attempting to do — what the governments of the PIGS (and more) haven’t managed. The ‘recent events’ he’s referring to are the financial crises. But the recent — and ongoing — events on the streets of Britain’s capital may demonstrate that Clegg’s hubris may be premature.

At the moment, financial investors are betting that ‘the U.K. will remain insulated from the fiscal crises roiling the U.S. and the euro region‘ — yields on British government debt (known as ‘gilts’) have fallen over the past few days, indicating that ‘the markets’ do not currently fear British default. But over the next days, weeks and months, we should keep as close an eye on these indicators as on the ‘street’. The City is not apart from the city.

As the phone hacking scandal unfolds and taints a whole political elite it becomes important to think through its exact political significance. On the most optimistic pole of interpretation some have claimed it as a British Spring, the UK equivalent of the revolutions in the Maghreb or the movements of the indignants in Spain and Greece. One important difference, however, makes this interpretation a mistake. Unlike these other moments the ‘public’ has not been an active agent in the Hackgate scandal, its role has been largely reduced to that of passive spectator. It would be an equal mistake, however, to claim this scandal changes nothing. The temptation to take such a world-weary ‘skeptical’ position might seem ‘radical’ but it is in fact a deeply conservative impulse that threatens to reinforce the neoliberal ‘end of history’ doctrine that change is impossible. At the very least Hackgate signifies that we are in a political situation that has changed quite fundamentally from the one that reigned before the 2008 financial crisis.

To explore this more fully we should position Hackgate as the latest in a series of scandals that have engulfed Britain’s ruling institutions over the last four or five years. In this sense, despite the unprecedented nature of recent events, there is still a certain sense of familiarity to proceedings. We have seen similar scenes around MPs expenses and, of course, with the public outrage directed towards bankers following the financial crisis. In addition we have witnessed not one but two media feeding frenzies around the repression of protestors. The first followed the police attack on the G20 protests and the murder of Ian Tomlinson, with the second erupting around the outing of Mark Kennedy, leading to the unprecedented unmasking of another five undercover police officers acting within the protest movement. The refusal of the Metropolitan Police to investigate the full extent of phone hacking is, then, the third scandal revealing the political character of contemporary policing.

The phone hacking scandal, and particularly the web of complicity revealed in its cover up, is undoubtedly more significant than some of these other scandals but positioning it amongst this series allows us to raises a question that has rarely been posed: Why now? Why are these serial scandals erupting now?

In answer to this question some have pointed to certain technological changes such as the popularity of camera phones or the advent of social media. In fact Paul Mason argues this position in a blogpost titled, Murdoch: The network defeats the hierarchy. There are some attractions to this argument but it seems totally inadequate to me. There is something much more epochal going on. It seems patently obvious that these scandals are part of a more general social and economic crisis sparked by the credit crunch of 2007-8. But while that much seems obvious the exact nature of the relation and so the political significance of the scandals is less clear.

To think through this question of “why now?” I want to raise the example of the Italian Mani Pulite or Clean Hands affair of the early 1990s. This political corruption scandal brought down the existing political system in Italy and destroyed every mainstream political party. The odd thing about the affair is that there had long been incredible levels of political corruption in Italy. Graft was endemic, mainstream parties such as the Christian Democrats and the Socialist Party had well-established links to the Mafia and the secret service had worked closely with neo-fascist terrorists to bomb their own citizens. This had all been an open secret since at least the Second World War. So why did the arrangement fall apart at that point in history? There are of course specificities to the events but broadly speaking we can attribute it to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of the Italian Communist Party. The whole of post-war Italian politics is only understandable as a settlement arranged to prevent the Communist Party taking power. As soon as its raison d’être was removed the whole arrangement began to lose coherence. Practices that seemed tolerable as part of a wider settlement suddenly appeared as intolerable corruption.

In similar fashion Hackgate reveals the precise mechanisms of a network of corruption whose broad outlines were already understood. What we see, however, is not a distortion of an otherwise functional system but one instantiation of a system that can only operate through such corrupt mechanisms. What we are seeing, through its moment of decomposition, are the parochial arrangements through which neoliberalism was established in the UK.

Neoliberal governance has traits that are common right across the world yet its instantiation in each individual country has been shaped by the specificities of that country’s history. In each country a different (re)arrangement emerged between sections of the ruling class that would enable the imposition of neoliberal policies on populations that, on the whole, didn’t want them. Rupert Murdoch, and the tabloid culture he helped to establish, was central to this process in the UK, not least with the defeat of the print unions at Wapping. Other elements of that compact include a Thatcherite Conservative Party and a neoliberalised Labour Party, a highly politicised police force and, especially after the 1986 Big Bang deregulation of the stock market, the dominance of finance capital. It is no coincidence that each of these elements has been racked with scandal since the economic crash of 2008.

Neoliberalism, however, is more than the parochial arrangements of a specific national ruling class. Each semi-stable form of capitalism also needs some sort of settlement with the wider population, or at least a decisive section of it. As we have previously argued, in distinction to the post-war settlement that contained an explicit deal linking rising real wages to rising productivity, neoliberalism contained an implicit deal based on access to cheap credit. Despite the stagnation or decline of real wages since the late 1970s, the mechanisms of debt allowed living standards to be maintained. An accompaniment to this deal was the necessary abandonment of any pretence to collective control over the conditions of your life. It meant the end of democracy in any meaningful form and the reduction of politics to technocratic rule. The financial crisis broke the central component of this deal, access to cheap credit. Living standards can no longer be maintained and without it the parochial ruling arrangements in the UK have started to lose coherence.

Rather than a symptom of renewal, however, we should read these scandals as a symptom of neoliberalism’s undead zombie-like status. As we put it in Turbulence:

Neoliberalism is dead but it doesn’t seem to realise it. Although the project no longer ‘makes sense’, its logic keeps stumbling on, like a zombie in a 1970s splatter movie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. If no new middle ground is able to cohere sufficiently to replace it, this situation could last a while… all the major crises – economic, climate, food, energy – will remain unresolved; stagnation and long-term drift will set in (recall that the crisis of Fordism took longer than an entire decade, the 1970s, to be resolved). Such is the ‘unlife’ of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. A zombie can only act habitually, continuing to operate even as it decomposes. Isn’t this where we find ourselves today, in the world of zombie-liberalism? The body of neoliberalism staggers on, but without direction or teleology.

The scandals represent the zombie’s body decomposing even as it continues its habitual operation. The example of the Clean Hands scandal, however, shows that exposure of corruption is not enough to produce something better. A crisis can remain unresolved and that situation can settle down into a new semi-stable state. In Italy the collapse of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists lead to the emergence of the racist Northern League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Italian politics since the scandal has been subordinated to Berlusconi’s attempts to escape the corruption charges arising from that time. A huge new compact of corruption has been established to achieve that goal.

The only way to avoid a similar outcome to our present situation is to spark mass political action such as that glimpsed in Greece, Spain, and the Maghreb, as well as the student movement in the UK. Any prospect of this reaching the level of social force needed to finish off neoliberalism is predicated on the hope that the embrace of tabloid and celebrity culture is a symptom of the powerless position neoliberalism places us in and not its cause. The collapse of neoliberal ideology and the revelation of the corrupt nature of contemporary policing and politics must be taken into account in any new invocation of the fairy dust that can spark social movements. But left on its own it is just as likely to collapse back into the sense of passive impotence that pervades our contemporary situation.

  • Post by /
  • Comments Off on “What constitutes participation in the revolution?”

Documenting the revolution sounded like an easy thing, but what is the revolution? When did it start? When did it end? What constitutes participation in the revolution – is it only those who went down to Tahrir, or is it also the doctors who worked extra-long hours in their hospitals to treat the wounded? What about a police officer who fought the protesters – is he a part of the revolution or not?

It is people who make history, not generals or leaders.

The question of access to information and archives is political, because reading history is interpreting history, and interpreting history is one way of making it. Closing people off from the sources of their own history is an inherently political gesture, and equally opening that up is a political – even revolutionary – act.

This was a leaderless revolution, and one which came about through mass participation. The way we write history now has to be part of the same process, and so does the way we access that history. That for me is as much a part of the revolution as anything else.

Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, quoted in ‘The struggle to document Egypt’s revolution‘, The Guardian, 15.07.2011.

Manchester booklaunch 21 July

The details of our Manchester launch event have now been sorted, thanks to our friends and comrades in Shift magazine.

Although it’s billed as a launch event, it’s not really about racking up book sales (!). The main purpose of talks like these is that we get the chance to engage in ongoing political discussions. One of the things we’ve been thinking about, in particular, is the relation between the shape of our politics – our ways of organising – and the wider contours of social formations. In autonomist terms, it’s a question of class composition.

This talk on sorcery, rupture and fairy dust looks at how we reproduce capitalism (or rather, capitalist social relations) behind our own backs. And we try to think about what the notion of a “real abstraction” might mean, by looking at the way capital is so slippery and elusive while its effects are horribly real.

But all this has to be put into the context of the economic crisis of 2007–8 which changed the political landscape irrevocably. There was (and is) obviously a crisis in the reproduction of capital: we pay for the crisis in the shape of wage cuts, job losses and closures, a massive reduction in public spending, and a widespread imposition of austerity. But as the effects of this crisis begin to bite, it’s also become clear that there’s a “crisis in political representation”.  It’s an ugly phrase, but it’s shorthand for saying that it’s increasingly obvious to everyone that we cannot vote our way out of this mess. Even the most cynical reformist has to admit that the power of parliament (or any democratically elected sovereign body) is more limited than ever. That’s why we’ve seen a range of social movements which have pushed way beyond traditional political solutions – from Iceland in 2008–2009, to Millbank and the student movement in the UK, to the Arab Spring and the huge swell of events in Spain and Greece. These movements have their own peculiarities, but you could say they all have an intrinsic extra-parliamentary logic. In their common rejection of “politics as usual”, they echo the cry of “que se vayan todos” that rang through Argentina in 2001–2002. “All of them must go!”

So, although the imposition of austerity, by definition, means shrinking and closure, we can also see the outlines of radical possibilities in this new landscape. But there are two problems. First, despite the obvious resonances between them, the struggles that are emerging don’t seem able to cohere into a social force capable of effecting change. So while movements have emerged rapidly (and explosively), they’ve also dispersed fairly quickly — demobilised, frozen or swallowed up by traditional civil society organisations — leaving only traces of their initial potential.

Second, there’s a related impasse in terms of the way we organise as anti-capitalist militants. Existing forms of organising and activism that stem from pre-crisis days don’t seem up to exploring the possibilities of this new landscape. And by “existing forms of organising and activism” I really mean all forms — from Leninist parties and national federations to affinity groups and anti-hierarchical networks. In the face of some of the stuff that’s been going on, even the most progressive and liberating of these seem wooden or flat-footed.

Can we find a new political approach adequate to the moment? Is there the possibility of some sort of re-groupment? Or do we need “just one more push, comrades”? Get yourself along to Manchester on 21 July and help find out…

  • Post by /
  • Comments Off on London launch date

booklaunch london 010711

Our London launch event has at last been finalised and will happen on Friday 1 July at Limazulu. Thanks to the efforts of comrades in London, our talk will run as part of Militant Cinema, a short series of films around the Italian Workerist Movement, and will be followed by a screening of Il Posto and Gli uomini che mascalzoni. The full season runs from 25 June to 3 July, and looks brilliant.

Through allegory and pastiche the films expand and illustrate the ideas contained within the movement. First, that it is the working class who are the active agent within capitalism rather than capital, which is always reactive to the movements of the working class, subjugating and oppressing their innovations. Second, that Marx should be radically re-read beginning with works such as the ‘Grundrisse’ to reunderstand Marxism as a thoroughgoing materialism. Third, that the answer is for workers within a constantly shifting class structure to unite around the abolition of the system of wage labour, rather than agitate for more equity in its mediation. Rather than pass through a period of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, communism could be established more immediately, through struggling for autonomy of the working class from capitalism, a capitalism whose continuation is contingent on their labour. Opposed to more traditional Leninist parties such as the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano), workerist tactics of occupation, sabotage and the valorisation of the working class spilled into concern for the place of women’s work in the home, for ‘the social factory’ and the cooperative and hence proto-communist nature of working class life.
This eclectic group of films help trace the ideas of the movement and portray something of the social context in which it was born, promising a broad and colourful introduction to late 20th century Italy – a site of mass insurrection, violent struggle and state repression, with a legacy that has left the Italian political landscape with permanent and bloody scars

A few days ago the following post appeared on the website of the Class War Federation.

The Class War Federation is no more.

Given our inability to continue to function at an organisational level and the huge amount of debt that the organisation finds it self in we have no choice but to formally dissolve the group.

Given that we only have 5 paid up members it is the decision of the five of us to end our association and in doing so end the project known as Class War.

Déjà vu? 14 years ago, we were members of the Class War Federation and were part of a faction that successfully argued for its dissolution. As it turned out, a rump continued… and following changes in membership which I’ve had no interest in following, it looks like the last remaining few have finally decided to call it a day.

In fact our reasons for dissolving Class War were neither organisational nor financial. (At least not organisational in the sense that we weren’t able to carry on the day-to-day tasks on maintaining the organisation’s structures, producing a paper, etc., though these tasks were frequently onerous.) Our reasons were political. In short, we decided that Class War was incapable of making sense of the changed social and political terrain of Britain in the 1990s. It was incapable of understanding new movements, such as Reclaim the Streets and the anti-roads struggles more generally, not to mention the problematics and possibilities opened up by the Zapatistas.

As part of this project we produced what we hoped would be a final issue of Class War the paper and organised a national conference — May Day ’98, held in Bradford — inviting various anarchists, anti-authoritarian communists, militant environmental activists and others for three days of discussion. With the decision to dissolve Class War and the production of the final issue of the paper, we’d done a lot of soul-searching and been very self-critical. But we reckoned that the problems we’d identified weren’t just ours — they applied to most if not all of the groups on ‘the left’ (including the anarchist ones) — and we hoped that others would question their own political practices too.

We probably had some success and the discussion at May Day ’98 was intense and, I think, productive. But others used Class War’s dissolution as an invitation simply to stick the boot in some more. We’d been self-critical, but this wasn’t enough for many on the left and there were several ‘and another thing’ type attacks which seemed to be written from pure positions of certainty. One example was ‘Death of a Paper Tiger‘, published in Aufheben, and linked to again in the libcom discussions on Class War’s second death.

In the last 14 years, arguments about Class War seem to keep cropping up on forums like LibCom. I’ve tended to steer clear and when I have dipped in I’ve been pretty unimpressed. (A recent post complained about the skull-and-crossbones logo, comparing it to the SS insignia.) In fact, rereading ‘Death of a Paper Tiger’, for example, I’m struck with how weak it is — its analysis, never mind its patronising and uncomradely introductory note: ‘But we do recognize that some people joined Class War out of a sincere desire to challenge this society and did some good things to further that goal while in Class War.’ I remember agreeing with much of the article at the time — and I still do agree with many of its criticisms of CW — but it fails to seriously address any of the what I’d today call problematics that Class War was wrestling with.

But this enduring fascination with Class War is itself fascinating. [A few years ago I did a talk at a meeting in Lund, Sweden and the organiser asked if I could put Class War in its title as this would attract a bigger audience — even though it was a decade since I’d been involved. And the first question was about Class War.] So, it might, after all these years, be worth putting down some of our thoughts on the subject… I’m making no attempt at any sort of nuanced, critical analysis of Class War — that can wait for another post. Instead I want to make some notes on what was good and important about Class War.

Working-class identity politics?

Quite a common criticism of Class War is that it glorified working-class identity, and a particular type of working-class identity. E.g. in the recent discussion somebody posted:

They’ve never been a class struggle group, it’s always been identity politics – worse, one based on a caricature.


Well… there’s identity and there’s identity politics, and there’s anti-identity. (Deleuze and Guattari, John Holloway and Sub-Commandante Marcos have all offered insights on this in various places.) Asserting I am black [or a Jew or a woman or queer]— and proud of it is not equivalent to saying I am white [or Aryan or a man or straight] and proud of it. And the ‘inequivalence’ of such pairs depends on the context — the time and place. The first statement can often be understood as anti-identitarian as it challenges the position of the dominant, majority identity. (‘Majority’ used here in way Deleuze and Guattari use it. I.e. male identity is majority desite woman making up slightly more than half of the population; white identity majority in apartheid South Africa.) In 1980s Britain, the majority identity was middle-class — it still is, of course, but in the 1980s this represented a break from the earlier, Keynesian, more collectivist era. Thatcher introduced the idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’ and policy of allowing council-house tenants to buy their homes. Having a mortgage meant being/becoming middle-class.

Of course, nobody wants to be working-class; we all want to escape the relation to capital, to work, to money, etc. that being working-class implies. As Holloway puts it somewhere in Change the World Without Taking Power the working class is better understood as an anti-working anti-class: this is Marx and Engels’ point about the working class abolishing itself. But this escape must be collective if the class (and classes) are to be abolished. With neoliberalism’s/Thatcherism’s attack on working-class organisation, the discourse that escape could only be individual became deafening. [As the author of ‘Death of a Paper Tiger’ writes, ‘Class War [was] the bastard child of Thatcherism’. Well, yes, of course. Anti-capitalist struggles and capitalism always develop in relation to one-another. It’s always possible to say this struggle is the product of that policy or that that policy was proposed in response to this struggle. Substituting ‘bastard child’ for ‘product’ makes it sound more of criticism, without much changing the meaning.] So, given this context, attempting to promote a strong working-class identity is not necessarily a bad thing to do. ‘Death of a Paper Tiger’ again: ‘Class War responded by publicising themselves as the defenders of the traditional working class values of these communities’. Values like solidarity and mutual aid?

Reversal of class perspective

It’s true that Class War frequently seemed to promote a particular type of working-class identity, maybe at times a ‘caricature’, as charged above. But really, what it was trying to do was represent the working class as ‘proud and menacing’. Here Class War was simply following the advice of the ‘father of Italian workerism‘ Mario Tronti in 1980: ‘As a matter of urgency we must get hold of, and start circulating, a photograph of the worker-proletarian that shows him as he really is — “proud and menacing”.’ In the context of the British political landscape this was an enormously important shift. In the mid-’80s (when Class War was formed), particularly during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, almost all of the left depicted the working class as victims and as passive, whilst anarchism tended to be dominated by pacifists. Class War challenged both: the working class is an active subject in the making of history, and sometimes that history involves violence. And what better expression of the reversal class perspective than the aphorism used on the masthead of Class War for several years: ‘The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise’. (Variously attributed to Max Stirner, Bakunin and James Connolly.)

Bash the rich

Capital is a social relation. It’s an abstract dynamic, what Marx called a ‘real abstraction’. Of course, Class War didn’t understand this, choosing instead to personify this social relation by attacking the police, bosses, the royal family and ‘the rich’. But the social relation is asymmetric, in a couple of ways. It’s asymmetric in the sense that capital needs and will always need labour — that is, the living human beings that become labour in the capital relation. But, we, as human beings, don’t need capital. This asymmetry is in our favour. But it’s also an asymmetric relation in that when a capitalist enterprise fails those who work for it may lose their whole livelihood: when workers lose their jobs, they may also lose their homes as well. But a capitalist’s risk — or liability — is nearly always limited. In fact, the legal concept of limited liability is one of capitalism’s most important ‘innovations’. A shareholder-capitalist may walk away from a bankrupt business and its debts, losing only the value of his or her shares, with profits securely banked — creditors, who nearly always include workers owed unpaid wages, may end up with nothing.

In this context, trying to personify the relation, however imperfectly or theoretically incorrectly, can be enormously powerful and liberating. Attacks on capitalists say: we won’t let you forget you’re a human being too; you cannot limit your liability; we will make you liable. As we wrote in ‘Six impossible things before breakfast‘:

For us, one of the most liberating moments in the 1980s was the way that anarchist politics gave names (and addresses) to the people who dominate our lives. It broke the rules of the game. It rejected the power imbalance between rich and poor, the asymmetry of a world where profits are privatised but loss is always socialised. (Look at the current credit crisis: whilst the ‘subprime’ poor are being turfed onto the streets, top bankers are selling third homes or luxury yachts.) In a bizarre way, naming the rich re-asserts a common humanity by denying them the ability to hide behind limited liability companies, off-shore tax havens, and multi-layered management. It is an echo of Lucy Parsons in 1885 when she said ‘Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live.’

It’s funny because, in some ways, the more we stress that capital is a social relation, the more we reinforce the continual process of fetishisation essential to capital’s reproduction. The executive relocating a factory to somewhere where wages are lower, the manager sacking a worker, the politician cutting a service all claim their hands are tied, there’s no alternative, they’re just obeying the laws of the market… and we, when we discourse on capital’s logic, the ‘laws’ of capitalist development, etc. quite frequently agree: yes, your hands are tied, you have no alternative, you’re just obeying the laws of the market! But paraphrasing Wildcat, bosses do a difficult job in difficult circumstances… and that’s why we hate them. Part of our role as anti-capitalist militants is to attempt to defetishise the capital relation, i.e. locate the human content in it. Personifying/naming the enemy is one way of doing this.


Finally, much of what Class War said and did seemed to resonate. As an organised group I don’t think Class War ever numbered more than a hundred or so members, probably far fewer active members. But the ideas expressed in Class War must have struck a chord, even inspired, many many more people, even if they didn’t actually mobilise them. Something would happen somewhere, some action, institigated by people with no formal connection to Class War as an organisation. But asked who they were, the response would come: “We’re Class War!”

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.