So you think you’re a radical?

This 1960s psychedelic peace sign is the first result for 'radical activism' on Google Images

I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you.

I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.

Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.

What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.

Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.

Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.

I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.

The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.

One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.

Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?

It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.

I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.

I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.

The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.

I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.

I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck…if woodchucking was outsourced to Serco?

This woodchucking data is not currently available due to holes in the Freedom of Information Act. However on past performance in similar outsourcing exercises we can safely make the following assumptions:

     

  • There would be woodchucking ‘efficiency savings’ according to both Serco and the government ministers involved. However these would be impossible to detect, since the woodchucking subsidy to Serco would be more or less equal to the amount of money currently being spent on woodchucking by the government woodchucking service, and the indicators used to measure performance would be changed during outsourcing.

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  • There would be a flurry of woodchucking rate improvements at the beginning of the contract while Serco wanted to pretend they gave a toss about woodchucking,  something they have no expertise in, since they have no expertise in anything except subjecting their employees to humiliating management experiments. The increase in woodchucking performance would later turn out to have been the result of making the woodchucks live in constant fear for their jobs.

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  • Over time the rate of woodchucking would drop significantly below that achieved while woodchucking was done in-house. Serco would bet that (a) woodchucking would not become a major political issue so their performance would be ignored and (b) the government department responsible for keeping them to their contract terms would not have the resources to do it.

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  • Despite the dire performance of Serco in the woodchucking business, they would win the contract once more when it came up for renewal because they would have spent the intervening years ‘lobbying’ politicians, i.e. paying them, buying them nice dinners and offering them jobs after their ministerial careers are over.

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  • The woodchucks would all receive a significantly lower salary for woodchucking than previously, and on worse conditions with worse job security. This would result in a lower of quality of life across the woodchuck population, and those woodchucks with a passion for chucking wood would leave their jobs in disgust at having to work for an employer who couldn’t care less whether the wood got chucked or not.

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  • At some point there would be a catastrophic failure to chuck wood at all, as a result of a string of management failures and a failure by Serco to invest in woodchucking long term.  The lives of many people and woodchucks would be ruined as a result, but the responsibility for this would be borne by the government. At no point would Serco shoulder the financial burden of their failures.

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  • Serco would go on to get more fat government contracts in other things in which they would have as much expertise as woodchucking (none), and with new safe ground occupied would proceed to abuse their position once more, milk the contract for all it was worth and run the service into the ground. Their detractors would be labelled ‘The enemies of enterprise’.

I want to photoshop this to say 'Serco: bringing parasitism to life' but I don't know how to use photoshop, or even have it on my computer

What’s this liberal doing in my head? The problem of ‘illegitimate’ protesters

Riding bronze horses is illegitimate for sure

This is the first in series about the ‘liberal’ mindset, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

In the wake of recent protests, and through the pre-emptive arrests for the royal wedding, the government and police have made it clear recently that only ‘legitimate’ protesters are protected by our ‘right’ to protest. I would expect them to make this distinction but it seems crazy for protesters to adopt it too. I’ve seen too many rants online and in newspapers against the ‘aggressive’ protesters who spoil things for all the peaceful protesters. This should be a debate about tactics but many people turn it into a debate about morals (I posted on this recently) and worse, happily adopt the term ‘illegitimate’ protester. If you’ve been using the term, even implicitly, you need to start questioning what the crazy liberal in your head is making you do.

This legitimate/illegitimate distinction comes to us from those currently in power. What ‘legitimate’ largely means is protesters willing to comply with the antiprotest laws of recent years and protesters who will not cause any trouble. About fifteen years ago we had far fewer anti-protest laws on the books (Do you remember those crazy days? It was barely safe to leave the house. It was anarchy. Thank you lords and masters for legislating for that problem). The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters could still be made – ‘peaceful’ protest as ‘legitimate’ is an oldie and a goodie – but the laws have made it much easier. Now if you haven’t consulted the police about where and when you will protest, it is illegitimate. Hence the police could comfortably claim that those in Trafalgar Square who were violently dispersed by police on 26th March weren’t ‘real protesters’.

As an aside, many people, establishment figures and good liberals, have recently attempted to describe the recent Egyptian protests as ‘peaceful’, which obviously helped to legitimise them in their eyes. Though the Egyptian people didn’t start a war it is absurd to describe the protests as peaceful. Talking to people in Egypt when I was on holiday there I realised that many people didn’t protest against Mubarak primarily: they went out on the streets to fight the police. They went out to oppose the arbitrary and abusive powers that had ruined their lives for decades. They burned down the police stations that Mubarak’s security services operated from. They confronted police lines and fought through tear gas to push the police back. Many protesters (close to 700) were killed, but finally, with the military largely standing aside, they won. It was to a large degree a physical fight and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts.

Ah but things aren’t as bad here, is the stock response to this. Yes, this is a good one. Things aren’t as bad here. We don’t need to oppose our government with force, say the moderate liberals. That’s just too extreme when they aren’t locking us up and torturing us. This misses the point spectacularly and it misses it in a way very particular to the liberal mindset. The biggest problem, the defining problem I would say, of the socially liberal worldview is a failure to recognise and understand power.

Protest is the action of the relatively powerless against those who have much power. It is not, I’ve always thought, a particularly good way to exercise power – it lacks finesse and often direction – but when a corrupt system robs you of power, it is one of the few avenues to express power left to you. The advantage of street protest is that all it requires is numbers to make it effective. Enough people to disrupt the narrative, enough people to raise a dissenting voice, enough people to make it clear that the consensus is broken. What should matter then, in terms of tactics, is the ability of the protest to disrupt the abusive status quo, and not the severity of the abuse of power fought.

I can kind of see the argument for saying that protest should be ‘proportionate’ to the level of abuse, but I’m not comfortable with it because what do you calibrate your scale against – Nazism? Pol Pot? Relative to those things we’re all doing fine and should just go home. But in recognition of this argument, if you do think that the level of the abuse matters, if you do view the number of deaths caused by the government as the scale against which you should match your protest level, then please do examine the current plans for dismantling and privatising the NHS, and the cuts to the NHS they said they wouldn’t make. Standards of care will fall and as a result people will die.

There’s your death count for you, and you can add plenty to it for the benefits cuts, but that’s not why you should reject the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. You should reject it because if you adopt the definitions of those in power, you’ve already lost.

Again this is about people refusing to think about the problem in terms of power. These words, legitimate, illegitimate, were carefully chosen to help entrench those with power in their positions. If you allow them to label certain protesters legitimate and others illegitimate it should be clear that they will seek to attach the label ‘legitimate’ to those who don’t bother them too much and ‘illegitimate’ to those who do bother them. Since the purpose of protest is to bother those in power, surely only a mad person would accept the labels offered. It is a recipe for failure.

The purpose of protest is to disrupt and confront. Those who engage in protest seek to express their desires when few other options are available to them. There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only protest you agree or disagree with, only protest that works or doesn’t. Yes, within any group some person may commit a foolish act, like throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof too close to people on the ground. Some may even engage in violence for the pleasure of hurting other people. Those people can and should be judged on their own actions. To attach labels to whole groups on the basis of those people is the logic of collective punishment.

There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only effective and ineffective protest. If you keep listening to the liberal in your head then you’ve chosen the latter. You should perhaps be asking why the liberal in your head is telling you these things. It frames the game in a way that ensures you lose. Where did your liberal ideas come from then, and who do they serve?

Perhaps its time to have a stern talk with the liberal in your head. There’s nothing worse than having your own head stab you in the back.