Simple things made complex: things that don’t work

This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.

It seems clear, I think, to most people, that when a thing does not work, it is not working. If your motorised trebuchet does not work then it is failing to throw rocks at the Palace of Westminster and we can all agree that it is not working as a motorised trebuchet should.

When people say that capitalism is not working – and I have heard various people say just this lately – the point tends to be more controversial. The reasons why it is controversial (besides the definition of capitalism) are interesting. Firstly, let’s complicate this further, since that is the task of these posts.

In my experience people tend to mean two quite different and separate things when they say ‘capitalism isn’t working’. They either mean (a) It isn’t working as it should right now or (b) It has never worked. The former gets more sympathy at the moment, because a lot of people in the UK are getting poorer right now.

So this statement (a) is clearly true on one level, in that we experience the lowered standard of living brought about, apparently, by some of the lynchpins of the capitalist system. But the implication of it is that the system can be fixed.

But let me put a third point of view. Let’s call it (c). This viewpoint says (c) capitalism is working just fine thanks, and we just have a few glitches to iron out. And here is the evidence for that point of view:

What this exposes for me is that the question of whether capitalism works is, unlike a motorised trebuchet, a matter of your point of view. That graph is from the US but last year in the UK wages for most people stayed flat or even fell, while CEOs picked up 30% pay rises – as they have been doing all through the credit crisis and recession (including the current recession they are pretending isn’t happening because certain growth figures don’t technically say it is yet). I also suspect that not shown on this graph is a 9% or so who have had rising incomes (though not as steep) either as owners of property and capital on a smaller scale or as high level managers of various types – managers and salesmen to those with the real money.

So now we see that statement (a) – capitalism isn’t working right now – is possibly largely from the point of view of people who have felt they have benefited from it in the past. Capitalism working ‘as it should’ means capitalism working for them.

Meanwhile statement (b) – capitalism has never worked – must come from another viewpoint once again. In my case it is usually from the viewpoint of the very large number of people in the world who live in poverty while we clearly have the technology and resources to prevent the situation. I feel a little bit unsympathetic to the people who claim (a), because they just got saddled with the kind of ‘austerity measures’ (corporate bonanza) that ‘we’ (our glorious leaders) used to force on poor countries. So now suddenly capitalism isn’t working. But there were other ways of looking at it all along, no?

Capitalism: not a motorised trebuchet.

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.

My libraries

I was driving to work the other day thinking about the library closures in Lewisham and around the country and began to feel angry about it. For a moment I checked myself: surely there were other cuts that should bother me more – why get worked up about this in particular? Then it struck me that I was being silly. I spend a lot of time being pissed off about things being done to other people. For once I was feeling pissed off about something being done to me. It felt good and right to be pissed off on my own behalf. I let it happen.

I spent many hours in the library of the village where I grew up, and took hundreds of books out. For a long time I went there nearly every weekend – and would always have finished books to change. I read a lot. My mother would sometimes drop us off at the library when she went to do shopping. It was safe space to her, except in one sense she never understood: it was the anti-dote to the limited, controlled intellectual environment in which I was raised.

I read mostly fiction, and mostly to escape, but in doing so I read many things my parents would have hated. I loved it. Over time my reading increased until the village library was no longer enough and I began consuming the contents of the library in the town where I went to school. I frequently withdrew and read ten books in a week. Think about that: ten books a week. Even if my parents had been earning full salaries they could never have afforded a £70-£100 a week book habit. Anyway they would never have approved of half the books I read (some of them hidden behind other ‘approved’ books as I sat in the sitting room reading). I also bought books at charity shops of course, but that was when they cost between 10p and 50p. Now the pricing in charity shops has been professionalised and that avenue is shut down for most children. There are only libraries left.

I am an adult now and earn enough money to buy books. But I still cannot afford all the books I want. I still look for new things in the library. I still order rare books through the national network of libraries. Libraries were my great comfort when I felt at home nowhere else. They are still my place of first resort when I want to try something new, and the last resort when I need books I cannot obtain elsewhere. I still love to wander round them. They are free spaces where simply reaching out and taking a book can open a whole new world. If I have not always felt at home in my own town, or my own country, I have always felt at home in libraries. You might say that I am a product and member of the great republic of public libraries.

So when politicians and bureaucrats attack libraries, they are attacking where I come from. The closure of libraries feels personal. It is personal. And of course when I go to the local libraries I see that other kids use them now, perhaps kids like me, whose other connections to the world are strangled. Kids and teenagers need libraries particularly. In an authoritarian-by-default world, libraries and the internet are the only places they can gain some control over their own development, and many kids’ internet connections are tightly controlled, or at least their histories are viewable by the parents. Children and teenagers still use libraries. So do pensioners, the unemployed, mothers looking after kids alone. As well as working people like me who are always looking for something new. Libraries are free space for everyone, but they are most of all free space to the people who really need it: the lonely, the harassed, those without money, those who need to escape, those who want more from life than what they have been offered.

And all over the country they want to close libraries down. ‘They’? Who are ‘they’? That is the question they want to vex us. As with all the Local Authority cuts, the councillors hold up their hands and say ‘It isn’t us – blame the government for forcing us to make these cuts’. And the government holds up its hands and says ‘We never ordered libraries to close – it’s a Local Authority decision’.

This is the question they want to vex us. Avoidance of blame is a key political skill. But the question does not trouble me in the slightest, I have an answer that satisfies me. I blame the government for making cuts and lying that they are necessary. I blame the Local Authorities for implementing them with barely a murmur. I blame the civil servants who did the cost-benefit analysis on libraries. I blame the Councillors who voted for it. I even blame the administrators who are implementing it. I blame anyone who is involved who didn’t stand up and walk out the room when they realised what their actions meant.

They want to claim too that they aren’t shutting libraries, they are just putting them in community hands. Without money. This is the government’s whole ‘localism’ strategy encapsulated. Give ‘control’ to local communities, take away the money. It will destroy the libraries – except perhaps in affluent areas that can support them from disposable cash – and they know it will destroy them. They don’t care, or not enough to stop it, which is the only caring that matters.

When you close down libraries, you shut off the oxygen to developing minds. You close down the only space where people have freedom of thought not just in theory but in fact. It is a crime against the right to free thinking and a crime against those people who need them. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and we should attach it to everyone involved. The closure of libraries at this point in time is not a ‘natural’ process that we have to accept, but rather than the result of a certain type of politics and economics in which we should refuse to take part.

I want to stop libraries being closed. I think we should stop libraries being closed. If it cannot be stopped, then as far as I’m concerned, it cannot and should not be forgiven.