10 years, 7 months, 14 days of war – The Armoured Personnel Carrier in the room

Most days if you read the front pages, watch the news, or even go to the FCO or Ministry of Defence website, you would barely notice that the UK is involved in a war that has been going on for over a decade. Even the body bags coming back from Afghanistan don’t seem to have a lot of impact now.

If you read the FCO explanation of the war, it is that we are ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbour terrorists who might attack the UK or our allies. This has clearly failed, and will likely be a continuing failure whether or not they manage to pull out most troops by 2014 as they promise. Since our own country intermittently harbours terrorists – admittedly uninvited except for the usual heads of state – it hardly seems like a logical explanation for the war.

Meanwhile how much do people in Britain know about the war? None of the participants keep a record of Afghans killed, though we know some small part of it from the MoD’s payments to the families of civilians killed by accident. We don’t get regular updates about where ‘our’ troops are as we would in a war that people cared about. There is no serious discussion of Afghan politics among the press or politicians. How often do you hear the economy of Afghanistan mentioned? Yet doesn’t the end of conflict rely on stable economic systems? The general public does not know where power really lies in Afghanistan or who is doing what in the country, nor is there any discussion of what policies the allies have imposed on the country through their puppets.

The war is barely noticed, in other words. It is barely taken seriously. But the problem is, once you start a war, it’s hard to stop. And once you get into a habit of fighting wars, it’s hard to stop starting them. Britain has never fallen out of the habit since the end of the colonial period, and while it has such a large military it is unlikely to. Sometimes I think people attribute far too much cunning and forethought to our politicians. I think a major reason they start wars is because power feels good. They are human too and if you hand them the command of a reasonably effective fighting force they can’t help using it.

The elephant in the room is not just the war in Afghanistan, it is the fact that ‘we’ are constantly getting involved in wars, and none of them for the last sixty years have been at all related to self-defence. We need to stop being used to being in wars. The best way to do this practically speaking is to drastically downsize the army so that the temptation to politicians is removed. When was the last time you heard anyone in the mainstream suggest that, or point out that our army is not used for self-defence? You’re as likely to hear it as you are a discussion about the US military payments to the Taliban for the protection of their supplies as they travel around the country. In other words, as likely to hear it as any serious discussion of the war and its problems at all.

What to say when people say….what a politician said

Yes, this time I think we finally got the honest one

Here are some suggested answers to someone who mentions something a politician said, including, say, an explanation of what is happening in the economy and what the politicians are doing about it. This also covers the ‘news’ (i.e. repetitions of government press statements) as put out by organisations such as the BBC:

1. Take out your phone, on which you will have earlier recorded the buzzing of an injured wasp. Play this sound to the person and say ‘I find this to have more significance than what you just said.’

2. Did you learn to trust politicians’ explanations of their actions from Tony Blair? If someone in a position of power would lie to start a war that killed several hundred thousand people and made millions homeless, do you think another might lie about, say, their reasons for cutting government budgets?

3. What is it that makes you trust that your ‘leaders’ have your best interests at heart then? Who taught you this, have they lost their job and/or home yet, and have they ever studied any, y’know, history? If you don’t believe they have your best interests at heart, why do you repeat what they say in public as though it has meaning?

4. Really, I’m interested to know why you think you ‘need’ people in these ‘leadership’ positions and why you choose to respect them against a vast weight of evidence that suggests they steal from you, line their own pockets and habitually lie to you – not about minor things but about really major things – like whether they help torture people (the British government do, it turns out).

5. Look, it is not politicians’ faults that they lie about everything they are doing. They are the mouthpieces for a fundamentally dishonest and abusive economic system that is making you poorer right now and they don’t have any choice but to lie. You do have a choice whether you believe it. I find your choice…odd.

6. Say one of your own thoughts. It will be better.

Me and the rioters: what we might have in common

In memoriam: because there are links

The premise of this post will seem silly to some people. It seems slightly silly even to me. But it is a response to a lot of crap written about rioters from both left and right. This post is about what I and the participants in the recent riots have in common. The point is not to obsess about myself. I want to do it because so many people have been talking about ‘them’, as though they are fundamentally different from ‘us’, whoever the hell ‘us’ is (I know I have more in common with an ocelot than I do with David Starkey and I barely even know what an ocelot is).

A lot of the speakers and writers have sounded very sure of themselves too, especially when demonstrating their moral superiority to rioters, whether referring to them as animals or as lumpenproletariat. It is a politician’s job to sound sure of themselves so that we don’t guess they wank over their work colleagues and aren’t sure what life is about and wake up in the night with the horrors just like we do. There’s far less justification for those outside the Parliament of Performing Seals to sound so sure of themselves.

While thinking about what I could be sure of I realised that I was more sure about what I had in common with the various rioters than what separates us. What separates us on the surface seems very obvious: I have a good and expensive education, largely paid for by the state – I was almost the last intake with LEA grants. Most of the people on the street probably don’t have that and will probably never get the chance. But then, maybe there were more people of my ‘demographic’ out there but their sense of self-preservation was stronger – perhaps they looked over the shoulder for the police more because they had more to lose. We have no idea whether the arrests reflect the people out on the streets looting.

I’m a bit older than your average rioter, but then, some of the rioters (Or people, as they are also known) arrested were around my age, so let’s not generalise. Because I look a bit more middle class and white than most of them, I suspect I get less harrassment from the police. Police harrassment was a huge factor in the riots in some areas, and those on the street attacked the police because that was what they most wanted to do. Let’s not generalise though: in some areas the focus was more on looting than on fighting the police.

Another difference between me and most of the rioters is that I have a job. That’s not true of all of the looters: the employed were there too, though no one took a straw poll of what their jobs are and whether they are better or worse than mine. Because I have a job and most of them don’t, I have more money than most of the people out on the street. I am able to buy what I need with some left over and on balance the work I do is not bad.

There is a difference between me and a few of the rioters: I have the empathy and impulse control not to take out my anger and frustration through violence against people. I would not burn down shops with homes above them. Nor, of course, would most of the rioters (people, remember?). I would want to check a retail park thoroughly for human occupants before setting light to it. I would assume that a combination of their family and peer environments has created most of the difference. But this too is a guess, and I am sure that some of the respectable middle class people who expressed such disgust at the rioting would look on rioting very differently if other respectable middle class people were doing it too. Something most people share is a shit ability to resist peer pressure.

I’m not crazily sure about a lot of the above differences. There’s a lot of guesswork in there, and different people are…different. You know? As the above issue of mob behaviour hints at, we should be very careful about assuming that what is going on in the minds of rioters and looters we haven’t met is really that different from what is going on in our minds. Middle class people can also do horrible things because everyone around them is doing it too, and they do it from their position of comfort, not from a collective outburst of pent-up frustration.

But now onto things I have in common with the people who were out on the streets last week.  There may be things I share that I can’t know since I didn’t ask people: taste in music, hatred of Michael McIntyre, a dislike of complacency, a caffeine addiction. Who knows on these counts? But it is obvious I would share some of these things and not others. To me at least it is obvious: I’m not sure it is to the baying mob calling for their blood. I suspect they see most of the ‘rioters’ as fundamentally alien to them. Who knows what horrible vices lurk in their dark, immoral hearts etc etc.

But on to the more general commonalities,  and a few of these I can feel more sure about – while remembering that all the rioters were different.  Despite a ‘middle class’ upbringing my family had neither money nor power. I have no contacts in high places. I have no powerful friends. I can’t call a journalist up and ask them to defend me. By dint of my education I may be able to phrase myself in a way more acceptable to mainstream discourse (See, I used the word discourse! Clever old me!) and yet despite this I feel that the difference in powerlessness between me and those other people on the streets is actually quite marginal. They are not ‘important’ and nor am I.

This leads to us sharing certain things whether we want to or not. The politicians do not give a fuck about us. The big media organisations do not give a fuck about us. Any campaigning organisations that attempt to ‘represent’ us get sucked up into a state machinery that removes them from us and undoes their work. As for parliament representing me, the idea just strikes me as fucking absurd. I don’t think it would help if I voted either, and I don’t think it would help the rioters. That is not the problem. The problem is that ‘representation’ is a con. It always was. It doesn’t work. I feel it and so do plenty of others.

There is something fundamental we also share in our relationships to companies and corporations. Those companies and corporations make things for me when I have the money or will to pay, but as soon as I don’t they are not interested in me. That seems obvious of course – but is it so obvious that our main economic organising units, as legally created by the state, should be founded upon pure selfishness? Whether or not you think it reasonable, you’ve got to agree that once you are not suckling at their tits any more, the relationship between us and the corporations is over. They don’t feel they owe us anything – despite occupying the physical and mental space all around us and controlling most of our resources – so we don’t feel we owe them anything. Why should we? There is nothing between us. Except the advertising we can’t escape. We owe them nothing.

This leads on to my dislike of the police. I hate the Met for being racist. I hate them for their role in keeping a lid on ‘social disorder’ that usually appears in response to organised theft from above. I hate them because I have witnessed them mobilise large numbers in defence of corporate property and not care who they had to hurt to defend what is only stuff. I hate them because their role is to freeze power relations where they are. And I don’t have any. We don’t have any.

There is something that most of us in Britain share at the moment. While I do have a job, I would like to move jobs but I can’t. There aren’t any jobs to move to. Boohoo, you say. But it stings because a few years ago it would have been easy. Someone else fucked up my economy (it was never mine, it turns out) and as a result the horizons of my present have contracted. Having got myself into a good position just before the Credit Theft (as we should rightly call it) I have not yet had my present crushed into a small box on a benefits application form, but I am aware of the loss of opportunity and aware it might get worse yet. I am aware too that the price of food and fuel and transport is going up while my income stays the same. We are all getting poorer by the day. This hasn’t reduced my standard of living yet but some people will already have reduced their food expenditure because of it. They won’t have had a choice.

One thing we share looms largest of all. I might phrase this a little differently from a lot of the people on the street last week, but we are still aware of the process we are undergoing. A particular form of governing has arisen in which the balance of powers and the triumph of certain rhetoric within public debate actively facilitates the removal of wealth from us so that it can be handed to those who already have most of it. This is an ongoing project, currently undergoing considerable intensification, with us as the target. We have lost free education, we are in the process of losing welfare, and the NHS is being sold off, one billion pounds at a time. Housing policy is deliberately tilted towards those who own much of the property already. I do not expect to have universal healthcare when I am older. I do not expect to own a home that will fund my retirement. I do not expect to have a welfare safety net worthy of the name. I do not expect to have a pension that will feed and house me decently. Nor did anyone on the streets last week. Perhaps they’re not fucking idiots after all. Not nearly as idiot as the people who think the government is saving them from the evil deficit and who blithely assume that their lives are going to stay as comfortable as they have been for the last fifty years.

My future is diminishing as my present is contracting. And I have no idea how to fight it yet.

Our future is diminishing as our present is contracting. And we have no idea how to fight it yet.

The last thing we share is this: I need a new computer. One from PC World would do just fine.

A brief summary of the political and media reaction to rioting and looting

The GOOD citizens cleaning up their community

This nation has witnessed, in shock and disbelief, the most horrible crimes upon its streets, but we are not going to talk about racist police harassment because that is not the point here; what we are going to talk about it, and we are going to talk about it good and hard, is the UNSPEAKABLE BEHAVIOUR of young people on our streets, rioting and looting before our eyes with no sense of RESPONSIBILITY. Never before have we been presented with such a FAILURE OF MORALS, obviously a consequence of FAILURES IN PARENTING – or at least, not since the Iraq War and the expenses scandal, and they all had GOOD parents so it WASN’T THE SAME.

These feral beasts, these rats in human form, have perpetrated upon UPSTANDING MEMBERS OF THE COMMUNITY atrocious outrages. These people have no morals at all, not even the white ones. They are like savages, even the white ones (see, no racism here!). They have no notion of responsibility to their communities – and it is NOT THE POINT that they have no communities. They have no notion of working hard – and it is NOT THE POINT that there are no jobs. The POINT is that they have been raised in a culture of entitlement, corrupted by benefits culture and probably rap music – even the white ones – and now they expect everything to be handed to them on a platter even though it is only Cameron and Osborne who are actually used to that. They have no politics, no morals, no desires except to TAKE TAKE TAKE, and if that sounds like what we have promoted for forty years then you are stupid to think we were ever talking to THEM.

What we need now is to crack down as hard as we can and give these kids the DISCIPLINE they have always lacked – and if they lacked love or respect that’s just tough because DISCIPLINE is what they will get now. We will teach them to RESPECT OUR AUTHORITAH! It would be absurd, insulting even, to expect US to respect THEM, dangerous little savages that they are, so we must make them respect us – it’s going to have to go one way at least if we are to DEFEND OUR CIVILISATION. And if that means calling in the army then so be it, these crazed THUGS must understand that they CANNOT GET AWAY WITH VIOLENCE and if that means bringing in plastic bullets, water cannons and the stocks to deal with these monstrous children then that is what we must do. We must find the final solution to this menace of immorality within!

This is what you get from years or socialism and liberalism and you may have looked at the people with power in media and politics and thought we are neither socialist nor liberal, and you may have noticed that riots follow in the footsteps of poverty not the footsteps of liberals, but THAT DOESN’T MEAN THE SOCIALISTS AND LIBERALS AREN’T TO BLAME. We must strip these people of benefits and homes and that will definitely stop them stealing and roaming the streets acting all threatening towards TRUE CITIZENS. And if you still see them roaming the streets, REPORT THEM TO THE POLICE, because there is NO REASON for them to be on the streets at all when they could be getting jobs that don’t exist and it is good to see the courts working on making it an OFFENCE to be in the WRONG PLACE.

Let it never be said again in Britain, this GREAT country of ours, that THUGS took what they wanted just BECAUSE THEY COULD. That is the job of the politicians stealing the NHS from you just BECAUSE THEY CAN. We must be absolutely clear that there are consequences to crime, at least if you are POOR. Certain people must TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for what they have done – not us of course. These kids show that our SOCIETY IS SICK and if there are obvious people to blame for our SICK SOCIETY it is fourteen-year-old kids who play no part in our society and aren’t we all glad we didn’t let them now? We therefore call upon the police, our fine, upstanding police, to take a FIRMER HAND with these teenage monsters who KNOW NO RESPECT. We demand that the police use ALL NECESSARY FORCE to keep them away from us and protect us from their MINDLESS BESTIALITY.

Not every being with a human face is human

– Carl Schmitt, President of the Union of National-Socialist Jurists, 1933

Jousting with your Inner Thatcher (Part 3): You must contribute to society to get the benefits of society

Things to do with a Thatcher

This is the last in a series of posts about the Inner Thatcher that hides in the dark depths of our souls. After decades of propaganda for a dog-eat-dog world the fight against the ideology of the day is not just a fight against our rulers but a fight in our own heads, like one of those scenes in a film where an actor (Johnny Depp let’s say) has an internal struggle with himself, illustrated by a montage displaying his internal conflict while he stands there looking pretty.

The idea that we should all contribute to society in order to get the benefits society offers didn’t originate with Thatcher or her acolytes of course. It’s a much older idea than that, but the era of Thatcher and Blair created an intensification of the idea that we must all contribute to society by working and paying tax. On the surface it can seem common sense, but first allow me to wonder why it appeals so much to low-tax, small-government obsessives. Well, the richer you are, the more you can contribute, but the less you need society’s help in return. So it creates a wonderful logic in which those who deserve society’s assistance don’t need it, and those who need society’s assistance don’t deserve it. In case it is not already clear to you, the purpose of this feat of logic is to lower taxes on the rich.

However my first gut reaction to this manifestation of the Inner Thatcher is not to do with justice and wealth distribution. Instead I find myself thinking: you’re talking as though we’re on the edge of starvation as a society. As though we’re some hunter-gatherer society where everyone will suffer if one or two people do nothing. The reality is the opposite: we have available to us absurd excesses of wealth that we piss up the wall on Olympic stadiums and other vanity projects. So why this pressure to force everyone to work? What is all our technology for if it doesn’t allow some of us to put our feet up sometimes? I think the answer to that is another side-effect of the contribute-or-suffer argument: pushing everyone to be available to work increases the supply of labour and thus lowers wages. This idea is a real beauty for those at the top raking in the profits isn’t it? Time to get our war hammers out and root the bastard out of our heads.

But come on now, I hear the Inner Thatcher cry, the motives of our rulers may be rotten, but surely they are right: surely it is only just that everyone contribute to society to the extent they are able? Well…perhaps. But the politicians’ arguments only hold true if we allow that sneaky Inner Thatcher to pull a trick on us. The trick is to deliberately confuse money and value – I use the word value in a broad sense here, not in the way it is sometimes used in economics. Many things have value to us, as people and as a society. Some of them have a monetary value, like washing machines, some of them have apparently arbitrary monetary value, like art, and some of them we choose not to put a monetary value on at all: a mother’s love for example.

We can go further than this and say that the monetary reward for labour is not in proportion to the usefulness of the labour. The bike you ride, assembled in China, probably strikes you as more useful than, say, high street phone shops that never have the best deals (try the internet people!). So it is clear the high street phone salesman does something a lot less useful than the chinese worker who built your bike, but you know who gets paid more.

And then there’s people working in finance. From time to time they move resources to where they are needed but the majority of what they do is parasitic upon that. They are the highest paid people in society and tend to go to great lengths to avoid paying tax. When you think about it, there appears to be very little link at all between wages and what we really need or value. The link is more generally between wages and power, but that’s another subject really. It’s true that richer people pay more taxes of course, but if that’s a tax on parasitism then we can’t just go congratulating them on contributing so much.

So what does our Inner Thatcher mean when she talks about people contributing to society? Does she take into account the value of a single mother who devotes herself to her children? Does she take into account the pleasure we can give each other through art, through conversation, through simply being there for each other? No? Does she take into account the people creating beautiful front gardens in their free time, or campaigning to improve the lives of other people? Then it’s probably time to get dirty. A firework under the hooves of her charger perhaps. A poisoned dart aimed through the slit in the helmet. If she’s not fighting clean then why should we?

But the Inner Thatcher is not yet defeated: she has more arguments in favour of making us all work until we’re wrung out. Work brings self-respect apparently. And it’s true that achievement can help build self-respect, but only some jobs achieve things, and much achievement happens outside of work. Many jobs give no sense of achievement at all and – in my experience at least – these jobs undermine the very meaning of your life, let alone your self-respect. I also can’t help thinking that you will only gain self-respect in work in which you are respected by your employers and colleagues. So this argument only works if the jobs unemployed people are being pushed into are meaningful jobs in which they will be respected. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kill your Inner Thatcher now.

But the Inner Thatcher has another defence and David Cameron is the man to sell it to us all: ‘Why should the assistance of society mean the assistance of the state?’ Says she, and he. It is a very good question. It also has a good answer. The state is the body that frames the legal entities (companies and corporations) that both produce things in our society and concentrate the profit from them among very few people. The state is therefore, until the end of those legal structures, the only body with the power to correct the wealth distortions they create. Very probably the spending mechanisms should not be centrally controlled, but within the current economic system, so beloved by Thatcher and perhaps by your Inner Thatcher too, we have no choice but for taxes to be centrally collected. You could almost say it’s a logical product of corporate power: only the creator of the corporations has the ability to ensure that a wider benefit can come from their activities.

There is one last weapon in the toolbox of your Inner Thatcher. What about those people who are genuinely just lazy spongers? What should we do about them? Well I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re a big problem to society. Really. I think they’re a big problem to their friends and relatives. To society? They’re pretty insignificant I think. They’re certainly not worth producing an entire linguistic and political apparatus in order to fight. It’s like swatting a fly with an RPG. That apparatus is there for other reasons, already mentioned.

That apparatus is also there because redistribution is a dirty word to the people in power now. Everyone gets what they deserve, according to them, and the state shouldn’t interfere in that. Everyone gets what they deserve? That’s the thinking of a child. Or a greedy, lying political operator. If you find one of the latter in your own head, be sure to challenge her to a joust, and remember not to fight fair.

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.

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

Riding bronze horses is illegitimate for sure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

Striking workers and police apply 'moral force' to each other

Oh dear, this one’s a bit long and factually based. I apologise for that.

I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.

Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.

We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.

So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.

Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.

As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.

And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.

Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.

Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.

I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.