An older favourite
Tag Archives: power
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.
It’s common to refer to the societies of rich Western countries as being ‘free’. A lot of people will hastily qualify this. We are, they say, relatively free. We can’t protest anywhere or anyhow we want, but we can protest. We can’t get our opinions on the BBC but we can at least hold our opinions without being arrested.
And of course, admits the liberal in your head, we all have constraints on us. For instance physics, or wealth, or the lack of it. So there are limits. But ultimately the government does not force us to hold or express certain views and we will not be punished for our political beliefs.
Mmmm, yes. And no. Sometimes things are neither one thing nor another. We are, in Western societies, rarely whipped into believing something, but does that equal freedom? We are, for instance, managed. We’re actually managed quite a lot. Let’s start with your boss. You can argue with them to some extent, but they also have the power to sack you if you argue too much.
Maybe that seems obvious. What’s a bit less obvious is that we are managed by many more people than just our bosses. The process of government, being only briefly interrupted by ballots, is a process of management. PR is a form of management of your opinions. Big media is management of what you consume – think of all those people sitting around in offices deciding what you will consume in your paper.
But even less obviously, I would also say we are managed by a whole array of professionals. Architects manage our personal and work space. Planners manage our public space. ‘Creative industry’ professionals manage what we consume, from the theatre to the television. Psychologists manage our perceptions of abberant behaviour (no-one has adequately explained to me why lack of confidence is a frequently-treated pathology while the far more damaging overconfidence is not). Social workers manage our families if we fail to hit the mark. Charities manage our altruism.
Some might argue that the good intentions of the professionals absolve them from looking like authoritarians. But well intentioned control freak parents are still control freak parents. Good intentions in themselves don’t count for much in my book, particularly when they take place in the context of very unbalanced power relations.
Perhaps, in the end, you think that all of this management, because it is not directed at you personally, because you stay out of the arenas where it is strongest, does not affect you much. Perhaps the architects you live with are long dead and the social worker never visits you. But in the unlikely event that you are immune to everything professionals say you are surrounded by people who are not. We are social beings and our social world is distorted by a vast weight of top-down management across all of society.
Meanwhile let’s go back to the obvious management: your boss. What they ostensibly manage is your technical performance and yet you likely will have noticed that the most incompetent people often get promoted first. It happens so often it’s almost like it isn’t a coincidence. Almost like, say, people are promoted for having particular personality attributes, particular ways of behaving, almost like people are rewarded by management for conformity to their viewpoint. And what is the combined effect of that happening across all of society? It’s difficult to measure but I don’t think it is small.
It’s easy not to think too much about the effect on us of all this management, particularly if you feel that you benefit from it – you may be on a management wage yourself. Perhaps you believe your personality overcomes society. Perhaps you are a superhuman, immune to social pressure. Or perhaps there’s a liberal in your head, and it loves pretending to be free. If so, try to gently introduce it to words and ideas between the two poles of ‘free’ and ‘oppressed’. Perhaps one day it will even be grateful for having learned language to describe its situation.
In the UK I suspect we may get a little growth within the next few years and it may look like a recovery for a while. But fundamental changes have happened in the UK and in the world. While in the short term growth is not happening because the government is cutting spending in a recession, in the long term the picture is even more grim. Here’s five reasons not to hold your breath for ‘growth’:
1. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but they ought to know that the ‘high-skilled’ economy to replace lost industry isn’t going to cut it. A friend pointed out last night that it is pretty colonialist to think that Chinese or Indian people are only going to do the grunt work. I heard about a law dept being outsourced the other day. Accountants, designers, programmers, scientists – they can all go. The outsourcing course has been set and if we follow it to the end the only jobs remaining will be those that absolutely require a physical prescence here.
2. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but the high-tech innovation-driven economy is not our saviour. Quite the opposite: it is screwing us. It creates a few jobs, yes, but destroys thousands of other jobs as it goes. We can’t just look at the creation of paper value – we have to think about the ratio of ‘value’ creation to job creation. Instagram just sold for a billion dollars. It has 13 employees. At some point we’ll have to accept that our technology is going to make full employment impossible.
3. Meanwhile the price of oil is only going up. We can dig up half of canada if we want but there will never be enough. This is true of other resources too but energy drives everything else. Demand is going up, supply is becoming more difficult. That makes everything else expensive and strangles growth. It is going to do that for the forseeable future.
4. There will be some growth of course but what there is of it will be very unequal, as it has been for the last 30 years. This is to do with how our economy has been structured – by all major political parties in the UK. Most of us will not benefit from growth, and in fact we haven’t for a while. It’s true we got cheaper holidays and better phones but now we need two salaries to buy a house where one would do it before. This structuring of the economy can be changed of course but there is zero political will to do it. Neo-liberalism won and we didn’t.
5. The final problem is that in the absence of productive industries and of internal markets not totally reliant on imports, what growth we do get will probably be bubble growth – either re-inflating a finance bubble (very possible given the rules haven’t been tightened since the last cock-up) or re-inflating the housing bubble. Both of these benefit certain people, some of whom get to have dinner with Dave, and for a time it may look like real growth. In the long run either type of bubble will pop in a spectacular manner and will screw the economy, particularly those of us who don’t get to have dinner with Dave.
This might sound pessimistic and it might seem like I’m being gloomy for the fun of it, but I’m not really down about it and – unlike some people – I think it’s too early to say our civilisation has peaked. This is just the situation we’re in, and the sooner we understand it the sooner we can set about dismantling the ideas and institutions that – largely out of short-term self-interest – brought it about.
This is not a problem that I imagine afflicts, say, David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. They couldn’t give a toss who is right, they just want to achieve certain things and they’re usually pretty good at it. Now I don’t want to argue that lefties should stop trying to be right in order to compete with our Bastards In Chiefs, but I think there are other reasons to not focus so strongly on being right.
1. But really, how far does it get you? Jesus was right and look what happened to him. Being right doesn’t win you any friends, or any battles, or any resources. It won’t keep you warm at night, or if it does only from the strength of the moral glow within you. For sure it won’t keep anyone else warm at night and if you care about the poor getting heating that should matter.
2. Being right is good for our egos but our egos won’t take us far. You can be right but boring, right but self-denying, right but self-righteous, right but too angry, right but inarticulate, or right but alone. What matters in each of those combinations is not the ‘right’ bit I’m afraid. The moral glow isn’t too attractive and alone you are powerless. It’s not that you shouldn’t make your arguments, but if being right makes you push away potential allies it probably isn’t all its cracked up to be.
3. It’s very difficult to escape the mental structures of Christian traditions. People’s conviction of ‘rightness’ often combines the worst aspects of religion and individualism. It relies on both absolute belief and on you self-definining yourself as different from others. The result is that many people end up belonging to a cult with one member. Even when the cult is a bit bigger than that, it becomes very difficult in our individualistic age for it to grow into a full scale proper religion, even if you consider such a thing desirable.
4. You probably don’t really believe what you do on the basis of evidence. Political ‘truths’ sometimes have a basis in the real world but the important ones establish themselves socially. They become more significant not according to their ‘rightness’ but according to how many people share them and how they share them. Most people participate in such ‘movements’ not on the basis of evidence but because it ‘feels’ right – and if you had any honesty you’d know that’s the real reason you do too.
5. All that really matters in politics is getting people to act together. Contrary to what many people think this does not mean getting them to believe the same things. It means creating and promoting temporary alignments of interest in order to generate the power necessary to change things. This can be done without ever once proving how right you are. I don’t mean you should never argue for what you believe in, only that the arguing is not the point, it’s the people you’re arguing with who are.
Anyone who isn’t immensely rich or a secret psychopath (in the Cabinet there’s a lot of overlap between these two groups) is currently mourning the Great Leap Forward in dismantling the NHS. It’s one of those political moments when we know that nothing we did worked and the bill we failed to stop will kill people and everything seems hopeless and we wonder how much worse it is going to get and how much more of the country they can sell off and pretty much every morning the news remind us that if they aren’t stopped the answer is ‘everything’.
In the midst of such doom and gloom the bright rays of sunshine in our midst will want to strike a positive note. ‘The Poll Tax was defeated after it became law’ say some. ‘We can punish them at the next election’ say others. And of course as always there are people to remind us that people fighting together can beat abusive rulers.
Well, yes. While not known for being a ray of sunshine myself, I agree with that. I also think we need to think positive – if only to stop everyone involved in fighting this government from killing themselves in a fit of depression. But I want to instead suggest that when things seem bad we should think positive, and negative, and positive, and negative, and then positive.
It could go something like this:
Positive voice: There’s got to be a way out of this mess. We have to throw ourselves into the fight again.
Negative voice: But everything we’ve done has failed. Every demo, every petition, every action was for nothing. It is clear that the government cannot be pressured because we are not their constituency. ‘Democracy’ appears to mean doing what the rich want.
Positive voice: That’s fine. That’s the situation we’re in. Relax about it. People have been in worse situations.
Negative voice: That’s your positivity? That’s the best you can do? You’re agreeing with me that we’re in the shit!
Positive voice: Stop being such a drama queen. The situation is as bad as it is. We should face it. But let’s not make it worse by getting all apocalyptic and acting like the world is going to end. Even Tories die – even if takes a stake through the heart – and not only will this particular government come to an end but this entire system of government will come to an end. All of them do. We just have to work to make sure it is a happy end for us all.
Negative voice: And what about all the people who will be made homeless, kill themselves or die for lack of treatment in the meantime?
Positive voice: Listen Mr Negativo, you’ve had your turns – count them! But since you ask, we’ll have to look after each other as best we can with what resources we can chip off the edge of Privatised Britain. Meanwhile we start working out how to dismantle this sinister political and economic apparatus over which we have so little control. To do that we have to accept that the petitions and the demos don’t do anything and the politicians couldn’t give a toss what we think – and that’s what we’ve got to work with. It’s a judicious mix of negative and positive that’s going to get us through this. Having accepted the negatives we can say ‘worse things happen at sea’ (or at least in the British Empire – we really aren’t in the worst situation anyone has ever been in) and start organising to win.
I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I was a child. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing I remember about that family trip to London. Watching the children in Plaza Murillo reminded me that if you are four or five years old, throwing out grain to attract pigeons then chasing the pigeons away, then waiting for them to come back, then chasing them again, is about as much fun as it is possible to have. You can buy pure joy for the cost of a cup of grain.
As many readers will know, some years back the authorities determined that pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square would henceforth be forbidden. The reason given for this was that pigeons are unhygienic – a fact that I cannot dispute and that no-one could dispute. Yet I wonder exactly how many people fell ill or died due to that pigeon-feeding death trap through the years. It struck me as just another of those petty, undemocratic acts of control that characterise much of the professional classes in Britain. No doubt some bureaucrat or Councillor got a real kick from effecting change on the streets of London. Perhaps they lie awake at night hugging themselves with joy at the improvement they made to the capital. At last we are free from the menace of pigeon poo!
Meanwhile there is nothing to do in Trafalgar Square, particularly for a child. It is a blank space with a tall pole and some fountains. It is a poorer place in my eyes, but it is no doubt cleaner. The full meaning of cleanliness in public spaces is interesting however, as is the presence of street vendors in Plaza Murillo, and the absence of them in Trafalgar Square. A year or so before I got to Nairobi the authorities there had determined that street selling in a large area of central Nairobi was to be forbidden. Their reason, not hidden behind the obfuscations we are so used to in Britain, was that street vendors made Nairobi look poor. Now of course most of Nairobi is poor (and the former street vendors now even poorer) but now the streets of Nairobi don’t look so poor, which is what mattered to the rich of Nairobi.
Street vendors used to be much more common in Britain, presumably in Trafalgar Square but also beyond that. The main streets of New Cross are also very empty, except for the traffic. I would even call them sterile but for the general air of grubbiness that the Council doesn’t care enough to do anything about. A couple of years ago I met in the Amersham Arms an old man who had emigrated from the Caribbean to London some fifty years ago. He told me how when he arrived in New Cross not only were there many factories between there and the river, but the streets of New Cross were thronged with street vendors.
I don’t think the street vendors evaporated by themselves any more than the pigeon-feeding did. I suspect they were gradually illegalised across the country, except for in certain authorised and lucrative (for the local authorities) locations. No one remarks on it now. We just assume that streets should be empty spaces for walking through. They are minimal public spaces, used only for connecting bits of the city together, and the squares too have gradually been sterilised. They are kept public on the condition that the public do not do anything in them.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Trafalgar Square, where local byelaws prevent all unauthorised public gatherings, over and above the measures in the Criminal Justice Act and Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act that can already turn political demonstrations into criminal acts at the drop of a hat on the wrong side of a barrier. At a recent demonstration the police finally took the control of Trafalgar Square to its logical conclusion, erecting a great steel barrier designed for crowd control in major national crises around the Square to prevent demonstrators entering it. They confiscated banners from people entering the sterile zone so as to convert them from demonstrators into respectable citizens once more.
What many people have forgotten in Britain, perhaps because many people have been comfortable in their private spaces for so long, is that public spaces are public spaces not because the authorities determine they are public, but because the public determine they are public. They are made public spaces by the public taking control of them. The current Occupy movement is a great example of people making space public whether it was considered to be so or not. This is a particularly important lesson to re-learn in the face of actual privatisation of public space – something that has been creeping across the UK for some years now.
In Peru someone told me about another example of a battle over public space, and I think this one can be an example to us all. A few years ago an idiot Mayor of Cuzco decided that he wanted to get rid of the three-hundred-year-old trees in the main plaza of Cuzco. His reason was that they were blocking tourists’ shots of the famous cathedrals around the plaza. No matter that Cuzco was already probably the biggest tourist city in South America, he was going to make it better. The only problem was that the people of Cuzco loved their trees and didn’t want them cut down. So the Mayor sent in tractors in the middle of the night when no one was around and they pulled down every one of the great old trees in the plaza. The people of Cuzco, who were convinced that it was their plaza, spontaneously gathered and stormed around the city in such a rage that the Mayor was forced to escape the city in secret and fly off to Lima. He didn’t return to the city for three months and was never re-elected.
Now I’m not saying we should form an angry mob every time some bureaucrat or politician acts as though the public space is their space but…wait, no, I think I am saying that. I want pigeon-feeding back in Trafalgar Square, and street vendors making our streets look poor and messy again (if we have poor people then we shouldn’t hide them, and anyway the streets are theirs too) so if someone wants to get a mob going I’ll definitely join in. We might even get the right to protest back while we’re at it.
In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.
A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.
An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.
Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.
The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.
The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.
Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.
It was a Saturday night in the Poachers Arms and the local screamo revival trio Meaningless Fucking Meaning were dominating the ambience of the pub from the occasional stage in the corner alcove beside the fireplace.
Regulars and visitors filled every square inch of breathable space and the bar staff moved around constantly and quickly, making eye contact only with the customer of the moment.
I took my pint of Colonel Despard and squeezed and bounced myself to the garden door. The garden, which is a different shape each time you go there, was yard-like today and filled with people. The noise of human speech, loud as a flock of gulls was, at least somewhat quieter than the rendition of Aristocratic Corpse Longings from behind me.
“I hear the neighbours have called in a complaint,” said the Blairite man standing next to me.
“It’s only for one night,” I said. “I don’t think people should never be inconvenienced by other people.”
“Maybe they’ve got kids,” said the Blairite.
“And maybe they can’t resist using the apparatus of local government to their advantage even though they bitch about the council tax 364 days of the year.”
“A bit late for political talk isn’t it?” said the Blairite (who I had not yet discovered was a Blairite).
“Nonsense,” said a woman in front of us, spinning around. “If you can’t support your political views with four pints inside you then you don’t believe them. Take me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve had six pints and I can still explain that anarchy doesn’t mean chaos but organisation of society without structural violence.”
“I’m a Blairite,” said the Blairite. “But I’ve had three pints and I can’t explain it.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “No one could. This is my first and I have no clue how you could begin to explain it.”
“But I will say,” said the Blairite, “That I don’t think it would be possible to do without the state. If only because some violent minority would get in charge.”
“Very different from now,” said the woman, her eyebrows raised.
“Touche,” said the Blairite.
“But I know what you mean,” I said to him. “I think the existence of the weapons we have now means that you need large scale organisation, if only to ensure the nutters don’t end up in charge. And you need organisation to move resources around the planet in a useful way too.”
“See, a state,” said the Blairite.
“That’s a failure of imagination,” I said, taking a sip of Despard. “Why does large scale organisation have to look like a state? It could be completely different in form, in mandate, in principles…”
“And would your hypothetical organisation mediate disputes between neighbours on noise levels?” asked the Blairite.
“Who knows?” I said. “Who cares? I can sure as hell imagine one that wouldn’t randomly start wars in Middle Eastern countries.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said the woman.
The Blairite hesitantly raised his glass, almost looking over his shoulder as though to check that his friends weren’t watching. “Me too.”
Last night I found it beside a small railway station on top of a hill. I joined another regular at the bar and ordered a Lochyloch single malt whisky to start the night off. Macy the barwoman poured me a double shot for the price of a single and when I thanked her she looked offended and informed me it wouldn’t happen again.
I got talking to the Regular about this and that, and someone he knew who had once sat on a spiked iron railing and slightly lacerated some essential parts of his digestive system and had afterwards said it was the most interesting thing to happen in his life. I could see his point, I said, ignoring the snigger at the unintentional pun. The Regular couldn’t, and claimed that boredom was a disease, especially when the world was becoming a better place.
“Is it?” I said.
“You can see the data,” he said.
“That depends partly on what you choose to measure,” I said.
“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”
“But,” I pointed out, “It’s not a good measure because billions of dollars have been poured into precisely getting that figure down. It doesn’t mean people’s lives have improved in other ways.”
“But our standard of living has improved,” said Macy.
“For some people, in some places,” I said. “But inequality increased in Britain all through the Labour years. In the meantime things having been happening that are difficult to pick up in the data.”
“Like what?” said the Regular.
“Like a shift in power to concentrations of corporations and a shift in thinking funded by those with the money. I think this means things are going to get worse for most people in most countries for a good couple of decades. What’s happening now is a new thing. It will be hard to stop.”
“What do you think we can do about it?” said the Regular. I know his views on politics. He doesn’t think it a good use of his time. With which I don’t entirely disagree. It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.
But Macy broke in, “People’s lives are full of other things. Full of the everyday things we have to do. Work, going food shopping, all that stuff we don’t get any choice about.”
“And people will do what they are motivated to do,” said the Regular.
“So we leave it to the people motivated by money to run the world?” I said.
“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.
I downed the Lochyloch – a waste of good whisky but I had to fortify myself for a boring speech – and said “But this specialisation is what dooms us. Your job is pulling the pints and changing the barrels. Their job is making millions of pounds and they fuck up the world. The compartmentalisation of roles is screwing us. In the meantime those few people have formed a very effective power bloc and the only way I can see to break it is for the many people with little power to unite against them.”
“But in the end it’s about changing the terms of the debate,” said the Regular.
Macy absent-mindedly poured me another Lochyloch as I said, “In a way, but that isn’t just a matter of persuasion. You have to exert power. You think the directors who got 50% payrises last year while our wages stayed static and lost out to inflation can be ‘persuaded’ things should be done differently? The organisation of power against those in charge and changing the terms of debate are one and the same thing.”
“I get off at 12,” said Macy. “I don’t know what to do to change anything, and I need to be in bed by 1am cos my next shift is at 11am tomorrow.”
“I don’t know what to do to change it either,” I said. “None of us do yet. We’ve got to talk about it.”
“And talk and talk and talk and talk,” said a voice to my right. I turned to see another of the Poachers Arms regulars. “God you three are boring. Can’t a man have a drink in peace? I’m going to order a pint of anthrax to kill myself in a minute if you lot don’t stop.”
I raised my glass. “To the end of tedium,” I said. “Especially mine.”
We clinked glasses.