What is the movement?
October 2002 Written in response to Derive Approdi magazine’s Open Letter to the European Movements and published (in Italian) in Derive Approdi, n.22, coinciding with the European Social Forum, Florence, November 2002. The Italian version is here.
(By way of an) Introduction
We’ll start by introducing ourselves. We are five people, one woman and four men, living in or close to Leeds, a large city in the north of England. We all work as ‘immaterial labourers’ – health, education, information and design. We have all known each other for at least four years; four of us have been working together politically for more than a decade. We are comrades, but as important, we are friends and these seem inseparable: when we have ‘political’ meetings we also gossip, when we meet socially we frequently talk ‘politics’.
We share a background in the ‘anarchist movement’. The four of us who have known each other longest were all members of the national anarchist group Class War, which published the newspaper of the same name. We were part of determined minority which successfully argued for the dissolution of this organisation (in 1997), on the grounds that it had outlived its usefulness and was unable to relate to exciting new forms of struggle, such as the anti-roads movement. Following this we helped organised a conference, Bradford May Day ’98, to discuss ‘the situation’ in the UK – failure of revolutionary groups, the new forms of protest, etc. The conference both was grounded in the events surrounding Class War’s dissolution and was inspired by the Intercontinental Encounters for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism (the encuentros), held in 1996 (in Chiapas, Mexico) and in 1997 (in Spain). The Bradford conference attracted several hundred anarchists, both aligned and non-aligned, communists and activists. We met our fifth member at this conference.
Attempting to sustain the success of Bradford ’98, we continued organising ‘open’ discussion meetings on a local basis, but these never really took off. Following the London May Day 2000 conference, the five of us agreed to meet regularly as a reading group. So, for the past two years, we have been meeting regularly, reading and discussing pamphlets, articles and books, most notably the first volume of Marx’s Capital, and gaining numerous insights into the way we live. We have attempted to express ourselves in the written word, but have had much more mixed success with this.
The list of ‘problems’
First off, we think the events and processes described in Derive Approdi‘s ‘open letter to the European movements’ are enormously important and they have certainly helped shaped our own politics. We share the excitement as we witness what appears to be the emergence of a new movement, one which, moreover describes itself – and is described – as ‘anti-capitalist’. It seems significant that so many diverse social groupings are coming together both to seek common ground and to explore differences. A decade ago, for example, we personally would have been scathing of the involvement of pacifists, Greens, Christians and anyone from a left-wing party. Now, we are much more open to the possibilities as such people communicate with those, like ourselves, from a more historically radical or antagonistic tradition. We have also noted the increasing politicisation of a new generation. What is more, this politicisation seems faster than in ‘our day’, this due, we think, to the decline of many of the old forms of mediation – grassroots-based social democratic parties (the Labour Party), trades unions, etc. It is as if we are witnessing ‘fast-track’ revolutionaries: today reading No Logo, tomorrow boycotting McDonalds and the day after that hurling a rock through its windows and fighting with the police.
However, we find it hard to relate other than tangentially to many of the questions in the list of problems. The main reason for this is that the questions implicitly adopt an understanding of ‘movement’ which increasingly makes less and less sense to us. We’ll try and explain what we mean by tracing the development of our thought over the past decade or so.
For us, our ideas have been transformed by a number of struggles throughout the 1990s. Most notably, we have been influenced by the anti-roads movement, the free-festival/free-party movement and the campaign against the government’s Criminal Justice Bill (CJB), which infamously defined techno as music ‘characterised by a series of repetitive beats’. Two aspects of these struggles stood out.
First, the emphasis on having a good time, on laughter, their quality of being not only against capital, but also of going beyond capital. Thus, Reclaim the Streets (RTS) not only closed off roads to motor traffic, they provided sound systems so people could dance in the streets. Demonstrations against the CJB took the form of massive street parties, rather than boring marches: people dressed up and danced. They were fun! Whereas old-style left marches seemed to be purely about demonstrating our Power to some external opponent, these events were in addition an experiment into possible future ways of living. Reclaim the Streets events did not demand the closure of roads, they did close them. We were exercising power!
Second, by and large, the subjects of these struggles were not traditional ‘politicos’. Few had backgrounds in the anarchist scene or left parties or campaigns. Most people who attended and organised free parties and festivals (find a field or forest clearing, arrange a sound system and a DJ or two, get the word out) simply wanted to dance and have a good time without having to fork out (pay) a lot of money. But they became politicised when the state clamped down, outlawing and breaking up parties, and introducing the CJB. Some of these people even seemed to be ‘middle class’.
In fact, it was partly because of the unusual social composition of these struggles that many on the Left, including many in Class War, were unable to take these struggles seriously. This was ironic in the case of Class War, since what made Class War so unusual, when it was first published in 1984, was its emphasis on workers’ power, both against and beyond capital. Most left newspapers, in contrast, saw only victims. The orthodox left’s failure to comprehend these new struggles seemed to be based in its prioritising of identity over practice. Thus a few in Class War championed lorry drivers over anti-roads protestors, since the former were ‘working class’, whilst the latter were ‘middle-class students’. They did not see the importance of transport, in general, and new roads, in particular, to capitalist restructuring (neoliberalism). They therefore found it hard to understand that the doing of opposing new roads was a directly anti-capital doing.
One of the highpoints of this struggle was the March for Social Justice/Never Mind the Ballots, a massive street party in London just before the 1997 General Election. The event was the result of a collaboration between Reclaim the Streets and the sacked Liverpool Dockers. This collaboration was significant since it representing the meeting of two very different social groupings and forms of struggle. Reclaim the Streets parties, in London and throughout the UK, have continued throughout the second half of the 1990s.
Over the past five years, we have a witnessed a growing cycle of international protests: in 1998, against the G8 summit in Birmingham; a year later, events worldwide for J18 and N30 (most notably Seattle); more worldwide events on May Day 2000, followed by demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank at their September meeting in Prague; more demonstrations worldwide on May Day 2001, then protests against the EU summit in Gothenburg in June and against the G8 summit in Genoa in July; and so on. These international protests seem to have heralded the emergence of a new movement against capital, a movement which seemed to be rapidly gathering momentum (at least until September 11).
On the one hand, we have been totally inspired by this series of protests. But, on the other, they started to leave us feeling rather uncomfortable. We ourselves have been reluctant to travel long distances to such events, which have maybe become more and more like old-style ‘set-piece’ demonstrations: more police, more hype, more pressure to be well-prepared. Why travel 200 miles or more to demonstrate against capitalism when the capital relation is all around (and within) us? A lot of it just seemed like more work to us and when we took days off from our jobs (whether stolen or otherwise) we decided we’d rather go for picnics with our friends and children, or travel to the seaside. How could one demonstrate against a social relation anyway? And how could one describe (as many did) financial centres, such as the City of London, as being the ‘heart’ of capital?
These concerns fed into and were fed by an English-language debate on the nature of activism, sparked by a article, ‘Give Up Activism’, which was first published by RTS in their collection of Reflections on J18.1 In discussions with other activists/communists/anarchists, in particular at the May Day 2000 conference, we found ourselves troubled by some of the language and assumptions of others concerning ‘the movement’. We got the feeling that some felt ‘the movement’ constituted itself at big events like conferences, where the aim should be to discuss, agree and unite, prior to going forth into the world to spread the good word. We, on the other hand, tried to argue that (following Tronti) we have to begin with the struggle, not ‘the movement’, and that the movement will only come together, constitute itself through struggle.
It seemed to us that some activists saw the world in terms of us and them and them: one ‘them’ is the capitalists and their organisations, very clever and perhaps all-powerful. The other ‘them’ is ‘the working class’ or ‘ordinary people’, complicit, ignorant and/or too lethargic to ‘do anything’. The ‘us’, on the other hand, who ‘we’ are, is unproblematic and well-defined: ‘we’ are the ‘enlightened’ ones. This view of the world isn’t very helpful! In fact, it parallels the way the traditional left used to talk: because working-class people are not ‘politicised’ (or ‘active’), they need to be educated and prepared for their historic role. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Of course, this approach is mirrored in another tendency: to criticise activists mercilessly, but to see an idealised proletariat ‘out there’ which spontaneously makes all the ‘right moves’. We ourselves have been guilty of both approaches. We see part of the struggle against capital as a struggle to dissolve this separation between ‘activism’ and ‘life’, to transcend activist/non-activist identities. [These thoughts seem very relevant to the questions 5 and 9, on the relationships between ‘activism, work and “life”‘ and between ‘the “antagonistic movement” and other forms of “social action” and involvement’.]
These experiences, observations and debates forced us to confront what became the fundamental question for us: what is the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ and who is part of it? Presumably the anti-capitalist movement includes those who danced in the streets at the J18 Carnival against Capitalism in London in 1999, those who attended the May Day anti-capitalist conferences in Bradford in 1998 and London in 2000, and those who took to the streets of Genoa in 2001. The movement may also include those on the streets of Seattle in November 1999, though this demonstration was ‘against globalisation’ not ‘against capitalism’, and those who took part in various Reclaim the Streets actions in the UK, as well as those who attended either of the two encuentros. But would it also include, for example, those who attempted to defend Nike stores from the violence of some of the Seattle demonstrators, or those pacifists in Genoa who allegedly attacked some members of the Black Bloc with sticks? Do we count those who agreed to meet and be photographed with heads of state such as Blair or Putin? What about those who refuse to play any part in such meetings and who condemn those who do? What about those who weren’t in Genoa, but who cheered the demonstrators on television? What about those who have no television?
Our ideas have also been influenced by a series of other events that have taken place in Britain over the past few years. In 2000, we saw blockades of petroleum depots by hauliers and farmers protesting increases in diesel fuel prices. The following year, we saw popular protests against paedophiles. We have also seen the growth of the far-right British National Party (BNP). All of these struggles have been far more reactionary, yet we have been as interested to understand them as the emergence of the ‘anti-capitalist movements’.
The crisis sparked by the fuel protests led to a variety of interesting behaviour. Numerous people used the shortage of fuel as an excuse to avoid going to work. Others developed human relationships with their coworkers and neighbours. Shops ran out of milk and bread, yet we could see cows grazing and wheat growing in the fields: the question, why do we live like this? loomed large.
The anti-paedophile protests took an extremely reactionary form: many individuals were attacked by self-appointed lynch mobs, sometimes in cases of mistaken identity (in one case a paediatrician was threatened). Clearly, sexual abuse of children is an extreme symptom of our perverted sexuality in this society. In the here and now we have no answers to the problem of child sexual abuse and abusers, but paranoia and witch-hunts are never useful. The BNP, of course, is racist and anti-immigrant, amongst other things. In both these cases – anti-paedophile protests and fascism – the ‘new possible world’ which is suggested is one we would fight. In fact, their YES is a part of our NO. Yet we suspect the underlying reason for people protesting against paedophiles being housed in their neighbourhoods or for voting for the BNP is not racism or biogtry. It is instead rage against shit conditions, human needs which are not met, the disinterest and complicity of the political system, their own (apparent) powerlessness. In this respect their NO! springs from the same source as our own.
The doing, not the being
In trying to make some sense of all these diverse events and struggles mentioned above, we found our conception of the ‘movement’ becoming ever wider, as it also became more fragmented, until it seemed to explode altogether. We are no longer sure whether it is even possible to identify any movement in the sense used in the list of questions. We do not think we can conceive of ‘the movement’ as a thing, as an entity [as noun] which can be defined. Instead, we are thinking of the movement in terms of the moving [verb] of social relations. We are seeing examples of this everywhere
Instead of beginning with activism, we have tried to look instead at life and work in general. In particular we have tried to look at our own work and lives since these are what we have most experience of. In fact, when we started reading Capital, it was with the aim of trying to gain some understanding not primarily of the ‘world’ or the ‘economy’, but of the contradictory nature of our own particular circumstances. We moved from the largest determinations, the big theories of capitalism, and tried to apply them to the minutiae of our own lives. But simultaneously we moved in the other direction too, attempting to understand how the minutiae of our lives, our own actions, could affect the development of capitalism.
What is the relationship between activism, work and ‘life’? This question is central since it focuses our attention on what we do. For each of us, for every single person on our planet, our life is divided into two types of doing: on the one hand, doing which is against capital (which only sometimes takes the forms of ‘activism’), and on the other hand, doing which reproduces capital (work or labour). The question is complex (and ‘revolution’ difficult) for at least two related reasons. First, it is not always clear which type of doing is which; and second, both types of doing are frequently contained in the same activity, are intermingled.
When a ‘revolutionary’ organisation reproduces hierarchical structures or when being an ‘activist’ becomes like a job, capital – which is, after all, about the ceaseless imposition of work – is reproduced. But, when we use work-time to pursue our own projects – downloading or uploading free software or music files or communist literature from/to the Internet, teaching our students about Marx rather than neoclassical economics and refusing to grade them – then capital is not reproduced and its whole existence is threatened.
But, for all the time we manage to steal from our bosses whilst ‘at work’, we frequently find ourselves thinking about work projects, that is, working, in our ‘free time’. And we have also found ourselves using at work skills learned through political activity: skills of chairing meetings, designing documents, public speaking and so on.
We provide other unwaged labour for capital too. Housework, schoolwork, etc., have long been recognised as work for capital. Now we are also forced to spend time on the telephone – much of it twiddling our thumbs in telephone queues – sorting out bills and trying to get better deals on utilities, mortgages, etc. This is just more unpaid labour, helping produce the use-value for capital of more competitive markets. In fact, many communists have become interested in call-centre workers and their conditions. But those proletarians who have to call the call centres provide at least as much labour for capital, all of it unpaid.
We created the world we now live in. The blurring of work and non-work is part of capital’s response to our struggles of the 1960s and 70s, our attempts to flee from domination and oppression in the factory, in fields and offices, in the home, in schools and universities. As capital pursued us out of these traditional workplaces, it has been forced to adopt guerrilla tactics, to encircle us, to try and recuperate all of our activity. But as capital struggles to reduce all human activity to abstract labour, the spaces in which it is contested simultaneously expand. As Negri has written, ‘[t]he proletariat is everywhere, just as the boss is’.2
Only a tiny proportion of this against-and-beyond-capital doing is consciously anti-capitalist or revolutionary, and ‘we’ – activists, revolutionaries, communists – certainly rarely recognise it. Yet it exists in and emerges from every crevice of social life, though often in confused ways. Every day, people volunteer (gift) their time (according to their ability) to help others according to their needs. Think of people helping a parent, who may be a stranger, search for their missing child. This behaviour is human behaviour and these people begin to create human relationships, unmediated by the value relation. Reflect again on this example. It’s so easy to say, ‘yes but…’ It’s true, sometimes the media pick up on particular incidents and encourage public involvement in order to sell newspapers. But they happen every day, everywhere, human beings organise themselves according to ability and need, the child is found unharmed and nothing is reported. ‘Yes, but…, it’s not political’. Think again. Perhaps the problem is ‘politics’.
We see the struggle between capital and against-and-beyond capital in the most unlikely places. Post-September 11, ‘the world will never be the same again’. But, commercial interests (the New York Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation) are already gearing up to fight families and lovers of those who died in the World Trade Center over the redevelopment of Ground Zero. Most would probably not recognise it, but those who wish to ban any building on the site (a majority of those who’ve gone to meetings on the redevelopment plans) are fighting capital. Their doing is a doing against capital and in this sense is part of the anti-capitalist movement.
We recently bumped into an old anarchist comrade. He wasn’t currently ‘doing anything political’, yet working as a school librarian he was making sure progressive (for want of a better word) were stocked and he was spending a lot of time discussing issues such as the ‘war on terror’ with his school’s students. Not ‘political’? Perhaps the problem is our understanding of what is and is not ‘political’. Or again, perhaps the problem is ‘politics’.
How does all this relate to the ‘open letter’ and list of problems? We’re not quite sure. Perhaps, as we suggested above, our thoughts relate only tangentially to the letter and the problems, in that we find their frame of reference problematic. In particular, we are concerned by the focus on ‘activism’ and by the treatment of ‘movements’ as thing-like, as entities, as potentially definable.
By thinking about movement(s) in these terms, we end up privileging those groups which have been identified in advance as ‘political formulations’ and fail to see the ways in which the majority of the world’s population – ‘activists’ and ‘non-activists’ – exists both within and against capital. In short, whilst every individual on the planet spends some part of their life producing and reproducing capital, they each spend another part blocking capital’s (re)production and attempting to transcend it – attempting to create ‘new possible worlds’. Focusing upon all forms of this against-and-beyond-capital doing, we can try and understand ‘movement’ as the moving, the shifting or development, of social relations, as ‘the real movement which abolishes the present state of things’.3
Just as our own thinking isn’t fixed and will continue to develop, it’s important not to fix a definition on the movement. And just as our struggle is a struggle to throw off and transcend our status or identities as ‘worker’, ‘peasant’, ‘housewife’, ‘student’ or whatever, we think it important to reject and transcend our identities as ‘activist’ or ‘non-activist’. In fact, we think the anti-capitalist movement is a movement against identification, a movement against definition.
- Andrew X, ‘Give up activism’, in Reflections on J18, London: Reclaim the Streets, 1999. Also at http://www.infoshop.org/library/j18-reflections-rts1. ↩
- Antonio Negri, The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989: 178. ↩
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970: 56-7. Also at http://www.marxists.org/ ↩