An older favourite
Tag Archives: protest
In the first post I spoke about new entrants to political activism being inducted into certain methods and tactics. One of these methods is consensus decision-making. This can be a wonderful and positive thing and it can also be incredibly crippling. I want to see it challenged before the next surge of political activity because I am tired of seeing people tired out by it, tired of seeing groups fall apart through consensus.
First, let’s state what I have in common with the consensus decision-makers. I share a hatred of representative politics, I see the oppressive nature of majoritarian decison-making, and I understand the desire to give all those who have never had a voice the ability to speak. Consensus seems almost opposite to the ‘democracy’ we have learned to distrust. It must be right, right?
But here’s a couple of what I consider to be bare facts:
1. The meetings of Reclaim the Streets, who used consensus decision-making, eventually became utterly unmanageable. Rumour says that in fact they were ‘managed’ – by a group of core activists who met outside the main meetings to try and actually, y’know, get things done. What is certain is that the decision was eventually taken to break up the big meetings because they could no longer work. RTS never recovered from the fragmentation that followed.
2. The big consensus-based meetings at Occupy LSX achieved very little. Certainly a lot of the people who actually got things done in the camps didn’t go to them. They did, however, utterly burn out those involved in facilitating and running the meetings. Even the smaller working group meetings, also try to reach consensus, were often a painful slog.
Now you can – and I’m sure people will – argue that consensus is going to be difficult because we are not used to it. We are not used to speaking for ourselves or acting together. It’s true. Maybe that is the reason it is so hard.
But let’s start from a different point: let’s look at the technical aspects of consensus decision-making. It is trying to get away from majoritarian politics that silences the voices of those who don’t agree with the majority. One weakness of consensus decision-making is already known by those who use it: certain people who are good at speaking, used to speaking, often dominate. Okay, we can compensate for that, but let’s just note that consensus is not the polar opposite of the type of democracy we have at the moment. We still have to make a special effort to stop it being swung by the loudest voices. Often, let’s be honest, the efforts fail.
Next, we should look at what happens when people really don’t want to fall in with the consensus, often for reasons of ego, ideology or realpolitik. The majority can be dominated by the minority. Okay, this is a known problem and we can deal with it: allow a ‘stand-aside’ option when things really reach an impasse. But let’s note, once again, we still have a system where either a few people can dominate the discussion or where people end up feeling excluded by the decision.
What about – and this is a very common problem – what about if someone disagrees with the way the consensus is going, but they either don’t feel strongly enough to try to block it or they don’t feel confident speaking up? The social pressure on these people not to break the consensus is immense. In the name of banishing oppression we have created an almost irresistable social pressure to keep your mouth shut. We can try to create an attitude of openness to all disagreement but the reality is that we try and often fail. And so people don’t speak.
Now let’s consider something that consensus decision-making really struggles with: sometimes people’s views simply cannot be brought together. People are different. They see the world in different ways. There is one way of dealing with this when it comes to actions, which is for those who want to do the action to split off and do it. Fine, okay. But this divides groups and the point of consensus seems to have been lost. We are no longer engaged in a conversation, we’re off doing our own thing.
This latter evolution of consensus decision-making actually exposes an intensely individualistic streak (derived from individualistic forms of anarchism I suspect) that I think exists in all consensus decision-making: the idea that I can be part of a group while never compromising what I want. In a society that propagandises the virtues of individualism (even if frequently failing to practice them) it is already difficult for us to engage in collective action in which the action is not quite what we wanted to see. But for collective action to happen, particularly on a mass scale, we have to get used to compromises. It simply isn’t possible to get millions or even thousands of people all wanting exactly the same thing. If we are to work together, we are going to have to learn to put aside our own opinions sometimes – perhaps only temporarily, and hopefully being able to express our dissent. Of course, collective action still comes with certain ethical, political and empathic boundaries – we should not subsume ourselves to a group unthinkingly. But consensus decision-making purports to be all about collectivity and my feeling is that it can often hinder it in practice by over-emphasising the individual.
So, of what consensus decision-making was meant to achieve, how much is really left intact after all these glitches and flaws? Is it really so fantastic and radical that we should wear ourselves out trying to make it work in its current form? The only reason I can come up with that political activists have fetishised it for so long is that it looks really alternative. It has a feeling of novelty and yes, even empowerment, when you first encounter it, and thereafter it enables us to distinguish ourselves from those people out there who foolishly vote by a show of hands. Oh how we laugh at them. As we battle agonisingly through a 5-hour meeting.
If you can make consensus decision-making work for you, great, but it just isn’t so wonderful that we should kill ourselves trying to make it work. I think it probably works best in fairly small groups of people with a fairly constant membership. I think personal relationships can give a depth to consensus decision-making that almost make it live up to the radicalness ascribed to it. But I know for sure it does not work in large groups, and in groups where people are constant passing in and out. Occupy LSX for example.
I used to be in a group that encouraged dissensus rather than consensus. That is, we admitted that sometimes people have differing views and we should let the conflicts between them emerge and play out, potentially over long periods. The actual decision-making process went like this: we would make an initial attempt to reach consensus. This would enable everyone to have a chance to speak. Then, if it was apparent we didn’t have consensus, and if all the points of view had been expressed, we would vote. We used a simple majority but you could also work on perhaps a two-thirds majority of those present.
This gave us most of the advantages of consensus, while allowing us to be more honest with each other – we never had to be terrified of breaking the consensus and accidentally extending a meeting already at 3 hours to 5 hours. It also – and this is an important point – worked. By the way, I keep mentioning the length of meetings. That’s because it matters. If your meetings are too long, people will stop going. Meetings are always, however we try to lighten them with good friendships and cake, going to be something of a necessary evil. If your meetings regularly last longer than two hours you’re probably doing it wrong. ‘Wrong’ in the sense that your attempts at organising will probably fail. Most people just can’t take that level of boredom. If you can, good on you. But you will be the remnant who end up pushing decisions when others are so tired of the meeting they’ll just shut up in order to end it. And how democratic is that?
There are other methods of organising directly democratically. Nested councils in which the councils at the bottom choose a spokesperson to go to the next level council. The morbid fear of representation among some activists often prevents this happening, though it has appeared in the form of a ‘spokes council’ from time to time. The key thing is to view the spokesperson not as a representative but as a delegate who can be overruled from below at any time. This system too will have disadvantages, but since it is the one the Spanish CNT – the biggest and most success horizontal organisation I know of – uses, we know that it does work to some extent. Unlike consensus decision-making in big groups of people. Which – did I mention this? – doesn’t usually work (there are exceptions to this, I know, though I think most of them come from more communal societies than ours where people start from a position of less divergent opinions).
I understand that representation doesn’t work. I understand that majority voting alone is oppressive. I just think that consensus decision-making has equal and sometimes worse problems. We need to re-think the virtues of consensus and re-think how we organise. Talking to each other properly about our sitation and our viewpoints is a wonderful thing, but it does pall after a few dozen hours of meetings, and then it would be great if we could go out and, y’know, do stuff. In particular, in line with Part 1 of this Debrief, I think that we need to build large-scale local and national organisations (international too). We simply won’t do that with consensus decision-making.
If we want our small convergences to be a microcosm of larger-scale change, we should think about changing the way we make decisions even when we do have a small enough group to make consensus work. Whatever methods we use, we need to bear in mind the need to create forms of power strong enough, resilient enough, long-term enough, to challenge the political and economic institutions that dominate our lives. That isn’t easy. If we get stuck on one form of organising with a mixed track record at best, it will be even harder.
Sparked by a recent conversation I have decided to finally get around to an OccupyLSX debrief that I wish I had read elsewhere. This is Part 1 of 2, and they are the lessons I personally see in Occupy LSX, not some outline of what ‘really’ happened or an attempt to shut down other debates. If they seem a bit critical, it is only from a position of wanting future actions to be better than the actions we have seen so far.
Politics in the rich Western countries still lives in the shadow of 1968, and when it comes to the rhetoric and tactics of ‘radical’ political activists, the shadow of the situationists in particular. I can understand why: the situationists are cool. They were cool at the time and they are still great to read.
“People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth”
― Raoul Vaneigem
Cool huh? Hakim Bey, a successor to the situationsts, wrote things with titles like “Against the Reproduction of Death,” which is way better than any title by George Monbiot. He also wrote about the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a joyous space of liberation created among the hostile forces of the world. He said this about it: “Despite its synthesizing force for my own thinking, however, I don’t intend the TAZ to be taken as more than an essay (“attempt”), a suggestion, almost a poetic fancy. Despite the occasional Ranterish enthusiasm of my language I am not trying to construct political dogma.”
Which is great. I just wish people took him at his word there. His writings on TAZs are very inspiring in places but there is one problem: there is a constant, gaping inability to unite the joyous moments of liberation in a TAZ with long term liberation. He flits between saying the TAZ can only exist for a moment, and saying it is all we can expect in the face of the power of the state, to apparently talking about it as a long term tactic. The term Permanent Autonomous Zone appeared later, but if you’re looking for a real way to bridge the gulf between moments of liberation and a liberated society Hakim Bey will never provide it.
This shouldn’t surprise us so much. Peter Lamborn Wilson, as his parents knew him, is somewhat mystically inclined and has probably spent too much time at the knees of Sufi and Hindu masters to focus properly on the nitty-gritty of long-term organising. Some of his writing definitely projects the TAZ as something almost mystical, and the step between the TAZ and a liberated society is as obscured as you would expect of a mystic. I’ve nothing against mysticism per se. If all we ever get from a Temporary Autonomous Zone is a Temporary Autonomous Zone we shouldn’t blame Wilson but ourselves for taking him too seriously. And you know who else never provided a bridge between moments of liberation and a transformed society? Most of the rest of the situationists whose tactics greatly influence activism to this day, even amongst those who’ve never read them. They grappled with it to vary degrees but their tactics never evolved to create long term liberation.
That’s the theoretical stuff, and I know autonomous zones appear without participants ever knowing about the idea of the TAZ, so the point here is not to have a purely theoretical debate. Here’s the practical stuff that led me to go on about this: I’ve now seen two (2) surges of political activism, both of which brought lots of new people into unmediated anti-establishment politics for the first time. The first was about ten years ago in the form of the anti-capitalist, alter-globalisation [insert preferred name here] movement. The second was a mixture of student activity and Occupy (there was also anti-cuts activity going on around the country but my experience of this was that it was mostly seasoned activists and established groups).
As new people come into political activism they are inducted into particular ways of doing things by older activists, much of it derived (possibly unknown to both pupils and teachers) from the activists and writers of 1968 and from their descendants. One of the results of this is that we get some fantastic (and that’s not sarcastic – I really do like them) situationist-inspired action and beautiful Temporary Autonomous Zones in the form of occupations – of streets, squares, classrooms, libraries – and what happens then? Well, not much. They end. Nothing long-term comes out of them. If anything, as Occupy LSX progressed it became less, not more likely that something long-term would come out of it. Momentum was lost to the needs of maintaining the space and keeping together a bunch of people so diverse in views that it became a weakness as well as a strength.
It is important to emphasise that the maintenance of these spaces sucks up a huge amount of energy. It is obvious why: you are trying to hold back the forces of society and economics around you in every moment. These spaces are by their nature intense and people happily throw themselves into the task of keeping them alive. And then they burn out. Because it isn’t sustainable. You can’t defend against the police and bailiffs forever. You can’t feed and clothe the homeless, try to cure all the ills of capitalism while plotting the downfall of capitalism, for very long. People burn out really quite quickly, and then what?
Meanwhile there are all those people with full time jobs or caring roles who simply cannot offer the level of energy necessary to begin with. What about them? Can they not be part of our revolution? People often talk about these spaces as a microcosm of a future liberated world, yet this microcosm appears not to include people who have major duties besides politics. That doesn’t even sound like a great future world to me. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hanging around with political geeks like myself.
It was difficult to discern anything long term that came out of the anti-capitalist movement – some writings and relationships aside – and it is difficult now to discern anything long-term that has come from Occupy or from the surge in student activity. Sure, some friendships were made, some networks formed or strengthened – and who knows what might come of that? – but mostly the autonomous zones collapsed and that was that. This is really sad. But I think the saddest thing is that if people don’t talk about this and try to think of different ways of acting – possibly not involving the 68 crew and Peter Lamborn Wilson – then I think the same thing will happen again next time.
I may have sounded a bit mean to the situationists so far, but now I’m going to be even meaner. This is so mean that I’m going to have to whisper it to you: the sixties revolution failed. We should probably stop obsessing over the literature and tactics of failed revolutionaries and get on with writing and doing our own shit. Sure it’s mean, but at some point surely we have to think that what is really radical is creating change. We haven’t done it yet so we need to come up with some new ideas and new strategies, not get hung up on ideas framed as ‘radical’ but with proven inability to translate into long-term liberatory action.
In particular we need to think about long-term organising, substantial new networks, permanent organisations. We should think about large-scale membership organisations again, which in the form of trade unions have achieved much over time (Not that I am suggesting unions are the only worthwhile form, on the contrary I think we absolutely have to organise beyond as well as in the workplace right now). We should think about internet-enabled networks with nodes in the real world. We should think about how to resource campaigns – skipping food and benefit gigs are great but they are not practical across a large-scale movement.
Above all, we need to stop putting so much energy into things that are manifestly temporary. If we don’t shift our energies into more permanent tactics then I fear the next surge of political activity will give us the same results as this one: memories of a few glorious moments together, and a few individual transformations, amidst banditry and exploitation by those in power, entirely uninterrupted by our moments of autonomy.
Many people who dislike current political and economic institutions have a tendency to decide they know the solution to the problem. In the past I have also tried to work out the real way to bring change, the essence of true radicalism.
The alternative to ‘real radicalism’ seemed to me to be the ‘pragmatism’ of people whose politics appeared terminally compromised by, for instance, their acceptance of roles within certain institutions.
Here I want to make a plea for neither ‘idealism’ nor ‘pragmatism’, but for something different. We should recognise that there exists no ‘real radicalism’, or if it does exist we can’t know it for sure until after the fact of radical change. But once we accept that we don’t know all the answers we shouldn’t jump towards ‘pragmatism’: the pragmatists also think they know the real route to change. They don’t really know either.
I understand the argument that once the structure of society is understood it seems necessary to break it entirely. And I understand the argument that working within acceptable political paths brings certain types of change more quickly. I try to bracket both these lines of thinking, accepting both and not mistaking either for ‘truth’.
Instead of choosing one or the other we should live on our feet. Rather than resolving contradictions between different methods we should actively seek to keep the tensions alive – because at this point who really knows from which direction change will come? Rather than plotting the ‘true’ path to change we should accept diversity of efforts and reject the idea that we – or anyone else – have found the ‘right’ way forward.
There are always moments when people commit to one particular method of change in order to create the critical mass necessary. But when that moment comes it will likely emerge organically, not because it is the ‘right’ way. In the meantime, even if feels a bit uncomfortable sometimes, let’s try to sustain tensions:
1. Between positive or negative politics. Should we unite around what we hate or what we agree on? Yes.
2. Between working inside or outside institutions. Should we use existing institutions to bring change or ignore them in favour of building our own social models? Yes.
3. Between voting or not voting, engaging in current political games or not. Should we take part in a discredited political system or try to bring about its downfall? Yes.
4. Between confrontation and building bridges. Should we seek to bring conflicts in society out into the open or try to unite people of disparate interests? Yes.
5. Between revolution or reform. Should we try to change everything or try to create incremental improvements in people’s lives? Yes.
The difficulty of adopting this kind of thinking is that you can be attacked from both sides. The moderates will pick on your ‘radicalism’, the radicals will pick on your ‘reformism’. Since none of them have – in my lifetime at least – brought about a better world, I try not to take any of the critics too seriously.
Progress is wonderful! The Shard now looms above London like a symbol of our might. Admittedly it is a symbol of Qatari ruling elite might but it is like a symbol of our might. We are at the top of our game – or someone is – and the view is just amazing!
The party marches on, and we should be so proud of our moving fiesta because we pick our leaders. Not like those savages in…Qatar or China or wherever. We pick our leaders from among those people at the back of the march, driving us on with whips and Tazers, because we know they know the way. They want the same things as the leaders of…Qatar, or China or wherever, which seems odd, but look! We can swap them round! Not like those countries! It is great! The fact they are all the same – and all the same around the world – just proves democracy works! They all take us in the One Direction so that just proves they are right and we all want the same things. We’re all right, we’re alright, and the party will never die – that’s what the Olympics proves: we might be down but we’re not out!!!
I’ll tell you where could do with a party like ours. I’ll tell you who needs a reviving Olympic tonic. Greece! That’s who! Look at them! What’s that you say? Oh sure they’ve had the Olympics but that was thousands of years ago wan’t it? Now they’re so backward! They are finally being marched forward, in the One Direction. It will be good for them, this discovery that they are expendable. It will teach them to put up with the low wages their country needs.
And we need it too! Remember! We must compete with the far east! In wages too! It’s true! No one told us this when we outsourced half our economies but it put us on a one way street to wage competition with China and India. And look, if there’s one thing Greece teaches us, it’s that if we don’t allow ourselves to go down this path we too will be slaughtered like diseased cattle and abandoned by the side of the road. It’s amazing that we can vote and amazing that the joys and liberties of the free market means it makes no difference any more – if your leader does the wrong thing a technocrat can be found! Perhaps we should lose our bank holidays, say our technocrats in waiting. We have been warned! We march onwards! And we party! Towers! Missiles! Stadiums!
This party is who we are people!! We must hate those who try to stop it! We must hate those angry and desperate enough to STOP ROWING RACES!! People trained hard for that party moment!! How dare he interrupt the march!! We can’t see the corpses from here so what’s all the fuss about! I’ll worry when the smell of death hits me as I step out the front door thank you very much! The Olympics is coming and if any killjoy gets in the way our rage will be IMMENSE!! March! Party! Onwards! Prizes will be won!!!*
*But not by us
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.
It is therefore a great pleasure to see this week that the government has shelved ‘indefinitely’ a bill to further marketise education, that would have introduced purely private elite universities similar to the US. It is not just a great pleasure, it is a victory, because it appears that the government did not have the stomach for the fight.
Tuition fees rose, despite the protests, despite the strikes, despite the million column inches, and sometimes it felt like we were doing it all for nothing. But this is not nothing. This is something. The government is scared of another fight. I, we, helped make them scared. It is difficult in the middle of a fight, when everything seems to be going against you, to feel you are achieving anything. But even if we don’t win the battles we want to, our resistance can and does win other battles.
It is true that it is a small victory in the grand scheme of things. It is true that many tasks remain, including the public trouncing of the philosophy of marketisation – the idea that those who can pay most should get most and those who have already won should win more – and the undoing of the social damage it has done.
But this is a good day for those involved in the fight. We should feel happy about the grief we have inflicted on the government. And as we gear up for more fights over education and the NHS, we should remember the words of Arnie before he went all governor on us: If it bleeds, we can kill it.
Why is the camp outside St Paul’s not the stock exchange?
St Paul’s was the meeting place to go to Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is. They are right next to each other. The police blocked the way into the square with solid lines of officers and police horses. There was some discussion about where to go next but in the end the decision was made for us when the police encircled us and prevented us from moving for some hours. So a combination of powerlessness in the face of police force and pragmatism (not wanting to get beaten with a truncheon) led to the St Paul’s site.
Why don’t the protesters move now? You’ve caused a lot of bother to the clergy.
Yeeees. But also no. The clergy caused trouble for themselves when some said one thing (stay) and some said another (go). If you want to work out why this rift became so troublesome, it was possibly caused by the contradiction between wanting to throw the moneylenders out of the temple, and having the following corporate sponsors:
Lloyds Banking Group
Fidelity Investment Managers
CMS Cameron McKenna
London Stock Exchange
Sarasin & Partners
Jesus? Or money? Jesus or money? Jesus or money? It has been tough for them but I’m not overly sympathetic. If you are, see the benefits of being a corporate sponsor of St Paul’s here.
Why isn’t the protest at Canary Wharf where most of the big banks are?
Canary Wharf is private land. All of it. Even the roads. It has a large jumped-up security team who act like a private police force and the real police respond to their requests very quickly due to potential ‘targets’ in the area. A camp would last all of half an hour. It is disgraceful that such a large part of London is privately controlled but that is a different battle.
Why don’t they all get jobs?
There aren’t any. That’s part of the reason people are pissed off. Try to keep up. One reason there aren’t enough jobs is because the government is deliberately contracting large parts of the economy in near-recession conditions. Not sensible folks. Cutting the public sector to strengthen the private sector is like cutting off one leg to make the other stronger. Silly. Unless your ultimate goal is less taxes for the rich of course…
Why do they have macbooks/drink starbucks/use phones if they are anti-capitalist?
Because they’re all hypocrites of course. Or are they? Two points here. Firstly, some of the occupiers are anti-capitalist and some simply want reform. Secondly: withdrawing completely from a system to live in a cave would leave you very ill-equipped to change it. Most anti-capitalists are not anti-technology, they are just against the organisational and financial forms used to produce the technology. There is a weird lack of logic to saying they should not use particular products of those financing systems. Perhaps they should also not eat, or ride a bike, or live in a house – why pick on Starbucks? The whole system works more or less the same way. You can try to change it or you can live in a cave and eat bats but it would be difficult to do both.
Are you all jobless layabouts?
Some have jobs, some don’t. It’s a bit funny accusing people who are working hard for nothing, keeping a 24-hour camp moving, of being lazy. I know that some people have pulled 24 hour shifts in the kitchens and in other roles. Go and accuse them of being lazy – though be aware that tiredness can reduce impulse control.
The camp seems to have some well weird people turning up. Why not get rid of them so you have more credibility?
Your city is run by Boris Johnson and you’re taking the high ground on people being weird? Anyway, one person’s weird is another person’s radical, and yes, there probably are a few really bonkers people about, but anyone can turn up, and what would it take to get rid of them? Stalinist purges? No thanks.
What are the demands of the occupation? For god’s sake MAKE SOME DEMANDS! No-one knows what you WANT!
People are fighting against a system of privilege and corruption that has developed over several centuries. Learning how to undo that to build an economy that works for everyone will take time. Decades and more. Also, any group of people who have just met (like the occupiers) have to take some time to work out what they can do collectively. It is a slow process. Weeks. Months. Years.
There are some simple things that can be done while the long fight goes on (Robin Hood Tax for example) and many occupiers I’ve met support some of these things. But there are no quick fixes for the fact that our lives are run by unaccountable forces both inside and outside government.
Why not go home now you’ve made your point?
Not everyone is there to make a point. Some people are there to try to discover what they can do with others. Or because they want a place to speak where people will listen, perhaps for the first time, despite living in a ‘democracy’ (you feeling represented there? me neither).
And perhaps, yes perhaps some people want to be awkward. Why not? They’ve just had their economy destroyed by a finance industry that lobbied corrupt governments to let them do whatever they liked. Let’s be awkward about it. I’m in an awkward mood myself. Being awkward seems a good start at this point. It seems a lot better than rolling over and taking it.
The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.
Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.
I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.
This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.
My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.
“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”
“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”
“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”
“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.
“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”
He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.
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.
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.