January 2011

The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
William Morris 1

Freaky Dancin’

There’s a great clip on YouTube. A young man at a festival is performing a crazy freak-out—appropriately to a track called ‘Unstoppable’—oblivious to anyone and anything apart from the music. After a while he’s joined by another reveller, and the pair start dancing together, circling around and responding to each other’s moves. But the real turning point comes when they are joined by a third. All of a sudden, a solipsistic routine becomes a public event, open to everyone. One, two, three more people join in. Then another half-dozen. The momentum is unstoppable. Whooping and screaming, people start running in from all directions and within minutes the field is transformed into a mass of whirling bodies. It is a great demonstration of what makes a ‘movement’ move. On screen you can actually see social relations beginning to shift in a way that resonates with bystanders; they pick up the theme and make it their own in a glorious process of innovation and acceleration.2

By the end of the song the audience has been utterly transformed, it is energised and expectant as it awaits the next track. The crowd is searching for a new opportunity to express itself. Indeed the event will leave traces even after the festival has ended. Experiencing such a moment of collective creativity leaves you sensitised to opportunities to repeat them. Social movements have a similar dynamic. They don’t just consist of moments of resonance; they also include periods of dissonance. They can find themselves unable to move as their once novel issues, ideas and practices become saturated and lose their purchase. At such moments, if they are to expand further or continue to move, then they must displace their limits and change shape. Such a task is a difficult thing for a movement to achieve, sometimes they just stall, but even so the experience of the movement will leave its mark on its participants.

Most of our activity and writing of the last ten or so years has been within what has been called the movement of movements. This cycle of struggles came into public view when the anti-summit protests of the turn of the century unexpectedly resonated with struggles and experiences right around the globe. Large swathes of people, living in quite different circumstances, suddenly recognised a commonality of struggle, forged new alliances and invented new worlds. The popular slogan ‘another world is possible’ went beyond mere expression of faith: ‘see, another world is possible.’ At times it really did feel like we were everywhere and unstoppable.

As we write, that cycle of struggle seems to have drawn to a close. The ongoing economic and social crisis that began in 2007 is producing very different circumstances to the one from which the movement of movements emerged. Yet we can already see the outlines of new social movements and perhaps the emergence of a new cycle of struggle. It is from this position that we have found our attention turning to the question of inheritance and new generations. Yet this talk of generations is not necessarily linked to notions of age. Instead we want to propose the concept of a ‘political generation’ as a way of addressing the impact that the experiences of past movements can have on emerging ones. Before we get to that, however, perhaps we should look more closely at the changed circumstances from which these new movements are having to emerge.

In-between days

For several years we have been living through a strange, in-between state of affairs. The economic crash of 2007–8 shattered the ideology of neoliberalism that has dominated the world for thirty years. But in breaking this temporality, the crisis has also trapped the world in a state of limbo. On the one hand, any notion that neoliberal globalisation will solve the world’s problems has simply evaporated. Neoliberalism stands exposed as a simple smash-and-grab, which has concentrated social wealth into a tiny number of hands. Far from being a modernist project, inexorably leading to social progress, neoliberalism is revealed as a decadent, and perhaps always doomed, deferral of the unresolved crisis of the 1970s.

On the other hand, despite this ideological collapse, the neoliberal reforms of the public sector are still being rolled out and are even being accelerated.3 This is not because people believe it’s the best way of organising society.4 But no other conception of society has been able to cohere and gain the social force needed to replace neoliberalism. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci said that crisis comes about because ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ That doesn’t tell the whole story. The problem is that neoliberalism is both dead and alive. It staggers on, zombie-like—ideologically dead, shorn of its teleology and purpose, it offers no hope of a better future. More importantly from our perspective, there seems to be no opposition strong enough to kill it off.

How have we ended up in this position? In part it’s because neoliberalism has been extremely effective at decomposing society, particularly in the US and UK. One of its primary aims has been to change our common sense view of the world and remove the preconditions for collective action. Put slightly differently, neoliberal reforms of society are aimed at producing neoliberal subjectivities. Markets are imposed on ever-wider areas of life, and participation in those markets trains people in a neoliberal world-view. To explain this further: when you participate in a competitive market you are forced to act as a utility-maximising individual—you have to act in ruthless and heartless competition with others over scarce resources. The more we do this, the more we come to adopt this outlook as natural: ‘Each day seems like a natural fact.’?5 This is what we mean by a neoliberal subjectivity, the possibilities that appear open to us are conditioned by these experiences. The difference now, however, is that those trained in this world-view are finding it increasingly hard to make sense of the world.6

We can gain another angle on this by thinking about antagonism. You’d expect that the relentless transfer of social wealth into the hands of the very, very rich would provoke resistance from those whose wealth is being taken away. Neoliberalism deals with this problem by obscuring these antagonisms—partly by inculcating a world-view that can’t recognise them, but also through mechanisms that displace or defer them. Real wages in the West have stagnated or declined since the late 1970s. Yet access to cheap credit, coupled with rising property prices benefiting many, helped to maintain living standards in the present and so defer the consequences of neoliberalism. Antagonism over social resources was thus displaced into the future—a future that has now arrived.

Despite erupting struggles in Iceland, Greece, France—and, as we write in January 2011, Ireland, Italy and the UK—there is no guarantee what form the arrival of antagonism will take. We still don’t know how deep the neoliberal decomposition/recomposition of society goes. The breaking of the neoliberal deal does seem to be provoking an upsurge in struggle; however, the resulting collective action is socially and geographically uneven. If the struggle does become more general it almost certainly won’t take the form or shape that people are expecting. The vast social transformations of the last two decades mean that we won’t live through the 1980s again, still less the struggles of the 1960s or ’70s. Instead, the response to austerity is just as likely to take unexpected, or even displaced forms. Indeed we might not perceive some struggles as responses to public service cuts, even though that’s what they will essentially be.

So the question arises: how can we best prepare for events of unknown shape and time of arrival? Or from another perspective, how do we, who have been through previous generations of struggle, engage with the emergence of new movements? What role can our past experiences play? Or will the expectations produced by our own histories obscure what is new about the situation? And, since this problem cuts both ways, how do emerging generations relate to previous movements, without conceding ground and losing their singularity?

Second time as farce…

One of the resources we can draw on to conceptualise this problem is Marx’s great text on historical repetitions, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

Human beings make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in their time-honoured disguise and in this borrowed language.7

The starting point here is that we only rarely get the chance to become historical actors. We only rarely confront the possibility of breaking with the historical conditioning that limits how our lives can be lived. These moments, when we collectively gain some traction on the world, are what we have called ‘moments of excess.’ But at these critical points there’s an understandable tendency to draw on—and repeat—the traditions of past generations of struggle. During moments of excess people encounter experiences, problems and degrees of freedom that they haven’t previously faced. It makes sense in this situation for people to seek out antecedents to help orientate themselves. In fact it’s a well-noted phenomenon that those engaged in large-scale collective action soon discover affinities not just with their direct antecedents but also with other struggles right across the world. Failure to learn from the experience of those who have faced similar problematics would leave us disoriented and unarmed in the face of historical conditioning, helpless to stop the old world re-asserting itself.

In one sense, then, repetition is a crucial element, one that’s impossible to avoid. We can only create on condition that we identify, in some way, with figures and actions from the past. But simplistically repeating what has gone before is doomed to failure: you can’t step in the same river twice. It’s also worth quoting the famous line that precedes the above passage: ‘All facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.’

Repetition is farcical when it falls short: ‘instead of leading to metamorphosis and the production of something new, it forms a kind of involution, the opposite of authentic creation.’?8 The organisational models, forms of acting and interpretive grid of a previous generation of struggle are simply overlaid onto the new situation, forcing the new movement to fold in on itself, obscuring the potential to address the present and create something new. We are all too familiar with the farce of treating each new movement as a simple repetition of 1917, 1936, 1968, or even 1999. If present generations of struggle are to prevent the inheritance of past generations from weighing ‘like a nightmare upon the brains of the living’, then they cannot repeat those traditions uncritically. Authentic creation requires forms of repetition that ‘constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew.’?9

Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Perhaps at this point we should attempt to pin down what we mean by a generation. We can start thinking about this through the unlikely figure of Thomas Jefferson. Despite being the second president of the United States, Jefferson was also a revolutionary leader grappling with revolutionary problematics. He approaches the concept of a generation by extending the logic of the American war of independence. If one country can’t be bound by the laws of another, then one generation should not be bound by the laws of its antecedents. It is from this notion that Jefferson proposes, ‘The earth belongs always to the living generation… every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.’?10

Of course births don’t actually occur in twenty-year bursts—they happen continuously. So the concept of ‘generations’ only makes sense if we say they are formed in relation to certain seminal shared experiences. Jefferson’s generation, for instance, was formed through the experience of the American Revolution, just as the alter-globalisation generation was formed through the experience of Seattle in 1999. Generations are generated through events. But events don’t occur in twenty-year cycles either. This implies, of course, that the same groups, or individuals, can partake in several generations of struggle: as The Free Association, we have been part of several different political generations—from punk, through the miners’ strike and the anarcho-punk squat scene to the Poll Tax, Class War, Seattle and, we hope, beyond.11

There are many difficulties, however, in moving from one generation to another. Indeed we can already see some failed and potentially farcical repetitions of past struggles in the attempts to adjust to the present crisis. The Camp for Climate Action (CCA) is the repository of much of the direct action experience developed in Britain over the last 15 years—experience specifically gained as part of the movement of movements. Over the last couple of years the CCA has tried to incorporate financial institutions within the scope of its actions, tackling the City in 2009 and setting up a camp close to the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters in Edinburgh in the summer of 2010.12 But the CCA has struggled to adapt its interpretive grid to cope with the new situation—the economic crisis still tends to be seen only through its environmental consequences. As such the camp has turned in on itself and has been unable to connect to the rest of the population’s experience of the crisis. RBS (which was bailed out with £50 billion of public money) was targeted as one of the world’s largest investors in oil, gas and coal. But did it really make sense to focus on one bank at a time when antagonism towards all banks was increasingly generalised? It’s an echo of the way climate change activists found themselves pushing against an open door around the time of the Stern Review: once climate change became an agenda item for governments and global institutions, activists found themselves outflanked or bogged down in a problematic that was saturated.

Again, in October 2010 Crude Awakening organised a fantastically well executed mass blockade of the Coryton oil refinery, effectively disrupting a critical piece of infrastructure in the UK oil network.13 A real success, yet it gained little attention and failed to resonate with the wider public. Interestingly it coincided with a huge wave of strikes and protests in France, against pension reforms, in which fuel blockades were pivotal. If the Coryton blockade had also been done in solidarity with events in France, its effects could have been immeasurable. It would have raised the prospect of a European battleground, named a common enemy and opened the field for other, wilder actions. But in order to do that, Crude Awakening activists would have had to first dismantle their interpretive grid.

We should be clear: this isn’t a critique of the politics of the Camp for Climate Action or Crude Awakening; still less is it a judgment on those involved. What we’re interested in here is the enormous difficulty all generations face as the ground shifts beneath them. In order to participate in the birth of a new generation, a lot must be given up—often it is only the shock of an event that can complete that process and allow the displacement from one, saturated problematic to a new one.14

In fact the prospect of the climate justice and alter-globalisation movements linking up with newer emerging forces is not far-fetched at all. Several trade union leaders in the UK have suggested that a campaign of civil disobedience could act as a supplement to union-led strikes and protests during future anti-austerity struggles. And Climate Camp London recently organised an anti-cuts skill share, aimed at ‘trade unionists, activists, strikers and trouble-makers’. A similar process began to emerge in Sweden four or five years ago. The Swedish alter-globalisation movement suffered serious repression during and after the 2001 anti-EU summit protests in Gothenburg, including the shooting of two activists. In response the movement shifted resolutely away from ‘summitism’, and started experimenting with its direct action tactics within more traditional syndicalist struggles.

The danger here is that one tradition becomes subsumed within the repetition of another. There is a long history of seeing the unions as the leading sector, to which all other struggles must subordinate themselves. However, unions these days have drastically reduced social power, partly because they have been unable to adapt to the changed composition of society. The alter-globalisation cycle of struggles, for all its faults, contained useful experiments in how to produce collective action in a neoliberalised world. These experiences would be lost if they were subsumed under a nostalgia for a lost ‘post-war consensus’ social democracy. It was, after all, neoliberal globalisation that did for that world.

Stepping out of line

Historically the task of making sense of the passage between generations has fallen to the Party—which we use here to include anarchist groups, communist cells, trade unions, anarcho-syndicalist organisations as well as the more orthodox Leninist left. The Party is both the repository of the history of the class, and the greenhouse for strategic innovation. As such, it performs a crucial inter-generational role, linking people from different areas and traditions and yoking them together in aid of a common purpose. Well, that’s the theory. But in practice the party-form has spectacularly failed to communise struggle. Instead, one generation tends to universalise its experience and dictate strategy. With mechanisms built for simple reproduction rather than regeneration, it is unable to adapt to changing conditions: the Party regurgitates the same old line and falls back on its Programme as the One Permanent Truth.

Under these circumstances, of course, parties run the risk of collapse and dissolution. Organisations lock in energy: this can be really productive, allowing social forces to be concentrated in a limited number of directions. But at other times it can lead to stagnation. Breaking the organisation apart releases the energy and allows the creation of new bodies. One of the most famous examples is that of Lotta Continua which was a major part of the Italian extra-parliamentary left in the 1970s. The organisation was one of the few groups which seemed genuinely able to respond to the rapidly growing movements of women, the unemployed, gay men and lesbians, youth and prisoners. But when a women’s march was physically attacked by other left militants, including some Lotta Continua members, the party’s leadership couldn’t bring itself to condemn the attack. Its women members decided to leave en masse. The organisation was simply unable to understand the feminist argument that the personal is political, and dissolved itself at its next conference. The party’s paper continued as an independent publication and became an essential barometer of the wider social movements that were flowering.15 Less spectacularly, we were part of the faction which argued for the dissolution of the UK-based Class War Federation in 1997. We felt that the organisation was unable to regenerate itself in the light of the emerging struggles and changing social relations we faced outside of Class War. At the time we were hesitant about making such a proposal but one older comrade (from a different generation) was sanguine about our decision: ‘This is what communists do.’ And he was right: the history of the communist movement (the real movement which abolishes the present state of things) is a history of coming-together and breaking apart, degeneration and regeneration.16

There has been another tradition of organisation at work over the last cycle of struggle. The radical direct action movement, based on smaller affinity groups, has used its horizontal, mobile form to great effect. From Reclaim the Streets through summit protests to the Camp for Climate Action and beyond, it has acted as a laboratory of experimentation and innovation. By side-stepping orthodox revolutionary approaches, it has been able to throw up new visions and, on occasions, respond quickly to new openings. This creativity comes at a price, however: the informal shape of this movement, with all the baggage of a subculture, can make it closed and resistant to change in a different way. And the affinity group model doesn’t scale easily: it works best when there are deep levels of trust based on personal history.17

There’s a similar tension in our own history as The Free Association (and before that, Leeds May Day Group). Our name has two or three connotations. One reflects Marx’s idea of communism as a ‘free association of producers’. This suggests quite an open group, receptive to new members as well as new ideas, a group with a fluid membership and elastic boundaries. In the past we have collaborated with others under The Free Association name and we’ll no doubt do so again. On the streets, in demonstrations and actions, we’ve run with different people who have become, consciously or not, temporary members of the group. But in another sense, we’re quite tight-knit. We share a gang mentality—which is why we talk of people becoming temporary members of ‘our’ group rather than us becoming members of theirs. And that mentality is precious. It’s the result of nearly 20 years’ friendship (the course of which, like true love, has not always run smooth). We break bread together, so we’re compagni. And we’ve shared all manner of accommodation—not literally barracks, but ferry cabins, beds in plush hotel rooms, tents, sodden forest floors, even tarmac roads—and so we’re comrades. And it is precisely this gang mentality that has allowed us the freedom to keep trying to reinvent ourselves. A core history and common purpose means we can afford to take risks because we have a collective body to fall back on. In this sense The Free Association identity acts as a shock-absorber. The porous boundaries allow us to absorb new energy; but they can be closed to offer space for decompression or wild flights of experimentation.

We seem to have identified a double bind here. The party-form is too rigid. But our affinity-group model has its own boundaries and exclusions. Perhaps rather than thinking of organisation as a noun, organisation as entity or model (the organisation, an organisation), it’s better to think of it as a verb, the activity of organising. It then becomes easier to understand political organisation as a way of navigating the ocean that lies between that which actually exists and that which could be. Political organisation is a mechanism for collectively making sense of the world, and for acting on it. But there is a radical ambiguity at its core, a constant modulation between wanting to engage with the here and now, and trying to exceed it. The struggle to resist the imposition of capitalist order is not abstract—it only happens in a definite space and time. But when that collective struggle surfaces, it brings with it a whole history and connects us to past victories and battles yet-to-come. The temporality of political organisation is one of both ruptures and loops. ‘Well grubbed, old mole.’?18

It’s hard to see how this connects to the possibilities of new generations. But revolutionary organisation is about the recomposition of social forces and social relations, the creation of new bodies. The problem with the party-form and the affinity group is that both ultimately tend towards reproducing themselves. Generations, on the other hand, form around events and they have no predictable or measurable output. The collective transformation they offer means we are permanently changed as we pass through them. Generations literally generate and regenerate—and thus, perhaps it is better to think of generation too as verb rather than noun.

On 23 November 2010 while student protests were taking place across the UK, there was a march, several thousand strong, through the city of Leeds. Unusually, the march contained many school kids, sixth-formers and college students, in addition to university students and staff.19 This novel mix produced an exciting, militant and disobedient atmosphere, which culminated, as the march ended, with a spontaneous occupation of a building in Leeds University. At the centre of the occupation was a large lecture theatre that was soon filled with over a thousand people. A portable sound system, which had played music on the march, was brought into the room and a projector was used to show rolling news. A large group of youth danced raucously at the front while the whole room erupted into wild cheering each time the news showed footage of a student demonstration. The atmosphere was edgy, almost out of control but utterly electric. The music amplified the sense of unity while cheering to protest footage politicised that unity. Unfortunately this remarkable scene lasted only two and a half songs before some veteran student activists switched the music off. A small argument ensued, the sixth-formers wanted the music back on, while others shouted them down. The undergraduate activists, who had control of the microphone, argued that ‘this has to be a serious occupation’, and that a list of demands should be drawn up to put to the university. After an ill-defined vote it was announced that those who wanted to continue dancing could go outside, although the sound system was never turned back on. Within an hour people were proposing the election of an occupation steering committee. This sparked an interminable and bad-tempered debate but by this time the excitement and energy had gone—along with 80% of the people.

It would be all too easy to score cheap political points from this tale, but it was, in fact, a very difficult situation. The best course of action was far from clear. The original feeling of unity masked very real fractures and divisions, and as things broke down complex dynamics of class, race and gender emerged. Yet this shouldn’t have necessarily been a bad thing: it simply meant this was a moment of real movement. The protest had brought together people who might usually be antagonistic or at least wouldn’t have encountered each other with such a sense of shared purpose before. Perhaps the mistake was to mechanically impose a model of organisation that didn’t recognise the novelty of the situation. The student left had a firm idea of what a student occupation should look like and they knew the sort of organisation that could bring this about. But while that vision and model might, or might not, have been appropriate for previous occupations, this one was different. It had, at least initially, a very different composition. Many of the sixth-formers and even younger teenagers were not used to the culture and expectations of the student left and were alienated by the introduction of layers of bureaucracy.20 In turn the undergraduate left turned in on itself, excluding those that didn’t resemble themselves. If the organisational experiences of past generations are mechanically repeated, then new potential is obscured. A generation needs to be given the chance to generate itself; a movement must be given room to move.

Big youth

Social movements come into being by creating problems; or perhaps we could say, movements form as they make specific issues into problems that must be addressed. The particular shape or logic of that problem can affect the initial composition of the movement, influencing potential participants, natural allies and apparent antecedents. Many recent movements have formed around problems that might lead us to expect youth to be the dominant political category of our time and to think of a political generation as based primarily on age. Indeed many commentators have tried to play up an inter-generational tension between the post-war baby boomers—who have had it all—and contemporary generations who must now pay the costs. Those who benefited from the welfare state and free education, they argue, are now pulling up the ladder behind them.

In Greece, for instance, the uprising of December 2008 was sparked by the police murder of a 15-year-old. Many, however, identified the underlying cause as the disenchantment of the ‘700 euro generation’—so-called because few could envisage ever earning more than this subsistence level income.21 We can see a similar dynamic in struggles around climate change. Just as debt transfers antagonism into the future, the time lag between the emission of carbon and its climatic effects pushes the costs of climate change onto future generations.

Some of the most exciting recent struggles have been against the neoliberal reform of universities. Student movements have emerged across Europe and the United States. In the UK, for instance, a recent march against cuts in further and higher education funding ended with protesters storming the building which houses the Conservative party headquarters. This sparked a movement, which, as we write, seems to be snowballing dramatically, with dozens of marches, school walk-outs and university occupations. In Britain many folk from older ‘generations’ have been inspired by these events and the students’ anger, energy, determination and willingness to take risk and experiment. The new attitude can be seen in the words of one school walk-out organiser, reflecting on his more cynical peers: ‘where do they think saying “this won’t get you anywhere” is going to get them?’?22

We might have expected these student movements to define themselves primarily in terms of youth, but this simply doesn’t appear to have happened. Indeed one of the most unexpected effects of the student unrest in the UK has been the re-emergence of class as a legitimate way of talking about politics. In France, the recent wave of anger and protest has drawn inspiration from the ferocious 2006 struggles against the CPE (the contrat première embauche or first employment contract), which primarily affected the young. Yet the fact that the recent upsurge was sparked by pension reforms has united young and old workers in France. In Greece, the struggles of the 700 euro generation have since become generalised, as savage austerity measures have dramatic lowered living standards across all ages.

This could lead us to a more general lesson. Movements move because they exceed the specific issues of their emergence. As one problematic becomes saturated, movements shift to another as they seek to generalise themselves. The experience of the Leeds occupation shows how a political generation cannot simply be based on shared age. If it was, then it would retain all the fractures and divisions that we find in our everyday lives. Movements create an excess, they are more than the sum of their parts. A political generation does not simply exist; it must be generated.

Yet couldn’t we argue that there is still a special connection between radicalism and youth? A recent commentator, ignoring the much more difficult conditions of contemporary students, has argued that ‘Students are always first—energy, time and lack of children make protest easy.’ Indeed there’s a ‘common-sense’ notion that ‘if you’re not a socialist at twenty you have no heart, but if you’re still a socialist at forty you have no head.’ Revolt is just a phase that some young people go through. In 1970s Britain the running joke was that radical activists had three years’ grace before the state got really interested in them—three years that coincided with higher education of course. Like most falsehoods, there is a kernel of truth buried in this.

What we shouldn’t forget is that our present idea of ‘youth’ is a relatively recent invention. Its creation coincided with the post-war boom, full and stable employment and the birth of rock ’n’ roll. The teenager was created as someone who was different—not yet a full part of the labour market, although old enough to be a consumer. The period of growing up and moving away from school and family life is an intense period of re-adjustment. Free of baggage and responsibilities, youth is a time of risk, play and experimentation. But discipline has to be imposed. Workers have to be made. Old values (which might have been based on love and sharing) have to be unlearnt and replaced with the values of the labour market. Where there’s no workplace, the neoliberal state steps in: in the UK, even harsher regimes are about to be unleashed on the unemployed, while students are disciplined by a reduction in funding and increasing levels of debt.

But if youth is a socio-political category encompassing those without a stable place in the economy, then by reintroducing risk and making life more precarious, the current crisis is threatening to make youths of us all. The neoliberal deal was based on displacing any antagonism as far into the future as possible. Rising house prices were used to compensate for falling real wages, and a credit-fuelled consumer boom in the global North has filled our homes with an endless parade of things. All that has now gone, taking with it many of the ways we thought we’d protected ourselves. The future has been blown wide open. And the things we thought had given us solidity are revealed to be nothing but commodities or empty dreams. In moments of crisis, just as in moments of excess, the world we inhabit is shown to be a poor substitute for life.

that there is, perhaps, some tension in society, when perhaps overwhelming pressure brings industry to a standstill or barricades to the streets years after the liberals had dismissed the notion as ‘dated romanticism’, the journalist invents the notion that this constitutes a clash of generations. Youth, after all, is not a permanent condition, and a clash of generations is not so fundamentally dangerous to the art of government as would be a clash between rulers and ruled.23


This piece was initially conceived, early in 2010, as a postscript to the other texts collected in Moments of Excess, a piece that would tie up loose ends and draw our story to a close. But when we sat down to think about it at the end of 2010, of course we discovered that events had taken place and things had moved—as they always do—and how could we not think and attempt to make sense of these movements? So, the text has ended up longer and, we hope, more interesting than we’d intended—an opening-up as much as a closing-down. An edited version was also distributed at the Network X conference in Manchester, January 2011.

  1. Preface to Medieval Lore by Robert Steele.
  2. The video, from the 2009 Sasquatch music festival, is at, while an interesting commentary, from a “hippy-capitalist” perspective, can be seen at
  3. The excuse for this neoliberal acceleration is the perceived need to reduce the post-crisis level of public sector borrowing. In reality talk of a deficit is simply a means of making us pay for their crisis. Take the UK, for example. According to the National Audit Office the City of London bailout is reckoned to have cost £850 billion, about £14,000 for every man, woman and child in the country, enough money to fund the national health service for almost a decade. But this accounts for almost all of the UK’s sovereign (or public) debt. And it’s the size of this debt that is being used to justify austerity. Let’s think about this. In 2011 the UK’s public debt is estimated to be approximately £930 billion, about 60% of GDP. Is this ‘too high’? This judgement has been made by ‘the markets’, which really means those financial institutions that hold sovereign debt (mostly in the form of bonds sold by central banks). Their threat is that they will refuse to lend to Britain or will do so only at much higher interest rates. Thus austerity is ‘necessary’ to ‘keep the markets happy’. Making cuts can then be presented as a ‘clinical’ decision—‘this will hurt me more than it will hurt you’.
    Of course, this is nonsense. While the same sector that benefited from the bailout—and sometimes the very institutions and individuals—is now cheerleading governments’ attacks on almost everyone else, it’s worth making an historical comparison or two. In 1945, as the UK emerged from World War II, its public debt was more than double the size of GDP. But of course this date also heralds the era of the welfare state, with the creation of a national health service, free education, social security and so on. In other words, even with sovereign debt three times what it is today (relative to output), austerity wasn’t deemed necessary. This difference is explained by another—the degree of collective organisation and social solidarity. The war years and the years preceding them were characterised by high levels of social and workers’ struggles. At the end of the war there was a collective refusal to accept any return to Depression-era hardship, coupled with a bubbling over of desires for new modes of social organisation. These were the salient characteristics of the political generation from which the post-war settlement emerged.
  4. Far from it: only 11% of the 29,000 people from 27 countries polled by the BBC in November 2009 said capitalism is working well and almost a quarter believe it is ‘fatally flawed’. (
  5. From the Gang of Four’s excellent ‘Why Theory?’
  6. For an example of this we could point to the incoherence of the Tea Party movement in the US, which preaches deficit reduction while welcoming the extension of tax cuts for the rich, the consequences of which will be deficit increase. A more explosive symptom, however, is the steadfast commitment to neoliberal ideas common to the political elites of North America and Europe. There is a growing disconnect between those elites, which dominate political discourse, and the experiences of their countries’ populations. As the ‘middle ground’ of society has begun to evaporate so has any sense of connection to existing political structures.
  7. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, at
  8. Gilles Deleuze Difference and Repetition (London: Continuum 2001), p. 92.
  9. Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, at
  10. Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 56–57.
  11. It’s also clear that generations are not discrete objects with clear boundaries—they overlap, feed into each other and sometimes clash. And perhaps any given generation-generating event can, in fact, be associated with a number of different generations. For example, one way of understanding the camps for climate action is as part of the alter-globalisation movement of movements, starting with Seattle. But others see them as a response to the failure of ‘traditional’ protest tactics used in the 2001 Stop the War movement; still others understand them as descending from the UK anti-roads movement and Reclaim the Streets. (We would understand RTS as itself part of the alter-globalisation movement, but our point is that generations may not be discrete.) Indeed each generation can have its own internal gradations. Punk in the UK, to take one of our favourite examples, is often divided into different waves as an initially metropolitan phenomenon rolled out into the wider country. In many ways those second and third waves were more creative, as they occupied and developed the space carved out by the first assault, allowing ‘post-punk’ to add its own interpretations.
  12. On the Camp for Climate Action see:
  13. On the Crude Awakening blockade see:
  14. It might be that the explosion of student unrest in the UK towards the end of 2010 has already provided this shock of the event. One of the interesting innovations of that period has been the emergence of UK Uncut, which, using social media as its main form of organisation, has enabled demonstrations against tax-avoiding corporations right across the country, significantly changing the political debate in the UK. Although it has spread much more widely since, it should be noted that there were several Camp for Climate Action veterans amongst the small group who initiated UK Uncut. For more information see:
  15. The mood of 1970s Italy is captured in Dear Comrade: Reader’s Letters to Lotta Continua (London: Pluto, 1980).
  16. ‘Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’ Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970). Also at
  17. This is not to say that it doesn’t scale at all: the Camp for Climate Action for instance has managed to operate effectively at a national level for several years but the model is extremely labour-intensive, involving monthly meetings and numerous working groups. This itself can lead to informal exclusions based on those with the time and energy to participate most fully. As an organisational model it works best when a movement has a certain composition and is operating at a certain level of intensity.
  18. This quote is drawn once again from Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’. 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—the points where it emerges can also be thought of as moments of excess.
  19. The UK government is attempting to impose widespread educational reform, including: increased marketisation of higher education, the tripling of university tuition fees and the abolition of the EMA, an allowance paid to 16–18 year-olds (sixth-formers) who remain in education.
  20. Of course they might have found the introduction of a complex consensus decision-making process just as off-putting at that point.
  21. It has now been downgraded to the ‘600 euro generation’, as the post-crisis austerity has lowered living standards even more. We Are An Image From the Future, edited by A.G. Schwarz, Tasos Sagris and Void Network (Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press 2010), is an indispensable account of the Greek revolt of December 2008, while is an inspirational example of online publishing.
  22. This was quoted in the Guardian on 19 November, 2010. There is a nice twist here: the organiser turned out to be the son of a friend of ours, a political activist involved in several previous generations of struggle. See:
  23. We’ve taken this quotation from the back cover of the Clash’s first single ‘White Riot’/‘1977’, although it’s originally from Stuart Christie and Albert Meltzer’s 1970 book The Floodgates of Anarchy.