Six impossible things before breakfast

June 2008 Article written for Turbulence #4. A slightly longer version was published in Antipode Volume 42, Issue 4, September 2010

Mildred: What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
The Wild One (1953)

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

One of the key novelties of the movement of movements over the past decade has been its openness, unity-in-diversity and sense of affirmation. From startling alliances on the streets of Seattle, to experiments in political forms, we’ve been swept up in its global reach and sense of potential. But more recently, older themes seem to be re-emerging: antagonism, resentment, class hatred and rupture. It feels like shaking hands with a long-lost friend. You repair to a bar to renew your friendship over a few drinks, and end up drunkenly chanting, ‘The rich… the rich… we’ve gotta get rid of the rich!’

We’re on shaky ground here. Perhaps it’s just tempting to retreat to old, worn-out certainties. Yet aren’t they certainties because they express a truth about our world? A shot of realism that clarifies a problem? We don’t want to lose the sense of openness and the commitment to experimentation that we found with the turn-of-the-century cycle of protests. Yet that cycle seems to have stalled. The movement of movements has reached an impasse; innovation and expansion appear out of reach. In these circumstances a re-examination of out-of-time concepts like antagonism and class hatred might just prove timely.

We are the wreckers

Of course rupture and antagonism in the recent anti-capitalist movement are nothing new. They’ve been a continuous thread from San Cristobal and Seattle to Genoa and Oaxaca. But the way they’ve been woven has changed enormously.

Summit protests, for instance, reached a low point with the media-driven Make Poverty History campaign at the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles. All political contestation was hollowed-out, to the extent that the campaign’s ‘demands’ were ones that everybody could agree with. Before 2005, summit demonstrations had been at least protests, if not concerted attempts to physically shut meetings down. In stark contrast, Make Poverty History welcomed leaders of the G8 to Scotland and turned a whole history of summit-stopping on its head.

The lessons of 2005 were not lost on the wider movement. Two years later, when the G8 met in Heiligendamm, the explicit goal of all major actions around the summit was to delegitimise the G8. For some, the strategy was clear: open resistance to the world the G8 represents. A mass demonstration in Rostock turned into a mini-riot with banks attacked and cars set alight. Antagonism pure and simple.

But is it so simple? Sure, the message was unequivocal, but property destruction on this scale at a summit is hardly new. And despite claims that the riot “made resistance incalculable for the police and state apparatus”, the evidence suggests that it was wholly calculable – not just in terms of the financial costs of damage, but in its timing and location. In this respect, a return to Black Bloc tactics represented not the emergence of something new but a retreat to familiar patterns of behaviour – with familiar outcomes. Antagonism as identity, with its own dress code.

Others took a more innovative line. Block G8, for example, was a broad coalition of more than 200 organisations from autonomous groups and the ‘far left’ to church groups but, crucially, it was based on a clear antagonism to the G8. After many months of discussions an agreement was drawn up; one of the clauses was a declaration that the G8 was illegitimate, another was on acceptable levels of militancy. This opened up exciting prospects for transformation, with people acting outside their comfort zones, but it too experienced problems. First, there were clear differences among the signatories about what this pre-agreed antagonism might mean in practice. Serious fissures emerged within the coalition following the mini-riot in Rostock. For some, attacking banks and fighting with police was taking antagonism too far. Yet, later on in the week, with the summit under complete siege by Block G8ers and with a festival atmosphere deep inside the ‘Red Zone’, others criticised demonstrators for not being antagonistic enough. Why didn’t we make a concerted attack on the fence itself? The antagonism against the G8 was kept within clearly defined boundaries.

A second problem of organising around a pre-agreed antagonism is that it limits your mobility once the situation changes. At Heiligendamm, the initial success of the road blockades depended on a closed group with a secret plan. But getting thousands of people from the camp to the road was one thing; maintaining a successful blockade once there was something else. At the East gate there were a number of highly frustrating meetings on Wednesday evening, as the Block G8 ‘action committee’ dominated discussions – taking full advantage of their ‘ownership’ of megaphones and the sound system, and of their authority as organisers. They suggested that those who disagreed with them were undermining the ‘action consensus’ (i.e. the pre-agreed antagonism) and were only intent on ‘escalation’. In fact, the blockade was in danger of falling apart altogether when Block G8 proclaimed ‘victory’ and told us to withdraw. This retreat was halted only when two people sat down in the road in front of the sound system to prevent it leaving: blockading the blockaders!

Finally, a more general criticism of the 2007 counter-mobilisation was that antagonism tended to remain at the level of the G8 itself, rather than capitalist social relations understood more widely. In fact over the past decade we can chart a narrowing, rather than an expansion, of the focus of antagonism. The movement came into being at Seattle around a shared opposition to the related neo-liberal policies that the G8, WTO and World Bank were enforcing globally. This allowed a resonance of movements from startlingly diverse places. The international neo-liberal institutions were used to stand in for much wider processes; in turn the Red Zone acted as an attractor for our desires. The G8’s response was to change its focus, attempting to legitimise itself as an essential arena of governance. Just as at Gleneagles in 2005, when the G8 presented itself as the organisation best placed to tackle global poverty, so in Heiligendamm it created the impression that it is the leaders of the world’s largest capitalist economies who will solve the ‘global challenge’ of climate change. They evaded the antagonism we had created by shifting the topic to one so large that movement-based solutions were harder to envisage.

Greenhouse effects

Concern over climate change is now indisputably mainstream. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, the various IPCC reports, the Stern Report all spell out the seriousness of the challenge. This is a huge change from a few years ago when scientists and other climate activists struggled to force the issue. In these conditions it’s no longer a question of ‘raising awareness’, but of how to innovate, to creatively push an agenda that opens up new problematics.

Social movements typically grow from ‘cramped spaces’, situations that are constricted by the impossibilities of the existing world with a way out barely imaginable. But precisely because they are cramped, these spaces act as incubators or greenhouses for creativity and innovation – “creation takes place in bottlenecks”. Social movements that grow from these spaces might form around antagonistic demands (more money, better housing, withdrawal of the police) but they also produce their own problematics. They throw up concepts, desires, forms of life that don’t ‘make sense’ within existing society and so call forth new worlds. But just as social movements take root and slow down, so these problematics stop moving. What was once new becomes codified. It’s a vicious circle: as problematics slow down, they acquire baggage; as they acquire baggage, they slow down. Rather than being innovative and productive, the problematic loses its purchase and becomes cliché. It becomes saturated in meaning.

The victory in the battle to raise awareness of climate change has had strange consequences. When you’ve been banging your head against a brick wall, it’s hard to know what to do when the wall gives way. Some have maintained momentum by focusing disproportionate levels of energy against a tiny handful of climate-change deniers. Others are looking towards governments and supranational institutions to provide solutions, in the same way that Make Poverty History asked the G8 to solve the problems of world hunger. On one level, this is driven by a sense of urgency, and the (mistaken) notion that the problem is so massive that nothing short of a centralised body can tackle it. But on a deeper level, it’s symptomatic of a ‘politics without antagonism’, where we can make our feelings known (by marching, wearing ribbons or white wristbands, or refusing to fly) and all the rest is administration.

This idea of a politics without antagonism is an illusion. Many of the state’s ‘solutions’ – which some climate activists are clamouring for – will limit our freedom and our autonomy; they will make us poorer, will impose more work on us. They involve a shift of wealth and power from the poor to the rich. The individualism of ‘ethical’ consumption, for example, leads to an implicit antagonism with those who make the ‘wrong’ choices, and/or to ‘militant lobbying’ of governments and other authorities to impose the ‘right’ choices on people. At the 2007 Camp for Climate Action in the UK, one prominent speaker warned that ‘we’ had to be ready to put down riots against austerity. (We intend to do the opposite.)

The cat eats the rat, the pimp beats the whore

Surely we can’t be suggesting that we need more antagonism? Isn’t there enough hatred and violence in the world? Isn’t there enough separation and rupture already? Yes. And this is the point. The ongoing history of humanity’s separation from the commons is written in “letters of blood and fire”. Across the world, whether you’re picking through garbage in a slum, or struggling to make the next mortgage payment, the capital relation is one of violence, of separation, of antagonism.

This ceaseless, debilitating antagonism is central to how capitalism works. Compared with feudalism or slavery, capitalism is a dynamic and relatively resilient social system for two related reasons. The first is its ability to feed off antagonism, to use antagonism to fuel its own development. One example of this is the move from the production of absolute surplus value to relative surplus value. As the workers’ movement became stronger in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, factory owners were forced to shift from a strategy of extensive exploitation (longer working day and shorter breaks) to one of intensive exploitation (using machines to increase productivity). This launched a new cycle of accumulation, celebrated as the Industrial Revolution. The strategy reached its zenith with Henry Ford’s mind-numbing production lines.

A different relationship to antagonism can be seen in the post-war ‘welfare states’ and the Keynesian policies that underpinned them. These societies institutionalised the antagonism between capital and the industrialised working class; a certain level of welfare provision was negotiated in exchange for rising productivity. The fierce autonomous struggles of the 1960s and ’70s exploded this frozen antagonism by asserting new problems and new antagonisms.

The second reason for capital’s resilience is the fact that its inherent antagonism is constantly displaced. Capital as a social relation dominates our lives yet it’s virtually impossible to get a grip on it. Some have argued that it’s just a matter of “false consciousness”, as if all we have to do is pull aside the curtain and reveal the man pulling the levers. But it’s not about ideology. Capitalism doesn’t need us to believe that commodities have a life of their own, or that capital produces wealth. We simply have to act as if those things are true when we work or consume. That’s the way in which reality cannot but appear under capitalism. Nothing else ‘makes sense’, because of the presuppositions that capital places on us. It’s the same with the violence that separates us from the commons, as people are forced off the land in the global South or, in the North, find their working hours seeping into the rest of their lives. “It is very difficult to pinpoint this violence because it always presents itself as pre-accomplished… From a standpoint within the capitalist mode of production it is very difficult to say who is the thief and who is the victim, or even where the violence resides.”

Even in the most exploitative workplace, it’s difficult to be precise about where the antagonism lies. Are you up against your line manager? The chief executive? The foreign pension fund investing other workers’ savings in the company? Through its strategies of class decomposition, marketisation, the naturalisation of individualism and so on, neo-liberalism forces an intensification of competition: that is, an intensification of the competitive struggle between every worker on the planet. With trade liberalisation, a coffee farmer in Ecuador now competes directly with one in Indonesia, whilst the growth of global financial markets means both are now competing with teachers in Leeds and call centre employees in Bangalore. Thus, capital’s antagonistic nature manifests itself less as a clash between worker and boss than as a bitter struggle between worker and worker, as everyone struggles to meet or beat the market-determined norm (and set a new one).

This displaced antagonism is aggravated by climate change – and not simply by wars over water and other resources. As we’ve hinted, capital’s solution is a new round of austerity, a redistribution of income from workers to capital. Measures like carbon taxes and road pricing will increase the cost of basic items like food, heating and transport, so limiting our mobility and our autonomy. Climate change is a double whammy for the vast majority of the world’s population. Not only are we more likely to suffer from its effects – the rich don’t have to live in areas susceptible to flooding and always have insurance – we will also suffer more from capital’s solutions to the problem. Moreover, given capitalist social relations, the best individual response lies in trying to get more money (since money buys mobility, etc), just as the best individual response in a workplace is to get ahead at the expense of fellow workers. It ‘makes sense’. The net effect is to intensify competition, the war of all against all that is capital’s lifeblood.

The enormous changes in the structure of capitalist relations over the last three decades have also had major implications for how antagonism appears in our everyday lives. With outsourcing and privatisation it’s increasingly unclear who our enemy might be at any one time. Governance is multi-layered, with responsibility always lying ‘elsewhere’. Politicians and decision-makers at every level, from local councils to national governments, can honestly say “our hands are tied”. Politics, as it’s traditionally understood, is replaced by administration, with the result that a political antagonism often makes no sense. Take the Private Finance Initiative which operates across schools, hospitals, prisons and so on in the UK: it’s a way of injecting private capital into public services in return for long-term service contracts. Under the school scheme, for example, the local authority doesn’t own the building, but leases it from a company. Widely seen as a disaster, the PFI scheme is almost impossible to oppose: “There is no other funding available…” It’s the fundamental cry of neo-liberalism: There Is No Alternative. It’s non-negotiable. Neo-liberalism is a totalitarianism not based on belief but simply on ‘efficiency’, on getting the job done.

Anger is an energy

Yet, despite all this, hatred of the rich and powerful persists. People resent the ‘fat cats’. The torched BMW is the scream of refusal, of rage. NO! It’s a current that has a long history, existing in parallel with more affirmative politics. Alongside the Anabaptists’ cry of Omnia sunt communia [all things are common] and the Diggers’ notion of an immanent republic of heaven on earth went hatred of the gentry and all they stood for.

Violence can play a part in antagonism, but they are not the same thing. It’s hard to disentangle them because we’re used to dealing with a very restricted notion of violence. It’s easy to see the violence in a street robbery; it’s harder to see the violence meted out to us over the course of our working lives; and it’s nearly impossible to see the violence in the way we are daily separated from the commons.

But can we found a politics on an antagonism formulated in this way? There are three major problems. The first is that of simply identifying our antagonist. It’s too glib to simply say that the enemy is capital. Capital is horribly real, it dominates our lives, but it is an abstraction. We experience it in its effects, which means that the antagonisms it produces run right through us. The problem is not so much that of revealing antagonism, as if we just have to show people the true nature of capital as a social relation. Instead it’s one of re-composing the antagonism that we experience.

This leads to a second difficulty: it’s hard to re-compose that antagonism without falling into the trap of personalising capital. In the 2004 film The Edukators, one of the characters explains, “It’s not who invented the gun, man. It’s who pulls the trigger.” There’s a contradiction here. For us, one of the most liberating moments in the 1980s was the way that anarchist politics gave names (and addresses) to the people who dominate our lives. It broke the rules of the game. It rejected the power imbalance between rich and poor, the asymmetry of a world where profits are privatised but loss is always socialised. (Look at the current credit crisis: whilst the ‘subprime’ poor are being turfed onto the streets, top bankers are selling third homes or luxury yachts.) In a bizarre way, naming the rich re-asserts a common humanity by denying them the ability to hide behind limited liability companies, off-shore tax havens, and multi-layered management. It is an echo of Lucy Parsons in 1885 when she said “Let us devastate the avenues where the wealthy live.”

There are a huge number of dangers here. Besides the obvious dead-end of terrorism, this approach can easily slide into populism. Naming capital (a social relation) as the enemy doesn’t offer an easy course of action; naming the rich simplifies the social field, offering us some grip on the world. But it does this by providing a scapegoat. This stand-in might be the aristocracy, the ruling class or investment bankers – any element that is seen as ‘parasitic’ or ‘unproductive’. And historically it has often been linked with violent anti-Semitism.

Populism dovetails neatly into the moments of piety that pass for ‘politics’ under neo-liberalism. One minute we’re asking the G8 to solve hunger in Africa, the next we’re condemning young mothers for feeding their children junk food. Each wave of po-faced moral panic absolves capital of responsibility for the state of the world it dominates. Yet because neo-liberalism doesn’t rely on any of these beliefs in particular, each one collapses in turn and their serial nature robs us of all belief. De-politicised politics is precisely that wild swing between piety, like Make Poverty History, and a numbing cynicism.

The third problem is even more fundamental. By themselves resentment, antagonism and so on will only take us so far. Because an antagonistic relationship with capital is still a relationship with capital, it still involves defining ourselves in relation to capital. But we don’t want any relation with capital (or the state), antagonistic or otherwise. We want to destroy these relationships, just as we want to refuse definition. We want exodus, autonomy. And this is the paradox. Although autonomy is about movement – “by our own efforts bringing ourselves to happiness” – it still has to contain some sort of ‘No’, a break with the world-as-it-is, it’s difficult to start swimming in open water: it’s much easier to push off against something. Antagonism provides that ‘No’ by simplifying social space enough to offer some purchase on the world and so allow political action.

We can’t pretend that antagonism doesn’t exist, and nor can we wish it away. But we must act in recognition of that antagonism in order to dissolve it. These simplifications have an excess to them, which we might think of as their impossibilities. This is the cramping that each problematic contains. And it is in these cramped spaces that we can create new problematics, tracing a path between impossibilities… and so open up new possibilities.

The revenge of the Red Queen

If we find ourselves at an impasse when we try to think through antagonism, perhaps that’s not the fault of the concept but rather of the impasse we are placed in, “in both our lives and our thinking”, by capital and governmentality. The problematic of antagonism makes a different kind of sense when placed alongside the problematic of exodus. After all, antagonism can help tell us about what we are but it can’t tell us what we can become.

Traditional political concepts such as solidarity or alliance imply a calculation of pre-existing interests. They rest on separate discrete bodies, with a beginning and an end, whose paths can be mapped in advance. It’s as though the identities involved aren’t transformed by the relationship the concepts represent. That’s why we like the idea of love as a political concept, because love involves a reciprocal transformation. It’s a relationship of mutual becoming. As such it operates beyond a rational calculation of interest. You quite literally lose your self in love as the boundaries of separate, discrete bodies become indistinct.

We might recognise such a politics in the periodic peaks of shared intensity, which we can experience, for example, in collective political action. During such moments of excess the fictions of capital’s fetishism dissolve and we face a repotentialised world. Capital’s antagonism becomes clearer, yet it loses its motivating force for us: instead we are animated by the affect of increasing collective capacity. We can escape our antagonistic identity and transform into something new.

Of course we can’t just wish a political relationship of love into existence. The riot cop advancing towards us is trained to resist any relationship of mutual transformation (unrequited love is the most painful kind). Such experiences are concrete and specific, they can’t be unproblematically universalised. We’d do better to think of them as trainings in love. Taken a-historically and non-specifically, love can descend into piety and opens itself to neo-liberal administration. If we’re to reach a materialist love, we need the realism of recomposed antagonism.

Mired as we are in the deadening fictions of this world, a politics based on love can seem impossible. Just as a politics of antagonism is an impossibility to neo-liberalism. But that shouldn’t be of any concern to us. Like the Red Queen, we must train ourselves to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”. As one problematic becomes saturated we look to the next impossibility to give us purchase. This is how we’ll make our escape, with LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, HATE on the other.

The quote about “pre-accomplished” violence is from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze writes about the creativity of bottlenecks and tracing a path between impossibilities in Negotiations; the “in both our lives and in our thinking” quote is from his book Foucault. United Colours of Resistance wrote of “incalculable” resistance in ‘Black Block’, in Voices of Resistance from Occupied London, 2. John Holloway writes about fetishisation and our scream of refusal in Change the World Without Taking Power and elsewhere. William Morris talked about “by our own efforts bringing ourselves to happiness” in 1891.