The first decade of the twenty-first century was marked by a series of global summits which seemed to assume ever-greater importance – from the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle at the end of 1999, through the G8 summits at Genoa, Evian and Gleneagles, up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) at Copenhagen in 2009.
But these global summits did not pass uncontested. Alongside and against them, there unfolded a different version of globalization. Moments of Excess is a collection of texts which offer an insider analysis of this cycle of counter-summit mobilisations. It weaves lucid descriptions of the intensity of collective action into a more sober reflection on the developing problematics of the ‘movement of movements’. The collection examines essential questions concerning the character of anti-capitalist movements, and the very meaning of movement; the relationship between intensive collective experiences – ‘moments of excess’ – and ‘everyday life’; and the tensions between open, all-inclusive, ‘constitutive’ practices, on the one hand, and the necessity of closure, limits and antagonism, on the other.
Moments of Excess includes a new introduction explaining the origin of the texts and their relation to event-based politics, and a postscript which explores new possibilities for anti-capitalist movements in the midst of crisis.
Moments of Excess is published by PM Press and is available direct from the publishers here (US) or here (UK). Alternatively, if you live in the UK or Europe you can get it from Word Power Books here.
More than a book, Moments of Excess it is a tool for ‘worlding’. Worlding is put forward as the manifestation of the world we desire in our day-to-day relationships. Moments of Excess speaks to questions that are crucial in creating a better world, all the while asking and opening more questions. This book is wonderfully grounded in the real experiences of the writers, as well as references many movements and events that have inspired millions in this loosely defined ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. In addition to being an important tool, Moments of Excess is a fun read, using popular culture, poetry and humor to make points and speak directly to the reader. Reading this book, I felt like a part of a conversation, a conversation that I didn’t want to end.
—Marina Sitrin, editor of Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and (with Clif Ross) Insurgent Democracies: Latin America’s New Powers.
Reading this collection you are reminded that there is so much life at the front-line, and that there is no alternative to capitalism without living this life to the full. The message is clear: enjoy the struggle, participate in it with your creative energies, be flexible and self-critical of your approach, throw away static ideologies, and reach out to the other.
—Massimo De Angelis, author of The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital and editor of The Commoner.
Wonderful. Fabulous. The Free Association’s work have been writing some of the most stimulating reflections on the constantly shifting movement against capitalism—always fresh, always engaging, always pushing us beyond where we were … exciting stuff.
—John Holloway, author of Change the World Without Taking Power and Crack Capitalism.
– Review from Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest Volume 12, Issue 4, 2013
Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life is a collection of essays authored by the writers’ collective The Free Association over the course of several years of activism. The anthology of texts is presented as untimely, yet the articles are all interventions into different moments of mobilisation and testament to more than 10 years of organising. They were published in books, magazines and as pamphlets, ‘in the heat of the moment’ (p. 7). With most members of the collective based in Leeds the texts speak foremost to the British anti-capitalist movement, but they have a wider reach with articles addressing audiences ranging from Marxist academics to protesters at G8 summits in Scotland and Germany to Italian organisers of the European Social Forum.
On the one hand, the 11 chapters that make up Moments of Excess trace the past 15 years of globalisation-critical movements in its peaks and troughs. They are shaped by movement events; those that stand out are the large summit protests at the turn of the millennium, from the ‘battle of Seattle’ via London’s Carnival against Capitalism to the traumatic police riots in Genoa. These are moments of the extraordinary, described in the book as conjunctures of affinity, rupture and possibility. In The Free Association’s words, moments of excess temporarily invoke the sense that ‘things that seemed impossible a day or two before seem irresistible now’ (p. 44). On the other hand, however, the contributions are also directed against events. They echo the well-known criticisms of summit-hopping and mass mobilisations, and instead signal a return to the politics of everyday life, not dissimilar sometimes to the writings of Henri Lefebvre or Raoul Vaneigem.
However, the authors take explicit inspiration from elsewhere. They rely loosely on the Italian Marxist tradition of (post)-operaismo and at times also on the political writings of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. With a nod to autonomist Marxism, we could thus read The Free Association’s book as an attempt to develop an interplay between two concurrent strands of analysis: (a) the class compositional power of the multitude and (b) the neoliberal recomposition of capital through crisis.
The notion of class composition signals a continuation of class war politics that nonetheless moves away from a traditional Leninist analysis of class consciousness and organisation. Foremost, the book treats class not in a sociological sense, but as linked to a perspective of anti-identity. Here, the authors certainly take inspiration from the popular autonomist text Changing the World without Taking Power by John Holloway. Anti-identity, for Holloway, is a notion directed against ‘classification’ and is derived from Marx and Engels’ phrase of the working class ‘abolishing itself’.
Not having abandoned the centrality of class, but reinterpreted it in an autonomist fashion as an expression of struggle, The Free Association’s attention lies on the most obvious events and moments of excess only in the sense that they are ‘one of the places where the movement of movements can break the limits of its formation and ask its own questions’ (p. 87).
The second thread weaving through the book is the recomposition of capital in neo-liberalism. With the advent of a new cycle of economic crisis, yet before anticipating the full impact of crisis management through austerity, The Free Association speaks here of a loss of commitment to neo-liberalism as an ideological project. All the texts have this much in common; they see their particular reference points – whether they lie in the mobilisations against the G8, the Camps for Climate Action, or the 2005 banlieue riots in Paris – as responses to a crisis in the fabric of neo-liberal governance, rethinking issues of democratic legitimacy, environment or social justice.
This is also the strength of the book: it allows us to view the myriad of small movement events, organisations and campaigns as part of a larger, anti-capitalist struggle. While it does not make groundbreaking inroads into the field of social movement studies, its connection of collective action, struggle and social agency signals a perspective on crisis as opportunity.
The Free Association clarifies at various points that capital is to be regarded not as an unmovable structure but as a dynamic set of social relations between people. Where capital fails to restructure, movements emerge that aim to fill the vacuum with their own dreams: ‘while the world is in a state of shock, it opens up the possibility for us to impose our desires and reconfigure social relations’ (p. 107). As such, the book does not seek to speak to an academic discipline but rather to those of us – scholars, students and activists – who foster such desires for radical change.
– Review from Issue 3 of the Irish Anarchist Review – published May 2011
In November 1999 a new cycle of struggles burst into the media consciousness of the world with the spectacle of anti-WTO protesters confronting police in the streets of Seattle. In fact this was a cycle that had first raised its head in England earlier that year when astonished TV viewers turned on the news on June 18th to discover that the City of London was under siege by ‘anti-capitalist’ protestors, the first time that term had ever been heard in media reporting. ‘Moments of Excess’ is a collection of texts by the Free Association written from 2001 to 2011 paralleling this cycle of struggles, of the so-called anti-globalisation or counter-globalisation movement with its succession of counter-summit mobilisations from Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Evian, Gleneagles and Heiligendamm amongst others.
The Free Association were participants as well as commentators in these events and many of these texts were originally published to be distributed freely to the participants in the mobilisations, either individually or as part of the Turbulence Project. The texts chosen for this collection show the progressive development of a unique political viewpoint through the learning experience of these protests and encounters.
The Free Association, originally the ‘Leeds Mayday Group’, came out of the group within the Class War Federation that pushed for the latter’s self-dissolution in the late 90s and organised the Bradford Mayday Conference of 1998. Coming out of the autonomist Marxist current within Class War, the first text in this collection ‘Anti-Capitalist Movements’, a commission from a publisher looking for a book on ‘anti-capitalism’, reads somewhat as a confession of ‘orthodox’ autonomist Marxist faith (if such a thing can even be said to exist) with its obligatory hat-tips to Tronti and Negri. Nonetheless, the Free Association’s practice of writing collectively guards them from the lapses into impenetrable ‘intellectualese’ all too often associated with older individual writers from this current, who have nowadays swapped prison cells for lecture tours. Rejected by the publisher as being ‘too militant, not academic enough’, the FA have thankfully continued in this vein ever since.
It is really with the later texts addressed to the participants of the counter-summit mobilisations that the FA’s writings really begin to develop into a unique perspective squarely aimed at an audience of the movement itself. Indeed the question of what exactly ‘the movement’ is, is a continual theme throughout these texts along with a continual return to the maxim “again and again, the most productive place to start is with the question of what we want, not what we’re against”.
Although the theoretical background to these texts, whether the autonomist tradition of Tronti or Negri, or the progressively growing influence of Deleuze and Guattari, is not only rich but also dense to the point of being resistant to many readers, the Free Association’s choice of audience and their intent to produce an effect in ‘real-time’ tactical situations transforms this density into lucid, affective prose. ‘Event Horizon’ for example, begins with a description of the subjective experience of being in a real time ‘moment of excess’ situation in language that speaks directly to emotion and affect far more powerfully than the jaded art-school dropout poetics of any insurrectionist text. Although never explicitly stated, the feminist maxim that ‘the personal is the political’ and its converse that the political is either about personal and collective liberation or it is just another alienation, runs through all of these texts.
In reaction to the recent uprising against Mubarak in Egypt, just before the dictator’s downfall, an Egyptian commentator wrote of the schizoid experience of reality in Cairo as a city split between two different timezones simultaneously. In one timezone, Tahrir square and other neighbourhoods, the dictator had already fallen, the broadcasts of state TV from the other timezone where he was still in power appeared like a bad joke, as if from another era, another reality. It was a powerful piece and yet, to this reviewer, strangely familiar. Since receiving my review copy of ‘Moments of Excess’ I placed that familiarity. In many of the texts, for example ‘Worlds in Motion’ or ‘Event Horizon’, the FA address the question of ‘worlding’, that is how to rip up the script and create new possibilities in the here and now, as opposed to the millenarian promises of some far off day ‘after the revolution’. In writing of what the ‘composition’ of such situations is they write, “Maybe its as simple as acting though we already exist in a different reality” and “Take the example of Rosa Parks, who simply refused to move to the back of the bus. She wasn’t making a demand, she wasn’t even in opposition, she was simply acting in a different world”.
‘Moments of Excess’ is a collection of political texts coming out of a cycle of struggles that is now closed, as the authors accept in their final text. This text, ‘Re:generation’, new to this edition, looks towards the emerging new cycle that has shown its face in the anti-austerity protests and the recent student clashes in Britain and Ireland. This book is a record of lessons learned in that previous cycle, written in language that participants in the coming wave can access so as to be broken into parts for appropriation to their/our own needs. Above all, it speaks to the most basic questions of radical or revolutionary politics – the need to break through the alienation of the everyday under capitalism and to combat the reappearance of those same alienations in our oppositional organising or activity, and to renew the vision “that we can develop new tactics, new technologies and new ways of living that will cause a cascade of events to sweep through society”.
Today, in the wake of the financial implosion of neoliberalism, we are told ‘There Is No Alternative’ to a decade of savage cuts, dismantling social provision, lowering wages, an age of austerity. This, we are told, is the way the world is. Well then it’s time for us to make a new world, not in some far-off future, but right here, right now. This book is a contribution to the debate of how to make new worlds that respond to our needs instead of those of capital. If that sounds like something you’re up for, then beg, borrow or steal this book!
– Review by Patrick Nicholson, from Peace News issue 2535-2536 – July/August 2011
I suspect many activists struggle with the bigger political context outside their immediate areas of concern and engagement – I know I do. An insidious feature of current mainstream political culture is that sense of “this is how it is; this is the only way things can be”; that capitalism, of a neoliberal variety, is the only game in town. Hence for activists the choice can feel like either doing single-issue politics, or none at all. This book can change all that.
Moments of Excess is a relatively short book that packs in a tremendous amount: an analysis of anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist politics and action over the last ten years, from Reclaim the Streets and Seattle, snowballing into the “movement of movements”, and taking in recent UK phenomena like the Camp for Climate Action, anti-cuts and student demos; a lucid description of the current state and vulnerability of global capitalism, specifically the financial crisis originating in 2008; and an accessible historical political analysis that weaves together the likes of Marx, William Morris, and punk rock. The authors, The Free Association, are a collective of folk mostly from Leeds with a shared political history and friendship dating back to the 1980s.
Recurrent themes that emerge include the idea of social movements as processes, literal “movements” in social relations; the paradox of capitalism’s abject failings and near-collapse, yet its ability to grind on zombie-like and apparently unstoppable; antagonism and conflicts as drivers of social change; and the co-option and smothering of movements by mainstream assimilation.
In short, this book makes sense of the world, and our role in it as agents of change, in a way that nothing else I have read in recent years does. The crucial point for me was the book’s accessibility and readability, partly due to the fact that it is a collection of essays, arranged chronologically but each standing on its own.
The book strikes the right balance between academic and popular approaches; only very rarely does arcane language obscure the ideas (overuse of the term “problematics”, for example), and the footnotes were excellent, throwing up lots of additional insights and inspiration. It also mixes personal narrative with political analysis in a very engaging way, and deftly synthesises UK, European and global perspectives.
I recommend this as the ideal book for any activist seeking to get back in touch with “the big picture” and tool up intellectually for the showdown with neoliberalism. A great holiday read. Seriously!
Review by Gareth Brown, from Phosphor issue three
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.