Up we rise
Reflections on global rebellion
December 2012 Published by Zuccotti Park Press as part of their Occupied Media Pamphlet Series
“Hundreds of protesters stormed the building after smashing through the windows chanting ‘die Tory scum’. Rocks, wooden banners, eggs, rotten fruit and shards of glass were thrown at police officers trying to beat back the crowd with metal batons and riot shields. Inside the building, windows were kicked in, desks and chairs were overturned and the walls were daubed with anarchist graffiti. Protesters set off fire extinguishers, overturned filing cabinets and threw office paperwork and business cards from the smashed windows. Dozens swarmed onto the roof where they hurled fire extinguishers, burning banners, bottles and cans into the crowd … Placards and banners were being burnt, to cheers from the crowd, while protesters inside the building used chairs as they smashed and kicked their way through more of the glass frontage, effectively opening up the whole atrium to the crowd.”
– The Telegraph, 10 November 2010
In 2007-8, the cycle of struggles associated with the counter-globalization movement seemed to be coming to a close. The movements that had delegitimized and sometimes shut down world leaders’ summits from Seattle onwards seemed more predictable, less interesting. Even when the ‘Doha round’ of trade talks faltered and stalled in 2006 – signaling the crisis of the WTO itself – there was no general affect or sense of victory. The movement had certainly moved on since 1999 and its anti-WTO protests in Seattle, but it appeared to have reached an impasse.1 It seemed to have stopped moving. And then something happened, something that made us certain the counter-globalization movement was over. The world shifted in 2007-8, as a financial crisis spilled over into a full-scale economic meltdown.
The financial crisis dealt a killer blow to the counter-globalization movement, but more importantly, it also spelled the end of the neoliberal deal. ‘Deal’ is perhaps an odd term to use when talking about neoliberalism. We’re more accustomed to the notion of a Keynesian deal, an unofficial contract which offered full employment, rising real wages linked to rising productivity (via the trade-union brokered ‘productivity deal’), some form of welfare state and so on. Of course, this deal applied more to workers in the First World than the Third, more to men than to women, more to white workers than to black. In fact it’s probably more accurate to think of three deals – an A-deal, a B-deal and a C-deal – offered to different sections of the global proletariat.2 But all three Keynesian deals were annulled by the epochal crises of the 1970s, which ended with the triumphant emergence of neoliberalism.
Like Keynesianism, neoliberalism also involved a deal between capital and the proletariat.3 But in contrast to the earlier era, this deal was never explicit: it wasn’t hammered out by trade union leaders in late-night meetings with bosses and politicians. The neoliberal deal was more tacit, an implicit arrangement. It had three main elements: first, aspiration or hope; second, plentiful cheap credit; and third, access to cheap commodities.
The archetypal Keynesian worker of course hoped his (or her) life would get better. He no doubt expected it to: a modestly rising income, negotiated by his trade union, over the course of a working life of four decades, followed by a secure retirement with a secure pension and some form of welfare safety-net. But aspiration is different. It’s hard to aspire to modest, incremental advances. You aspire to be different, to stand out, to be somebody. The Keynesian economic policies adopted by social democratic governments across the global North stifled aspiration – and the desire to be different – which is one reason why ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ movements, from gay rights to punk were so powerful. This is where neoliberalism delivered, or least credibly promised to do so. For three decades struggling workers were able to aspire to become something or someone else – and this is the form their struggle took. These aspirations were further fired by neoliberalism’s self-consciously global outlook: instead of the Keynesian deals offered to workers in the First, Second and Third World, neoliberalism had a one-size-fits-all approach.4
In its own terms, neoliberalism worked: across the planet, and particularly in Asia, economic growth rates seemed impressive (a ‘miracle’ according to capital’s proponents), and millions were ‘lifted out of poverty’.5 For several billion people, neoliberalism offered hope: “Things might be bad at the moment, I might be working a shitty job, living in shitty accommodation, maybe even a slum, but… if I work hard, if go to school, if I go to university, if I study hard, if I can send my children or one of them to university… with a little luck, things will be better in the future, even if not for me then for my children.” One of the clearest indices of this shift in aspiration can be seen in the massive expansion of higher education: across the major capitalist economies, the proportion of young people going to university or college doubled between 1995 and 2008, rising from 20% to almost 40%. For whatever reasons, a sizeable proportion of the global working class clearly had faith in the capitalist system; the system was credible.
The second main element of the neoliberal deal was credit. While neoliberalism offered ‘aspiration’, ‘hope’ and ‘opportunity’, the reality was more brutal. Since the late 1970s, real wages across many of the advanced capitalist economies have been stagnant. In the US, a productivity boost of more than 80% in the thirty years between 1979 and 2009 was matched by an increase of less than 10% in the median hourly wage. This falling wage share has not been evenly distributed: most of the burden has fallen on those already at the lower end of the pay scale. It’s the same story across the global North, made even more stark when we factor in rising wage inequality. This sustained wage squeeze, with average earnings lagging far behind productivity, has been complemented by a hike in profts. In the US, while production workers’ average pay rose just 4.3% between 1990 and 2005, corporate profits boomed to the tune of 107%. In the UK, the proportion of Gross National Product going to wages has been in a similar decline, from 65% in 1973 to 53% today.
In the face of this, workers have only been able to maintain their access to social wealth (which has risen) by drawing on credit – by becoming more and more indebted. In the UK, average household debt, which was 45% of disposable income in 1980, was a staggering 150% by 2009. Similar rates of indebtedness could be found elsewhere across northern Europe. In the US, meanwhile, the ratio of debt to disposable personal income leapt from 77% in 1990 to 127% by 2007, much of it mortgage-related. The role of subprime mortgages in triggering the economic crisis is well-documented, but it’s hard to over-state the centrality of credit in the neoliberal boom years. Who knows what social struggles might have erupted if our ability to enjoy the fruits of our (collective) labor had been as constrained as our pay packets over the past three decades? But by granting us cheap and plentiful credit, capital was able to avoid taking that gamble. Capital, in effect, displaced antagonism into the future.
As well as this temporal displacement of antagonism through the mechanism of credit, capital used globalization to displace antagonism spatially or geographically. On the one hand, globalization intensifies competition, forcing workers in the US, say, to compete with those in Mexico, Bangladesh or China. Those American workers are then more likely to blame Mexican or Bangladeshi or Chinese workers for their situation, rather than their boss or capital. But on the other hand – and this is the third element of the neoliberal deal – the cheap ‘Made in Mexico/Bangladesh/China’ commodities that fill our shops also mitigate the effects of our collective inability to struggle successfully for higher wages.6
With the financial meltdown of 2007–8, both ‘sides’ lost faith. The ‘credit crunch’ meant exactly that: the end of cheap credit. Quite simply, creditors lost faith in debtors’ ability to repay (probably with good reason) – and called in the debts. Capital’s temporal displacement of antagonism disappeared. The future collapsed into the present, with an almighty crash. At the same time – or possibly because of the general economic crisis that followed the financial crisis – the working class began to lose faith in capitalism’s ability to guarantee their social reproduction.7 In country after country, polls are showing plummeting public support for capitalism and free markets. The aspirational element has certainly disappeared. The education route to class mobility is blocked; the only thing a degree guarantees is a mountain of debt. At the same time, the ‘other’ has also collapsed into ourselves, as we in the First World now face the same ‘structural adjustment’ that has been meted out to Third World proletarians and commoners over much of the past few decades (‘adjustments’ that resulted in the global market and, at the end of the supply chain, cheap stuff on the supermarket shelves and the clothes rails). In short, for the first time in generations, we no longer expect the future to be better than the present.
With the crash, militants expected the antagonism of capital (of the capital relationship) to be laid bare. We expected the new landscape to be an obvious battlefield. We expected a return of all those (previously displaced) antagonisms. Instead there was a curious calm and a sense of stunned shock. It felt like war had been declared… but nobody was shooting.
As the phony war continued, it became obvious that ‘traditional’ social-democratic politics were completely impotent in the face of the meltdown. But no new composition was able to take shape and create its own forms. And, in the absence of any coherent, or cohering, alternative, neoliberalism was able to stagger on, zombie-like. In the UK, the old ‘new’ Labour government continued its program of marketization and privatization of public services – as though markets hadn’t just failed spectacularly. They were replaced, in 2010, by a Conservative-Liberal-Democrat coalition government (the ‘Con-Dems’) which continued with more of the same – only attempting to accelerate it. Massive public spending cuts (£130 billion – $200 billion – over five years), job cuts for public-sector workers, further marketization of higher education, more competition in schools, cuts to all manner of social benefits.
This pattern was repeated across Europe and the global north as governments of all stripes hastily assembled packages which would deliver a combination of higher taxes, reduced state benefits, job cuts, wage freezes, extended working lives and so on. The details varied from state to state, but the overall policy was remarkably consistent: from the US to the UK, from Greece to Denmark, we were going to pay for their crisis.
And we were waiting waiting waiting… waiting for a response, waiting for something to happen.
2. Breaking glass
Social movements have a habit of taking shape in the most unexpected of places. They respect neither logic nor history, but instead explode with something akin to a violent rupture. While governments of the global North began to impose austerity in the name of recovery, the social antagonisms that had been buried under neoliberalism were working their way underground. And like Marx’s old mole, they were about to break ground in a spectacular way.8 Although what follows is written from a UK perspective, the story that emerges could equally start from Cairo, Chicago or Santiago.
For two decades student marches in the UK have been predictable, staid affairs. Students, in the main, have been more concerned with maximizing the return from their university education (with the multiple objectives of consuming alcohol and other drugs, attending parties and gaining a degree) for a given investment (money borrowed, time spent in the library, time spent doing waged-work), than getting involved in politics. That is, they have behaved like well-trained, aspirational neoliberal subjects. Student leaders (the presidents and other officers of students’ unions up and down the country), for their part, have seen their tenure as simply a stepping stone on their way to some form of political career, as MP (member of parliament) or advisor, most often for the Labour party. That is, they too have behaved like neoliberal subjects. So we did not expect much when, on November 10 2010, the National Union of Students (NUS), along with the university lecturers’ union (the UCU), organized a demonstration to protest the government’s plan to slash state funding for universities and, at the same time, to triple the maximum tuition fees universities can charge – from £3,375 (about $5,250) to £9,000 ($14,000) per year.
On November 10 2010, our expectations were defied. The demonstration took the ‘traditional’ form of an A-to-B march, with marchers moving from Whitehall in central London, past Downing Street, past the Houses of Parliament to finish with a rally and speeches by the NUS president, UCU president and various other trade unionists. With 50,000 protestors on the streets the march was double the expected size. Much more interestingly, at a certain point, a group broke off from the agreed route and headed off to Conservative party headquarters, at 30 Millbank. Once there, these student militants occupied the building, unfurling banners from the roof and repelling police attempts to evict them. The day’s lasting image was that of a masked demonstrator kicking in the building’s plate-glass windows. That boot through the window signaled the return of class antagonism. It was what we’d all been waiting for.
With the ‘Millbank riot’ (of course, it wasn’t really a riot), suddenly everything seemed to be happening. There was a second demonstration in London a fortnight later, with more clashes with police, who deployed five times as many officers as the earlier march and used the controversial tactic of ‘kettling’ demonstrators. Six days after that people demonstrated again. This time protestors – having learned their kettling lesson – kept on the move. Then, on December 9, the day MPs were scheduled to vote on the fees increase, there was another set of demonstrations in central London, with yet more clashes with police, more kettling by police and more destruction of property, including the offices of the Treasury. Meanwhile protestors who’d roamed into London’s West End came across a car carrying Prince Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, which they surrounded and splattered with paint. That event provided another iconic image of class antagonism: the heir to Britain’s throne and his future queen visibly fearful of an angry mob.
Two points are worth emphasizing. First, these London events were in fact just one part of a much broader student movement, both across the UK and across Europe. There were demonstrations in other towns and cities, with universities and colleges occupied up and down the country. And the occupations and street protests were organically connected. Militant students used their occupied spaces as places to theorize, analyze and… plan demonstrations, and also as safe spaces to retreat to following demonstrations in order to reflect and prepare their next moves. And sometimes demonstrations ended up in apparently impromptu new occupations.
Second, the social mix of this movement was far broader than mere university students – it’s perhaps more appropriate to talk of ‘young workers’ rather than students. The many street protests included thousands of school children, many of whom demonstrated in school uniform, along with college-age youth (16–18 year olds). Equally important were the ‘EMA kids’, youths who benefit from a small (£30/$45 per week) Educational Maintenance Allowance, payable to 16–18 year olds from poor families who remain in full-time education. The abolition of the EMA was announced at the same time as the fee increase. And so we were handed a third iconic moment to signal the reemergence of antagonistic class actors: a group of young black men, mostly masked up, are filmed by a news journalist, and one of them exclaims: “We’re from the slums of London, yeah. How do they expect us to pay £9,000 for uni fees? And EMA the only thing keeping us in college.”
The impact of this movement in the UK went far beyond its immediate field. Its mix of anger, desire and stifled aspiration was a violent interruption of the plans being drawn up by capital. More significantly, by rejecting the terms of austerity, it re-defined the political landscape and brought other horizons into view. Within weeks, the Arab Spring had erupted, heralding a tumultuous 2011 across north Africa. And then all of a sudden, we found ourselves in the midst of what felt like a global movement. In Spain one in six people are reckoned to have participated in the movement of the indignados which began on May 15 2011 in 58 cities across the country. In the same month, Greece saw square occupations and daily demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people, with its focal point being the people’s assembly in Athens’ Syntagma square (the Parliament square). Hacktivism reached new levels with co-ordinated attacks on north African governments during the Arab Spring, while Operation AntiSec, jointly launched by LulzSec and the group Anonymous, targeted major corporations and financial institutions.
In many countries education itself became a key battleground, as students fought cuts, opposed closures and resisted further marketization. In Chile, for example, a massive series of student-led protests emerged in August 2011, feeding off widespread anger about an education system which favors rich students and dumps the poor in underfunded schools. The movement soon spread beyond the education sector to articulate deep resentment about the failure of state investment, stifled opportunity and class inequality as a whole. Much the same thing happened with Occupy Wall Street which emerged from apparently nowhere in September 2011, sparking a range of initiatives in cities and communities right across the world. With its assembly form and participatory structures, the Occupy movement was able to provide a focal point for those who felt alienated from traditional political organizations and methods. And it dared to raise crucial questions of power, inequality and class rule.9
Finally the UK was rocked by major urban riots in August 2011 with widespread looting, arson and attacks on the police. By coincidence, the riots erupted just one day after another financial meltdown, with massive stock market falls in Europe and the US of a kind not seen since the depths of 2007–8. This was an even clearer message from the slums of London (…and Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, etc), one that linked right back to the economic crisis which brought us here. As one young female looter put it, “We’re getting our taxes back!”
After the shock of the economic meltdown, and the phony war that followed, 2011 was the year when protest became the defining form of politics right across the globe. For a time at least it seemed that power once again lay in the streets.
As we write this, in the summer of 2012, those global waves of popular resistance to capitalism seem to have abated. Neoliberalism again staggers on. This is no surprise to the left theorists who criticized that resistance for its reformism, for its lack of strategic direction, for its populism and so on. However correct these criticisms, they remind us of the old joke about a city-dweller who is lost in the countryside. Panicked, she asks a local farmer for directions home. The farmer scratches his head and says, “Now then, if I was wanting to be going to the city, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point, of course, is that we can only ever start from where we are. But more than this, we can reverse the structure of the joke and use the limitations of current struggles to establish where exactly ‘here’ is. In other words, rather than criticizing these social movements for their failure to fulfill our pre-established ideals, we should be asking what they can tell us about the new social composition.
At a superficial level, the return of street politics is perhaps not so exceptional. It can be seen as part of the ‘natural’ ebb and flow of political generations, which has been given new impetus by the financial meltdown of 2007–8. Across the planet, that crash highlighted the increasingly circumscribed role of national governments. Any illusion of sovereignty, or of the possibility of forging some independent path towards a more equitable society, was shattered when it became clear that government policies are ultimately dictated by the financial markets. The massive bank bailouts further exposed the lack of accountability at the heart of advanced capitalist economies and provoked severe legitimation crises.
Of course, the roots of this democratic deficit are not just to be found in the global flows of finance capital. It’s no coincidence that neoliberalism was first tested under Chile’s military dictatorship. In this respect, Bush’s electoral coup d’état in 2000 was nothing new: the commitment to economic ‘freedom’ (i.e. capital’s freedom) will drive straight over any democratic process when necessary, as the crisis of 2007–8 made clear. But there are consequences. When the real decisions are taken elsewhere, when financial markets can depose and appoint leaders in an instant, traditional politics of appeal, representation and negotiation stop making sense.10 In the UK, this extra-parliamentary logic was reinforced when the Con-Dem coalition took charge: Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, had signed a pre-election pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees for university students but performed a spectacular U-turn in return for the post of Deputy Prime Minister in the new government. A similar process can be charted in the United States. Obama’s ‘Hope’ campaign of 2007 mobilized thousands behind a promise of change, but it was Occupy which first offered some idea of real agency, of where that change might come from. Perhaps we can say that Occupy took the idea of ‘Hope’ (which always seems to look blindly upwards) and turned it into ‘Aspiration’, one that offered a very different horizon.
In the face of all this, by 2010 it was clearer than ever that if you want change, taking to the streets is the only option.
But there is also a deeper, more structural level to these developments. In a blog post of February 2011, later expanded into a book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Paul Mason identified three key social actors in the 2011 upsurge of militancy: organized labor, ‘the graduate with no future’ and the urban poor.11 Situating these forces alongside an analysis of networked technologies, he asked, “What if – instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism – the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order?” Perhaps we can now re-frame that question in terms of class composition and ask whether we are witnessing the birth-pains of a new radical subjectivity. In order to do that, we first need to dig a little deeper into the lived experience of neoliberalism.
The key neoliberal policies (tested first in Chile and then applied by Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s) had a common goal: to wipe out the gains of Keynesianism and so effect a thorough-going decomposition of the working class. In the UK, these were spearheaded by an assault on the labor movement, a massive increase in financialization, and the reorganization of the housing market via the ‘right to buy’ scheme (which gave local council tenants the right to buy the home they rented). Although these were the classic hallmarks of Thatcherism, the political thrust of this strategy was continued by successive Labour governments in the late 1990s and the 2000s. Most of what remained of the state-owned sector was further de-regulated – either privatized outright or re-born as corporate entities which have to operate according to commercial criteria. Market forces were encouraged to rip through public and social services at all levels, further weakening the power of organized labor.
By the turn of the millennium, the neoliberal narrative of aspiration and social mobility meant record numbers of young people were entering higher education in the UK (40%, compared to just 3% in 1950). Of course, this unprecedented change also meant the creation of a new strata of the indebted: student maintenance grants had been abolished, and tuition fees were introduced (initially £1000 or $1500 per year), along with a new student loan system to allow individuals without wealthy parents to finance their education.
The downward pressure on the social wage was masked by an increase in the availability of cheap credit and a property boom. Mortgage mobility went hand in hand with (perceived) social mobility. These rising aspirations were always individual, rather than collective, so they also acted to destabilize communities and undermine social cohesion. But as the boom continued, this didn’t seem to matter. Most social antagonism was displaced into the future (in the form of a debt we thought we’d never have to repay) or across the globe (as our pension funds sought to extract maximum value from workers in the global South). Despite the best efforts of the anti-globalization movement, anti-capitalist politics failed to resonate widely across the UK. Trade unions were little more than a vehicle for discounts on insurance and oppositional politics seemed a thing of the past. Capitalism kept telling us it had ‘won’ and most people seemed happy to live it up at the end of history…
This lived experience of neoliberalism proves remarkably common across major capitalist economies. Over the last thirty years our sense of what is possible has been shaped by a narrow range of economic and social policies. The neoliberal mantra there is no alternative has become more than just dogma: its repeated and extended application through every aspect of our lives means that it has become part of our everyday operating system. But the ‘crisis of the future’ opened up in 2007–8 has also prompted a crisis in those neoliberal subjectivities.
4. Give’em enough hope
Neoliberalism can also be seen as a project of deterritorialization, ripping humans apart from all social grounding in order to unleash (or rather, impose) the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. Under Fordism, the landscape was fairly well-defined: mass production supported mass consumption and both were flanked by a range of institutions and policies aimed at producing controlled economic demand and social stability. Everyone, and everything, had a territory. Neoliberalism flattened that terrain. This was the essence of Thatcher’s famous dictum that “there is no such thing as society”: instead the social body is Homo economicus writ large, a mass of competing individuals seeking to minimize costs and maximize gains for themselves, held together by no social ties other than the market.
One of the consequences of this, evident even before the crisis in 2008, has been steadily rising precarity. By this we don’t simply mean the transformation of previously guaranteed permanent employment conditions into contract-based, short-term or temporary posts. Precarity also involves the shrinking of the social wage and a consequent rise in insecurity about meeting our basic needs, whether in terms of housing, travel, health or affective relations. Our lives and our time become increasingly contingent on the shifting demands of capital. This is the case for freelancers and casual workers (constantly available and infinitely flexible), but it’s also true for most of the working class, juggling demands and desire against the imperatives of capitalist time. And here we should also note that, “if the clock, not the steam engine, [was] the key-machine of the modern industrial age,” then network technologies have been equally central to this post-industrial landscape – and instrumental in the creation of a new precariat.12
In this neoliberal landscape, when the global financial crisis exploded, we looked in vain for a collective body capable of expressing this antagonism. Under Fordism, the subject was clear: in mass workplaces employing hundreds, if not thousands, of workers you could literally see collectivity. With a precarious, fragmented and mobile workforce, things are very different. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi explains, “the social body is pulverised and is deprived of the very bodily existence of the body itself; a disembodied body in a sense, dissolved in the process of work”.13 In the aftermath of 2008, and in the absence of a social body strong enough to resist it, capital has embarked on a rapid process of proletarianization. Huge numbers of skilled workers are being driven into unemployment or pushed into precarious, temporary and unskilled work. At the same time, with the rise in tuition fees, the next generation of workers has been saddled with rising bills for a college education that had been seen as a guaranteed route of self-improvement and social mobility. And a full-scale slash-and-burn policy is being deployed against pensions, healthcare, education, libraries, publicly-provided sports and leisure facilities and almost all other areas of public spending. This attack on the social wage has inevitably sparked a crisis in social reproduction but, perhaps more importantly, it has impoverished the political imaginary – people’s perception of the sort of life they should expect, for themselves and for their children.
From this perspective, then, we can ascribe greater significance to the way social movements broke ground at the end of 2010. As one reviewer summarized in a review of Mason’s book, “Is it kicking off because we are, in fact, seeing the growing pains and anxious howl of a working-class for the new century, and a whole new family and industry of technologies?”14 If we can read Millbank, Occupy Wall Street or the actions of the Spanish indignados as attempts to call into being a new social body, then Mason’s three tribes – organized labor, the graduate with no future and the urban poor – are a useful way of thinking about a possible shape for the class. Of course, we need to be clear that these categories are a tool, not an empirical reality: they overlap, they don’t describe the whole of the working class, and they are not nuanced enough to deal with the complexities of race and gender. But they can help reveal some important points about those social forces that are on the move.
We can loosely tie each tribe to a field of action. In the UK, following crucial defeats in the 1980s, organized labor has primarily revealed itself through a series of one-day public sector strikes, accompanied by large but passive marches. Where victories have been achieved, they have often involved unofficial wildcat action against smaller employers. In some respects the UK experience seems exceptional, because the neoliberal project has been established for so long. Across the rest of Europe, militant workplace struggles still erupt, but they feel like bitterly fought rearguard actions. The current battle of Spanish miners against cuts in state subsidies, for example, is one that was lost in the UK more than 25 years ago. Elsewhere there have been notable attempts to move beyond sectoral, defensive actions: in Wisconsin an impressively broad progressive coalition formed in opposition to a drastic budget repair bill, and the protests were unprecedented in duration and scale. But at crucial times, this embryonic movement faltered and fell back into providing set-pieces for the union leaders and Democrat politicians.
By contrast, the more amorphous category of the ‘graduates with no future’ has tended almost exclusively towards decentralized, networked forms of action (in this respect they embody the inheritance of the anti-globalization movement). Britain’s National Union of Students, for instance, lost all influence over the post-Millbank student movement and while formal campaigns such as National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts had some role in organizing subsequent demonstrations, it wasn’t the primary form of organization within the movement. Actions, tactics and theoretical reflections mainly circulated by viral adoption and adaptation, taking advantage of the breadth of weak ties found in social media.
A good example of this method can be seen in the rise and spread of UK Uncut. A small group of veterans of the Camp for Climate Action15 imported the direct action techniques developed there into the anti-austerity movement by blockading and occupying shops and businesses which had manipulated loopholes to avoid paying tax. The tactic had an immediate impact on the public debate by revealing austerity as a political decision and not the result of a ‘law of nature’. The model quickly spread across the country (and even across the Atlantic, spawning a US Uncut), self-generating groups who identified with the tactic. This viral method worked because the story of the action was instantly understandable, because the actions were easily replicable and because participation carried a low entry level of risk.
Similar levels of innovation can be found in the massive student mobilization in Quebec which became the longest and largest student strike in the history of North America. Classe, the loose coalition of militant student groups, realized early on that for the student movement to succeed, it would have to become a social movement. The struggle for accessible education was transformed into something much wider by the use of assemblies, inventive direct action, and nightly marches. In this political space, we can start to see the outlines of a new collective body, one capable of asserting itself and composing a new sustainable form of power.
Events in Quebec form a sharp contrast to the actions of the final tribe, the young urban poor. They have tended to adopt more directly confrontational tactics, driven partly by routinely conflictual interaction with the police and partly by the feeling of having little to lose. These flashpoints are the most unpredictable and explosive, but they are also the least sustainable – they burn out quickly or are forcibly extinguished. The UK riots of 2011 followed the same pattern as the French banlieue revolts of 2005: an initial explosion, a rapid expansion, and then a state response aimed at demonisation and outright repression.
Each of these ‘tribes’ is on the move yet the forms they adopt are marked by the neoliberal world they are seeking to escape. In the UK, the poverty of ambition that reigns in organized labor can partly be explained by its long experience of defeat over the last 40 years. For many the default horizon of utopia is reduced to the re-election of the Labour party, which would inevitably make the same spending cuts but not quite so quickly and not quite so deep. By contrast, the emergence of the Occupy movement had a dramatic effect on the notion of what’s politically possible. Yet despite its impact the camps were often limited by the individualist politics of moral outrage and ‘bearing witness’. As Occupy spread from city to city, innovation turned into mere repetition as new groups simply put up tents and hoped that politics would follow. The riots, with their atomized, destructive fury, coupled with the looting of high status goods, revealed yet another face of neoliberal subjectivity as it struggled to find a collective politics.
In the months following Millbank this fragile coalition of the three tribes moved apart. Their divergence was highlighted most dramatically on the ‘March for the Alternative’ anti-austerity demonstration in London on March 26 2011. While thousands of public sector workers sat listening to speeches by trade union leaders, UK Uncut organized a mass occupation of Fortnum and Mason, a luxury food store in upmarket Piccadilly. Meanwhile a “black block”, reckoned to be the UK’s largest ever, went on the rampage through London’s West End. The recriminations that followed hardened the separation between the three tribes, and closed down the space which had, temporarily, held out the promise of new forms of class power, collectivity and organization.
These divisions were then further intensified in the aftermath of the August riots. The ferocity of the fighting, the unpredictability of their spread and the apparent impotence of the police provoked a feeling of deep shock in large segments of the population. That feeling was reinforced by the endless looping footage of shops set alight with what seemed like little regard for those living above. This affective reaction was articulated by political and media elites into a right-wing backlash. A hysterical campaign was launched to prevent the riots becoming linked to the context of crisis and austerity that produced them. It resulted in a prohibition on thought that was ruthlessly policed. London Mayor Boris Johnson tellingly responded to a question about the shooting that sparked the first riot by declaring: “It is time that people who are engaging in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications for what they are doing.”16
5. Don’t mourn, organize
At the beginning of 2012, as the promise of the global wave of protest began to fade, some asked just what had been gained from the events of 2011. Weren’t we back in the same state of impasse where we’d begun? The situation reminds us of a tale from the early 1990s of a football manager trying to introduce a more patient, continental style of football to players used to the directly attacking nature of the English leagues. During a training session the manager asks his attackers to pass and move in the final third of the pitch instead of launching the usual early cross into the box. After five minutes the centre forward pipes up: “What was the point of all that running, we’re back in the same positions as we started?” “Yes”, says the manager, “but the defenders aren’t.”
We suspect that the field of class struggle across the world has been fundamentally altered by a year of dramatic events. Yet much of that impact has taken place in the opaque and unpredictable realm of desires, expectations and the sense of what’s possible.17 Moreover, just as the economic situation has had waves of collapse, false recoveries and renewed crises, so the social struggles and movements thrown up in response have been through waves of intense activity followed by the dissipation of energies and then the re-emergence of struggle in new form. This problem has presented itself as a sense of a lack of continuity and cohesion, heightened by the geographical and temporal dislocation of struggles. Huge social movements are springing up around the world but they are peaking at different times. This, plus the geographical distances involved, makes it difficult for struggles to cohere together on a global scale.
As the crisis turns into a battle over ‘the new normal’ it’s ever more vital that these changes in class composition are given a political expression. Of course we can’t know for sure what form this will ultimately take but the events of 2011 point us to three distinct yet related problems that must be tackled along the way.
1. We need to develop ways to keep very different forms of struggles articulated together.
The cornerstone of austerity propaganda is that “we are all in it together”. The implication is that we all have to make sacrifices in order to get the economy moving again. Rising pay and bonuses for directors, bankers and executives reveal the lie behind this claim: the rich are simply still getting richer, at our expense. But the myth of unity is telling because it highlights the fractured way in which we experience crisis. Austerity is being rolled out by national governments at varying times and speeds. Even within national boundaries there are geographical differences and temporal lags, with the real effects of budget cuts not being apparent for several years. And different communities come under attack at different times or are pitted against each other in the battle for scarce resources.
Divide-and-rule is an age-old tactic, of course, but the problems of articulation have been compounded by the social decomposition wrought by neoliberalism. At times it can be hard for those involved in one struggle to even recognise the social field in which other struggles are being played out. The labour movement was slow to engage with the Occupy phenomenon, for example, and never achieved any sort of successful collaboration. That said, there have been moments when the different ‘tribes’ have appeared to move in concert. Even respectable union leaders, such as the head of Trade Union Congress Brendan Barber, have talked of supplementing strikes with civil disobedience, using UK Uncut as an example of the latter. There is a danger here of thinking only in terms of formal alliances and agreements, and falling back on the traditional terrain of organized politics (as happened in Wisconsin). The loose, horizontal networks so prevalent in 2011 risk being swallowed up or squashed in such an arrangement. Instead, it might be more useful to frame the problem as one of enhancing the resonance and avoiding the dissonance between different struggles. In this light we might look to create common spaces in which the different tribes can contaminate one another, while allowing for the possibility that quite new subjectivities will emerge.
In addition, however, we need to tackle the problem thrown up by the experience of the August riots in the UK. The weak ties which had helped build the movement during its upsurge in early 2011 were ill-suited to the aftermath of the summer. Instead of offering a pole around which oppositional social forces could cohere, the post-Millbank movement simply disintegrated in the face of an orchestrated backlash. Computerized social networks proved a poor medium for dealing with shocked metrosexuals who suddenly discovered their inner fascist. One tweet we received summed it up: it suggested the day after the riots be henceforth known as “The Great Day of De-Friending and De-Following”. So at the same time as developing ways of keeping different forms of struggles articulated together, we need to find ways to deal with the eruption of new social movements, in order to mitigate the effects of shock. In fact it’s not inevitable that those suffering shock will fall back onto comforting old tropes (such as the innate criminality of the urban poor). Shock can also provoke new thinking, knock us out of habitual patterns and make us question the usually unthought assumptions and presuppositions of existing society. In this light the problem becomes how movements can learn to respond to shock with open rather than closed affects.18
2. We need to recognize the scale and length of the crisis, and develop ways to sustain political organization across the ebb and flow of distinct protest waves.
The occupation of physical space, whether as street protests, camps or mass assemblies, was a repeated theme throughout 2011. We can see this as a move to supplement the weak ties of loose networks with the stronger bonds of long-term engagement. But the intensity and commitment of 24-hour occupations put up barriers to participation and inevitably run the risk of burn-out. Our forms of organization and collective analysis must be able to sustain themselves across movement downturns and transformations in motivating issues. The solution to this lies in adjusting our political imaginaries to the longer timescale of struggle created by the size of the crisis, but also in developing forms of consistency. As George Caffentzis has pointed out, the experiences of the last year have shown that speed alone is not enough for political effect. We need momentum as well. That can be achieved by a small group travelling very fast; but if we’re serious about change, it must also mean a much larger number of people moving at a slower pace.19
This problem of durability operates on two different levels. First, there is a growing tendency for groups to form in response to a problem and then dissolve without leaving a trace. This ‘firefighting’ pattern is nothing new (and of course the history of the radical movement over the last two hundred years is one of groups forming and dissolving). But by the early years of the 20th century, many parts of the workers’ movement had developed a whole range of institutions – clubs, bars, meeting halls, educational associations and so on – which meant that it was possible to live large parts of life within its orbit. Histories, practices and ideas were passed from generation to generation, in spaces which saw themselves as social and cultural as much as political. When groups collapsed and campaigns dissolved, people could still fall back into a left culture where it was possible to re-think and re-group. Two successive world wars and a massive change in class composition destroyed much of that world. And neoliberalism has done its best to obliterate the little which has survived: the attack on the organisations of the labour movement was also an attack on those institutional memories, the collective practices and values that had been built up over a century of struggle.
Here we come to the second level of the durability problem. Social decomposition is also carried through by the promotion of a neoliberal subjectivity. As neoliberal subjects we are expected to treat life as an economic project, constantly prepared to re-invent ourselves. There is little space for memory within that neoliberal subjectivity, because that would involve commitments and connections that make no economic ‘sense’. And neoliberalism has little to say about the future, either. In the boom years, there was no future because the only way to imagine tomorrow was as a repeat of today (history had ended, after all). In a time of crisis, it’s impossible to envisage any future at all. Instead, neoliberalism is always all about now, about the time of consumption. In a world that sees no past and no future, it’s hardly surprising that durability is a problem.
There is little point in mourning the death of the stable communities that produced the 20th century left and its over-arching narratives. Today communities are just as likely to form around disembodied networks as around location or employment, ideas circulate almost instantaneously, and social movements can erupt from apparently nowhere. Occupy, the Spanish indignados, and the Greek square occupations all emerged from this new composition. The problem is that movements can disappear almost as quickly as they spring up, which is why two recent attempts at re-invigorating Occupy are notable. The first, Occupy Sandy, is a coordinated relief effort to distribute resources and volunteers to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy.20 Stepping into the vacuum left by the official response, the group has been able to apply its infrastructure, techniques and skills to promote a “People Powered Recovery”. In this we can see a conscious effort to draw on the political capital made by Occupy Wall Street and inflect it in a new direction. The repertoire of techniques employed in Zuccotti Park– the assembly form, open mic and consensus decision-making – is proving well-suited for this project, where there is a clearly defined goal and a loosely shared set of values. Those forms, however, are less adequate for thinking strategically or shifting direction. The second example, Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee project, represents a more conscious attempt to re-invent a movement and open up new political terrain.21 It’s a step away from the open network model and towards a notion of distributed leadership, where a small group self-organises, researches the viability of an initiative and then presents it to a wider network.
Although Occupy Sandy and Strike Debt both grapple with the problem of re-invigorating social movements and building sustainable forms of organisation, neither offers a model that can be uncritically applied. Both depend on a continuity of individuals and groups that can not always be relied on. But they do show that it is possible for movements to consciously re-invent themselves, extend their reach and break new ground. Invention can be organised.
3. We need to face up to the crisis of political representation by moving struggles beyond simple protest, beyond the purely symbolic, to the direct satisfaction of material needs.
The mainstream consensus is that if our lives are to improve, we have to exit recession. In other words, ‘growth’ is the only way out of the crisis. There is a wilful amnesia at work here, as if the crisis was not itself a result of capitalist growth. Moreover, it’s clear that there are only two ways to achieve growth: either cut debt now by imposing a programme of austerity (Plan A); or defer the issue of debt and instead try to stimulate the economy (Plan B). The problem, from a capitalist perspective, is that neither plan looks set to deliver. Within Europe, three years of rigid austerity have failed to stimulate EU economies; and Plan B’s neo-Keynesian approach harks back to a class composition that no longer exists.
In order to move out of this impasse, we need to recognize that, from an anti-capitalist perspective, we don’t experience the current crisis as negative GDP growth or a stock market slump. Instead it is manifested in falling wages, rising prices, home repossessions, cutbacks, increasing precarity and so on. In other words, the crisis is played out as a crisis of social reproduction. And we can understand social reproduction in two ways. First, the ways in which we are produced and reproduced as workers for capitalism (whether waged or unwaged), and at the same time the ways in which we produce and reproduce ourselves as human beings. Second, a focus on all the things that are necessary for a good life, like proper housing, healthcare, education, a sustainable environment, decent food and access to networks of care and support. At this point we can start to think of a Plan C, or multiple Plan Cs: attempts to move beyond protest and to make material improvements in our lives which do not depend on capitalist growth. In other words, Plan Cs are the beginning of a future, a way out of the permanent ‘now’ of neoliberal subjectivity.
These new struggles are emerging now across the whole field of social reproduction, from homes, health and education, to food, utilities and transport. In Greece, food exchange markets and social medical centres have been part of a wider experiment to develop new ways of living, as parts of civil society begin to collapse. In Spain, the anti-eviction campaign which grew out of the 15M movement has played a key role in forcing the banks to call a two-year moratorium on home repossessions, while an Andalusian mayor became a cult hero for leading farm labourers into supermarkets to expropriate basic goods.
Inevitably these attempts at innovation have so far remained exceptional, confined to those hardest hit, but as the crisis deepens they may offer the shape of things to come. In this context, it’s possible that collective action around debt could unlock further fields of action, and create a space for the articulation of different struggles. A historical example of this can be found in the UK anti-poll tax movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.22 This formed around the slogan ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’. It expressed the articulation of a common strategy between those who couldn’t afford to pay the new tax and those, outraged by the tax’s unfairness, who would simply refuse to pay.
The movement’s success was founded on three elements. First, activists had noted the already low payment rates for the local tax which the poll tax was meant to replace. In other words, there was a pre-existing anti-capitalist dynamic, even if it wasn’t understood in that way. Second, by organizing on a street-by-street basis, the entry costs and risks of participating were kept as low as possible: in order to become part of the anti-Poll Tax movement, all people had to do was not pay a tax that many couldn’t afford to pay anyway. Many people agreed to sign up on the condition that more than half the people in their street joined. Once momentum had built up, it became virtually unstoppable. Finally, the third part of the strategy was to create a public, political campaign to provide a political narrative and context for practices that might otherwise be interpreted as individual, or non-political or simply criminal. Introduced in 1989 in Scotland and a year later in England and Wales, the tax lasted little more than a year, with the government announcing its repeal in early 1991. There are echoes of this three-element approach in the work of planka.nu in Sweden, in the idea of Strike Debt, and in the mass civil disobedience which marked the Quebec mobilisations.
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Underneath movement slogans, such as the Spanish indignados’ demand for “Real Democracy Now!” or Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99%”, lies the crisis of political representation. The collapse of both the revolutionary and reformist projects has left political elites unable to either reform themselves or funnel movement demands into institutional change. Yet the types of action we have so far adopted, from symbolic one-day strikes to the occupation of non-vital public squares, don’t reflect this new reality. We need to develop forms of struggle that materially interrupt the roll-out of austerity while directly enacting other values.
- The impasse was challenged for a time by initiatives around climate change but these were themselves swept aside by the economic crisis. ↩
- See P.M., Bolo’Bolo, 30th anniversary edition (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia/Ardent, 2011). ↩
- Throughout this piece we use the terms proletariat and working class synonymously. More importantly our understanding of the proletariat is expansive. We include not only waged workers, but ‘housewives’, students, the unemployed and others who perform unwaged labor of one form or another. We also include ‘peasants’, whom Classical Marxists might insist are outside of the capital relation. So we could also substitute ‘the 99%’ for ‘working class’ without much difficulty. What’s interesting, of course, is the composition, both ‘technical’ and ‘political’, of this class, this ‘99%’, a question we’ll return to later. ↩
- This is why Hardt and Negri are able to write: ‘The spatial divisions of the three Worlds (First, Second and Third) have been scrambled so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all’ (Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000: p. xiii) ↩
- Of course when you start to query these terms it all seems much less impressive. For instance the levels of growth of the last thirty years were much lower than those of the Keynesian era of 1945–1973. The numbers lifted out of poverty depend on the definition of poverty used; many incomes have been raised above a dollar a day but not above two dollars a day. And this is not to mention the expropriation and primitive accumulation so much of this growth – read capitalist development – depended on. ↩
- Capital’s attempt to displace antagonism is not unique to neoliberalism. Capital always seeks to displace antagonism and, if possible, to harness it. This is one reason for its resilience. What distinguishes neoliberalism is the particular way in which antagonism is displaced. ↩
- By social reproduction we refer to our ability to reproduce ourselves as full members of society. For a fuller explanation of this concept see George Caffentzis, On the Notion of a Crisis of Social Reproduction: A Theoretical Review http://www.commoner.org.uk/caffentzis05.pdf ↩
- Marx’s old mole is also called revolution. It’s usually to be found burrowing away subterraneously, only bursting into view periodically. The old mole is usually obscured because the existing world restricts our perception of what is possible. When the old mole surfaces it exceeds the possibilities of the existing world. Marx mentions the old mole in the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, amongst other places. ↩
- For an overview, see Rodrigo Nunes’ excellent ‘The lessons of 2011: Three theses on organisation’ http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/lessons-2011-three-theses-organisation ↩
- We don’t speak of deposing and appointing leaders euphemistically. This is precisely what happened in both Greece and Italy in 2011 with the replacement of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou by Lucas Papademos and of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by Mario Monti. The two appointees were both unelected technocrats. ↩
- Paul Mason ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’, 5 February 2011, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_why_its_kicking.html; Paul Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (London: Verso, 2012). ↩
- Lewis Munford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934): 14. ↩
- ‘Semio-capital & the problem of solidarity’, Shift, 14: page 10. ↩
- Tom Fox, Review of Mason, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, January 2012; at http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=523. ↩
- The Camp for Climate Action was part of the attempt to break out of the dead-end in which the counter-globalization movement found itself by 2006. After several more or less successful camps in the UK, the network has struggled to adapt to the post-crash landscape and is now in a stage of radical transition. For more information see http://climatecamp.org.uk/2011-statement ↩
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/aug/09/boris-johnson-clapham-junction-london-riots. In fact the riots seem to have had less long-term effect on the prospects for protest than were at first feared. In some ways they have simply been overshadowed by the ongoing enormity of the economic crisis. But we also detect an elision similar to the excision from public memory of the hysteria that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997. There’s a slight sense of embarrassment about the untenable positions that many people took. On the other hand, the post-riots hysteria has persisted in the incredibly draconian sentencing for those passing through the courts in relation to the events. In one recent case, a 21-year-old was jailed for 39 months simply for sending a BBM from his BlackBerry telling his friends to “kick off” during disorder in Nottingham. Crucially, there was no evidence that his message had led to public disorder in the area. Like the ‘Facebook rioters’, he was criminalized precisely for trying to flush out an emergent collectivity. ↩
- We can see hints of this new composition, and perhaps even a loss of faith on the part of the government and business, in two recent, quite unexpected victories in the UK. Firstly there was the defeat of unwanted new contract conditions for electricians working for large contractors. This followed a militant grassroots campaign involving wildcat pickets, protests and other direct action. The second victory has seen the removal of an element of compulsion from one of the government’s workfare schemes. The ease of the latter victory has surprised some as the campaign was conducted primarily through social media and the press. ↩
- One possible solution comes to mind if we define shock as a sudden and unexpected burst of stimulation or information that exceeds a body’s ability to process it. One way to deal with those effects is to habituate a body to shock, in much the same that boxers discipline their bodies. But collectivizing the reception and processing of the new stimulation or information is an even surer path. In this way, organization and collective analysis are the best shock absorbers. ↩
- Momentum, of course, is mass times velocity. George Caffentzis, ‘In the desert of cities: notes on the Occupy movement in the US’, 27 January 2012; at http://www.reclamationsjournal.org/blog/?p=505 ↩
- http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy. Occupy Sandy also draws on the experience of the Common Ground Collective, the network of non-profit organizations formed after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. scott crow Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011). ↩
- http://strikedebt.org and http://rollingjubilee.org. ↩
- Dating from a pre-internet era and taking place mostly outside the organs of the labour movement, the anti-poll tax struggle has slipped from history. Yet there is much we can learn from its success, not least the question of what it might mean to ‘win’. See Danny Burns, Poll Tax Rebellion (Edinburgh: AK Press and London: Attack International, 1992). ↩