An older favourite
Author Archives: contact
There is currently a burst of left wing activity in Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in the world, which is quite inspiring to see. But one thing it doesn’t seem to have produced is a burst of new ideas.
I sometimes find it a bit dispiriting that the heroes of the left here are still the likes of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and now Hugo Chavez – along with a bunch of Colombian heroes, most of whom are dead. For some reason being dead really cements your reputation here, whether you’re a home-grown hero like priest-turned-guerrilla Camilo Torres Restrepo or a foreigner like Hugo Chavez, whose death almost puts him beyond criticism.
Even as the left gears up to try and take advantage of the peace process, these people from old left traditions – in which taking control of the state is the main goal – are the biggest reference points. In particular I suspect the biggest leftist organisation here, Marcha Patriotica, would love to have their own Hugo Chavez. This is actually a bit odd when you notice that Chavez completely failed to implement anything close to a socialist economy. All he did was tax the oil revenue and share it around. Which is nice, but it isn’t socialism and a lot of the socialists barely seem to notice that.
So I’ve often thought it would be nice to see a bit more original thinking here in Colombia, and a bit more rethinking of some of the old attitudes. A Colombia friend recently noted that the left would love to put a lot of the murderous army generals in prison – apparently without questioning the role or existence of prisons. So a few people try to rethink such things, but not many.
But while travelling through rural areas over the last couple of weeks, seeing the poverty and the problems people are living, I realised that perhaps people don’t want to take risks with new and untested ideas. Perhaps they just want something that will alleviate poverty a little and they want it to work. Perhaps copying Hugo Chavez just seems like the easiest and most risk-free way to do that. Perhaps better-thought-out, more democratic, more sustainable attempts to alleviate poverty just wouldn’t work – I certainly can’t promise that they would. Grabbing the state, raising extractives revenues and putting them into social programs is known to do some good at least.
I can’t say the prospect of that happening in Colombia excites me too much, but I’m not a campesino struggling to survive on the breadline. I guess from that point of view, what works is probably what matters. I’d like to see more imagination from the left here, but I guess they would rather see decent health services.
People in Colombia have a tendency to be positive about things. That’s a bit of a general statement of course but the tendency is strong enough that I suspect it accounts for the recent slightly odd result of Colombia being surveyed as the happiest country in the world. I say ‘odd’ because much of the country lives in terrible poverty and amidst an ongoing armed conflict.
But one form of positivity you don’t see so much of in Colombia is the bouncy, almost patronising positivity that certain NGO’s give out in an attempt to make us feel empowered. “Poverty Over!” announces Christian Aid in their latest slogan. We can do it! Even though it didn’t work when we said “Make Poverty History”! This time it’s for real!
“Together, Avaaz members are changing the way the world works!” says Avaaz. As a statement of reality it lacks substance (Avaaz hadn’t greatly impacted on the advance of neo-liberalisation last time I checked) but perhaps that sheer optimism can make it real! Fingers crossed!
In Colombia, this country full of optimists, I have not seen much of this type of optimism, and I think I know why. In Colombia you cannot afford to be mistaken about how much power you have. You don’t have much, and if you try to get more you might end up with a bullet in your head and your relatives will discover that the police aren’t very interested in investigating.
People in the UK don’t have much power either and a lot of people know this. I think that’s why most people don’t bother to vote. I know for sure that a lot of people don’t go on protests because ‘It doesn’t work’. And I’ve lost count of the number of times people have shrugged at me about some gross act of corruption or abuse by the government and said “But what can you do?”
So the effervescent optimism of certain NGO campaigns seems to be intended to counterbalance this. On some level they know how powerless people feel and they’re trying to jolly us out of it. However, if you (or I) suggest to such NGO campaigners that we need actual structural changes to our democracy and to our economic institutions in order to gain more power, they will happily point out to you how unrealistic that is. Negativity about the power we could have is allowed apparently, while negativity about the power we have now gets you looked down upon as a naysayer and a party pooper.
As I say, here in Colombia, negativity about the power you have now is a necessary survival tactic. Above is a video of ESMAD, the Colombian riot police in action. Actually I could just as well have posted UK riot police in action, but a lot of the super-positive NGO campaigners never meet them. The difference in Colombia is that there are potentially much worse things than being attacked by the police. Like being on the death list of a paramilitary group friendly with the police. The question is – and Colombian campaigners have had to answer this – once you experience the blunt end of power and you want to find something to be positive about, where do you look?
I think that where Colombian NGOs are positive is that they believe in their ability to slowly, over time, create a level of collective organisation that can mount challenges to the government. They are positive about the power Colombian people could have one day, if enough effort is put into it. It’s a difficult thing to be positive about because the goals are so long term and the organising sometimes so dispiriting. But the campaigning NGOs in Colombia pull it off.
I like this, I suppose because it chimes with my own positivity. When people hear my comments on NGOs and political campaigning in the UK they often think me negative. But my own positivity is focussed on what is possible in the future, not in trying to make the present look better than it is. Right now we are powerless, we are not on the verge of changing the world, we are not about to end poverty. In the future, by organising together, we could change all that. It will take long term organisation, long term campaigning, and learning new ways of working together in a society that doesn’t do ‘together’ very well.
Positivity about our ability to organise together means being positive about some other things. I do not think that the society we have now reflects a selfish ‘human nature’, and while I don’t think we will ever have a better model of human being, I do think we can create social dynamics that encourage us to behave in different ways. British people are negative about these things where many Colombians are not.
Why is this? The reasons are no doubt complex, and clearly the countries have very different histories. But I would guess that in part it probably reflects the greater ideological penetration of the ruling system into people’s minds in Britain. People believe both their positivity about the present and their negativity about the potential for broader changes to be ‘normal’ or ‘rational’. I think those things are taught to us, often propagated by those at the top end of society.
Perhaps there are advantages to being in a country where the state has never had full control. It gives you space to be positive outside of the framework of how society and institutions function right now.
Being a journalist in Colombia has exposed an interesting culture clash that I didn’t expect. It is a clash between journalism and the rest of the world, but it becomes more obvious in a country like Colombia.
Doing journalism rarely means that you can do in-depth research into a subject and write a long and well-informed piece describing every detail of a situation. Instead it usually involves writing snippets of stories a few paragraphs long. To this the professional journalist adds quotes of no more than a couple of lines from key players in the story.
The aim is to have a simple linear narrative in your article, given a personal edge by some quotes that illustrate that narrative. So your story might be that indigenous people are protesting against a mine. You try to get a quote from a protester saying “The mining company is here to steal our land and we demand that they leave or we will block every road in the state.” Sometimes you might need a background quote saying something like “This is the third multinational that has arrived in our territory and we get nothing from them but environmental damage.”
The difference between doing this in the UK and Colombia is that every organisation in the UK has someone trained for media work who knows exactly what you want – the punchy one-line quote – and will give it to you. They’ll even put out a press release with three or four quotable lines so you can take your pick.
Here in Colombia many organisations – probably most – have not had that kind of media training. You go to interview them, needing to get perhaps three quotable lines to ‘illustrate’ your story, and find that they want to talk to you for an hour and a half, in a long and rambling way, about the history of the conflict, the history of the area, the history of the organisation, the nature of their struggle, and so on.
Or you get sent press releases, as I did yesterday, beginning: “The people of East Central Colombia have historically waged a struggle for the defense of life, land, the environment and human rights in general, in which we develop demonstrations, councils, strikes, civil, complaints, peaceful takeovers, among other accomplishments. We have opposed the looting and pillaging of our natural resources by multinationals and the state, and the social, humanitarian and environmental damage they cause.”
And you can’t use it. It’s not news. It’s not a one-line description of what is happening. It doesn’t encapsulate the snippet of the story you are trying to present. It wants to tell you the whole history of the people in that area in order to explain to you why they are so pissed off right now.
The thing is, I firmly believe that it is journalism that is wrong. The organizer of a coffee growers’ strike who tried to explain to me the historical role of coffee production in Colombia was right. I couldn’t put it in the article because barring the odd long-form piece (more common in the US than the UK), journalism isn’t interested in that. But he was right – to understand the story you should know the history.
No story can really be told in a few paragraphs, and certainly not in a one-line or two-line quote. That is simply the fragment of a story. If people are protesting there is usually a long history to their anger, and a brief explanation sometimes only leaves people baffled. I’ve experienced this myself. After demonstrations in the UK that were reported in the media friends have said to me “But I don’t understand what they want.” Since I was on that demonstration I was able to explain. But it takes 15 minutes, half an hour. The ‘explanation’ on the news took 30 seconds.
Doing journalism myself I try as hard as I can to put background into articles but in the end you only have a few paragraphs to work with. The form of news reporting often prevents you from explaining what is really happening – I imagine the reporting of Mali in the UK at the moment is suffering from this badly.
The Colombian campaigners are right to insist that the broader history matters to a story. Campaigners in the UK would be right to insist on it too, but they have felt the need to bow to the demands of journalism and present the instantly quotable quote. Really they have had little choice – if you don’t offer the soundbite you don’t get quoted at all.
But there is a big price to be paid for this: it so simplifies the terms of public debate that it becomes very hard to discuss anything in depth at all. For instance I suspect many (most?) people in the UK could not give an explanation of the term ‘neoliberalism’ even though it has been common currency in political circles for a couple of decades. So how do we have a public discussion about what is happening to the UK and the world when quite basic ideas, history and terminology are not available to people?
Many journalists and editors would presumably claim that people want their news in bitesize chunks: instant, brief, fleeting. But that is what they are habituated to, and rolling news channels rarely even try to offer more depth. They just offer more of the same, repeated over and over. Who knows what people might like if they were offered news that actually explained what was going on in the world?
The clash I have been observing while working here is not between journalism and Colombian campaigners. It is between journalism and the real world. Unfortunately the real world is losing.
Colombia noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all. Since I’ve already done one blog post about the similarities between the UK and Colombia I thought I’d do a second. The UK noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all.
If you ask a leftist in either country why this is the case many would launch into a long history of political repression of the left. Clearly the left were repressed in Colombia, and the FARC guerrilla movement grew during a period – the National Front years, when the two major parties shared power as a way of ending the violence between them – when the country was only notionally democratic and new political parties were forbidden. The National Front era culminated in a fairly moderate leftist candidate being defrauded of the presidency, igniting even more guerrilla activity.
Meanwhile in the UK we have the bogeywoman Thatcher who deliberately set out to destroy the union movement and largely succeeded, leaving it a shadow of its former self. The working class were either beaten down or bought off with houses that left them in debt that changed their political interests, says this narrative.
Both these accounts have some truth and yet it seems to me that a movement opposed to those in power shouldn’t act surprised when those in power campaign against them. It seems almost silly to moan about it. It definitely looks weak to me as the main reason for failure: surely your strategy should have taken account of the fact those in power would fight back?
So while admitting that human rights defenders and leftist campaigners still get killed in Colombia, let’s look at two other reasons Colombia might have such a weak left. The first is the FARC: their tactics, often bloody, frequently far from communism, have delegitimised leftist discourse in the country. Every time the FARC come out and say something reasonable, such as pointing out that the rich have stolen land from the poor in Colombia and they should give it back, it makes it harder for the point to be made in public discourse. However committed to peaceful methods you may be, if you appear to repeat something the FARC have said, you appear to align yourself with a group that uses kidnappings, cocaine revenues and child soldiers.
That is reason number one. Reason number two I stumbled across the other day. I was talking to a man who runs a youth centre in the poor parts of Cartagena and he said two things a couple of minutes apart. The first was that all the kids get into drugs and drug dealing really easily because it is around them all the time. The second was in response to a question about what the poor think about the very rich in the city.
“Of course they want to have that life too, not to be rich, but to have enough to be comfortable,” came the answer, adding later on that there is never any political protest in the slums. It struck me that reacting to the rich with desire rather than anger may well be linked to the drug dealing. Because the latter offers a path out of poverty. A very, very tenuous and dangerous path, but a visible path nonetheless. Perhaps it acts as a safety valve then: it allows those in the slums to believe, in a society that presents them few opportunities, that they too can live in a shiny white tower block by the sea.
So do these two reasons for a weak left, one to do with public discourse and legitimacy, the other to do with the environment undermining grassroots activity, also hold true in the UK? I think the former does but I’m not sure about the second. It is true that the UK has a certain number of careers where a lot of money can be made fast if you have luck and the right contacts – banking springs immediately to mind. I’m told there is even a certain degree of meritocracy in the city, or at least it is not entirely dominated by the publicly educated. So those who are dissatisfied with their lot in life can take another path. But much as I like the idea of comparing drug-dealing with banking, I’m not sure the latter provides a safety valve. It’s more that we don’t need a safety valve yet because too many people are still too comfortable to want to risk trying anything new.
The question of legitimacy is more interesting. We don’t quite have an equivalent of the FARC. Well, we don’t have any armed leftist groups, yet somehow the left have managed to delegitimise themselves anyway. In the past many groups aligned themselves with authoritarian states, and even those who didn’t continued to talk about “revolution” in a form many people saw as discredited by the real world.
They also adopted tactics not acceptable to the general population. Many people see strikes as holding people to ransom for selfish reasons. There are often good reasons to go on strikes and there is certainly a role for them but the way strikes have often been used does make them appear to benefit only a few. The truth is, strikes often don’t evoke solidarity from other workers, they evoke a feeling that someone is trying to get a benefit others are unable to access.
Then there are protests. The radical left in particular loves a rowdy protest, but they look threatening to other people. They scare people off from joining a cause they may well believe in. I was amazed how few radical campaigners in the UK understood the decision of the Spanish indignados to sign up to non-violence. It was not a belief in complete non-violence that drove them to do it. They did so as a tactical decision, so that more people would want to join them.
Strikes and street protests are held sacred by many but that seems to me to be missing the point. If what you want to do is alter social relations then the point is to alter social relations, not use the same tactics over and over again that have so far not altered social relations as you might like. It’s like the FARC thinking that armed struggle will turn Colombia into a socialist paradise. The evidence is against it and their tactics mean most people are against them even trying.
You might argue that the government or those with power decide what is legitimate, and so any discussion of what is legimitate is sullied by the discourse of the powerful. That is partially true and we should bear it in mind. But it is not completely true. No matter how much people are influenced by those in power, we have to believe they have their own take on the world too.
And on that note, a final point: a lot of the working class in the UK don’t recognise themselves as the working class, and many of those who are would rather not be. Attempting to build up working class identity as the vehicle for a movement failed because that identity – and leftists really should have understood this – was something that people wanted to leave behind. Trying to force your view of the world on people is bad enough, trying to force your view of people on the people themselves is unforgivable.
The left is weak not just because they get attacked, but because they constantly screw themselves over by believing so strongly in what they do that the issue of legitimacy in the eyes of others seems irrelevant to them. We may not have the FARC in the UK but most of the UK left have the same intellectual ancestors as the FARC. I think that shows in their self-righteous insistence on forms of struggle that I suspect actually undermine any chance of changing how people relate to each other. Which should, after all, be the point.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a film festival in a little town near Medellin called Santa Fe de Antioquia. In many ways it was much like a film festival in the UK. In other ways, like the really hot weather and the fact that most screens were outdoors in December, it was not much like the UK. One balmy midnight I stood chatting after a film to some people from Medellin – most of the audience were from the big city – about whether the film had been any good, the state of the Colombian film industry and so on. Our chatter was interrupted by a series of loud, rapid crunching noises. CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH.
Next to us a family from the town was going round the square collecting all the empty beer cans, crunching them by stamping on them and collecting the squashed discs in a plastic sack. I say a family was doing it. In fact a husband and wife team did the work while their slightly chubby son, ten years old or so, sat on the edge of a raised flower bed watching them, kicking his heels against the wall in boredom. The couple wove between the dispersing festival-goers, largely ignored, picking up the litter of their wealthier fellow citizens.
When I first came to Colombia I told a Colombian guy I was interested in the politics of the country. He suggested I was politically ‘slumming it’, deliberately choosing to live in a country poorer than my own and a country with one of the worst governments masquerading under the heading of democracy. I told him that I honestly don’t have any sense of superiority about my own government, that if anything the main difference I detect between the rabidly neo-liberal Colombian government and the rabidly neo-liberal UK government is that the former practices its love of extreme violence at home while the UK government reserves its most extreme violence for countries a long way away. The latter is possibly more sensible in terms of the stability of the regime but it is difficult to establish it as a morally superior position.
The point was slightly glib but there are other similarities between the countries. If there is a thing consistent or coherent enough to call capitalism – a subject of debate on this blog – then it would be difficult to work out whether the UK or Colombia does it better. On the one hand almost the entire elite of the UK is currently committed to the system of theft and gambling instituted in the City of London, to the destruction of social benefits, and to the selling of every asset available to ensure the maximum possible disparity of wealth.
Colombia on the other hand is already blessed with one of the worst wealth divides in the world and really works it well. People tend to work stupidly long hours and the middle class have to strive to stay where they are. The un-moneyed middle class have recently gained access to credit cards and both they and the poor attempt to establish their position in society by buying expensive crap they don’t need. That is ‘normal’ enough for anywhere in the world – but the shopping centres here in Medellin are at least as fancy as a similar-sized city in the UK, and in a city where a significant percentage of the population can’t afford to buy anything in them. When they can, they often buy stuff anyway.
Meanwhile the price of property is absurd in both countries. The poor in Colombia at least can often get away with building illegally, although at the cost of security. Much of the lower middle class can’t buy at all and, too respectable to go and build something in the outer barrios, they lurk in their parents houses or pay rip-off rents. Just like the UK.
Another thing the countries have in common is an enormous number of places to gamble. As neo-liberal regimes both countries have clearly decided not to limit the number of city-centre casinos and betting shops. Taking decisions for a social good is anathema to them.
Overall of course the poverty in Colombia is worse than in the UK. At least we have a public health service to pillage right? That’s better than not having one. But if the current crusade against benefits and public services continues those differences will be eroded over time.
A lot of people in the UK still think we’ll get back to the growth levels of the last fifty years, that we will continue to ‘progress’. The man who accused me of slumming it in a poorer country probably assumed that I also believe in the inevitable march of ‘progress’ in my own country. But with the restructuring of the global economy in which our governments participated, we are getting poorer in the UK right now and I don’t think we should assume that is temporary. We may get some ‘growth’ back but for how long and who will benefit?
I don’t see Colombia as ‘backward’, or assume that with good government it will ‘progress’ to achieve the same level of wealth or wealth distribution as the UK, or that the UK will keep the wealth it currently has. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we are amidst some progressive flow of history towards a better world. The widespread belief in that is a form of faith and I’m not much good at that. Besides, the signs in European and other rich economies at the moment seem to suggest something else entirely.
Already we are sending the poor to foodbanks or telling them to travel an hour and a half each way to do waitressing for a wage that won’t feed their family. One day soon we may see people wandering the streets after festivals picking up all the cans, breaking their backs to make a few pounds so they can feed their family. When I saw it here in Colombia I didn’t feel sorry for Colombians and think how much further our society has come. I was reminded how much lower we can sink and how much bigger and shinier our shopping centres can get if the existing elite are left to follow their current course.
CRUNCH. CRUNCH. CRUNCH.
The author of this blog with henceforth be posting on a new blog at preorg.org and so will be posting somewhat less on this blog. When the author feels like being strongly opinionated again he will use this as the most appropriate vehicle.
It probably won’t be long.
“Aha,” says a reader, “You are referring, Mr ‘Contact’, if that is your real name, to capitalism, and you are presumably an anti-capitalist.” Except I’m not, and I’ll try to explain why, if only because I told a friend I’d write a post on it months ago.
The point is not that I like capitalism. I am neither pro or anti capitalism because I am not sure of the concept of ‘capitalism’ itself, so I would not want to define myself by it. I would be willing to say I am against something I feel I can point to more easily, say, unnecessary human cruelty. But that pits me against Roman gladiatorial displays and its descendant X-factor, as well as against our current economic systems. I am happy to be against feeding people to lions and X-factor, but that can hardly define my whole political position, nor would I want it to. But I do not think that a more complex and complete political position can be outlined by defining myself against a more complex concept. It does not really add the level of nuance and complexity I think is needed if we want to try to create systemic changes.
The bad things (and let’s define that as unnecessary cruelty and cruel situations, for the sake of argument) happening in the world today strike me as on the one hand very basic, and not greatly different from processes that happened under the deeply non-capitalist Genghiz Khan, and on the other hand very complex, shot through with everything from historical currents, through cultural oddities, to bodily functions. I do not feel I am in a position to say – and I do not think anyone is in a position to say – that one current of activity (whether you call it capitalisation, commodification or something else), or one conceptualisation of that activity, has a defining, let alone a totalising, role in the systems we see.
This brings me onto my problem with Marxian thought, and why I have never been a Marxist. It isn’t just that I disagree with parts of it (the poor historical method, the psuedo-scientific differing definitions of ‘value’, for instance – much of it creates an air of scientific authority around what is essentially a narrative description of history), or that I think his failure to analyse power outside of the concept of ‘class relations’ did leave the door open to authoritarian uses of his work. It is that Marxism is the wrong type of theory for me. It is an enlightenment theory that attempts to give a ‘true’ picture of the world. Once we grasp this truth the world becomes an understandable place, and we know the right action to take.
This contrasts with my position, which is not that ‘there is no truth’ or some straw man position of absolute relativism, but that we can only catch glimpses of what we might semi-seriously call the ‘real world’. We can come closer to understanding the world than before, but it will not be through grand models or revelations of the ‘truth’ but through incremental changes in our understanding and through constructing multiple models from multiple viewpoints.
There are various ways of explaining why I hold to this model of discovery rather than the enlightenment model, but as a short-hand let’s say that we communicate our ideas about the world in language, and language does not map to the real world. All our attempts to describe the world are therefore heavily compromised from the outset, particularly when addressing social problems. Less social problems like the trajectories of sub-atomic particles can be dealt with through tight definition (albeit ultimately unfounded) but social problems cannot use this method because they must either use the fuzzily defined language of everyday life or re-define, and so separate their language from everyday life, diminishing their power to reflect everyday discourse and life. You can, for instance, define the idea of a ‘working class’ with objectively aligned interests within a model, but I think it a big mistake to believe this idea is something that actually exists in the world.
I am suspicious too of the desire to create a coherent and defining view of the world because I do not believe the world is coherent; I certainly don’t believe it is black and white. Despite Marx’s attempt to remove moral disapproval from his modelling, to many people ‘capital’ is the devil. For myself, I do not believe in the devil. I know that many people would say he’s just pulled a good trick on me, but I think there is a certain religiously-tinged paranoia, not to say egotism, in believing that ‘capital’, as a coherent set of social relations, exists. I may feel like a target sometimes, but not of anything so coherent as ‘capital’. In as far as we have a ‘system’ on this planet, I see no reason to believe it has coherence in the way many people attribute to it.
The ‘system’ contains within it, I think, many things that we have so far failed to define, some of which we will never define, mixed in with various things we try to define, some of which can be picked on as a source of evil (the commodity form, say) within a certain worldview. I think we should discuss and talk about those ideas. But we should not pretend to have an understanding we don’t have. Some systemic features that exist today were present in feudalism, or the Roman Empire, and had other names then. Some aspects we see today will exist in the future, when no-one at all can cling on to the idea that capitalism exists. While I think we can improve our knowledge, I suspect our global systems are too complex to be defined by particular features at any given moment in time.
This doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to understand where I find myself or the details of the system in which I live. I just don’t think I’ll ever know it well enough to attach a name – capitalism – to a set of defined things and say “That’s what I’m against.” To call yourself ‘anti-capitalist’ you presumably have to have decided that the economic worldview Marx outlined (or some correction offered by one of his followers) is essentially correct, and that deliberately opposing this is the way forward. To me a confidence that you know the right things to be against within a system you do not fully understand is a danger sign. You begin to look something like the US Military in Iraq, convinced they knew what they are doing, walking with certainty into disaster.
What’s more, while I might learn things from a Marxian perspective, I do not think I should constantly overlay my subjective experience with some supposedly objective framework. That is why I talked about the notion of being against cruelty. It is an emotional reaction to the world (one of many a person might have) and I am more likely to give weight to this reaction than to any ideological construction, even if I find that construction useful. I dislike X-factor not because it is attempting to draw me into a mass consumer experience for the sake of advertising revenue, although that is one way of viewing it. I prefer to hate it for being a cruelty-fest of the type that rears its head constantly throughout history. If any ideology failed to eliminate cruelty in its mindset I would discard the ideology long before my dislike of cruelty.
I have had people get annoyed with me when I described their Marxian ideas as ‘an interesting point of view’. But that’s exactly how I see those ideas and how I know I will always see them, no matter how much Marx or marxian thought I read, and no matter if I see the M-C-M circulatory form, or some other marxian concept, as useful sometimes. The notion of ‘capitalism’ itself is to me a particular viewpoint, so I am unlikely to use the concept in anything more than a casual sense. It is not a ‘true’ description of the world against which I would be willing to define myself.
The question people often ask now is, in the absence of a shared ideological framework, how do we create collective action? But this is an odd question. I think most collective action happens in the absence of a shared ideological framework. People unite around particular things for wildly differing reasons, even when they are claiming to be ideologically united. I suspect that leftist organising would often be more effective if it gave up on the notion of ideological unity and instead united around campaigns to improve the conditions of people’s lives.
Now it’s true that your viewpoint on the world affects the actions you may wish to take – this was visible in the division between ‘liberals’ and ‘radicals’ in Occupy camps – but in the end I suspect that ‘radical’ action will only ever come out of desperation for change. The arguments we have amongst those of us who do not have that desperation are probably more important as social interactions than as deciders of the future. Moments of change will happen despite the ideologies and despite the arguments over how change should be brought about.
To put it another way, even when people rallied under the banner of Marxian thought, I think it was more the wish to improve their lives that brought them together, not the ideology itself. The use of ideological rhetoric as a social glue to hold these campaigns together has a mixed record, to say the least. I do not think that polishing up the ideology a bit – making it anti-hierarchical, say – will make ideology a better uniting force. For myself, and I suspect for a lot of people inclined towards leftist ideas but not active in politics, it would be preferable to find some other way of creating the social cohesion necessary to help us act together.
Finally, the discussions about how the world works and how we should react to it are important, but if what is radical is what brings change, then we should admit we do not know what is radical yet. It may turn out that being ‘anti-capitalist’ is not the position that will force a big change in economic and social relations but something else entirely, some position or campaign we do not yet know and have not yet imagined.
In the first post I spoke about new entrants to political activism being inducted into certain methods and tactics. One of these methods is consensus decision-making. This can be a wonderful and positive thing and it can also be incredibly crippling. I want to see it challenged before the next surge of political activity because I am tired of seeing people tired out by it, tired of seeing groups fall apart through consensus.
First, let’s state what I have in common with the consensus decision-makers. I share a hatred of representative politics, I see the oppressive nature of majoritarian decison-making, and I understand the desire to give all those who have never had a voice the ability to speak. Consensus seems almost opposite to the ‘democracy’ we have learned to distrust. It must be right, right?
But here’s a couple of what I consider to be bare facts:
1. The meetings of Reclaim the Streets, who used consensus decision-making, eventually became utterly unmanageable. Rumour says that in fact they were ‘managed’ – by a group of core activists who met outside the main meetings to try and actually, y’know, get things done. What is certain is that the decision was eventually taken to break up the big meetings because they could no longer work. RTS never recovered from the fragmentation that followed.
2. The big consensus-based meetings at Occupy LSX achieved very little. Certainly a lot of the people who actually got things done in the camps didn’t go to them. They did, however, utterly burn out those involved in facilitating and running the meetings. Even the smaller working group meetings, also try to reach consensus, were often a painful slog.
Now you can – and I’m sure people will – argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. It’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard.
But let’s start from a different point: let’s look at the technical aspects of consensus decision-making. It is trying to get away from majoritarian politics that silences the voices of those who don’t agree with the majority. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. Okay, we can compensate for that, but let’s just note that consensus is not the polar opposite of the type of democracy we have at the moment. We still have to make a special effort to stop it being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.
Next, we should look at what happens when people really don’t want to fall in with the consensus, often for reasons of ego, ideology or realpolitik. The majority can be dominated by the minority. Okay, this is a known problem and we can deal with it: allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse. But let’s note, once again, we still have a system where either a few people can dominate the discussion or where people end up feeling excluded by the decision.
What about – and this is a very common problem – what about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistable social pressure to keep your mouth shut. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.
Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. There is one way of dealing with this when it comes to actions, which is for those who want to do the action to split off and do it. Fine, okay. But this divides groups and the point of consensus seems to have been lost. We are no longer engaged in a conversation, we’re off doing our own thing.
This latter evolution of consensus decision-making actually exposes an intensely individualistic streak (derived from individualistic forms of anarchism I suspect) that I think exists in all consensus decision-making: the idea that I can be part of a group while never compromising what I want. In a society that propagandises the virtues of individualism (even if frequently failing to practice them) it is already difficult for us to engage in collective action in which the action is not quite what we wanted to see. But for collective action to happen, particularly on a mass scale, we have to get used to compromises. It simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing. If we are to work together, we are going to have to learn to put aside our own opinions sometimes – perhaps only temporarily, and hopefully being able to express our dissent. Of course, collective action still comes with certain ethical, political and empathic boundaries – we should not subsume ourselves to a group unthinkingly. But consensus decision-making purports to be all about collectivity and my feeling is that it can often hinder it in practice by over-emphasising the individual.
So, of what consensus decision-making was meant to achieve, how much is really left intact after all these glitches and flaws? Is it really so fantastic and radical that we should wear ourselves out trying to make it work in its current form? The only reason I can come up with that political activists have fetishised it for so long is that it looks really alternative. It has a feeling of novelty and yes, even empowerment, when you first encounter it, and thereafter it enables us to distinguish ourselves from those people out there who foolishly vote by a show of hands. Oh how we laugh at them. As we battle agonisingly through a 5-hour meeting.
If you can make consensus decision-making work for you, great, but it just isn’t so wonderful that we should kill ourselves trying to make it work. I think it probably works best in fairly small groups of people with a fairly constant membership. I think personal relationships can give a depth to consensus decision-making that almost make it live up to the radicalness ascribed to it. But I know for sure it does not work in large groups, and in groups where people are constant passing in and out. Occupy LSX for example.
I used to be in a group that encouraged dissensus rather than consensus. That is, we admitted that sometimes people have differing views and we should let the conflicts between them emerge and play out, potentially over long periods. The actual decision-making process went like this: we would make an initial attempt to reach consensus. This would enable everyone to have a chance to speak. Then, if it was apparent we didn’t have consensus, and if all the points of view had been expressed, we would vote. We used a simple majority but you could also work on perhaps a two-thirds majority of those present.
This gave us most of the advantages of consensus, while allowing us to be more honest with each other – we never had to be terrified of breaking the consensus and accidentally extending a meeting already at 3 hours to 5 hours. It also – and this is an important point – worked. By the way, I keep mentioning the length of meetings. That’s because it matters. If your meetings are too long, people will stop going. Meetings are always, however we try to lighten them with good friendships and cake, going to be something of a necessary evil. If your meetings regularly last longer than two hours you’re probably doing it wrong. ‘Wrong’ in the sense that your attempts at organising will probably fail. Most people just can’t take that level of boredom. If you can, good on you. But you will be the remnant who end up pushing decisions when others are so tired of the meeting they’ll just shut up in order to end it. And how democratic is that?
There are other methods of organising directly democratically. Nested councils in which the councils at the bottom choose a spokesperson to go to the next level council. The morbid fear of representation among some activists often prevents this happening, though it has appeared in the form of a ‘spokes council’ from time to time. The key thing is to view the spokesperson not as a representative but as a delegate who can be overruled from below at any time. This system too will have disadvantages, but since it is the one the Spanish CNT – the biggest and most success horizontal organisation I know of – uses, we know that it does work to some extent. Unlike consensus decision-making in big groups of people. Which – did I mention this? – doesn’t usually work (there are exceptions to this, I know, though I think most of them come from more communal societies than ours where people start from a position of less divergent opinions).
I understand that representation doesn’t work. I understand that majority voting alone is oppressive. I just think that consensus decision-making has equal and sometimes worse problems. We need to re-think the virtues of consensus and re-think how we organise. Talking to each other properly about our sitation and our viewpoints is a wonderful thing, but it does pall after a few dozen hours of meetings, and then it would be great if we could go out and, y’know, do stuff. In particular, in line with Part 1 of this Debrief, I think that we need to build large-scale local and national organisations (international too). We simply won’t do that with consensus decision-making.
If we want our small convergences to be a microcosm of larger-scale change, we should think about changing the way we make decisions even when we do have a small enough group to make consensus work. Whatever methods we use, we need to bear in mind the need to create forms of power strong enough, resilient enough, long-term enough, to challenge the political and economic institutions that dominate our lives. That isn’t easy. If we get stuck on one form of organising with a mixed track record at best, it will be even harder.
Sparked by a recent conversation I have decided to finally get around to an OccupyLSX debrief that I wish I had read elsewhere. This is Part 1 of 2, and they are the lessons I personally see in Occupy LSX, not some outline of what ‘really’ happened or an attempt to shut down other debates. If they seem a bit critical, it is only from a position of wanting future actions to be better than the actions we have seen so far.
Politics in the rich Western countries still lives in the shadow of 1968, and when it comes to the rhetoric and tactics of ‘radical’ political activists, the shadow of the situationists in particular. I can understand why: the situationists are cool. They were cool at the time and they are still great to read.
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth”
― Raoul Vaneigem
Cool huh? Hakim Bey, a successor to the situationsts, wrote things with titles like “Against the Reproduction of Death,” which is way better than any title by George Monbiot. He also wrote about the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a joyous space of liberation created among the hostile forces of the world. He said this about it: “Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma.”
Which is great. I just wish people took him at his word there. His writings on TAZs are very inspiring in places but there is one problem: there is a constant, gaping inability to unite the joyous moments of liberation in a TAZ with long term liberation. He flits between saying the TAZ can only exist for a moment, and saying it is all we can expect in the face of the power of the state, to apparently talking about it as a long term tactic. The term Permanent Autonomous Zone appeared later, but if you’re looking for a real way to bridge the gulf between moments of liberation and a liberated society Hakim Bey will never provide it.
This shouldn’t surprise us so much. Peter Lamborn Wilson, as his parents knew him, is somewhat mystically inclined and has probably spent too much time at the knees of Sufi and Hindu masters to focus properly on the nitty-gritty of long-term organising. Some of his writing definitely projects the TAZ as something almost mystical, and the step between the TAZ and a liberated society is as obscured as you would expect of a mystic. I’ve nothing against mysticism per se. If all we ever get from a Temporary Autonomous Zone is a Temporary Autonomous Zone we shouldn’t blame Wilson but ourselves for taking him too seriously. And you know who else never provided a bridge between moments of liberation and a transformed society? Most of the rest of the situationists whose tactics greatly influence activism to this day, even amongst those who’ve never read them. They grappled with it to vary degrees but their tactics never evolved to create long term liberation.
That’s the theoretical stuff, and I know autonomous zones appear without participants ever knowing about the idea of the TAZ, so the point here is not to have a purely theoretical debate. Here’s the practical stuff that led me to go on about this: I’ve now seen two (2) surges of political activism, both of which brought lots of new people into unmediated anti-establishment politics for the first time. The first was about ten years ago in the form of the anti-capitalist, alter-globalisation [insert preferred name here] movement. The second was a mixture of student activity and Occupy (there was also anti-cuts activity going on around the country but my experience of this was that it was mostly seasoned activists and established groups).
As new people come into political activism they are inducted into particular ways of doing things by older activists, much of it derived (possibly unknown to both pupils and teachers) from the activists and writers of 1968 and from their descendants. One of the results of this is that we get some fantastic (and that’s not sarcastic – I really do like them) situationist-inspired action and beautiful Temporary Autonomous Zones in the form of occupations – of streets, squares, classrooms, libraries – and what happens then? Well, not much. They end. Nothing long-term comes out of them. If anything, as Occupy LSX progressed it became less, not more likely that something long-term would come out of it. Momentum was lost to the needs of maintaining the space and keeping together a bunch of people so diverse in views that it became a weakness as well as a strength.
It is important to emphasise that the maintenance of these spaces sucks up a huge amount of energy. It is obvious why: you are trying to hold back the forces of society and economics around you in every moment. These spaces are by their nature intense and people happily throw themselves into the task of keeping them alive. And then they burn out. Because it isn’t sustainable. You can’t defend against the police and bailiffs forever. You can’t feed and clothe the homeless, try to cure all the ills of capitalism while plotting the downfall of capitalism, for very long. People burn out really quite quickly, and then what?
Meanwhile there are all those people with full time jobs or caring roles who simply cannot offer the level of energy necessary to begin with. What about them? Can they not be part of our revolution? People often talk about these spaces as a microcosm of a future liberated world, yet this microcosm appears not to include people who have major duties besides politics. That doesn’t even sound like a great future world to me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hanging around with political geeks like myself.
It was difficult to discern anything long term that came out of the anti-capitalist movement – some writings and relationships aside – and it is difficult now to discern anything long-term that has come from Occupy or from the surge in student activity. Sure, some friendships were made, some networks formed or strengthened – and who knows what might come of that? – but mostly the autonomous zones collapsed and that was that. This is really sad. But I think the saddest thing is that if people don’t talk about this and try to think of different ways of acting – possibly not involving the 68 crew and Peter Lamborn Wilson – then I think the same thing will happen again next time.
I may have sounded a bit mean to the situationists so far, but now I’m going to be even meaner. This is so mean that I’m going to have to whisper it to you: the sixties revolution failed. We should probably stop obsessing over the literature and tactics of failed revolutionaries and get on with writing and doing our own shit. Sure it’s mean, but at some point surely we have to think that what is really radical is creating change. We haven’t done it yet so we need to come up with some new ideas and new strategies, not get hung up on ideas framed as ‘radical’ but with proven inability to translate into long-term liberatory action.
In particular we need to think about long-term organising, substantial new networks, permanent organisations. We should think about large-scale membership organisations again, which in the form of trade unions have achieved much over time (Not that I am suggesting unions are the only worthwhile form, on the contrary I think we absolutely have to organise beyond as well as in the workplace right now). We should think about internet-enabled networks with nodes in the real world. We should think about how to resource campaigns – skipping food and benefit gigs are great but they are not practical across a large-scale movement.
Above all, we need to stop putting so much energy into things that are manifestly temporary. If we don’t shift our energies into more permanent tactics then I fear the next surge of political activity will give us the same results as this one: memories of a few glorious moments together, and a few individual transformations, amidst banditry and exploitation by those in power, entirely uninterrupted by our moments of autonomy.
Many people who dislike current political and economic institutions have a tendency to decide they know the solution to the problem. In the past I have also tried to work out the real way to bring change, the essence of true radicalism.
The alternative to ‘real radicalism’ seemed to me to be the ‘pragmatism’ of people whose politics appeared terminally compromised by, for instance, their acceptance of roles within certain institutions.
Here I want to make a plea for neither ‘idealism’ nor ‘pragmatism’, but for something different. We should recognise that there exists no ‘real radicalism’, or if it does exist we can’t know it for sure until after the fact of radical change. But once we accept that we don’t know all the answers we shouldn’t jump towards ‘pragmatism’: the pragmatists also think they know the real route to change. They don’t really know either.
I understand the argument that once the structure of society is understood it seems necessary to break it entirely. And I understand the argument that working within acceptable political paths brings certain types of change more quickly. I try to bracket both these lines of thinking, accepting both and not mistaking either for ‘truth’.
Instead of choosing one or the other we should live on our feet. Rather than resolving contradictions between different methods we should actively seek to keep the tensions alive – because at this point who really knows from which direction change will come? Rather than plotting the ‘true’ path to change we should accept diversity of efforts and reject the idea that we – or anyone else – have found the ‘right’ way forward.
There are always moments when people commit to one particular method of change in order to create the critical mass necessary. But when that moment comes it will likely emerge organically, not because it is the ‘right’ way. In the meantime, even if feels a bit uncomfortable sometimes, let’s try to sustain tensions:
1. Between positive or negative politics. Should we unite around what we hate or what we agree on? Yes.
2. Between working inside or outside institutions. Should we use existing institutions to bring change or ignore them in favour of building our own social models? Yes.
3. Between voting or not voting, engaging in current political games or not. Should we take part in a discredited political system or try to bring about its downfall? Yes.
4. Between confrontation and building bridges. Should we seek to bring conflicts in society out into the open or try to unite people of disparate interests? Yes.
5. Between revolution or reform. Should we try to change everything or try to create incremental improvements in people’s lives? Yes.
The difficulty of adopting this kind of thinking is that you can be attacked from both sides. The moderates will pick on your ‘radicalism’, the radicals will pick on your ‘reformism’. Since none of them have – in my lifetime at least – brought about a better world, I try not to take any of the critics too seriously.