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"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?" - Junge Linke

Junge Linke on elections, democracy and the state under capitalism.

… “Oh yes ”, said Ford with a shrug, “of course”. “But”, said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?” “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard, ” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”1

1. The modern democratic state2 exercises considerable power over its subjects. There is hardly any aspect of life for which no law exists. There are laws regarding the length of the working day; the number of breaks during that day; mandatory school education; how much time a pub must grant a patron for finishing her drink after the bar has closed; how a landlord has to keep and secure his tenant’s deposit; what happens if someone accidentally gets injured during a football game; when a newspaper can be banned from printing a story; what may or may not be said in public; whether sex shops may put their goods on display; the illegality of dying in the Houses of Parliament; how much toxic waste is tolerable and how much punishment will be meted out if one should break its law. This state demands to decide on matters of life and death of its citizens – the latter mainly in times of war. In all this, the state allows no other power over its subjects, it insists on having the monopoly on violence. In short, this state leaves almost nothing unregulated and considers almost nothing outside of its responsibility; it demands control. It demands to be the ultimate force in society.

2. This demand stands in stark contrast to the mantra of modern democracies that ‘the people’ have sovereignty.3 It is indeed true that every three to five years the state asks its subjects to cast a vote. In particular, the state asks its subjects, collectivised as ‘the people’, which representatives should be given the power to pass laws. Indirectly, the state – directed by the government – even asks who should form the next government. It is worth appreciating for a moment that this vote does not stop at some meagre local council or other lower ranks of the state. Instead, this vote in all seriousness, actuality and full colour does decide who sits in parliament4 and ultimately who will form the government. The majority of voters – restricted by some regulations 5 – decide whowill sit in that parliament which decides how long they have to finish their beer after closing and do choose who will form that very government which decides over life and death. This decision, the people make.

3. However, taking a closer look at such an election, it becomes apparent that the voting regime or decision-making process does not grant voters all that much power at all.

  • Political parties6 present their political programmes to the voters. It is not the other way around7 , where for instance people might tell the parties what they are most concerned about in everyday life and these parties could then propose their fixes to these issues.
  • All party programmes are always complete packages of policies. A voter cannot cherry pick certain issues, goals, demands and vote for those only.
  • There is no way on the ballot to tell a party why one voted for it; which points matter, which do not and which ones the voter disagrees with.
  • Neither is there a way of giving only conditional support.
  • After the election, MPs are not even liable for following their own programmes and promises, let alone the wishes of those who elected them.
  • Fundamental conditions of life such as the economic or political system8 are not balloted at all.

The act of election is a rather restricted act where no substantial content is actually decided. Understanding this, alleging that voters yield real souvereignty (meaning that they are in control) is plainly wrong. Instead, it makes sense to say that through the act of election parliament and government become sovereign, their power is legitimised. On the one hand, they are not bound to any mandate by the voters. On the other hand, they can and do refer to the voters’ will while pursuing their agenda. If protest and unrest spreads against their policies they do not have to bow to the pressure from the streets. Instead they can point to the fact that they were elected by ‘the people’. A democratic election legitimises the power of the government.

4. The outcome of an election is a powerful government, measured by all the things it can decide. However, its time in office is potentially ended by the next election. The institution of regular elections expresses and institutionalises a certain mistrust in the government. It expresses a certain lack of confidence that a government once in power will actually pursue the general public interest instead of mainly its own private interests. But what does general public interest mean in a society based on competition? It can hardly mean the fulfilment of individual interests of every citizen since these interests are usually in opposition. A tenant wants to live cheaply, a landlord wants high rent; a toothbrush factory wants cheap labour and cheap energy, workers want ‘fair wages’ and the electricity supplier ‘cost-covering prices’. The only thing all competitors, in their role as competitors, share is their interest in being able to take part in competition itself; economically they want to compete, because they have to. The state makes sure of this through its guarantee of private property. First of all, everyone is excluded from the things they need. On the other hand, since all material wealth, including that stuff others need, is in the hands of private owners; one’s own property becomes the means to get access to someone else’s property; that is, through the act of exchange. Thus, private property is both the exclusion from material wealth and the only means to overcome this exclusion, making everybody dependent on it. This founds an interest in the conditions of competition, the only means available to the subjects.

In the name of this general public interest all private interests must be restricted. This applies to politicians as well. A corrupt politician is elected despite him being corrupt, not because of it. Being crooked is an obstacle in the proper carrying out of a job which is about the facilitation of the general public interest. The ideal politician is one who does not think about himself9 , his friends or colleagues. The ideal politician is of an exemplary moral character. It is a rather frightening idea in the heads of bourgeois subjects that their immediate competitor might one day seize state power and use this power to further his own private agenda.

Correspondingly, all big parties express their will to further the general public interest and stress that in their respective programmes. No successful party in the UK only caters to the special interests of a particular social group. The times of a workers’ party are over. New Labour’s victory in 1997 was an expression of this opening and now the Conservatives are aiming for the same broad appeal. Even fringe left-wing parties like Respect dow to the dictates of ‘realism’ and respect private property through their demands of “taxation on the big corporations and the wealthy to fund public services ”10 – a demand which requires big corporations to make the kind of profits which can then be taxed. A taxation that was too aggressive would threaten the government’s revenue and thus its means to fund the NHS, pensions and decent housing.

The common feature of all these political parties is their affirmation of the basic principles of the capitalist economy11 . All democratic parties want the democratic state which uses and fosters the accumulation of capital as the basis of its power. They even seek to steer it.

5. It is a prerequisite for the legitimacy of any government that both the voters and defeated parties accept its victory after the election. This might seem self-evident at first and thus this fact is only recognised when it is violated. For example, the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s first term in office was somewhat tattered after a series of re-countings and bans of re-countings of votes in the state of Florida. For another more severe example we can turn to Iran where the opposition claims to have won the election despite the official announcement to the contrary. These disagreements can mark the transition into civil war.

On the other hand, a successful election draws the people and the state together. This is necessary because during session the opposition between citizens and the government is plainly visible and reinforced: The government’s job is to restrict or negate the interests of its citizens in the general public interest. The pledge of allegiance to the state enacted by voting maintains and makes feasible the contradiction between compulsion and consent12 . Through the choice of the personnel of domination, domination itself does not appear as such but instead is recognised as a service provided to the voters.

6. A successful election accomplishes more than a formal consent to domination. It is important for the overall working of the state that the ideology of the voters matches the programmes of the government to some extent. A fundamental opposition between citizenry and state could undermine the governments power to implement its schemes and programmes, it could threaten the basis on which both the legitimacy and the power of the government is built.

This reinforcement of ideology is partly accomplished by the political education provided during election campaigns. Running up to an election the voters are asked to leave their personal perspective behind and instead take on a bird’s eye view. While most consumers of newspapers do this on a regular basis, during the election campaigns everybody is encouraged to take on this perspective even more. The voter is introduced to and presented with the necessities of the state. Political parties present ‘inherent necessities’ not as their own deed but as a ‘reality’ which confronts themselves just as well: in times of crisis banks must be stabilised, growth must be restarted, the deficit may not grow ‘too large’, the health care system must be reformed etc. Anyone from welfare recipient to banker is encouraged to not worry about the next paycheck for a while. But instead everybody is encouraged to ponder how to decrease the deficit and other such things. Of course, it is relatively unlikely that any creative idea from the minds of an ordinary voter would ever be implemented, but a likely outcome is at least an agreement on what the pressing issues are.

Indeed, a managing of these necessities is a prerequisite for everyone beling able to realise their own private interests such as receiving the next paycheck. Since there are many mutually exclusive interests, each voter is encouraged to consider ‘fair’ solutions to these problems. A good politician – one of the kind voters put in office – has to continously balance interests and carefully restrict private interests in the name of the general public interest.

7. Even for the disgruntled there are political parties available to vote for: the oppositon.

On the one hand, they blame the government for not exercising its control properly. They deny the expertise of the current government to tackle the issues facing the nation. Usually, this remains somewhat vague in order to attract diffuse discontent. The Tories follow this strategy at the moment.
On the other hand, the criticise the government for its policies and claims that with their own alternative programmes the problems they have identified would not occur. Left-wing parties for instance claim that mass poverty was unnecessary and within capitalism the problem could be solved quickly once they were in power and could tax the rich appropriately. Thus poverty was not a necessity of the mode of production which the state fosters for its own sake. Instead poverty was an unnecessary result of the wrong people in management.

Democratic opposition directs critique to its decent content. That is, a content which is supportive of the state. It is an invitation to the voter to solve her problem with politics by replacing the politicians. The common anti-critical statement ‘if you do not vote you cannot complain’ expresses this demand for subordination rather clearly. According to this it is beyond consideration that the election itself might be subject to critique.

8. A successful election, both with respect to its formal act and its political content, requires voters who worry about such things. A person who considers an election to be an adequate expression of his political actions wants a strong government which is capable of acting, regardless of how it is composed and what it does. That person considers the existence of a government as a prerequisite for carrying out his own interests. That voter accepts the outcome of an election, even if it does not correspond to his choice. He would accept David Cameron as ‘our prime minister’ even if he did not vote for him. Such persons more often than not accept austerity measures imposed by a government even though it worsens their livelihood.

This ideology which wants ‘effective governance’ meets its adequate match in the public obsession with the character of politicians. If no question of substance is actually left to the voter, when all she can choose is a candidate who is not liable, when someone is to be elected to facilitate the general public interest in a society based on competition, when the outcome of this election must be a strong government, then the question of what kind of person gets elected does indeed become relevant. Thus, the outcry about the apolitical voters who care more about gossip than proper politics is unfounded. This interest in politics is the kind of interest this political system asks from its subjects.

Originally published at www.junge-linke.org

  • 1. Douglas Adams. So long, and thanks for all the fish. Chapter 36. 1984
  • 2. Arguing about democratic elections and illustrating these arguments with a country which is quite explicit about not being a genuine democracy is a bit difficult. For clarity of presentation, we will develop the main arguments with respect to straight-forward democracies in the main text and discuss differences in the UK in footnotes. Also, the constitution in the UK is uncodified which complicates the presentation to some extent. The resulting differences are not that fundamental in practice, but are noteworthy when talking about the legal ideal.
  • 3. In the UK the Queen or King – not ‘the people’ – has sovereignty.
  • 4. Only the House of Commons in the UK. The House of Lords is appointed.
  • 5. County borders, electoral systems, minimum percentage hurdles …
  • 6. Some countries have political systems which put more emphasis on political parties while others put more emphasis on the individual candidates. In Germany political parties are provided with special care and protection. For example, only the Supreme Court can ban a party. It did exercise this right twice. First, by banning a party for continuation of the nation-socialist NSDAP and second in 1956 when the Communist Party was banned. This ban in principle includes all communist parties founded afterwards. However, since the 1970s communist parties were allowed to exist again in order to improve relations with the East.
  • 7. To avoid a misunderstanding: pointing out how something would be the other way around does not imply partiality.
  • 8. The absoluteness of the political system is expressed in the statement that “no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change” (http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/laws/sovereignty.cfm). Certainly, any law which would strip the right from the parliament to make such laws on behalf of ‘the people’ would violate this statement. Democracy itself is not decided on by a ballot.
  • 9. The outrage about a bunch of MPs claiming expenses on second and third homes is a good illustration of this ideal. For the budget these claims do not matter much, what caused the outrage was the lack of standards and ‘character’ exercised by these ‘role models’.
  • 10. Respect Manifesto (http://www.therespectparty.net/manifesto.php)
  • 11. The Socialist Party of Great Britian is a notable exception to this rule. The SPGB “claims that there can be no state in a socialist society” and “that socialism will, and must, be a wageless, moneyless, worldwide society of common (not state) ownership”. The SPGB “seeks election to facilitate the elimination of capitalism by the -1,utf-8;q=0.7,*;q=0.7
    Keep-Ali to govern capitalism.” (http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/differences.html) Leaving aside for the moment of whether this is a good strategy or not, it is clear from their party programme that the SPGB does not affirm the basic principles of the capitalist economy.
  • 12. “When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It’s a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.” – John Kenneth Galbraith, The Age of Uncertainty (1977), Ch. 12, p. 330

Against Kamikaze Capitalism: Oil, Climate Change and the French refinery blockades

Anarchist David Graeber discusses the current ecological crisis and workers' direct action.

On Saturday, 16th October 2010, some 500 activists gathered at convergence points across London, knowing only that they were about to embark on a direct action called Crude Awakening, aimed against the ecological devastation of the global oil industry, but with no clear idea of what they were about to do. The plan was quite a clever one. Organizers had dropped hints they were intending to hit targets in London itself, but instead, participants—who had been told only to bring full-charged metro cards, lunch, and outdoor clothing—were led in brigades to a commuter train for Essex. At one stop, bags full of white chemical jumpsuits marked with skeletons and dollars, gear, and lock-boxes mysteriously appeared; shortly thereafter, hastily appointed spokespeople in each carriage received word of the day’s real plan: to blockade the access road to the giant Coryton refinery near Stanford-le-Hope – the road over which 80% of all oil consumed in London flows. An affinity group of about a dozen women were already locked down to vans near the refinery’s gate and had turned back several tankers; we were going to make it impossible for the police to overwhelm and arrest them.

It was an ingenious feint, and brilliantly effective. Before long we were streaming across fields carrying thirteen giant bamboo tripods, confused metropolitan police in tow. Hastily assembled squads of local cops first seemed intent on provoking a violent confrontation—seizing one of our tripods, attempting to break our lines when we began to set them up on the highway—but the moment it became clear that we were not going to yield, and batons would have to be employed, someone must have given an order to pull back. We can only speculate about what mysterious algorithm the higher-ups apply in such situations like that —our numbers, their numbers, the danger of embarrassing publicity, the larger political climate—but the result was to hand us the field; our tripods stood, a relief party backed up the original lockdown; and no further tankers moved over the access road—a road that on an average day carries some seven hundred tankers, hauling 375,000 gallons of oil—for the next five hours. Instead, the access road became a party: with music, clowns, footballs, local kids on bicycles, a chorus line of Victorian zombie stilt-dancers, yarn webs, chalk poems, periodic little spokescouncils—mainly, to decide at exactly what point we would declare victory and leave.

It was nice to win one for a change. Facing a world where security forces—from Minneapolis to Strasbourg—seem to have settled on an intentional strategy of trying to ensure, as a matter of principle, that no activist should ever leave the field of a major confrontation with a sense of elation or accomplishment (and often, that as many as possible should leave profoundly traumatized), a clear tactical victory is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, there was a certain ominous feel to the whole affair: one which made the overall aesthetic, with its mad scientist frocks and animated corpses, oddly appropriate.

The Coryton blockade was inspired by a call from indigenous groups in South America, tied to the Climate Justice Action network, a new global network created in the lead-up to the actions in Copenhagen in December 2009—for a kind of anti-Columbus day, in honor and defense of the earth. Yet it was carried out in the shadow of a much-anticipated announcement, on the 20th, four days later, of savage Tory cuts to the tattered remains of the British welfare state, from benefits to education, threatening to throw hundreds of thousands into unemployment, and thousands already unemployed into destitution—the largest such cuts since before the Great Depression. The great question on everyone’s mind was, would there be a cataclysmic reaction? Even worse, was there any possibility there might not be? In France it had already begun. French Climate Camp had long been planning a similar blockade at the Total refinery across the channel in Le Havre; when they arrived on the 16th, they discovered the refinery already occupied by its workers as part of a nationwide pension dispute that had already shut down 16 of Frances 17 oil refineries. The police reaction was revealing. As soon as the environmental activists appeared, the police leapt into action, forcing the strikers back into the refinery and establishing a cordon in an effort to ensure that under no conditions should the activists be able to break through and speak with the petroleum workers (after hours of efforts, a few, on bicycles, did eventually manage to break through.)

“Environmental justice won’t happen without social justice,” remarked one of the French Climate Campers afterwards. “Those who exploit workers, threaten their rights, and those who are destroying the planet, are the same people.” True enough. “We need to move towards a society and energy transition and to do it cooperatively with the workers of this sector. The workers that are currently blockading their plants have a crucial power into their hands; every litre of oil that is left in the ground thanks to them helps saving human lives by preventing climate catastrophes.”

On the surface this might seem strikingly naive. Do we really expect workers in the petroleum industry to join us in a struggle to eliminate the petroleum industry? To strike for their right not to be petroleum workers? But in reality, it’s not naive at all. In fact that’s precisely what they were striking for. They were mobilizing against reforms aimed to move up their retirement age from 60 to 62—that is, for their right not to have to be petroleum workers one day longer than they had to.

Unemployment is not always a bad thing. It’s something to remember when we ponder how to avoid falling into the same old reactive trap we always do when mobilizing around jobs and industry—and thus, find ourselves attempting to save the very global work machine that’s threatening to destroy the planet. There’s a reason the police were so determined to prevent any conversation between environmentalists and strikers. As French workers have shown us repeatedly in recent years, we have allies where we might not suspect we have them.

One of the great ironies of the twentieth century is that everywhere, a politically mobilized working class—whenever they did win a modicum of political power—did so under the leadership of a bureaucratic class dedicating to a productivist ethos that most of them did not share. Back in, say, 1880, or even 1925, the chief distinction between anarchist and socialist unions was that the latter were always demanding higher wages, the former, less hours of work. The socialist leadership embraced the ideal of infinite growth and consumer utopia offered by their bourgeois enemies; they simply wished “the workers” to manage it themselves; anarchists, in contrast, wanted time in which to live, to pursue forms of value capitalists could not even dream of. Yet where did anti-capitalist revolutions happen? As we all know from the great Marx-Bakunin controversy, it was the anarchist constituencies that actually rose up: whether in Spain, Russia, China, Nicaragua, or Mozambique. Yet every time they did so, they ended up under the administration of socialist bureaucrats who embraced that ethos of productivism, that utopia of over-burdened shelves and consumer plenty, even though this was the last thing they would ever have been able to provide. The irony became that the social benefits the Soviet Union and similar regimes actually were able to provide—more time, since work discipline becomes a completely different thing when one effectively cannot be fired from one’s job—were precisely the ones they couldn’t acknowledge; it has to be referred to as “the problem of absenteeism”, standing in the way of an impossible future full of shoes and consumer electronics. But if you think about it, even here, it’s not entirely different. Trade unionists feel obliged to adopt bourgeois terms—in which productivity and labor discipline are absolute values—and act as if the freedom to lounge about on a construction sites is not a hard-won right but actually a problem. Granted, it would be much better to simply work four hours a day than do four hours worth of work in eight (and better still to strive to dissolve the distinction between work and play entirely), but surely this is better than nothing. The world needs less work.

All this is not to say that there are not plenty of working class people who are justly proud of what they make and do, just that it is the perversity of capitalism (state capitalism included) that this very desire is used against us, and we know it. As a result, the great paradox of working class life is that while working class people and working class sensibilities are responsible for almost everything of redeeming value in modern life—from shish kebab to rock’n’roll to public libraries (and honestly, do the administrative, “middle” classes ever really create anything?) they are creative precisely when they are not working—that is, in that domain of which cultural theorists so obnoxiously refer to as “consumption.” Which of course makes it possible for the administrative classes (amongst whom I count capitalists) to simultaneously dismiss their creativity, steal it, and sell it back to them.

The question is how to break the assumption that engaging in hard work—and by extension, dutifully obeying orders—is somehow an intrinsically moral enterprise. This is an idea that, admittedly, has even affected large sections of the working class. For anyone truly interested in human liberation, this is the most pernicious question. In public debate, one of the few things everyone seems to have to agree with is that only those willing to work—or even more, only those willing to submit themselves to well-nigh insane degrees of labor discipline—could possibly be morally deserving of anything—that not just work, work of the sort considered valuable by financial markets—is the only legitimate moral justification for rewards of any sort. This is not an economic argument. It’s a moral one. It’s pretty obvious that there are many circumstances where, even from the economists’ perspective, too much work and too much labor discipline is entirely counterproductive. Yet every time there is a crisis, the answer on all sides is always the same: people need to work more! There’s someone out there working less than they could be—handicapped people who are not quite as handicapped as they’re making themselves out to be, French oil workers who get to retire before their souls and bodies are entirely destroyed, art students, lazy porters, benefit cheats—and somehow, this must be what’s ruining things for everyone.

I might add that this moralistic obsession with work is very much in keeping with the spirit of neoliberalism itself, increasingly revealed, in these its latter days, as very much a moral enterprise. Or I think at this point we can even be a bit more specific. Neoliberalism has always been a form of capitalism that places political considerations ahead of economic ones. How else can we understand the fact that Neoliberals have managed to convince everyone in the world that economic growth and material prosperity are the only thing that mattered, even as, under its aegis real global growth rates collapsed, sinking to perhaps a third of what they had been under earlier, state-driven, social-welfare oriented forms of development, and huge proportions of the world’s population sank into poverty. Or that financial elites were the only people capable of measuring the value of anything, even as it propagated an economic culture so irresponsible that it allowed those elites to bring the entire financial architecture of the global economy tumbling on top of them because of their utter inability to assess the value of anything—even their own financial instruments. Once one cottons onto it, the pattern becomes unmistakable. Whenever there is a choice between the political goal of undercutting social movements—especially, by convincing everyone there is no viable alternative to the capitalist order–and actually running a viable capitalist order, neoliberalism means always choosing the first. Precarity is not really an especially effective way of organizing labor. It’s a stunningly effective way of demobilizing labor. Constantly increasing the total amount of time people are working is not very economically efficient either (even if we don’t consider the long-term ecological effects); but there’s no better way to ensure people are not thinking about alternative ways to organize society, or fighting to bring them about, than to keep them working all the time. As a result, we are left in the bizarre situation where almost no one believes that capitalism is really a viable system any more, but neither can they even begin to imagine a different one. The war against the imagination is the only one the capitalists seem to have definitively won.

It only makes sense, then, that the first reaction to the crash of 2008, which revealed the financiers so recently held up as the most brilliant economic minds in history to be utterly, disastrously inept at the one thing they were supposed to be best at— calculating value–was not, as most activists (myself included) had predicted, a rush towards Green Capitalism—that is, an economic response—but a political one. This is the real meaning of the budget cuts. Any competent economist knows what happens when you slash the budget in the middle of downturn. It can only make things worse. Such a policy only makes sense as a violent attack on anything that even looks like it might possibly provide an alternative way to think about value, from public welfare to the contemplation of art or philosophy (or at least, the contemplation of art or philosophy for any reason other than making money). For the moment, at least, most capitalists are no longer even thinking about capitalism’s long-term viability.

It is terrifying, to be sure, to understand that one is facing a potentially suicidal enemy. But at least it clarifies the situation. And yes, it is quite possible that in time, the capitalists will pick themselves up, gather their wits, stop bickering and begin to do what they always do: begin pilfering the most useful ideas from the social movements ranged against them (mutual aid, decentralization, sustainability) so as to turn them into something exploitative and horrible. In the long term, if there is to be a long term anyway, they’re pretty much going to have to. But in the meantime, we really are facing a kind of kamikaze capitalism—a capitalist order that will not hesitate to destroy itself if that’s what it takes to destroy its enemies (us). If nothing else it does help us understand what we’re fighting for: at this moment, absolutely everything.

This makes it all the more critical to figure out a way to snap the productivist bargain, if we might call it that—that it is both an ecological and a political imperative to bring about that meeting that the police in Le Havre were so determined to prevent. There are a lot of threads to be untangled here, and any number of pernicious illusions that need to be exposed. I will end with only one. What is the real relation between all that money that’s supposedly in such short supply, necessitating the slashing of budgets and abrogation of pension agreements, and the ecological devastation of our petroleum-based energy system? Aside from the obvious one: that debt is the main means of driving the global work machine, which requires the endless escalation of energy consumption in the first place. In fact, it’s quite simple. We are looking at a kind of conceptual back-flip. Oil, after all, is a limited resource. There is only so much of it. Money is not. A coin or bill is really nothing but an IOU, a promise; the only limit to how much we can produce is how much we are willing to promise one another. Yet under contemporary capitalism, we act as if it’s just the opposite. Money is treated as if it were oil, a limited resource, there’s only so much of it; the result is to give central bankers the power to enforce economic policies that demand ever more work, ever increasing production, in such a way that we end up treating oil as if it were money: as an unlimited resource, something that can be freely spent to power economic expansion, at roughly 3-5% a year, forever. The moment we come to terms with the reality, that we are not dealing with absolute constraints but merely promises, we can no longer say “but there just isn’t any money”—the real question is who owes what to whom, what sort of promises are worth keeping, which are absolute—a government’s promise to repay its creditors at a predetermined rate of interest, or the promise that it’s workers can stop working at a certain age, or our promise to future generations to leave them with a planet capable of human habitation. Suddenly the morality seems very different; and, like the French environmentalists, we discover ourselves with friends we didn’t know we had.

Blue Labour – “faith, family and dog-whistle politics.” An interview with political theorist Ed Rooksby

Shift interview Ed Rooksby on the ascendent "blue labour" faction which currently has the ear of Ed Milliband and the Labour leadership.

Republished from Shift Magazine.

We don’t usually cover party-political issues in Shift Magazine, but in the context of growing working class struggle under the Tory austerity drive we are interested in the latest move by the Labour Party to reconnect with working class and community concerns. Only that this move comes under the heading ‘Blue Labour’. Could you briefly tell us what Blue Labour is, where the idea has come from and what impact it is having?

Blue Labour is an increasingly influential faction within the Labour Party which is seeking to reorient and rearticulate the party’s ideological political position - to provide a cohesive, vote-winning ‘big idea’ for the party under Ed Miliband. It’s an attempt to reshape the post-New Labour ideological landscape of labourism in such a way that, the Blue Labour faction hope, will help the party reconnect with the large swathes of the working class electorate which have steadily drifted away from Labour.

When I say ‘faction’, however, it’s important to note that - as yet - Blue Labour seems to have very little grassroots support amongst the party’s membership - it’s very much an elite movement of Labour-affiliated academics (who should know better) and a few figures from the party hierarchy such as James Purnell and John Cruddas. There’s some irony here in that one of Blue Labour’s claims is that Labour should move away from the centralised top-down model of party organisation associated with post-war Social Democracy and become much more bottom up - and yet this is very much an elite driven attempt to reshape the party’s narrative and positioning.

The doctrine’s main driver is the academic, Maurice Glasman – now Lord Glasman. He’s a close friend and advisor to the Labour Party leader and indeed it was Ed Miliband who offered him his peerage. So Blue Labour really does have the ear of the leadership right now.

So is it a return to more traditional Labour values?

The Blue Labour approach is founded on a simple historical narrative from which its prescriptions flow. The basic story is that important strands of thinking and forms of political organisation that used to animate the British labour movement were lost after 1945 and need to be rediscovered. In a sense the party needs to go back to its historical roots. Blue Labour want the party to return to 19th century traditions of bottom-up, pluralist and democratic working class based community organising – mutuals, co-ops, friendly societies and so on. These traditions, it claims, were lost as the post-war party turned increasingly to centralised, bureaucratic, paternalist and statist methods – the policies and practices we associate with post-war social democracy. They argue that Labour also needs to reconnect with what it claims are traditional labour movement values – community, solidarity and reciprocity for example.

Few on the left would have much of a problem with those values. But Blue Labour figures also argue that the working class is fundamentally conservative. This is where the problems begin. They argue that for a fundamentally conservative working class an ethics of community and solidarity implies a defence of traditional institutions and identities such as the family, patriotism and the nation, faith and the work ethic. The Blue Labour approach is often summarised with the slogan; ‘faith, family and flag’. They also argue – and this is where it gets ugly – that defence of traditional working class community values and identities specifically implies by definition a defence of British ‘white working class’ traditions and identities. They argue that ‘mass immigration’ and ‘multiculturalism’ has been hugely destructive in terms of community cohesion and so must be resisted.

This, I think, is a very dangerous message – and it’s very troubling that this sort of thinking is, apparently, so influential within the party at the moment. We could, quite legitimately it seems to me, reword the Blue Labour slogan as ‘faith, family and dog-whistle politics’.

Then can we understand the Blue Labour programme as an attempt to shed New Labour’s neoliberal image?

This is quite an interesting question. It’s pretty clear that Blue Labour is, in many ways, an explicit rejection of New Labour and of neo-liberalism. Glasman is very critical of New Labour and its embrace of free market fundamentalism. He even criticises capitalism itself from time to time.

However, as Steve Akehurst [on compassonline.org.uk] recently argued, we should be rather sceptical about the intensity of Blue Labour’s ostensible hostility to neoliberalism. You just have to note the presence for example of the arch-Blairite James Purnell amongst the Blue Labour movers and shakers. He’s not exactly known as an ‘Old-Labour’ socialist. Indeed, one of the things that is probably very attractive to Blairites about the Blue Labour message is its anti-state message. This message can be understood and articulated in several different ways. You could understand it – and this is the way it’s being pushed by Glasman – in broadly left-wing terms. Of course, there’s always been a very strong tradition of anti-statism on the left amongst anarchists, revolutionary socialists, Marxists and so on. But these clearly aren’t the sort of political traditions in which Blue Labour is seeking to orient the party!

We have to see the message that Blue Labour is pushing in the context of the social democratic tradition which has always been best understood as a tradition which seeks to manage capitalism rather than challenge it. In this context I think it’s very difficult to see anything particularly positive in Blue Labour’s anti-statist noises. This anti-statism on the part of Blue Labour in the context of managing capitalism on capital’s terms (how does social democracy do anything else?) would, in my view, entail, in practice, the rolling back of welfare. We have to see all of this too in the context of economic crisis and austerity politics – the Blue Labour doctrine provides great ideological cover for an assault on public spending and welfare in the guise of a return to ‘authentic socialist values’. This has to be one of the reasons why Blairites like Purnell are so interested in it.

This doesn’t sound all too different from the Conservative’s Big Society idea. Are Labour picking up on this?

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s pretty clear that the people behind Blue Labour see the Tories as having stolen a march on them with the Big Society idea. One of the major proponents of Blue Labour, for example, Dr Marc Stears, has been quite clear that he sees the Big Society doctrine as a ’spur to action’ for Labour and that, in his opinion, the left have ‘a lot to learn’ from it. So, in fact, one way of trying to grasp what Blue Labour is doing is to see them as trying to seize for the Labour party the ideological ground currently occupied by ‘Red Tories’ and other major proponents of the Big Society. One very interesting aspect of this is that Stears seems to see the ideas bound up with the Big Society - community engagement, voluntary and charitable provision of certain services, scepticism towards the ‘big state’ and so on - as ‘transcending’ the left/right divide.

This is a trope of centre-left thought that keeps cropping up again and again - the idea that the left/right division is, in some ways at least, old hat, outdated or irrelevant. This was one of the major ideas that animated ‘the Third Way’, of course, which was the ideological narrative developed by theorists (most notably Anthony Giddens) in the mid to late 1990s to help steer the Labour party towards what became known later as Blairism. But you can also see this sort of idea in what centre-left intellectuals like Tony Crosland were arguing in the 1950s and 60s, too. It keeps re-emerging. It can be explained partly in terms of the party’s obsession with occupying the (fabled) ‘centre-ground’ - ‘triangulation’ and ‘big tent’ politics and so on. This is the self-fulfilling prophecy on which social democratic thought is pretty much founded - the idea that it’s impossible and politically suicidal to attempt to reshape the ideological terrain radically or to drag the locus of the political ‘centre’ very far to the left.

It is almost as if Labour lacks the courage to confront the typical tabloid views of the ‘white working class’.

The political theorist Colin Hay makes a very useful differentiation between what he calls ‘preference accommodation strategies’ (shaping your policies to appeal to apparently pre-existing beliefs and prejudices on the part of the electorate) and ‘preference shaping strategies’ (seeking to intervene in political discourse in such a way that alters the ideological landscape). Hay applied this to New Labour, arguing that they almost unfailingly chose the former strategy. Blue Labour are, if anything, (for all their talk about ‘radicalism’) even more committed to a ‘preference accommodation strategy’ than Blair was. The thing is, though, that I think the constituency whose pre-formed preferences they are seeking to accommodate - the ‘Blue working class’ - is very largely a myth.

Blue Labourites talk a lot about how politics has been far too dominated by a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ (an idea and a terminology plucked straight out of a Richard Littlejohn column by the way) and how it has lost touch with ordinary working people. But their view of ‘ordinary working people’ is, in my view, pretty far off the mark in many respects. Indeed, if there’s an out of touch ‘metropolitan elite’ anywhere here it’s probably the Blue Labour clique themselves peddling a rather fantastical view of a ‘conservative working class’ playing happy families, going to church on Sundays, saluting the flag and getting all teary-eyed about the royal wedding. It’s as if their view of the working class is based on what they’ve watched in a 1950s Ealing comedy.

Blue Labour supporters have asked “Where is Labour in the fight for an England which belongs to the English just as they belong to the land?” (Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford). Maurice Glasman even argued that Labour should “involve those people who support the EDL within the party”. This sounds much more like some see it as a matter of ‘if we can’t beat the BNP, let’s become the BNP’?

Yes, this is the really ugly part of the Blue Labour approach. The ‘preference accommodation strategy’ they employ isn’t just restricted to a process of accommodation to conservative ideas and policies - it’s also quite prepared to flirt with racism and far-right politics. I never really expect to be much impressed by centre-left thinking - but this is really shocking stuff. It’s particularly disappointing to see someone like John Cruddas (who has an admirable record of anti-fascism) promoting this sort of stuff. Let’s be clear what Blue Labour are saying. They are claiming that the working class is somehow naturally and inevitably anti-immigration and pre-disposed towards far-right views. This is what they are seeking to accommodate. Their way of fighting the BNP and the EDL is not to take their views head on and to argue the case for leftist, anti-fascist and anti-racist ideas. It’s not to stand up for and to defend immigrant and ethnic minority communities. It’s to make major concessions to racist prejudice and suspicion. This is a real betrayal of labour movement traditions - for all Blue Labour’s talk of being true to fundamental labour movement values. It’s very dangerous. Even as a miserable strategy of seeking to undercut support for the BNP and the EDL by dressing up in some of their clothes it’s one that won’t succeed. It will only help to further legitimise the views of organisations such as the EDL and it risks creating the political conditions in which far-right groups enter into the political mainstream. If ideas associated with the far right are brought into mainstream political discourse and articulated by mainstream political parties, what’s to stop far right groups themselves capitalising on this?

In Shift Magazine we have featured several articles that have warned of a simplistic opposition to finance capitalism, especially in counter-globalisation movements. Now in the Blue Labour rhetoric we also find a strong attack on finance. It is somehow assumed that the finance sector should serve the ‘real’, productive national economy. While this distinction between speculation and production is characteristic of the far right, could this serve for Labour as a nationalistic ‘Third Position’?

I’d say it was characteristic of right wing populism rather than of the far right as such. Furthermore it’s not a position that is held exclusively by the right either. I’d be highly uncomfortable with any argument that implies that Blue Labour is a far right movement, or even a potentially far right movement - it isn’t. It’s important to say that I certainly don’t think that anyone involved in the Blue Labour faction is racist and it would be a massive mistake to dismiss them as ‘proto-fascist’ or something. For one thing this would just be a bad move tactically - because any critic of Blue Labour advancing that argument is likely to be written off as someone making wild or ‘hysterical’ accusations. The danger is not that the Labour Party might morph into a quasi far-right party under the influence of Blue Labour, but that the Blue Labour narrative will poison mainstream political discourse (more than it is already) and help to create the sort of conditions in which very right wing parties and movements can flourish.

It’s true, however, that focusing on ‘finance capital’ as something meaningfully distinct from productive or industrial capital is a mistake, both empirically and also in political-strategic terms. There is no hard and fast distinction anymore between industrial and finance capital (most major industrial capitals for example are also big financial players) and while it’s true that the City of London is massively powerful and that this has, historically, entailed major problems for the UK economy in terms of manufacturing productivity and ‘competitiveness’ and so on one has to regard the economy as, in a sense, an organic whole in which capitals and state institutions are closely intertwined rather than as a series of distinct sectors.

To single out finance capital as the villain as Blue Labour do - and it’s really noticeable that in almost all Blue Labourite criticism of ‘marketisation’ and ‘commodification’ it’s finance and the City that’s the culprit rather than the logic of capital accumulation more broadly - is to let capitalism itself off the hook. So what Blue Labour are doing is making some apparently radical sounding noises about ‘commodification’ and so on, but channelling this criticism into an approach that is, in the end, decidedly unradical. They’re attacking a bogeyman figure and, in so doing, diverting people’s attention away from the real source of ‘commodification’ which is capitalism itself. The narrative seems to suggest that there’s a nice and caring kind of capitalism - based on manufacturing presumably - which is what we need to get back to, somehow, to relieve the various market based pressures and hardships suffered by working class people (longer working hours, indebtedness, rising unemployment and so on). And, yes, this could be a very nationalistic strategy.

Would you say that this nod to nationalism is a departure from social democratic ideals?

In a sense, social democracy has always been about the incorporation of the working class into national strategies of capital accumulation. There’s always been a nationalist, flag-waving and even jingoistic facet to it - or to a significant proportion of it anyway. But what’s different about Blue Labour is the sheer brazenness of the nationalism - the appeals to patriotism and the flag are right at the core of it - and also the racialised aspect to it, reflected in the invocation of the ‘white working class’.

The other major difference about Blue Labour is the rejection of ‘the big state’ which, as I mentioned above, has to be seen in the context of the economic crisis and the austerity drive across the world. In my view, Blue Labour should be seen as a symptom of the ongoing (and sharpening) crisis of social democracy and labourism which has been rumbling on since the end of the post-war long boom sometime in the early 1970s. When the post-war social democratic Keynesian consensus fell apart parties like Labour found themselves totally disorientated as they realised that this consensus (which they had wrongly regarded as a more or less permanent settlement) had been completely dependent on peculiar and temporary post-war structural conditions of international capitalism.

A lot of people on the left of Labour seem to believe that the party’s slow drift to the right was a wholly contingent process determined by the particular ideological views of various leaders which might, in principle, be reversed if only a left wing leader were to get his or her hands on the levers of power. What this overlooks, however, are the major structural blockages in the way of any return to full blooded social democracy presented by intense international capitalist competition today.

In the long term, the sort of measures of amelioration that traditional social democrats advocate are simply incompatible with the logic of capital accumulation. We can’t just go back to the economic conditions of the 1950s and 1960s. They have gone forever. New Labour represented an enthusiastic embrace of these new conditions. Blue Labour, in a sense, takes this process of disillusioned adaptation further - it’s willing effectively to jettison the party’s commitment to the welfare state and to embrace a highly nationalistic strategy of capital accumulation. This is not to say that something like the Blue Labour approach is inevitable - it has to be resisted. But it is getting clearer and clearer that any serious struggle for the defence (let alone the extension) of social justice and humane economic conditions will run up against the structural limits of capitalism itself. This is something, unfortunately, that the Labour party is constitutionally incapable of doing.

Ed Rooksby teaches politics at the University of Southampton

Greece: "We are drowning, let's sink the rotten boat"

Published online August 2011.

One month after the 48-hour general strike in Greece, with the austerity package passed, and after the extreme police terrorism unleashed on protesters (involving 2860 teargas canisters thrown indiscriminately even at first-aid centres, inside the metro station, and into cafes 1.5km away from the demonstration; beatings of everyone including men and women of old age; extensive rock-throwing at protesters; invasion of pedestrianised areas by riot police bikers; and the chasing and beating of demonstrators all the way into private houses where they ran to hide) much of the mainstream press presented this as a great ‘victory’ for the Greek government who managed to obtain the ‘rescue package’ from the ‘northern European taxpayer’ and avoid default. A few weeks later, the government ‘achieved’ a ‘partial default’ which would extend the terms of their loans and give lenders a ‘haircut’ in exchange for several guarantees in the form of state assets. On 30th July, with the squares movement somewhat deflated, the mayor of Athens managed to evacuate the square. People returned the same night and held the biggest assembly of that month. But even now, after British press coverage started to become a bit more sympathetic, many still haven’t understood why ‘the Greeks’ protested so vehemently. Did they want to default? Surely that couldn’t be a good solution (and yet a ‘partial default’ is somehow sold as precisely that now!). ‘Why don’t Greeks get down to work to develop their economy and learn to pay taxes instead of complaining?’ outraged northern Europeans have been asking.

To get an idea of the roots of the anger in the Greek streets, consider this: since May 2010, when the first bailout was agreed with the IMF-ECB-EU troika, unemployment has shot up to 20%, and youth unemployment to over 36% (but also consider that official statistics always underestimate this); small businesses have closed down one after another emptying out town centres; workers have gone unpaid for months and are easily dismissed with new legislation that abolishes collective contracts and encourages employer bullying; wages have fallen by 30% and to a new minimum of €560 per month and €476 for those under 25; homelessness has rapidly increased because of repossessions; pensions have been cut; public transport prices and street tolls have increased exponentially; a myriad new regressive taxes have been invented and VAT has risen to 23%; the suicide rate has increased by 40%. We are talking about rapid impoverishment, proletarianisation and despair and this is only a snapshot of the situation.

As for the purported ‘Swedish welfare’ Greeks have been enjoying, well, this never existed. Benefits are meagre. A very large proportion of pensioners only receive €400 per month, many queuing in soup kitchens to survive. Single mothers have to work. The dole – now only available for four months in four years – is impossible to survive on if you also pay rent. National insurance contributions are essential to get it, excluding a vast number of people under 30 who are exploited in unreported jobs. Such contributions are also essential for access to the health service. Amid steadily increasing unemployment the new mid-term austerity programme will reduce these benefits, reduce pensions and wages even more, lay off tens of thousands of public sector workers, further loosen labour legislation, increase taxes on the lowest incomes, as well as sell off the totality of public assets. This is widely seen as a plan to turn Greece into a pool of cheap labour and a cut-price investment opportunity, before it inevitably defaults. But this is not simply anger towards foreign bankers, the EU and the IMF, not just anger towards the government. It is anger towards the entire political system of parliamentary democracy and all the political parties. It is a true crisis of representation.

It is no wonder people have been protesting daily outside the parliament shouting ‘crooks!’.There is a Greek joke of the father with three sons who says one should join the conservatives (New Democracy); one the socialists (PASOK) and one the communists (KKE), just in case. What the state has had to offer, jobs or infrastructure, has been distributed for at least the last 30 years through political parties, with some jobs as sinecures. This clientelism has played a part in the build-up of state debt. But this does not mean that all Greeks benefitted, neither does it mean that the benefits received were particularly generous – they were jobs, licenses, subsidies, even places in universities – not the kind of thing that you should have to sell your vote to gain access to. Sadly, in Greece, desperation or complacency led many to play by the rules of the game. On the other hand, massive high-level corruption from dodgy planning permissions upwards at the top-end of the political-media class, has generated far larger amounts of debt, the most obvious in defence contracts, which for a country of its size have been enormous, the highest spending per head of population anywhere. The vainglorious Olympic Games, costing some $25billion benefitted only some contractors and security firms. Most Greeks did not receive any trickle-down of state largesse, and those who did not receive are now paying for it.

Focusing on corruption, however, like much of the mainstream media has done recently, constructing the stereotype of ‘lazy, corrupt Greeks’, misses out an important part of the story: the relation within the EU between central, exporter, lender states and peripheral, importer, debtor states. Predominantly French and German banks have been lending money to Greece so that it can buy exorbitant German military equipment and French industrial and consumer products. Not out of any particular spite as some Greek nationalists present it. This is simply how the system works. But it was not going to work forever. Greece finally reached a point when, after having bailed out its own banks that were hit by the crisis, its debt became unmanageable.

After one year of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme, the Greek state is now, unsurprisingly, more indebted than ever before. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that the conditions imposed would shrink the economy, and thus reduce the tax base. With a debt rollover deemed impossible by rating agencies who see such a move as a de facto default, and to avoid a ‘disorderly’ default that would send shockwaves across the banking system, the troika forced a new bailout loan down Greece’s throat in return for a 4-year programme of austerity and a wholesale privatisation of public assets, whose budget doesn’t even predict a significant reduction of the debt up to 2015.

Despite the summer lull, there is still a sense that the situation now is explosive. Across the political spectrum, anger is widespread. Those on the left denounce the attack on the working class. Those on the nationalist right talk of ‘traitors’ who have ‘sold off the country to foreign interests’ by signing the bailout agreement which gives creditors the right to confiscate the assets of the Greek state. Everyone can plainly see that the bailout directly benefits the banks who will get their interest payments while the Greek state, blackmailed by the troika, is attempting to get blood from a stone. That Greece will default at some point is taken as a given. The fight is over who will pay for it. And much of the Greek public has figured that the longer that takes, the more they’ll have to pay with their lives. In fact, they will pay with their lives anyway, as the debt is used as an excuse to impose measures hitherto inconceivable. Meanwhile, far-right extremism has increased, as hordes of new immigrants from Asia and Africa are trapped in Greece, mostly Athens, prevented from entering northern Europe in line with the Schengen treaty. There are racist attacks by small groups of self-described ‘indignant citizens’ (who are mostly members of fascist organisations such as the Golden Dawn) on a daily basis in Athens neighbourhoods: stabbings, beatings, burning of homes, hostels and mosques which commonly escape prosecution. Besides, it is widely known that the Greek police has close informal ties with the Golden Dawn.

This is why, when on May 25 tens of thousands of people flooded Syntagma square in front of the parliament and squares across the country under the name ‘indignant citizens’, it did look confusing. Many – if not the majority – of the demonstrators waved Greek flags and shouted nationalist slogans. A protest march by the electricity workers’ union was booed out. The Greek media were celebrating the ‘apolitical’, ‘humorous’ and ‘unpatronised’ quality of the demonstration. But late at night, after the big crowd left and those remaining sat down to have their first ‘democratic assembly’ a different image emerged. Mostly young people, hungry to express their anger at the government, the political system and all political parties, talked about their shoddy life experiences and of their desire to create something new. They occupied the square and Syntagma was packed with demonstrators on a daily basis for the next month and counting. The a daily assembly grew, and diverged from the Spanish model, developing its own ideas: direct democracy and rejection of all political representatives; refusal of all state and personal debt, asking for its write-off; counterposing a new social organisation, involving popular control of the economy; cooperation with labour unions while pressurising their sold-out leaderships to call a long-term general strike; rejection of racism and solidarity with immigrants, in favour of open borders; conflictual struggle, blockades, occupations and self-defence instead of unqualified pacifism; the desire to create assemblies in every neighbourhood and workplace. The assembly participants daily develop and refine the processes of collective decision-making and self-organisation. Similar to the Spanish squares, they have open thematic assemblies and working groups which are developing structures of mutual support and sharing resources, particularly with those most in need, while the general assembly has the ultimate power to propose and make decisions. These ideas and practices are not ex nihilio. They follow on both from the neighbourhood assemblies created after the December 2008 uprising and from the recent practices of popular movements, such as ‘I Don’t Pay’ that blockades highway toll booths and sabotages public transport ticket validation machines, and the militant resistance in Keratea against the creation of a landfill site.

Assemblies did spread in several Athens neighbourhoods and across Greece, and the older local assemblies have expressed solidarity with the new movement. Many of those assemblies have been organising actions against privatisations of local public space and assets, and some are more active in promoting the idea of non-payment campaigns and anti-repossession actions that have not yet taken off. Also the oldest local assemblies, especially those linked with anarchist collectives, have been instrumental in establishing free language schools for migrants and anti-racist actions, as well as appropriating public space and turning it into ‘self-managed people’s gardens’, most notably in Exarchia. Now there are also ideas for setting up free support lessons for kids who have missed school because of homelessness or destitution.

While not entirely adopting the language of the anti-capitalist left, the assembly has adopted many of its ideas. This is partly related to the ‘incognito’ presence of leftist party members in the square pushing their views through working groups, but there is also resistance to those who try to turn the assembly into a distributor of social-democratic manifestos. The anarchist contingent also has a significant influence, meaning that many of the dominant views in Syntagma are more radical than those of the mainstream left which is not finding it easy to keep up with events. Not that the fascist threat is gone for good however. Small far right groups have been present in the square, mostly away from the area of the assembly and working group stalls, waving flags, shouting nationalist and racist slogans, and even attacking immigrants. Those organising in Syntagma have had to confront them, particularly when they even had the audacity to store crowbars in one of the tents, from which they launched their racist assaults. After the 29th however, with videos of police thuggery and collaboration with fascists flooding not only the web but also mainstream TV news, Greek nationalism has received a backlash.

With the mid-term programme passed, the occupied squares have been working on their next course of action. They have been talking about actively preventing the programme’s implementation, building alliances with students and workers, and organising non-payment strikes on taxes, loans and bills. They have also been discussing student resistance to the new education bill, which is a major move towards privatising and commodifying the higher education system, and will be probably put to the vote over the summer. A similar bill was dropped in 2007 after over a year of student occupations and protests.

After the evacuation of Syntagma, many returned to the square after weeks of absence, bringing renewed energy for occupying local buildings and organising resistance to repossessions. The first time such a ‘return’ happened, it was surprising to some that Syntagma did not disband after their defeat on the midterm and after savage police repression; that they stayed true to their pledge to continue the fight regardless. Police violence did not scare them, instead it caused enough outrage that many pacifists began to justify those who had engaged in street war. The thousands who have participated for over a month in the squares, against various attempts at co-optation, have experienced a different form of politics, a different way of relating to each other. They have protected their space and each other from fierce assaults by police and fascists, have fended off undercover agents, have withstood impossible amounts of teargas, stun grenades, beatings and street battles. Now, there is a wider sense that even if this movement doesn’t grow momentum in August, September will definitely be a very intense time, when the relative euphoria of summer is over, and the new measures really start to bite…

Demetra Kotouza is a PhD student and contributing editor at Mute magazine. John Barker writes fiction and non-fiction for 3am.com, Mute and Variant magazines.

Increasing the uncertainty: beyond activism as usual

By Ben Lear, published online, March 2011. This was published in the build-up to the TUC demonstration in March 2011 which saw a large Black Bloc and actions by UKuncut as Ed Milliband spoke on the TUC stage.

As we edge closer to the TUC demonstration this Saturday the internet, airwaves and blogosphere are becoming increasingly excited about what might happen. However, as is to be expected, much of this is already focusing on the usual themes of police fairness/repression, the likelihood of violence etc. This article seeks to reaffirm the real successes of the previous few months – an openness to change, a new found humility and greater social resonance – by calling for an intervention which focuses on moving towards uncertainty rather than falling back on tired, clichéd direct action strategies.

It will come as little surprise to many that the TUC will not be endorsing the various feeder marches which will be happening in London, or that their position on a diversity of tactics is fairly non-existent. As many commentators have already highlighted this is integral to the form of politics which the TUC is pursuing. The TUC 'game plan' for Saturday consists of turning the thousands of people which will attend into passive spectators whose only political impact is to provide a boost to the negotiating position of the TUC. What is interesting however is that many of the people on this demonstration, perhaps radicalised by impending cuts or this winter's demonstrations, will be unlikely to want to slip into this role. The political terrain has well and truly shifted.

For those of us wishing to move beyond this script we must be careful not to slip into a familiar oppositional role whose possibilities are already mapped out and which appears unlikely to actively engage and empower many more people than the TUC approach. Small groups of activists with specialist equipment taking direct action against specific targets are also likely to fail to directly engage with anything other than a minority of the people out on the streets and in front of TV screen this coming Saturday. But between the rock of the TUC's 'inclusive' demonstration and the hard place of the elitist 'direct action' of militant activists what kind of course of action can we pursue? Of course the answer is unknown, this is a problematic the answer to which might only emerge through discussion and trial and error; this article will make some suggestions as to what could be tried on Saturday's demonstration but before that it might be worth briefly discussing what we are trying to do on Saturday.

(Re/De)centering the Political

For many attending the demonstration tomorrow and certainly those organising the TUC aspect, the focus for Saturday is clear. The task for Saturday the 26th is to assemble as large a support as possible to support the TUC and increase its bargaining power vis-a-vis the government. Anything which breaks out of this polite, disciplined framework will not be tolerated. Indeed, in many ways, come Saturday the work of the TUC will have been done. All that remains is crowd control and to pack the hundreds of thousands of protestors safely back onto buses at the end of the day. From a refusal to support the feeder marches to police trained stewards expected to be the first line of policing in the event of disorder on the march (from sit-down protests onwards) it is clear that the TUC exists in a political framework of respectable negotiation and institutional politics which sees those attending the demonstration as supporters not participants. Indeed it is the formalisation of union politics which has seen its decline in both absolute numbers and political efficacy over the past decades.

But politics doesn’t just happen in the institutions of power, in boardrooms and council focus sessions. The world of institutional politics is just one dynamic, albeit a powerful one, which helps to shape the social relationships which make up our society. For those of us seeking to dismantle the state and move beyond the Capital relation we cannot afford to become fixated on the state form of politics, of representation, ‘sensible’ consensus, the role of the expert and the necessities of the economy. Of course victories in the formal political sphere are possible and indeed desirable but these will occur without us having to focus on them. Cameron's rhetorical shift from condemning a violent minority at this winter's demonstrations to recognising the more generalised confrontational nature of the movement is one recent example of this. The sphere of institutional politics will always seek to translate our challenges into the language of governance.

However, politics is also expressed in the ways we work, play and love, ultimately in the ways in which we interact with each other day to day, hour to hour. If we de-centre the formal sphere of politics and recognise politics as the process of challenging and changing social relationships then the horizons of our politics, the nature of our 'targets' changes. Beyond the set piece spectacle of direct action activism as has been practiced by many in the radical scene in the recent decades and the dull lobbying of the TUC demo a new target, our social relationships, might be seen lurking in the distance. Rather than focusing on building up a lobbying power to influence government, we should focus on helping shape the way in which those of us that attend the demonstration, and onlookers, experience it. By opening up new avenues of political experience, replete with all the uncertainty this entails, we help take a step away from those forms of doing politics which are clearly obsolete and possess little traction on the world. When the first students entered 30 Millbank it is unlikely they were aware of the consequences of such an action. This Saturday we should be prepared to continue the political experimentation which many of us have already found so exciting and refreshing. Rather than closing down political possibilities we should be aiming to increase these possibilities.

So, what might this look like on Saturday?

• A refusal to be disciplined and ordered, be it by the police or the TUC. Both of these forces will seek to order our protests to make them legible, to articulate demands and isolate those that slip outside of this 'protest consensus' as troublemakers – as those not worthy of a political voice. With so many events happening all day, the possibilities for escaping the already constructed narratives already exist. The 'anything but a kettle' mentality has implications beyond our physical constraint.
• A commitment to moving beyond the active(ist)/passive binary. Come prepared, but come prepared to share. Be it masks and other goodies or even just some new chants or a route proposal. We must seek to move outside of our comfortable friendship groups and forge new political affinities on the day.
• An openness to connectivity, experimentation and the unknown. Who knows what will happen on the day, but we should be prepared to actively increase the uncertainty and therefore the range of possible outcomes of the day.
• A critical, perhaps even subversive, engagement with the unions. The TUC demonstration shouldn't be shunned but engaged with, perhaps even subverted. The unions will be a key vehicle through which struggles will take place in the short term, but this does not mean we have to fall in line behind them. A critical engagement with the unions is necessary. If half of the TUC demonstration were to suddenly leave half way through the rally....well....

These principles seem simple enough but if we attempt to build upon them and make them a reality who knows what kind of effects this Saturday's demonstration might have for now and in the wider future. Seeking to emulate previous, tired forms of politics (be that isolated direct action or trade union marches) is a certain failure, new forms of doing – those which escape our current understanding or familiarity – might be the key to gaining traction in the here and now. The old doesn't work and so we shouldn't be afraid to move towards new forms of politics, however uncertain their effects may be.

Ben Lear is a member of the editorial collective of Shift Magazine.

International antinationalism!

In this text written by Working Group “Just Do It!” of AntiFa AK Cologne, the authors lay out the perspective of "antinational communism". Published March 2012.

Introduction

The following article was written in the context of the mobilisation for the international project “M31”, a European day of action against capitalism and the crisis. It is a first attempt to describe our approach of “antinational communism”*. Antinationalism is a fairly new, German-specific perspective on left-wing radical politics. It came about in the early 90s in Germany as a reaction to the reunification of a new, greater Germany and the occurrences of racism/fascism by a reactionary civil society. What is its central tenet? Nationalism or – to be more precise – the idea of the nation itself is seen as the central ideology, the all-time dominant, undeniable category in the global, oppressing power relation of capitalism and the capitalist state, which we want to see abolished. From our point of view, an antinational perspective goes beyond traditional left-wing approaches (classical anti-imperialism). And yet, we do not like to focus on Germany and its specifics alone and instead pick up a certain idea of international networking. We want to free this approach from its Germany-focussed isolation and – especially now at a time of crisis, when we can develop transnational reference points – start discussions with comrades in other European countries. Hence we decided to call this approach “international antinationalism”. This is also one of the main motivations for us and our antinational, German-wide network “…ums Ganze!” to engage in the project “M31”, which was largely initiated out of Germany.

*For us, communism has so far never existed. Communism is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things” (Marx), i.e. the total negation of the present, capitalist world order for an emancipated, liberated society. The Soviet Union and “real-existing socialism” never was able to get rid of certain basic-capitalist categories, like value or wage labour. Thus, our use of the term communism distances itself from historic attempts at “Real Socialism”.

See more:

www.no-racism.de

www.umsganze.org

http://march31.net

International Antinationalism!

Five years after the start of the financial crisis, after the insurrections in the Arab region, after intense protests against worsening living and working conditions – after all these developments, finally the German Left is having discussions about the crisis. It seems to become obvious that partial struggles within and against the spheres of production and reproduction are not able to resist against the austerity measures of the Troika (European Union, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund). This experience has led to different movements and different struggles emerging in these last years, which are looking for common reference points. These transnational movements – whether we think of “Occupy” or the “Arab spring” – are proof that actions which relate to each other are capable of creating new dynamics and of disrupting – at least on the level of ideas traditional conceptions of political terrain (thinking and acting within one’s “own” national territory; the nation as a firm category).

Still, all these new movements share the same problem: when it comes to the point of articulating critique and demands, we find only vague abstractions rather than specifics. At the same time, they do retain a certain intuitiveness about the capacity of collective action. This idea of revolt is opposed – from within the “European Left” – by the supporters of a state idealism in two related, yet polarised, ways: the first way claims that social movements can manage to become relevant forces in politics only by relying on a “moral basis”. This perspective agitates for the “Idea of Europe” as a common denominator for the different movements and encourages it against the current EUROpe of austerity measures. The second way advocates a politics, which has allegedly been robbed of its true power by “the evil incarnate” (the banksters). This perspective views the aim of struggle as the establishment of a sovereign authority, which would set the framework for the possibility of social reforms. In what follows, we are going to criticise both ways in order to show their reactionary role in the current discussions, and to illustrate our programme for a social offensive. Furthermore, we are going to suggest a different approach for social revolt, derived from our critique of state and capital. We shall call this approach “international antinationalism”.

The “Idea of Europe” vs. EUROpe

Whether in school, in university or in leftist feature pages – the “Idea of Europe” is a sacred cow. Especially in times of crisis and wars, it is beyond any criticism. In the midst of World War I, the German philosopher Georg Simmel understood exactly what the “Idea of Europe” is about and what it opposes: “The belief and spirit of internationalism [...] is an altogether secondary phenomenon [...] and an enemy of one’s own rooted national character. Europeanism, on the other hand, is an idea, an altogether primary phenomenon not attainable by accumulation or abstraction – however late its appearance as a historical force. It does not exist in between individual nations, it exists beyond them, and is thus perfectly compatible with an individual national life.”

Beyond the speculative search for difference and commonality of national identities – so typical for nationalists – Simmel recognizes within the “Idea of Europe” the benefit to one’s own nation of guarding the latter against the “virus” of the worker’s movement’s all-pervasive internationalism. Still today, the “Idea of Europe” serves this function. Furthermore, the value of the “Idea of Europe”, in its “idealism”, lies in its perspective on ideological crisis management. The Prussian state-political philosopher Hegel wrote: “It is often said, for the sake of edification, that war makes short work of the vanity of temporal things. It is the element by which the idealization of what is particular receives its right and becomes an actuality.” “Idealisation”, the value of Europe, is not just some philosophical chit-chat outside of world affairs; it is a matter of great priority for European states that their citizens accept the “Idea of Europe” as an “ideal” and that they renounce the “vanity of temporal things”.

But what exactly is the “Idea of Europe” anyway? A lot of pens have been put to paper to answer this question and a great deal of nonsense has been the result. The most honest answer, however, was given by the outgoing president of the European Central Bank – Jean Claude Trichet – with the following description: “Our model was the united American Market. If we wanted peace and prosperity, it was said at the time, we needed to benefit from the same economies of scale, from the same free markets as did the United States. This was the vision of the founding fathers of Europe. If that was true back then, it is even more so today”. Nowadays it is widely known that it was primarily Germany who benefited from these free markets and whose export surplus ruined other national economies in Europe, such as that of Greece. In order to keep the “Idea of Europe” going, they now “speak German” in Europe, by which we mean the impoverishment of the masses to enable the realisation of capital valorisation.

L’Etat pour moi

In times of crisis, it is not only bankrupt car manufacturers or banks in need of a bailout that are calling for the strong state. The Left, too, sees itself vindicated once more. Financial capital, helped by ruthless parliamentarians, has sold “politics” down the river, it claims. Enchanted by the benevolence of “financial markets”, nation-states were no longer able to carry out their true function of pleasing their people’s needs, it alleges.

Alongside such rather simplistic approaches, there are also many academic versions of the same. What they have in common is a glorified image of the “golden age of capitalism” (Eric Hobsbawm). According to such claims, the intervention of the state – including its ideological support in mid-20th century, Keynesianism – was not a result of tendencies of monopolisation (imperialism), problems in the production of surplus value (Paul Mattik) and the struggles of rebellious workers (Beverly Silver); rather it is supposed to represent a dubious “class compromise”, which pointed at an advantageous “power balance” for the working classes. This reading does not only deny the inner historicity of capital, but it focuses the struggle for a liberated society on the state, the territory of its defeat. Accordingly, the “capitalist state” (Friedrich Engels uses the term “ideeller Gesamtkapitalist” which translates roughly as the “ideal personification of the total national capital”) had the obscure, a-historical potential to ban forever, by sovereign dictum, all tendencies for crisis and to guarantee the permanent valorisation of value.

And hence, the global accumulation of capital needs nothing more than to create a “true demand” in the market as well as new “leading technologies” by means of a “green capitalism”, all for the achievement of new profits. Alone the fact that the elites and bosses do not show any interest in any such pragmatic proposals to extend exploitation and oppression hints at the fading sovereignty of state authority. It is this “left-wing faith” in the power of the state that gave impetus to the Greek Stalinists (KKE) sending its gangs of “thugs” to protect the parliament in Athens from other protesters during the election of a new austerity package. He who seeks the power of the state has to prevent its dissolution by dissolving the revolt.

What to do? - Determining our position

In recent years, some antinational projects have tried to make international connections. Although a lack of capacity meant that larger initiatives were not possible, such efforts did maintain a common theoretical frame: a clear dissociation from those on the Left that support the state, as well as the rejection of the idea of “national solidarity” (“Solidarität der Völker”). In order to strengthen the idea of a “revolutionary defeatism” (a concept Lenin opposed to “social patriotism” – the ed.) we took action – locally and further afield – against global companies with headquarters in Germany or against German and European institutions. Our activities sought to criticise the nation-state as the unquestioned centre of all politics and to symbolically deny that a whole country could benefit from the business carried out by individual companies. Beyond that, we tried to open communication channels with those people that had already taken to revolt, with limited success.

In this context, we supported two Germany-wide days of actions called for by the campaign “Antifa Tehran”. These actions expressed solidarity with the insurrection against the Islamist regime of Iran in 2009 and publicly outed German companies involved in dirty business with the Iranian government. Critical research showed that German businesses supported the IRI regime, which was sanctioned by the state. Crucially for this campaign, the most direct and widespread signal of solidarity that we could send to the Iranian protesters at the time was a blockade of the Iranian consulate in Frankfurt. Unfortunately, it was hard to receive wider, left-wing support for this, because the traditional Left’s reception of the political case of Iran and its limited competence to adequately respond to the events of 2009 proved to be an insurmountable stumbling block.

We made very different experiences as part of our participation in the global “day of action against Eurest” (Eurest is a catering and canteen multinational – the ed.), organised by our comrades from the Industrial Workers of the World; the employees of the Ford-canteen in Cologne experienced direct solidarity by other Eurest-workers worldwide, be they in New York or Frankfurt, who supported the Ford-workers in their struggle against Eurest and the Ford management. Maybe this was a small sign that in times of national competition for jobs, a competition perpetuated even by trade unions, parts of the working class are still aware of the importance of solidarity. Our aim, however, remains to broach the issue of international networking of wage-labourers reflecting transnational chains of capital valorisation in order to revive the question of “workplace bargaining power” (Silver) in the “hidden abode of production” (Marx).

In 2011, an unpredictable wave of practical solidarity reached a new peak in Germany: the eviction of the squat “Liebig 14” led to a permanent status of alert for several police units in the whole of Germany. Indeed, Berlin and other cities in Germany saw massive, spontaneous clashes. This must be understood as a reaction to the state fantasising about more evictions, for example that of the notorious squat “Rote Flora” in Hamburg.

These chain reactions of solidarity reminded us of the international response to the 2008 December riots in Greece. The occupation of the Greek embassy in Berlin on 8 December 2008, which was covered widely by the Greek media, not to forget a large number of demonstrations and actions all over the world, “motivated” our comrades in Greece not to give up their struggle.

Yes! Antinational Solidarity!

All these cases have one thing in common: they focus on solidarity. But what does solidarity mean, anyway? Today, it turns out to be a largely empty notion with hugely differing meanings; its definition from a left-wing and radical perspective is problematic due to its colloquial, predominant meaning. Bourgeois society understands the principle of solidarity as the selfless duty to serve the “common good”, along the lines of “One for all, and all for one”. Whether it concerns the shift of the costs of social reproduction back upon the workers via the medium of national insurance, or whether it is about the German government’s “Agenda 2010″ or other austerity measures – you can hear the call for “solidarity” play to the tune of national responsibility for state and capital.

Our understanding of “antinational solidarity” is diametrically opposed to this call of duty for the nation. We agree with the concept of solidarity as formulated by the First International: Marx and Engels had derived the basic principle of solidarity from the necessity of the international character of the social revolution. At that time it appeared obvious that only the intention to smash the whole system would enable a general uprising in the spirit of solidarity. We agree and say with Marx: “The revolution must be carried out with solidarity.”

Thus, we need to (re)occupy the principle of solidarity and fill it with left-wing and radical content. Solidarity has to be freed from the isolation of single issue campaigns; it has to be revived and updated by purging it of its reactionary and especially if its national blinkers.

We do not want to appear as naïve and overly optimistic in relation to the current struggles. Still, we do find in these time and time again possibilities for theoretical and political radicalisation. However, the struggle for a better life can only succeed if it comes in the form of a social revolution. Until then we see it as our task to disseminate the idea of antinational solidarity beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and to continue to criticise and to act against the correlation of state, nation and capital – free from the illusions of the reformist and traditional Left.

For an international antinational movement!

Written by Working Group “Just Do It!” of Antifa AK Cologne, first published in German in February 2012. Republished from Shift magazine

Islamism – Consequence of, heir to and rival of frustrated Arab nationalism

Wine and Cheese on the origins and meaning of Islamism.

1. Islam has a bad press in the free West: followers of Islam still live in the Middle Ages, one hears, and Islamic clerics may conduct procedures their Christian colleagues have only been allowed to dream of for 150 years – to veil women, stone sinners, and burn heretics to death. Some even consider the Koran an early version of ‘Mein Kampf’ – what a fitting anti-Fascist armament for the ‘clash of cultures’ of which the ‘free West’ is still not sure if it wants, and if so, to what extent.

2. Within Islam there have always been revival movements – just like in every other religion. A world in which people seek comfort in religion is not a pleasant place. If it was, people would not have to seek comfort. The kind of comfort religion conveys is paid for with humility and sacrifice and hence religion is far from a contribution to changing the world for the better. Consequently, time and again people have tried to receive more encouragement, more help from above by a yet “more correct” belief. That way Islam has undergone a split (Shiites of Shia Islam and Sunnis of Sunni Islam), there have been a couple of smaller secessions (Ismailis, Alevi, Druze) or new religions have emerged from Islam (Sikhs, Bahá’i). While some stay within the framework of the Islamic religion (though worshippers of the traditional belief might sometimes disagree), there are and have been transitions to a quite different manner of praying to Allah and his mates. It has less to do with good arguments and convincing dogmas that such religious revival movements – or rather: religion in general – were and are able to spread and prevail. Rather, it is closely connected to two questions: whether political authorities attend to a particular deism and assert it by force and if classes or other social groups consider this kind of communication with the higher powers as a spiritual weapon for their other concerns.

3. There are also fundamentalists in Islam – just like in every other religion. Those are people who preach a “return” to the true belief, and whose aim is, for fairly current reasons, to “restore” the moral rules of their ancestors. These have never existed as such, but always amount to the same thing: sacrifice, oppression of deviant positions, submission to the “right” authority and readiness to fight for this nasty programme. Far from being satisfied with there existence as merely a blinkered private opinion, such a programme becomes a political movement to oblige the state to “re”-raise all morality. With regard to Islam this is called Islamism. Such movements seem to astonish and worry people in Europe, of all places, where almost every country has a large Christian-Democratic party.

4. Initially, Islamism appeared as the pan-Islamic revival movement in the beginning of the 20th century. The various tendencies within the pan-Islamic movement aimed to restore the Umma, i.e. all worshippers of Islam united under one single political authority. Between 1815 and 1914 France, Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Russia and Italy had absorbed Islamic countries – from Morocco to Indonesia – taking possession of them as colonies, had turned them into ‘protectorates’ and blown the Ottoman Empire, which continuously weakened, into separate spheres of interest. The anti-colonial struggles aimed to reverse this development.

5. The pan-Islamists were particularly popular in the Arabic-speaking countries (1), because the Ottoman Empire’s answer to the decline of its power was an intensified politics of homogenisation. After the ‘Young Turks’ had taken over in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1908, they tried to turn the sultan’s subjects into modern citizens of a Turkish-dominated nation state. However, the ‘Ottoman Porte’ did not endear itself to its Arabic subjects with this politics of ‘turkification’, besides, this way they became aware of their ‘Arabic-ness’. Hence, the same happened as in the British, French and Italian colonies: the interaction of national demands and racial exclusion created a diverging, in this case, Arabic nationalism. Under the prophet’s banner the aim was to gather either all Arabs or all Muslims (a clear distinction between the two was not always of concern). The alleged truth that the Arabic language alone, the language of the Koran, allows access to the divine truth emphasised the identity of Islamic revival and Arabic ‘re’emergence according to Islamic insurgents. The British and French supported, armed and used such movements against the Ottoman Empire in World War I (that’s the plot of “Lawrence of Arabia”), while German foreign politics also concentrated on the ‘Mohammedans’, without much success though. Instead of gaining independence as promised, France and Great Britain after 1919 took on the heavy burden of mandates by the League of Nations and created Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen as dependent quasi-colonies, and moreover, they granted the foundation of Saudi Arabia.

6. The answer of the “Arabic movement” to the “Turks” and Christian “crusaders” (that’s what the colonialists were called in remembrance of other hard times) and later the Zionist movement was the dream of the “re-erection” of an Arabic and/or Islamic Empire of apparently ancient beauty and greatness. But in the 1920s this pan-Islamism paled into insignificance beside the rise of the new nationalistic movements that struggled for “independence” within the boundaries drawn by the colonial powers and which aimed at the foundation of modern nation states such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan etc.

7. This did not mean, however, that those national liberation movements would have relinquished the cultural distinction of ‘Islam’ toward the Christian colonialists. The statesmen-to-be indeed appreciated the belief in Allah as far as it was an integral part of the Arabic folk culture as well as a moral resource. However, as religion they did not want to take it too seriously. On the one hand, this was due to the fact that there still were many different Islamic sects as well as strong Christian minorities that ought to participate in the national projects; on the other hand Islam was often used to cement traditional feudal dependencies and thus was regarded as hindering modernisation by the nationalists.

8. After World War II, when the Arabic states had achieved their ideal of sovereignty – insofar as the world order allowed it that is – the various countries and movements all continued to praise the ideal of pan-Arabism. This implies they accepted the contradiction that their nationalism and national politics actually served to achieve the formation of an even higher Arabic unity. Nevertheless, they continuously frustrated those ideas with their politics as illustrated by the short life spans of the various “United” Arab Republics that were founded. The rivalry between Arabic states was constantly exercised by one’s own declaration of belief in the Arabic matter, the complaint about the lack of unity of the Arabic world, and the accusation of others to be solely interested in narrow-minded nationalism. Beyond all vicissitudes the mutual enmity towards Israel, which was blamed for Arabic weakness, stayed on. But even the mutual hatred of the “Jewish State” has never led the Arabic “sister states” to even implicitly support the fight of the PLO (2). Not to mention a good treatment of those who were jammed into refugee camps to await their future use as material for the Palestinian state.

9. Those countries where political authority – mainly royal dynasties like Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, and Iraq until 1958 – laid down a Western course in politics, appreciated Islam as a means to resist ideas of democratisation as well as to neutralise activities of a Socialist and Communist nature. This also held true for the Non-Arabic states Afghanistan and Pakistan, whereas the Shah’s regime in Persia (now Iran), until 1979, considered the Islamic clergy and population as nothing but a hindrance to modernisation. And even the Kemalist military in Turkey appreciated Islam as moral resource for the state. The idea of the religion being of service to the state was regarded as convenient by all of them, yet, not in terms of making the state’s programme subservient to Islam.

10. Even the “Arab Socialist countries” did not avoid using Islam (Nasser: “Mohammed was an imam of socialism”, Baathists etc.), although ’socialism’, like in many other Asian and African states, did not involve much more than stating “the economic wealth belongs to the nation” (art. 26 Baath Party’s constitution). The anti-capitalism of those countries always had an anti-materialist approach preaching national dedication and sacrifice to the people; capitalism was tantamount to egoism and an overemphasis on material interests instead of fighting for the “eternal mission of the Arabic nation” (third principle of the Baath Party). If Marxism-Leninism was an inspiration at all, it was Stalin’s dictum that enemies of the people had to be smashed and Mao’s appreciation of revolutionary heroism. Other than that the class struggle was opposed to ‘reactionary elements’ and directed against those people who were not willing to give away their wealth as well as against minorities that seemed to disturb the nation’s homogeneity with their own ’special’ collective practices and identities. Furthermore, it obviously was directed against Israel, the “bridgehead of imperialism”, whose Jewish residents, by means of persistent propaganda for the last 40 years, had become the personification of Western greed. When the Eastern bloc had ceased to exist, movements that earlier had explicitly disapproved of Islam (PKK, PLO etc.) now regarded it as a revolutionary power.

11. Islamism, which until late in the 1970s played a marginal role, today is a widely spread ideology – from Turkey to Sudan, from Morocco to Indonesia. This has happened however, without its followers agreeing on who belongs to the Umma or how it should be comprised, whether Sunnis or Shiites should lead, which Islamic school and interpretation of Sharia is the correct one and whether it is about the whole of Islam or particularly the unity of all Arabs. Islamism is a nationalistic globalisation critique that rejects the nation state since it is unable to achieve pan-Arabic and pan-Islamic aims. In the fashion of almost every “pan”-movement, dissatisfied nationalism serves as starting point. The only way to rescue the fatherland is to transcend and substitute it with a higher and more powerful unit; yet certainly not without abandoning the chance of getting one’s hands on one’s own nation, adjusting the nation’s politics to the new goal and imposing a moral revival programme on the respective national society.

12. There is no lack of dissatisfied nationalism in Arabic and other Islamic countries. Since the 1980s nearly all of these states had to grapple with matching their own “mixed economy” of state isolation and certain guarantees for the population’s survival with requirements by the IMF in order to stay credit worthy. Since the Eastern bloc’s downfall, the global market as well as the competitiveness of their own production has become the determining political standards in all countries worldwide. The “programmes of structural adjustment” by the IMF imply new hardships to those masses who are not blessed with wealth anyway, with respect to food (bread subsidies), health care, education, etc. Islamism is growing not only because the Muslim Brotherhood establishes alternative networks (schools, Islamic hospitals, soup kitchens for the poor) but because the Islamist explanations for the new situation and their proposed solutions match the existing wide-spread servile cast of mind and the regimes’ official propaganda well. After all, Islamism is – from Morocco to Malaysia – accompanied by anti-Semitism. This has nothing to do with Israeli politics but is closely connected to nationalistic anti-capitalism: against greed, enrichment and materialism the anti-materialist virtues of Islam is set and an economy according to Islamic principles of fair sharing and prohibition of interest is promoted. Even those who apparently fight Islamism – Egypt, Turkey, some former Soviet republics with Islamic majorities – attempt to assert Islamic moral rules in society, thus, laying the ground for Islamism.

13. The new Islamism is therefore consequence, heir of and revival to Arab nationalism. Islamic fundamentalism results from a state of dissatisfaction with the outcomes of these politics. At the same time it inherits the nationalistic critique of capitalism which was popularised by Arab socialists. At the same time Islamism fights the remaining nationalists and Arab socialists as godless people and Western collaborators. Particularly in regard to women – emancipated by Arab socialists as a corollary to modernisation – modern Islamists hold out an ideal of moral renewal where morality and sexuality are the main topics. Three fears seem to be important: first, the idea that Allah is not on one’s side in case one lacks proper moral, second, the idea that sexuality weakens male power to fight in the jihad, and, third, the apprehension that fulfilled sexuality and love, would generally result in rejecting jihad and thus may get in the way of politics. How exactly the interaction between these thoughts works is a subject for a further study.

Just like every other religious fundamentalism seeking national renewal, the transition from Islamism to Fascism is fluent. This has nothing to do with the Koran, but it has everything to do with the disappointed idealism of Arab and Non-Arab Nationalists.

- - -

(1) For those who don’t know: Islam is anything but equivalent to Arabic. Turkish is a completely different language, as is the language spoken in Iran; Bangladesh and Indonesia speak entirely different languages yet again. The fact that these languages use/used Arabic script does not change the fact that they are all different.
(2) See the massacre of Palestinians by Jordanian security forces in the so-called “Black September” in 1970, which gave name to the group that attacked the Israeli team during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.

The Wine and Cheese Appreciation Society of Greater London are the editors of Kittens, the English speaking journal of Junge Linke. Originally published in Shift Magazine.

Islamism is growing not only because the Muslim Brotherhood establishes alternative networks but because the Islamist explanations for the new situation and their proposed solutions match the existing wide-spread servile cast of mind and the regimes’ official propaganda well.
Wine and Cheese

Legal activism: the spatial politics of squatting in the UK

SQUASH and Alex Vasudevan discuss the Government's plans to criminalize squatting and the legitimacy of engaging with the state over the proposed change in legislation.

By Victoria Blitz and Rueben Taylor, published online October 2011.

SQUASH

The people working with Squash are under no illusions about the Government’s ‘consultation’ procedure for introducing new legislation. It is clear from the Ministry of Justice’s Green Paper 'Options for Dealing with Squatters' and its accompanying questionnaire that the Government has already decided the outcome. Despite this, SQUASH is working to highlight some of the inaccuracies and wider implications of the government’s proposals, and network with affected groups to respond to the consultation and build opposition. This isn’t going to gloriously ‘save squatting’, but the more people that get involved, make their own fuss, and take action alongside and beyond Squash, the greater the possibility that we can begin to change the public discourse around squatting.

This document addresses the following questions. Firstly, why bother at all? Why is it important that squatting isn’t criminalized? And secondly, why bother meeting the government on its own terms? Is engagement not contradictory when we’re aiming to build real alternatives to the current system?

Why stop the criminalisation of squatting?

Would it not be better to force the battle – to allow squatting to be criminalised– so that we might see the lines in the sand between those who own, and those who do not?

Such arguments display a certain insularity, and are not uncommon among the autonomous and anti-authoritarian left. It may sound strange, but many people are not comfortable with breaking the law – they are not in a position to take the risks involved, and would simply end up with fewer rights and fewer options. The existing system excludes, weakens, and denies people access to the resources and communities we need and deserve. Here squatting is an opportunity, and for many one of the few remaining options, for building a life despite the damage caused by our Government.

Of course, as well as being a very direct solution to the problem of housing oneself, squatting presents radical solutions that go further. It enables us to use our time and skills in a manner less defined by the pressures of wage-labour. This allows the development of options for living and working that splinter from the definitions of these terms offered by the state. Squatting can therefore be a process that politicises people, but it is dangerous to assume that a ‘radicalisation’ would happen with criminalisation: we are more likely to simply see people being pushed into further destitution and invisibility.

The defence of legally enforced tenancy rights or of rights against forcible entry may be viewed by some as pro-state, in the same sense as the defence of welfarist provisions. In both cases, the criticism is mistaken, because our schools and our rights are not gifts graciously awarded by a benevolent or manipulative state, but are rather our own collective possessions that those who came before us have wrested from the hands of the owners. We have a responsibility to defend what they fought for, and to gain more ground. Furthermore it is crucial to be drawing the dots between the Government’s agenda to criminalise certain sections of society, and the ideological motivations behind this agenda. We are all, in different ways, fighting the same battles.

Why engage with the state on the level of legislation?

Such are some of the justifications for defending squatting, but what many on the anti-authoritarian left are more likely to object to are the means by which groups such as Squash are choosing to fight the potential legislation. Doesn’t engagement with political process confirm and legitimize the Government’s systems of control and order? Is our complicity further concretizing the systems we are apparently trying to fight, whilst pushing the realisation of real social change further and further away? The contradiction is rooted in fighting to protect the rights we have within the current system, whilst at the same time fighting for change beyond the current system.

This is a dilemma not only for those involved with Squash, but for anyone who seeks change in the present without wanting to stifle further (more radical) change in the future. It is important to start by recognising that none of us are so one-dimensional that we cannot work both within and without structures that we oppose; that we can have a set of short-term aims with a certain hat on, which doesn’t need to dilute the other visions that we hold dearer.

Furthermore, we believe that using the sanctioned channels of communication and working within a legally legitimate framework is crucial if we want to build networks with groups of people who are not comfortable with working outside of those parameters. Part of the challenge (beyond but not completely outside of this campaign) is to encourage people to see that it is possible to ourselves decide what may be legitimate or illegitimate; and that we do not need to rely on the abstract authority of the State to determine whether something is right or wrong. However, terms such as illegality and criminality are loaded, and the ideas they carry are potent. This is a language that power exploits very effectively: we cannot ignore or expect to brush away what ‘legality’ distinguishes, unless we want to exclude a significant proportion of people from our campaign.

We have focused here on the general rather than the particular in terms of the contradictions of engaging with the state at a legislative level, but it is how we proceed within this framework that is perhaps the more challenging task.

Engaging directly with the blunt instruments for dialogue offered by the state can of course be dangerous for squatters. Like many other things that fall outside the officially recognised structures, the Government has practically no evidence or data on squatting, no accurate definition of squatting, no real understanding of the boundaries between homelessness, squatting, and occupation. Providing the Government with information that would contribute to the construction of legal definitions of these terms would work against us all, as it would only assist in their campaign to divide and limit us by legal definition. This is an issue that has framed much of SQUASH’s approach to research. It is these questions – about how we navigate in-between these different realms, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, visible and invisible, that are crucial. The implications are very real, and potentially harmful; but also potentially the most exciting, where surprising affinities can form and where new possibilities can take root.

Pragmatism is a fundamental necessity in an imperfect world. Preventing the criminalisation of squatting is vital to our defence against neo-liberal economic violence. Engagement with political process and mainstream media are tactical decisions that we have made in the achievement of this immediate goal. We hope that you can see the logic of our position. Now that the ‘open’ part of the consultation has closed we call on you to use occupation as a tactic in whatever struggles you are engaged in – in your libraries, your universities, your workplaces, and the public spaces that are being sold off to private companies – because these things belong to us, and without space we cannot begin to build our alternatives.

Victoria Blitz and Rueben Taylor are both involved with SQUASH. Their views here are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of ‘SQUASH’.

Legal activism: the spatial politics of squatting in the UK

by Alex Vasudevan

On the 13 of July 2011, the UK Ministry of Justice published a consultation document entitled “Options for dealing with squatters.” The document set in motion a period of consultation which came to an end on the 5th of October and which was, in turn, aimed at “anyone who has been the victim of squatting; and anyone who has experience (positive or negative) of using the current law or procedures to get squatters evicted.” As Crispin Blunt (MP), the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State, points out in his foreword to the consultation, “the Government has become increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause.” He goes on to argue that “the Government does not accept the claim that is sometimes made that squatting is a reasonable recourse of the homeless resulting from social deprivation. There are avenues open to those who are genuinely destitute and who need shelter which do not involve occupying somebody else’s property without authority. No matter how compelling or difficult the squatter’s own circumstances, it is wrong that legitimate occupants should be deprived of the use of their property.” “The consultation,” Blunt concludes, “seeks evidence on the scale of the problem caused by squatters and invites views on a range of options for tackling it, including strengthening the criminal law or working within existing legislation to improve enforcement.”

If the recent consultation represents an attempt by the UK state to tighten the law on squatting, it should come as no surprise. Squatting has always had a close relationship to the law. Legally defined as an act of trespass, squatting is a criminal offence in Scotland (as set out in the Trespass Act of 1865) while it has largely remained a civil matter in the rest of the UK. Squatting is therefore unlawful in England and Wales but not illegal. 1 For many squatters, access to certain customary ‘rights’ was also seen as a source of protection from forcible eviction. This was supported by the Forcible Entry Acts of 1381 which proscribed against forcible entry onto any land or property.2

Over the past forty years, this legal position has come under increasing attack. A major wave of squatting in the late 1960s and early 1970s initiated a new era of legal ‘revanchism’ which challenged the limited protection afforded to squatters in the civil courts. In 1972, this was extended to criminal law as the Law Commission began to reconsider the statutes on trespass. The Commission published its preliminary findings in June 1974 and recommended the repeal of the Forcible Entry Acts and the criminalization of all forms of trespass. In the wake of intense criticism, a watered-down Final Report was published in March 1976. The report formed the basis for the Criminal Law Act of 1977 which represented, as David Watkinson has argued, an “extension of the criminal law in the area of trespass.“ 3 While new offences came into force and were punishable through prison sentences, neither squatting nor trespass was, as such, made illegal. Further changes in the law were proposed in 1991 as the Government set out a series of additional clauses to the Criminal Law Act as part of a consultation on squatting. These changes were tantamount to further criminalization and were challenged by a host of housing organizations and charities as well as SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes). In the end, the Government was forced to climb down and settle for less draconian measures (see clauses 72-76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994).

The launch of a new consultation on squatting in July represents, in this way, just the latest episode in a complex legal genealogy that shows the law to be unstable and exclusionary. As the anthropologist James Holston reminds us, it is imperative that we reject an essentialist and functionalist view of the law and focus instead on law as a “system of power.”4 A close reading of the consultation document should therefore attend to the very interests that are behind it and the wider net of social relations that inform its construction. By doing so, it becomes clear that the planned legislation is, ultimately, ideologically-driven and, as such, dependent on shoring up a commitment to the untouchable rightfulness of private property. By defending the interests of “hard-working homeowners” against squatters, the consultation mobilizes the law as a ‘tool’ or ‘weapon’ which only serves to perpetuate domination and accentuate inequality.

In June of this year I posted a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site which explored the coalition government’s plans to criminalize squatting in the lead up to the launch of the consultation. The main thrust of my argument then was twofold:

1) That plans to criminalize squatting would simply serve to exacerbate a growing housing crisis in the UK and that, if anything, squatting should be seen as a necessary coping strategy in the face of an highly uneven and exploitative housing market.5

2) That any new law on squatting betrays, in turn, a more sinister logic that seeks to legislate against various struggles for social justice in our cities and that the impact of a ban on the use of ‘occupation’ as a legitimate tactic of protest must be considered.

The decision by SQUASH – reformed in May 2011 - to participate in the consultation must be seen in this context. It would admittedly be easy to question their decision to engage with a state whose very use of the law is constitutively coercive and violent. This is, of course, hardly a new problem for an autonomous anti-authoritarian left. And yet, it is important to question whether it is in fact possible to campaign within such a legal framework. Does this simply legitimize the role and status of the state? Do such legal mobilizations perpetuate the misrule of law and the inviolability of property ownership? And is it really possible to work with this contradiction?

It would be easy to critique the inconsistencies and injustices of the law and to document the different ways in which it has been used to defend the parlous state of housing in the UK. In the Global South, residential illegality and squatting has often generated an “insurgence of political and civil rights among the urban poor, who learn to use law to legitimate their land claims and who thereby compete in legal arenas from which they have been excluded.” 6 For such residents, participation and inclusion within the law has become a central means by which new forms of citizenship are enacted and consolidated. Conflicts over the law are thus transformed into political practices that secure social and legal legitimacy. To the extent that these struggles speak to the rights-based arguments of recent urban social movements, they also provide resources for contesting the increasingly iniquitous geographies of contemporary urbanization. In the words of the Holston, “[this] is an insurgence that begins with the struggle for rights to have a daily life in the city worthy of a citizen’s dignity.”7

The recent campaign by SQUASH should, in contrast, be set against a different set of logics. It would be misleading, it seems to me, to situate the campaign within a strict discourse of political recognition, participation, and inclusion. I do not mean to diminish the central role that the experience of precarity and marginality has come to play for many squatters whose conditions of living have been reduced to the bare minimum. Indeed as Judith Butler has recently argued, “[any] different social ontology would have to start from the presumption that there is a shared condition of precarity that situates our political lives.”8 But I also believe that the campaign is perhaps best understood as both a form of resistance and as an act of reclamation. At stake here, following Henri Lefebvre, is a right to the city that reconciles material access to urban space and infrastructure with a “renewed right to urban life.” 9

The radical politics of housing articulated by SQUASH should not, in this way, be seen as an end in itself. As occupations spring up across the UK, it is becoming increasingly clear that a new countergeography of protest is emerging that seeks to reclaim and recast public space for a different politics. This may result, in the first instance, in an uneasy if tactical trade-off with the state, but it also offers a real opportunity for the constitution of a radical urban commons. It would therefore be a mistake to concede full legal agency to a state whose interests are sutured to a politics of dispossession and displacement, order and security. That there may, in the end, be no direct line of flight to the promised land of autonomous politics should not detract from the struggle for more just and equal spaces in our cities. The kind of activism undertaken by the SQUASH campaign is just one reminder of what can be accomplished and what still needs to be done.

Alex Vasudevan is a Lecturer in Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on radical politics in Germany and the wider geographies of neo-liberal globalisation. Alex is currently working on a book project that explores the historical and political geographies of the squatter movement in Berlin.

1. David Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” in Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar (eds.), Squatting: The Real Story (London: Bay Leaf Books, 1980), pp. 158-163, p. 158.
2. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 159; see also Colin Ward, Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 202), p. 161.
3. Watkinson, “The Erosion of Squatters Rights,” p. 161.
4. James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 206.
5. See Stuart Hodkinson, “Revenge of the Repossessed,” http://www.redpepper.org.uk/revenge-of-the-repossessed/ (last accessed October 20, 2011). For a recent exploration of the relationship between squatting and homelessness see Kesia Reeves, “Squatting: A Homelessness Issue,” An Evidence Review for the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Crisis_SquattingReport_... (last accessed October 20, 2011).
6. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 204. See also Arjun Appadurai, “Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics,” Public Culture 14, 1 (2002), pp. 21-47; Richard Neuwirth, Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
7. Holston, Insurgent Citizenship, p. 313.
8. Judith Butler, “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en (last accessed October 24, 2011).
9. Henri Lefebvre, “Right to the City,” in Writing on Cities, ed. and trans. by Elenore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), pp. 61-181, p. 158.

Occupied London: revolt and crisis in Greece

Published online July 2011. Review of the book "Revolt and Crisis in Greece: Between a Present Yet to Pass and a Future Still to Come", edited by Antonis Vradis and Dimitris Dalakoglou: an Occupied London Project (published by AK Press, 2011).

“We feel that what is being played out in Greece poses some enormous questions that reaches far beyond the place itself, or the people that live there.”

Many of us have been swept away by the struggles currently happening in Greece over the latest loan package to stave off the likely Greek default. The news channels loop familiar images of stone throwing protesters and violent police chasing each other through ubiquitous clouds of tear gas, whilst social media networks hum with the excitement of some of the largest social struggles in recent years. For many of us involved in anti-capitalist politics Greece serves as a suitable repository for the frustrations we feel with the political realities of our current homes.

It is then a timely moment for the editors of the Occupied London project, Antonis Vradas and Dimitris Dalakoglou, to release their first book. ‘Revolt and Crisis’ focuses on the month long Greek uprising of 2008 following the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos, its historical precedents as well as the new political terrains that it has opened up in conjunction with the global financial crash of 2008. Through its nineteen chapters the book seeks to dispel the myth of Greece as some exotic Other and explore the linkages between capitalist crisis, social antagonism (or social war) and urban politics. ‘Revolt and Crisis in Greece’ provides us with a window into the Greek political landscape, helping to situate and de-fetishise the 2008 revolt. As the editors are keen to point out “There are no palm trees in Athens”, a reference to the failed planting of palm trees by the Greek state for the Olympics in 2004; Greece shares many of the problems facing the rest of Europe. We need to dig beyond the spectacular images presented to us in order to begin to trace the real dynamics running through contemporary Greek politics. This book provides many useful avenues for doing just this as well as leaving the reader with enough difficult questions and political provocations to mull over. It deserves to be widely read by those encountering the limits of contemporary forms of anti-capitalism and seeking ways to move beyond them.

The book begins with a context-setting section whose chapters cover the history of the Greek ‘metapolitefsi’, the political system post-dictatorship which began in 1974, and its relationship to Athenian politics. As well as serving as a scene-setter these three chapters bring up interesting discussions regarding how the spatiality of a city can influence both positively and negatively the likelihood of social unrest. Athens did not have a Baron Von Haussman, the infamous civic planner responsible for re-designing Paris to assist social control, it marries the highest population density of a European capital with narrow streets and large numbers of intersections which (so argue the authors) facilitate social unrest. This is followed by a fascinating, if brief, dissection of the geography of recent notable urban uprisings in cities such as Paris and Buenos Aires. Further developing a familiar theme of the Occupied London project, ‘The Politics of Urban Space’, is a chapter discussing the nature and implications of two re-appropriations of urban space post-uprising, one explicitly anarchist, the other fascist.

The second section can be considered the core of the book. This section, entitled “The Event: December”, seeks to illuminate December 2008 from a variety of different perspectives and with a variety of different aims. There are discussions on counter-informational strategies, the return of armed vanguardist groups, experiments with popular assemblies and much more. Many of these chapters revolve around Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou’s (of Communist Hypothesis fame) notion of the Event. For Badiou an Event is a rupture with the present which produces hitherto unforeseen after-effects and possibilities. The scale and intensity of the December uprising was unpredicted and the channels of its generalisation can, in many ways, only be guessed at. Perhaps the key political question emerging from this event is whether social movements in Greece, both those that were formed in December 2008 and those that preceded it, can retain fidelity to these newly produced possibilities. Can these movements, to paraphrase an argument of Alex Trocchi’s chapter, not only intensify resistance but generalise its spread. It is clear that those movements that cease to move lose their purchase on the world. The danger of retreating behind safely delineated borders into a familiar political scene or sub-culture must be actively challenged through thoughtful political practice.

These issues are mulled over by several authors in both section two and the last section entitled “The Crisis”. Questions are asked of the anarchist identity by Christos Boukalas who reminds us in his chapter title that ‘no one is revolutionary until the revolution’. The argument is made that some strands of the anarchist scene in Greece have adopted a fetishised understanding of what it means to be a political militant or indeed a revolutionary and that this has led to an understanding of the activist as somehow outside of ‘normal’ society. This misunderstanding of revolutionary politics was highlighted tragically by the death of three bank workers during the huge demonstration of May 5th 2010. This critical analysis of the social antagonist movement in Greece is complemented by Alex Trocchi who places anarchist politics within its broader post ‘68 and anti-global trajectory, a trajectory which Trocchi suggests must be ruptured and superseded if we wish to gain more political purchase post-2008. These political questions are complemented by a thorough analysis of the political economy of Greece, which is similar in many ways to most European states, by Communist group TPTG and David Graeber who takes a historical approach to the topic of debt. This section serves to deal with the legacy of the 2008 uprising by exploring the terrain these movements find themselves on and beginning to deal with some of the political limits stopping these movements continuing to move and gain political traction.

Ultimately the broad range of perspectives contained in this book help to illuminate December 2008, recognising and broadening its complexities as well as, hopefully, generalising these issues to those of us beyond the Greek context. Although there are a (thankfully) few overly academic chapters which say little of interest in a fairly inaccessible way (even for someone with a post-grad degree) this book must be commended for contributing to an emerging problematisation of the ways in which we have done politics in the past decades. It is clear that December 2008 was an event whose importance is certainly not just in its origins or the timeline of conflicts which occurred, but also in the new possibilities it has unleashed. ‘Revolt and Crisis’ succeeds in chipping away at the romantic image of Greek anarchism and the December uprising; beyond the spectacular footage of masked anarchists, “carpets of glass” and Molotov cocktails, many of the questions are the same. How do we move beyond the limits of our current forms of struggle and political identification? How can we find political traction in a rapidly changing, fluid situation? How will the state respond to increasing social unrest as austerity politics are implemented? Ultimately, the question this book asks is can we move beyond our own limits? Just as parts of the anarchist movement in Greece are struggling to move beyond the limits of its current form, so are parts of the anti-capitalist movement here in the U.K.

Given its exciting, inspiring subject matter this book could easily have become an anti-capitalist mirror of the liberal ‘coffee table book’ interpretation of the revolts already popular in Greece. However, the editors have chosen a harder path to pursue and have given us a book full of insights into the Greek context and packed with broader questions, challenges and provocations for those of us frustrated with the limits of current anti-capitalist praxis and for this it should be commended.

Occupied with conspiracies? The occupy movement, populist anti-elitism, and the conspiracy theorists

Spencer Sunshine discusses the infiltration of the Occupy movement by conspiracy theorists.

All progressive social movements have dark sides, but some are more prone to them than others. Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs, with their populist, anti-elitist discourse (“We Are the 99%”) and focus on finance capital, have already attracted all kinds of unsavory friends: antisemites, David Duke and White Nationalists, Oath Keepers, Tea Partiers, and followers of David Icke, Lyndon Larouche, and the Zeitgeist movement (see glossary below).

On one hand, there is nothing particularly new about this. The anti-globalization movement was plagued with these problems as well.(1) This was sometimes confusing to radicals who saw that movement as essentially Left-wing and anti-capitalist; when the radicals said “globalization,” they really meant something like the “highest stage of capitalism,” and so from their perspective, by opposing one they were opposing the other. The radicals often saw the progressives in the movement as sharing this same vision, only in an “incomplete way”­—and that they only needed a little push (usually by a cop’s baton) to see that capitalism could not be reformed, and instead had to be abolished.

But for numerous others, “globalization” did not mean capitalism. Just as for the radicals, it functioned as a codeword: for some it meant finance capital (as opposed to industrial capital), while for others it meant the regime of a global elite constructing their “New World Order.” And either or both might also have meant the traditional Jewish conspiracy’s supposed global domination and control of the banking system. Whether they realized it or not, the many anti-authoritarians who praised this “movement of movements” as being based solely on organizational structure, with no litmus test for political inclusion, put out a big welcome sign for these dodgy folks. And in that door came all kinds of things, from Pat Buchanan to Troy Southgate.

But still, the anti-globalization movement in the United States was initiated by an anarchist / progressive coalition that in many ways controlled the content and discourse of it, giving it a classic Popular Front feel—the same way the old Communist Parties controlled large progressive coalitions for many decades. In contrast to this, Occupy Wall Street immediately took on a purely populist approach.

There are different ways to understand and oppose capitalism. There is a structural critique, usually associated with Marxism but often shared by anarchism, which seeks to understand the internal dynamics of capital and sees it as a system, beyond the control of any particular person or group. There is also an ethical critique, popular among religious groups and pacifists, which focuses less on the “whys” of capital and instead concentrates on its effects, looking at how it produces vast differences in wealth while creating misery, scarcity, and unemployment for most of the world. Last, there is a populist vision, which can transcend Left and Right. Populists have a narrative in which the “elites” are opposed to the “people.”

On one hand, this can be seem as a vague kind of socialism which counterposes the everyday worker against the truly rich. But it also lacks any kind of specific analysis of class or other social differences—the 99% are treated as one homogenous body. Usually the “people” are seen as the “nation,” and these 1% elites are perceived to be acting against the nation’s interests. From a radical, anti-capitalist viewpoint, this narrative may be wrong and “incomplete,” but by itself is not dangerous. In fact, many progressive and even socialist political movements have been based on it.

But the populist narrative is also an integral part of the political views of conspiracy theorists, far Right activists, and antisemites. For antisemites, the elites are the Jews; for David Icke, the elites are the reptilians; for nationalists, they are members of minority ethnic, racial, or religious groups; for others, they are the “globalists,” the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, the Federal Reserve, etc. All of these various conspiracy theories also tend to blend in and borrow from each other. Additionally, the focus on “Wall Street” also has specific appeal to those who see the elite as represented by finance capital, a particular obsession of the antisemites, Larouchites, followers of David Icke, etc. “The Rothschilds” are the favorite stand-in codeword of choice to refer to the supposed Jewish control of the banking system.

Much has already been said about the Occupy movement’s refusal to elucidate its demands. On one hand, this has been useful in mobilizing a diverse group of people who can project what they want to see in this movement—anarchists, Marxists, liberals, Greens, progressive religious practitioners, etc. On the other hand, this has been useful in mobilizing a diverse group of people who can project what they want to see in this movement—Ron Paulists, libertarians, antisemites, followers of David Icke, Zeitgeist movement folks, Larouchites, Tea Partiers, White Nationalists, and others. The discourse about the “99%” (after all, these Right-wingers and conspiracy mongers are probably a far greater proportion of the actual 99% than are anarchists and Marxists), along with the Occupy movement’s refusal to set itself on a firm political footing and correspondingly to place limitations on involvement by certain political actors, has created a welcoming situation for these noxious political elements to join.

So far, the overwhelmingly progressive nature of many of these Occupations has kept this element at bay. But it is only the weight of the numbers of the progressive participants that has done this. There are neither organizational structures within the Occupy movement, nor are there conceptual approaches that it is based on, that act to ensure this remains the case. So it is not unreasonable to expect that, especially as participation declines, some of the Occupations will be taken over by folks from these far Right and conspiratorial perspectives. All participants might rightly see themselves as part of the 99%. The real divisive question will then be, who do they think the 1% are?

Notes

(1) At least one Left group had quit the anti-globalization movement in 1998 because of antisemitism and far Right affiliations; a prominent deep-pocketed funder had close links to a neo-fascist think tank; and neo-Nazi figures both praised the Seattle demonstrations and attempted to glean off the anti-globalization movement after words. Things got so out of hand that a whole new brand of decentralized crypto-fascism crystallized and attempted an entryist maneuver. See my “Re-branding Fascism: National-Anarchism” for more background on this.

Spencer Sunshine is researcher, journalist, and activist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writings on the far Right include “Re-branding Fascism: National-Anarchists”. He is currently writing a book about the theoretical implications of the transition from classical to contemporary anarchism.

POLITICAL GLOSSARY:

Buchanan, Pat (US): Paleconservative politician who has run several high-profile campaigns for President. A Christian nationalist, he opposes globalization and relies on racist, antisemitic, and homophobic worldviews.

Duke, David (US): Media-savvy founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives as a Republican in 1990 but lost his bid for US Congress. Duke stresses antisemitic theories about Jewish control of the Federal Reserve and the banking system, and has endorsed the Occupy movement.

finance capital vs industrial capital: Populism often depends on the producerist narrative, which pits “unproductive capital” against “productive” capital. Unproductive capital refers to industries which are based on the manipulation of abstractions (banking), versus the production of physical objects (factory work). The Nazis relied on this distinction for their “National Socialism.”

Icke, David (UK): A former Green Party-leader-turned-conspiracy theorist who blends numerous different conspiratorial ideas together, including antisemitic ideas. He claims that world leaders are Reptilian aliens who appear to be humans, and feed off negative human energy. He has followers on both the Left and Right.

Larouche, Lyndon (US): A former Trotskyist who founded a Left-wing cult around himself and then quickly transformed it into a far Right political organization with a focus on intelligence gathering. He is an antisemitic nationalist who attacks finance capital and globalization.

Oath Keepers (US): Right-wing organization of current and former military and law enforcement members. Descended from the Militia movement, they pledge to disobey certain federal orders that are perceived to violate the Constitution.

Paul, Ron (US): Republican Congressman from Texas who is currently seeking to be his party’s 2012 presidential candidate. He has libertarian economics and isolationist politics; he opposed the US invasion of Iraq but also wants to withdraw from the UN. Favors drug legalization and dismantling the Federal Reserve. Has support from some White Nationalists as well as some progressives.

Southgate, Troy (UK): Former National Front activist who founded National-Anarchism, a form of decentralized crypto-fascism which attempted to infiltrate the anti-globalization movement.

Tea Party (US): A Right-wing populist movement that has affected the US political landscape. It has no clear focus but a mass base and deep funding from wealthy Rightists. Islamophobes, ‘Birthers’ (who claim that President Obama was born in Kenya and is a secret Muslim), and White Nationalists can be found in these circles.

White Nationalists: A catch-all term for various far Right politics whose central concern is the “preservation” of people of European descent (excluding Jews), who are seen as comprising a “nation.” This includes white supremacists, white separatists, and those who work inside parliamentary systems but advocate for “white rights.”

Zeitgeist movement: Technocratic movement which also transcends the traditional Left / Right divide. Founded by Peter Joseph, it originates in a series of movies which blended various conspiracy theories together. Chapters exist around the world.

Originally published in Shift Magazine

Precarious life?

Written by Shift Editor Ben Lear, published online February 2012. This was the call out for articles for a short series on Precarity.

Quote:
"We must accept the idea that financial capitalism can recover and thrive without social recovery. Social life has become residual, redundant, irrelevant"

Bifo, After the Future (2011)

Precarity is a term which entered the language of European social movements from the 1980s. The concept gained particular prominence within the Euro Mayday demonstrations which saw San Precario - patron saint of precarious workers paraded through the streets of many European cities. Precarity is a concept which attempts to grapple with the fundamental changes to the relationship between capital and class we have seen since the early 1970s. These changes were precipitated by the collapse of the post-war consensus between labour and capital which saw the allocation of rising wages and improving lifestyles for many in exchange for increasing productivity and profitability in the factories of the Global North. In response to growing working class counter-power expressed through youth uprisings, the black liberation movement and struggles over the rate of exploitation within the factories we witnessed a capitalist backlash. A collection of national and international policies, changes in production technology and the dominant forms of capital accumulation and, at times, naked violence succeeded, for the most part, in re-imposing the authority of capital. These processes and policies succeeded in converting the unruly working class of the factory and university occupation into the hyper-connected, over-stressed and self-entrepreneurial subject demanded by new forms of capital accumulation. The horizons of politics has irrevocably altered, we can’t return to the forms of struggle and the demands of decades long gone. As attractive as the 1960s appears now, mired deep in the crisis of late capitalism, we can't return to this period.

Today's global political economy is characterised by hyper-exploitation for some and enforced idleness for the rest. A full employment economy has slowly slipped out of electoral manifestos and been replaced with a suite of policies to promote flexibility, profitability and a skills-based economy. Piecework and the rhythm of the factory with its routine, gruelling hours has been replaced by zero hour contracts and the faceless demands of our own smart phones. For most of us work is insecure, unrewarding and under-paid. Those few of us that remain in unions do so fully aware of the cynical nature of the bureaucracy and the inadequate tools at their disposal for protecting what remains of secure employment. Whilst a small class of freelance creatives, media moguls and financial executives have been lifted on the rising tide of this new economy, the rest of us exist in a state of work related hyper-tension. Stressed in work and stressed out of it. The collapse of all sense of a work/leisure distinction and the spectre of unemployment stalk those of us lucky enough to inhabit the offices and call centres of what remains of the European economy. For those unlucky enough to find themselves amongst the ranks of the structurally unemployed, job seeking has become a job in itself, one policed by the pressures of self-development and the discipline of the job centre. As unemployment rates rise ‘employabilty’ services continue to be a growth sector.

Precarity is a term to describe the subjective, personal experience of late capitalism. It is one perspective with which to grasp the disorientating medley of hyper-exploitation, the technology-enabled mobilisation of our emotions and desires, ever more ingenious forms of discipline and de-territorialised financial flows which define late capitalism. However we don't just experience the logic of late capitalism in our places of work, or non-work. As we are keen to stress in Shift, capitalism is a social relation which we encounter throughout our everyday lives. The neoliberal regime is based on expanding the rule of value into areas outside of commodity production alone. We can see the rhythm of capital now at work in fields as diverse as health and social care, education and environmental protection, all spheres once the preserve of the ‘social’. The processes and functions needed to reproduce populations with all the skills and amenities expected of 2012 are increasingly subordinated to the logic of capital.

The crisis of 2008 has made the impact of these, now accelerating, developments more keenly felt. As the recently unemployed are churned through privatised ‘employability’ programmes, students see their EMA (Education Maintenance allowance) cut, university fees rise and transport and housing costs increase. The two central planks of the Tories’ Plan A for austerity are budget deficit strategies working hand-in-hand with the politics of the ‘Big Society’ - a set of policies to replace slashed social services with community entrepreneurialism. Whether employed or not the services which allow us to function within this society are becoming increasingly uncertain. With the wholesale assault on the social wage many of us once enjoyed - pensions, education, welfare etc - we experience increased precarity in every aspect of our daily lives. As the crisis of capital deepens and the gap between the richest strata of society and the rest of us widens, conflicts over social reproduction will expand. Struggles over the NHS, EMA, University fees and internet piracy are all examples of the importance of reproductive struggles and areas of vibrancy and political experimentation can be seen.

We hope this series will provide a space for organisers to continue exploring how precarity affects our political practice. How does it effect our ability to organise and communicate? Is it an issue we can mobilise around or a perspective we need to adopt? Can more traditional forms of labour and community organising be rethought for the current period? We are critical of those that call for a return to the Fordist period. We believe we can’t go back. Even if we wanted a full employment society, changes in production and technology, the organisation and function of the state and the labour movement as well as environmental devastation are unlikely to permit it. If we can’t go back then we need to be developing new concepts and new demands. This perspective will put us into conflict with all those arguing for the continuation of a society built on labour and debt but may also open up exciting new spaces and alliances.

Shift are excited to announce the beginning of this new series on precarity. This is a new area of discussion for Shift and we hope to use it to build links between various parts of the anti-capitalist movement here in the UK. There is an obvious disconnect between activist scenes, single issue campaigns, labour orientated organisers and those of us struggling to devise forms of political action suitable for the present outside of existing political vehichles. It is our hope that the articles, interviews and reviews published in this series can start bringing together these various perspectives in a productive manner. The articles already commissioned for this series are, we hope, just the start and we encourage submissions of article proposals to continue and develop these conversations...


Ben Lear is an editor of Shift Magazine and contributing author to 'Occupy Everything! Reflections on why it’s kicking off everywhere' published this year by Minor Composition. His tweets can be found at @Ben_In_Manc

Precarity and the workplace: an account of organising at an FE College

Published online in February 2012. Written by Siobhan as part of Shift's Precarity series, the introduction to which can be read here.

This is a personal account of an anti casualisation struggle where I work. Frustratingly, we are right in the middle of our struggle and bogged down in the bureaucratic mud at the moment, so I won’t be able to tell you if we won or not!

I work in an FE college in London. Approximately 70 of us are hourly paid lecturers (HPLs), which means we are on zero hour contracts. This means we get 65% of the pay that we would get if we were permanent and we don’t have any guaranteed minimum number of hours. It also means we don’t need to be formally made redundant, which is what we are fighting about now.

Last year my department fought a battle against redundancies to the permanent staff, which included direct action and strike threats. When they announced that we had won no compulsory redundancies (a few days before our planned strike) we asked the union about the hourly paid staff, and were told that management said they didn’t foresee any redundancies of HPLs and that there was an agreement not to reduce our hours by more than 50%. Just a few days after this conversation we got told that actually there probably would be job losses, we would find out our position when term started, but not to expect much work. The union brought up the 50% agreement and management said that no such agreement existed. It turned out nothing was in writing. We were now in a much weaker position as we had no live ballot for strike action, and everyone was going away for the summer holiday.

When we started back in September, after a summer of total uncertainty, some teachers were not offered anything. Some, including me, had cuts in hours up to ninety per cent, and some were only given work to the end of October. We called an emergency union meeting of the whole teaching staff, which was very well attended, and got, amazingly, a hundred per cent vote for action up to and including strike action in defence of the HPLs. However the branch secretary, who hadn’t attended the meeting, delayed putting this motion to management as he didn’t agree with it, because it was “too confrontational”. We had another emergency meeting, voted again one hundred per cent to declare a dispute if our concerns were not answered, and started asking the UCU regional for a ballot. This went on and on, until the end of October came, the people concerned lost their jobs, and we were unable to do anything at all as we were still waiting for our ballot.

The HPL campaign is very different from the struggle against redundancies last year in my department. For a start, in our department we are a compact group of people, who work in three adjacent staff rooms and who all know each other well. As HLPs however we are scattered all over the college. People who don’t have enough hours (the majority) do other jobs and rush in, teach and rush out. Some people don’t plan on staying long or are working freelance in another career. However a lot of people stay working on the HPL contract for years, hoping to get made permanent. Black and female teachers are more likely to end up in this position. So although we are a distinct group of staff with a specific common problem, we are very dispersed and it has always been very difficult to bring the hourly paid workforce together to discuss our situation.

We have an elected hourly paid rep now and recently one of the other union reps began pushing the issue of the HPL contract at negotiation meetings. When the issue of redundancies came up this rep had already gathered a lot of evidence that the contract as it stood was illegal and that management were abusing the contract. This was very useful and put them on the defensive. However, the struggle relies heavily on the work of this shop steward who is not an HPL. She is very committed to trying to improve the conditions of the HPLs, but this does mean that we don’t always know what is happening or what is being negotiated. We have tried various ways of communicating as HPLs, but the basic problem is that everything is difficult and time consuming due to people being so dispersed and not knowing each other. For example, I only work on main site two days a week, and I never see my rep as we don’t have compatible timetables.

Subjectively, sometimes I don’t want to work on the campaign, even though it is actually fighting to improve my own conditions, as I’m tired and annoyed and don’t want to go to the college on my day off. Sometimes I also feel angry with the permanent staff or the other HPLs. With the permanent staff because they make comments to me like “but that’s what the hourly paids are for” (when people who had worked in the college for twelve years lost their jobs) or “but you knew it wasn’t a permanent contract” (when I lost ninety per cent of my hours overnight). With the hourly paid teachers because so many of them cross the picket line when we’re on strike. I do find a little bit of emotional energy left over to get angry with the management as well.

Last term many things helped our struggle succeed. Being in a tight knit team, knowing and trusting my workmates, having that emotional connection and seeing each other all the time. We made decisions collectively, at one point having weekly meetings. With the scattered HPLs we just don’t have that. We have also run up against familiar problems with trying to call official action. We had to battle to get our vote for a strike last term, and we only got it as we already had a live ballot. Later, people lost their jobs while we were helplessly waiting for a ballot. The problem is not only the anti union laws. Some people in the union have viewed the casualised teachers as a buffer, who can be put on short time or laid off easily, which protects the jobs of the “core membership”: the permanent teachers. It is only very recently that the issue of redundancies and bad treatment of the HPLs has been considered a union issue at all. We have managed to get two unanimous votes for strike action, from the union branch which is mainly permanent staff, to support the casualised staff who are mainly non unionised, which is an excellent result. However, many weaknesses of our position are apparent. We haven’t actually been on strike, because we are not fully in control of the strike process. Too much control resides in the regional, because they can give or withhold the ballot, and they think defending HPLs is more trouble than it’s worth. Beyond that, the college management may make some concessions if they see we are serious, but they see this as a threat to their right to manage, and are being very hardline at the moment. The dispersal and high turnover of HPLs means we don’t have an easy way to talk to each other or to plan action. The lack of involvement historically by HPLs in the union means that we are starting from a very unorganised position and are having to build up from scratch.

At the moment we are still waiting for our ballot, so that hopefully we can be ready to strike if they announce new redundancies. We are going to fight for our contract to be changed. We are going to meet with other colleges who have fought successful battles for better contracts. And me, well, seeing as I lost ninety per cent of my hours this year, tomorrow I’m going to sign on.

Siobhan is from north London and has worked in many jobs from cleaning printing presses to making balloon animals. She is now an FE teacher after going to university through an Access course and is a member of UCU and Solfed.

The Manchester protest against Aaron Porter was not anti-Semitic!

The unsubtantiated claims of anti-semitic abuse directed towards Aaron Porter in the press masks the real story - that of the growing gulf between students and their "leaders".

Many people reading the news coverage of the TUC, UCU and NUS-organised demonstration in Manchester on 29 January must have felt disgusted with the student movement in this country. First students desecrated the Cenotaph in London last December (sic), and now they have apparently shouted vile racist abuse at NUS president Aaron Porter. The ‘story’ seems to have begun with an article on Daily Mail online, which refers briefly to a photographer, who apparently overheard a chant of ‘Tory Jew’ directed at the student leader. From that they constructed a headline reading ‘student leader faces barrage of anti-Jewish abuse at rally’. Then a story on the Telegraph website mentions unnamed ‘witnesses’ who heard the same ‘anti-Semitic insults’, and they add that other protesters responded with ‘no to racism, no to racism’. From there it goes viral with several online media outlets ‘reporting’ chants of ‘Tory Jew scum’ and ‘vile racist abuse’.

We were close to Porter at all times during the incident. It started off with just a handful of students asking him about his lack of support for their actions, and then when he started walking off, a large group (probably around a third of those assembled at the time) followed him all the way to Manchester Metropolitan University where he took refuge behind police lines. There were chants of scum, ‘Tory too’, Porter out etc. but we heard no anti-Semitic abuse, and no chants of ‘no to racism’, either.

Could this all be a fabrication based on that one photographer’s mishearing of ‘too’ for ‘Jew’, in the chant ‘Aaron Porter, we know you – you’re a fucking Tory too’? It seems likely.

Apart from the unnamed photographer cited by the Daily Mail, and the unnamed witnesses mentioned by the Telegraph (could that just be the same photographer?), we have only found one reference to anti-Semitic abuse by an eye-witness. On the blog ‘Harry’s Place’, a commenter writes:

‘I was at this protest today and I heard 2, yes, two people chanting this. And, guess what, the two men chanting this were of Asian descent, they were not white. Also what the article fails to mention is that about 20 or so people started chanting “no, no, no to racists” at these men.’

It is of course possible that a couple of chants of ‘Tory Jew’ were made in the noisy crowd that we did not hear (nor did any of our 20-30 friends in the group hear anything like this). But we do think it almost entirely impossible that none of us, or anybody else we know, would have missed chants of ‘no to racists’ by a group of 20 people. (None of the youtube clips we looked at made us think differently either, but if evidence did emerge of anti-Semitism we’d be the first to condemn this, though we would not see this as anything else but an isolated detail).

We certainly don’t think that anti-Semitic sentiments are impossible in the student movement. There were more than enough incidents, chants and political expressions during the university occupations in solidarity with Gaza during the first months of 2009, and in condemnation of Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ that we were deeply unhappy with. And of course we are reminded of ULU president Clare Solomon’s remarks last year that were highlighted by activists from the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty, and that seemed to belittle the historical persecution of Jews (though she subsequently retracted her statements and we don’t really want to comment on what might just be some point-scoring exercise between the AWL and Solomon’s organisation Counterfire).

Yet, the frustrating thing about the news coverage of the Aaron Porter incident is not the cheap (and often hypocritical) attempt at branding a group of several hundred left-wing and anarchist students ‘racists’. The real frustration arises out of the real story this coverage has stifled: the fact that Porter’s inability of partaking in the Manchester demonstration is actually symbolic of a significant escalation of the gulf between the NUS leadership and a majority of those students who have been attending the demonstrations in November and December last year, and this latest one in January.

Grassroots students accuse Porter of branding the attempted mass occupation of the Tory HQ in Millbank Tower ‘absolutely despicable’ and calling the students present an ‘utter disgrace’ in the national press after the 10/11/10 ‘Demolition’ protest. They are offended by the NUS’s cautiousness when it came to organising more demonstrations, the lack of support for those who engaged in low-scale confrontation with the police in Parliament Square, and suspect a careerist motivation behind Porter’s condemnation of student militancy. 8 student unions across the country are not affiliated to the NUS, motions of no confidence in Porter have been passed by three student unions (including Birbeck College and SOAS), and Bristol University union are due to decide on a no confidence motion at their AGM on 10 February. On top of that, an elected officer of Manchester Metropolitan University union complained after the Manchester demonstration of a NUS’s ‘lack of engagement’ with local activists who were not invited to speak at the Platt Fields rally yesterday. Quoted in the local newspaper Manchester Mule, he stated that ‘our students’ union should not be used as a headquarters for the NUS’, and that ‘there was no engagement with Man Met Union at all, and no opportunity for student reps from Manchester to talk.’

An unbridgeable gap?

The successful exclusion of Aaron Porter from his ‘own’ demonstration was actually a mixture of careful strategising amongst Manchester students and spontaneous crowd reaction. It would have been all too easy for a small group of student anarchists in black hoodies and facemasks to throw a couple of eggs during Porter’s speech, had it taken place. Similarly, the small gaggle of the seemingly-resurrected Clown Army could have focused its antics on the NUS president. But after Porter had written in the Guardian, just a day before the demonstration, that the NUS has been ‘leading the movement’ and that its left-wing critics ‘represent few people other than themselves’, such vanguardist actions would have only played into his hands. Instead, a seemingly less militant, but certainly more effective, course of action was to heckle Porter during his speech at Platt Fields Park.

It never came to that of course. Hundreds of flyers were handed out to students at the assembly point of the demonstration, inciting them to ‘Heckle the President’. The overwhelmingly positive responsive to the flyers quickly changed the pre-march atmosphere. Porter was spotted nearby, with only a couple of stewards (a handful of them were from a private security firm working for MMU union, as the TUC had apparently not found enough volunteers) there to protect him. More and more students started to move towards him, and finally a few attempted to engage him in a discussion. But Porter wasn’t in the mood for talking and instead was escorted away by the stewards, with a crowd of now some 300 people (our figure compares to 150 cited in mainstream media reports, and 500 in the AWL write-up) following him, heckling him, all the way to his chosen refuge in Manchester Metropolitan University, some 500 metres up the road. It was an overwhelming sign of ‘no confidence’, if not by the mass of the student body, then certainly by those students that had come to attend the demonstration.

The anti-NUS sentiments were also voiced on the rather uneventful march down Oxford Road to Platt Fields Park, with a number of banners and placards declaring ‘Aaron Porter does not represent me’. And it became more obvious during the TUC-organised rally.

The political gap between the speakers from various trade union bodies and campaigns, and probably about half of the 2-3,000 strong crowd was remarkable. There was occasional heckling of the speakers all the way through, and during one speech, a group of protesters even turned on their biketrailer-mounted soundsystem and started dancing. All talks were repetitive, social-democratic, and attempting to gain support for a neo-Keynesian model of welfare state and full employment. They were answered with occasional shouts of ‘we know’ and ‘you’re all saying the same’. The only noticeable resonance with the majority of the listeners came when a speaker was announced to have taken part in the Edinburgh University occupation.

And it seemed like a large section of the crowed only endured the speeches in order to get the chance to heckle Aaron Porter again. ‘Porter, Porter – show your face’, they chanted. Somebody handed out eggs and rotten tomatoes, and it must have been several dozen people, mainly students and ex-students, who were eager to take them. Had Porter appeared on stage, he would have been absolutely pelted! (what a difference this made to the situation at London’s Embankment on the day of the tuition fees vote, where Porter’s speech at his glowstick vigil was interrupted only by a few, but loud, shouts of ‘traitor, traitor’) Instead it was NUS vice president for further education Shane Chowen (while trying to defend the NUS position) and Manchester Central MP Tony Lloyd (‘he’s Labour and voted for the war – let’s get him’) who had to cut their speeches short after eggs were thrown in their direction. And when it become clear that Porter would no longer make an appearance, a few activists behind a reinforced banner (‘you have the scissors, we have the rocks’) led a mass exodus of some 1,000 people (almost half the crowd on the field) back onto the streets of Manchester, halfway through a trade union rep’s speech.

While the union reps in Platt Field’s Park were given a tough time, our engagement within union structures should not be underestimated. We were glad that the crowd stayed with the rally as long as it did, and shouted back at the speakers. We wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few of them rethinking their relationship with the rank-and-file and grassroots activists. When one group of protesters began chants of ‘Strike, Strike, Strike!’ during the speech of what might have been the GMB or NUT representative (sorry, we didn’t pay too much attention at that point), she answered back, slightly embarrassed, with ‘yes, we will discuss this, we are with you’. For Aaron Porter to regain the trust of the student demonstrations, however, the time has passed.

From Shift magazine

Flyers were handed out to students at the assembly point of the demonstration, inciting to ‘Heckle the President’. The overwhelmingly positive responsive to the flyers quickly changed the pre-march atmosphere. Porter was spotted nearby, with only a couple of stewards there to protect him.

Welcome to the occupation

Published February 2012. Written for Shift's Precarity series, the Introduction to which can be read here.

What are the meanings of ‘occupation’ today? How might the word’s different uses relate to each other, specifically in the context of the UK’s current political situation?

The message from the Coalition is that protest against its programme of spending cuts and privatisation will only be tolerated as long as it falls within the boundaries set by the authorities and doesn’t inconvenience anyone, as long as it follows the approved route and steps aside politely once it’s had its moment in the spotlight (as illustrated in the unwittingly Warholian manner of a government minister who suggested fifteen minute stoppages in lieu of one-day strikes). There is never any justification for obstructing the flow of capital and labour. Only a placatory re-channelling is acceptable, a sort of Glastonburyised leisure activism which, far from threatening ruling interests, ends up reinforcing them, as opposing views are perfunctorily taken into account and people allowed to ‘have their say’ while the measures are pushed through regardless. Protests which outstay their welcome by occupying territory earmarked for use by capital – whether potential advertising space in the media consciousness or an actual patch of land – are ridiculed as extremist and often brutally repressed.

The same theme occurs in the post-Fordist employment marketplace: you can be as ‘alternative’ as you like in your tastes or beliefs as long as this does not impinge on the work you are summoned to do, the products you are required to sell, the targets you have to meet. Any questioning of this apparent freedom is forbidden. In this sense, people are arguably more tightly restricted and deeply subsumed by capital than ever before. We’re flexible, say the bosses, so we expect you to be too; if you don’t like it, go somewhere else; a judgement delivered with a cynical flourish as unemployment levels rise. At Jobcentre level, the prospect of refusing work on ethical grounds is almost unthinkable.

This emptying out of the substance of work has been achieved to a great extent through capitalism’s use of precarious employment practices to drive down labour costs while convincing people that they have been freed from the chains of industry and that their destiny is now entirely in their own hands. In the words of countless aspirational television shows, if you have ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ and ‘self-belief’ you will succeed; and if you fail, it is your own fault; success and failure here of course being entirely framed by the interests of capital.

Through the spread of short-term insecure work the traditional category of ‘occupation’, signifying what one does for a living and connoting usefulness and belonging, has given way to an endless entrepreneurial career narrative propelled by generic terms such as ‘flexibility’ and ‘transferrable skills’. The individual is expected to surf between temporary assignments and market oneself as a multi-purpose commodity.

Now that practically all jobs are at risk, precarity has become paradoxically institutionalised. Workplaces become zones of permanent transition and deteriorating conditions go unchallenged as people are always just passing through, reluctant to jeopardise their prospects and always eager to move on before they are dropped. Such restless mobility brings on a spatial disorientation, and also a temporal blurring. Whereas the term occupation traditionally refers to the job a person is doing now, the discourse of careers and employability is all about what you aspire to do, where you hope/believe you will be in the future, and how you intend to get there ahead of, rather than alongside, your peers. To adapt Paul Mason’s phrase, today’s disaffected graduate (or school leaver, or middle-aged redundancy victim for that matter) is not only someone with no future, but also someone with no present. The routine question ‘what do you do?’ can provoke existential uncertainty, if not misery.

In order to assuage this anxiety and ensure effective functioning under the rule of precarity, the vacancy left by the absence of occupation is filled with the job of ‘jobseeking’. Whether or not one is technically employed, jobseeking becomes the supreme vocation, much more so than any actual work. Its duties of searching, updating and networking constitute an ongoing regime of self-care.

Similarly the function of labour (or welfare) is increasingly described not in the vulgar terms of getting money to live on, but as offering the speculative currency of opportunity, a foot in the door rather than food on the table. Internships are sold in this way as empowering, sought-after experiences. They are pastiches of paid work, while at the other end of the spectrum mandatory workfare schemes are cruel parodies, quasi-rehabilitative exercises designed to teach the unemployee a lesson while supplying the corporate client with free labour.

The process of dispersing occupation into the circuit of careers and jobseeking reaches its limit in the realisation that there is nothing behind the rhetoric. The promised future will never arrive; and furthermore, when the aspirational music stops it becomes clear that disorientation and instability do not obscure the real shape of the present; they define it.

In order to re-imagine the future this lost present must first of all be reinstated, and this requires a radical re-orientation of work and a re-occupation of the space of employment.
Another interpretation: by a reverse effect, the refugee aesthetic of the various anti-capitalist occupations highlights the real

occupation which is happening all around them, and from which they are improvised escape attempts: that is, the private corporate takeover of public services, public space and public thought. The occupying force is a wealthy elite which has bought the favours of self-serving politicians and is now siphoning resources away from welfare, health and education. Social institutions are being turned into lucrative business ventures.

As banal as this genre of oppression might seem in comparison with those in other parts of the world, nevertheless for certain sectors of the population – people with disabilities undergoing persecutory ‘assessments’, for instance, or those being pushed into workfare or caught in the downward spiral of debt and temporary work - everyday existence starts to resemble life under occupation. Interchangeable political parties offer non-existent choices; continual crisis and police brutality are combined with a synthetic antidepressant positivity. In workplaces and job interviews people seem to be performing roles and reciting approved scripts, as if for some unseen observer. Beneath this veneer a constant background of fear and stress is taken for granted.

A crucial task for the protest-occupations is therefore to connect with those who would not necessarily identify themselves as part of a politicised ‘precariat’ or union group, but who are nevertheless being held hostage by global capital. For many in precarious work the protests and strikes are likely to be experienced almost entirely as media spectacle, something remote to their own situations. This spectacular remoteness must be transformed into a closeness which provides practical support and theoretical ammunition. So after realising protest, the next step is to bring the principles of this real protest – which, as stated earlier, must cause inconvenience and outstay its welcome - to bear on workplaces which have been virtualised, where resistance has been inverted into competitive eagerness or turned inwards into apathy and self-blame.

Of course it is in the interests of the occupying powers to portray the various demonstrations as eccentric niche events and thereby make them easily containable. It is precisely the prospect of alliances across groups – between freelancers and agency temps, immaterial and manual labourers, employed and unemployed, old and young - which is most feared by the authorities. By recognising that this epidemic of insecurity is not a natural phenomenon or something brought upon oneself, but rather a technology which has been deliberately installed and maintained across all these different areas, people might begin to externalise their frustrations. Precarity might then be wrested away from those executives who administer and perpetuate it and made into a unifying, catalysing force for those on the receiving end.

The transient non-places which reproduce the culture of low-paid precarious labour - the recruitment agencies, warehouses and call centres, restaurants and shopping concourses – need to be re-occupied, re-placed. Staff need to be encouraged to immobilise themselves, to be inflexible and reject the worthless ‘opportunities’ offered to them. Unwanted ‘work experience’ must be avoided, Jobcentres returned to the status of welfare offices rather than disciplinary facilities. Last-minute calls from temp agencies should be left unanswered, admin tasks not completed outside working hours, performance targets ignored, competition with fellow workers resisted. A culture of collective hostility and negativity should be cultivated.

Finally, we need to occupy ourselves. We should evict the language of aspiration and customer service and re-occupy our minds and bodies. Knowledge and desire must be liberated from the clutches of employability. Somehow we must find a way to discredit the words put into our mouths by ventriloquist bosses even as we are forced to speak them, and learn again how to speak up for ourselves and each other. Then we might at last start to recover those occupations we have lost, and invent new ones.

Ivor Southwood blogs at http://screened-out.blogspot.com/ and tweets from @screenedout. His book "Non-Stop Inertia" deals with precarious labour and was published by Zero Books.

Why it’s kicking off everywhere - Tom Fox

Tom Fox reviews Paul Mason's book "Why it's Kicking off Everywhere".

Of all the events of 2011, the least predictable may well be the adoption of the economics editor of Newsnight as an avuncular figure for the left’s new generation. But Paul Mason’s gift for being in the right place at the right time, and reporting from there with enthusiasm, vitality and sympathy has made him stand out from the crowd, not only amongst mainstream journalists but also intellectuals, who tend to have neither his wit or reach.

Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere is an analysis of last year that firmly makes a case for it as part of the pantheon of radical history, standing alongside 1968, 1917, 1871 and 1848. But instead of a dry, Trot-lite chronicle of another year of revolutions, it is an engaging cultural, political and economic history that draws from the flashpoints of the present crisis in an attempt to understand not only its pedigree but also its novelty. From kids with smartphones to the credit bubble to the tent cities of the US, Mason seeks to tie together numerous threads of the last decade of capitalism to understand just why, exactly, it is kicking off everywhere.

As reportage, this collection of stories from a journalist who seems to have actually been ‘everywhere’ is engaging. Stories on the nuts and bolts organising of the Egyptian revolution are eye-opening; occupations and marches in London bring up vivid memories, sometimes happy and sometimes despairing; the chapter on the new American dispossessed, trapped in a desert barracks run by evangelical Christians, seems far too Ballardian to be real. The four rough themes that run throughout the book – technology, catastrophe, poverty, and alienated youth – are shown to be woven so tightly that almost everywhere in the world, and in almost every sphere of our lives, crisis has spread, while opportunity nonetheless beckons. The book is at its best when it can take the testimony of the dispossessed and those in revolt, and set it against a background of extensive structural change.

What this change is producing becomes a centrepiece of his thought. At times, Mason contorts himself into a futurologist, and here he seems at his weakest. He clearly believes that there’s a coming catastrophe, and the spectres of 1914 and 1939 evidently haunt his thoughts. National entrenchment, the rise of the far-right, and trade wars are all on the cards, and maybe worse. But ultimately, predicting the path down which we’re headed seems unnecessary for a book that’s title is firmly in the present tense. And it’s in the analysis of the present that he becomes less grim and speculative, and more thought-provoking.

In a discussion of Marx and the new wave of protesting youth, he raises a question worth considering: ‘what if, instead of waiting for the collapse of capitalism, the emancipated human being were beginning to emerge spontaneously from within this breakdown of the old order?’ A generation fed Foucault and Deleuze are finding a space for themselves, with the help of their laptops and smartphones, not precisely within capitalism but not transcending it, either. The result is an intensely antagonistic counter-culture, a sort of Foucauldian public sphere, where everyone’s engaged not in rational debate but occupations, marches and vociferous argument.

The idea is enticing, but nonetheless one of a Radical-Liberal utopia, where everything changes, but not too much. The inchoate nature of the ‘horizontalist’ organising of this generation is clearly greatly admired by Mason, who sits in on student occupations like someone’s dad watching them play a computer game, thoroughly wishing they had them when he was young. But, in this enthusiasm he also misses some of the big problems with the current waves of protest and organisation.

Notably, the students he discusses (the ‘graduate without a future’) are assumed to be middle-class (and are from thoroughly middle-class universities, like UCL and Goldsmiths). But what really marked the later student protests, in London and the provinces, were the huge amounts of inner-city kids in their mid-teens, angry over the withdrawal of EMA and the sudden pulling from under them of a university education. These kids were also tech-savvy, but they were angry and radical in a way more visceral than the older, richer kids around them, and also far more dedicated to the cause, intensifying their involvement just as others were dropping off. Why the August riots – foreshadowed by the EMA kids this time last year – are discussed so little is interesting. Was it simply because he wasn’t there? Or was it because it doesn’t fit into his model of middle-class revolt?

Inevitably, the problem with both the movement and austerity is one of class. We have a class war, but no class-based left to fight it, and the sort of nuance with which Mason studied the class coalitions that fought together in Tahrir Square isn’t applied to the kids in the UK. Instead, he presents a tech-driven progressivism, in which we’re all finding our individuality within a substantial, and constantly growing, social network. Mason may seem endearingly amazed by what seems to many of us boringly familiar, but he is often insightful about phones and computers: they really are immense tools of revolt, confusing the gerontocracy from Cairo to London. But while he is right to point out that a lot of things are changing, and that the transformative nature of technology should not be dismissed by old-school leftists, he also tends to overstate what these changes mean for the left (if, indeed, these ‘non-ideological’ kids with their phones can even be called leftist).

For instance, after discussing the work of communist historian of the Haitian Revolution CLR James, he claims that ‘today the left is no longer the gatekeeper to subversive knowledge’, citing the ability of anyone these days to pull information from the internet and use it to learn. In this, Mason is massively overstating the actual quality of what people both find and write on the internet, and, perhaps, revealing that his familiarity with internet culture is limited to contact with people who are actually interesting and intelligent, and not the army of people who are completely insane. A notable example is the Occupy Movement, which is tinged with conspiracy theorists, as any scan of their Facebook pages will illustrate.

If we go back to the early 19th century, any idiot could use a printing press, but it took real skill as a writer and business owner to produce interesting, entertaining, informed and well-distributed works. Similarly, and as he should know, it takes real skill for a historian to dig through (still mainly material) archives, and real skill for a journalist to assemble facts through documents and interviews. The internet does create the social network he discusses, and it does make publication and communication not only substantially easier, but completely different in many ways than what came before. But it doesn’t lend creativity, ingenuity, or good organising skills where it didn’t exist before. No matter what the invention – the press, the railway, the telephone – it still needs people of intellect and dedication to do something remarkable with it, and his over-enthusiasm unfortunately brings to mind a quote from Alan Partridge’s recent autobiography: ‘Wikipedia has made university education all but pointless’.

Later, in a fascinating chapter entitled ‘1848 redux’, he talks variously about class, syndicalism and cultural conflict, comparing the present crisis to 1848 and the Great Unrest just prior to the First World War. But despite talking throughout the book about the slum-dwelling poor, the collapse of the organised working class, and the precarious position of the middle-class, he comes to an odd conclusion: ‘The incoherence of the left has emboldened the liberals, the Facebook youth, the urban poor, and so on, to speak of social justice and to fight for it, secure in the knowledge that they cannot be accused of being communists.’ More Germany 1849 than France 1848, he says. Bizarrely, the current uprisings are a Liberal counter-revolution against nothing, and by virtue of that a confident and progressive uprising.

But there seems another explanation, and one that Mason’s own studies support: we are undergoing a quite colossal re-organisation of both labour and capital, and we have no idea where it’s going. But, clearly, it involves not only the exploitation of the urban poor, but the re-consolidation of the middle-class. The lower middle-class of skilled workers are getting pushed back into precarious, temporary and unskilled work, and their children getting faced with huge bills for the university education that may, or just as likely may not, be the only route of escape. And it’s here that the ‘graduate without a future’, where the student of 1848, angry with the regime of Louis-Philippe, serves as the analogue for the student of 2011, falls down. It’s not the professional middle-class who are revolting (although they are stirring). Just look at who’s on strike: teachers, academics, social workers, electricians…
Two centuries ago, artisans and peasants were proletarianised, and once again the same demographic range of workers are being pressed into the precariat. Is it kicking off because we are, in fact, seeing the growing pains and anxious howl of a working-class for the new century, and a whole new family and industry of technologies? What we may well need is far more than islands within capitalism (as useful and refreshing as they are), but, in fact, a coherent left that wants to transcend it. Our present may be more comparable to the 1830s than 1848: the recently birthed working-class is only just coming to realise what it is. And who knows what will come of that; to paraphrase Lenin, maybe hipsters plus soviets will equal communism.

Mason’s work is not bad, or wrong, for not asking this question; his scepticism of the doctrinaire left is hardly undeserved. But to borrow a phrase from him, ‘merely to pose the question is exhilarating’, and in his enthusiasm he invites the reader to ask such questions, and many more. With both his understanding of the possibilities of revolt and his sympathy for human misery, he offers a straightforward but expansive account of what is happening. In taking technology seriously as both an organising tool and means of disseminating and democratising ideas, he is opening up a substantial field of debate for the left. In treating the uprisings as a Radical conflict rather than a class one, he is laying down the gauntlet for the newest generation of Marxists: come up with a better framework, but one that can still express the current crisis’s novelty. It is a book worthy of discussion, and let’s hope there are many more to come.

Tom Fox is a labour historian and an editor of The Mule.

‘Bout to explode: a day in the life of a precarious worker

As part of Shift Magazine's series on precarity, Juan Conatz describes a day in the work life of a sleep deprived day laborer.

“Damn it, where’s this pinche thing?”

Sometimes when I get real frustrated, a few Spanish curse words enter my vocabulary. My mom would probably be both amused and disappointed.

“Jesus Christ, there ain’t nowhere in here for anything to get lost!”

It’s 4:30 AM, and I’m frantically looking for both my house keys and bus pass. It was another all-nighter. I’ve been up for almost 2 days now. Think I inherited these sleeping problems from my dad, if that’s possible.

Insomnia pushes your tolerance for minor annoyances a lot lower. Normally, such things like not being able to find something wouldn’t bother me, much less cause swearing in two different languages. The mental disconnect that comes with lack of sleep almost turns you into a flustered child who can’t understand why he can’t do simple tasks.

“Ah hah!”

I finally find both my keys and bus pass hidden behind my suitcases, which I’ve been living out of for about a year now. See, since December 2010, this guy has lived in 3 states, 4 cities, and 11different apartments or buildings. It’s hard to explain the disorientation this causes. Imagine having jet lag for months. Waking up confused as to where you’re at. Is this Madison? Davenport? Sometimes I see a portion of Minneapolis that I think is another city and have to remind myself that it isn’t.

This early in the morning is no time for a human being to be searching for a bus pass, but when you’re virtually unemployed, you’ve got to get on your grind. This morning, ‘grind’ means walking down to a temporary day labor agency down the street. It’s one of those set-ups where you gotta show up when they open at 5 AM, so you can ’sign-in’ and wait until they send you out to a job. A job inevitably paying the $7.25 federal minimum wage. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent around 30 hours at that place and never been sent out. That’s around 4 hours each time.

I think about this fact real briefly, then try to shove it out of my mind. It’s hard though. Precarious employment seems like a given, just a part of life. But it isn’t for everyone. Just a couple weeks ago, a drunk Wobbly1 crashed on my couch. Telling her about the day labor experience made her cry. Granted, she was intoxicated, but seeing those tears felt like a punch to the kidneys. This isn’t what life is supposed to be like. Thinking about her tears this morning is almost making me choke up myself. Only thing preventing this are some shreds of machismo and pride that seem required to hold it together and maintain. Whether this is bullshit or not is a separate issue.

Pretty awake now. Scrambling around and downing 3 cups of coffee will do that to you. Also force fed myself some oatmeal. Don’t have any milk or butter, so it tasted like Depression-era slop. Whatever.

I walk out the door and then down the street to the day labor place. Either the last of the night’s drunks or the first of the morning’s crackheads are arising out of the alleys. Like zombies, I approach them cautiously. You can’t trust anyone awake at this time in the morning. Reach the day labor place and see almost 20 people outside smoking cigarettes already. Walk in and sign my name. The guy at the counter somehow remembers my name and says he tried to call me for a snow shoveling job. I don’t tell him that I can’t afford to keep my phone on, but instead explain that my battery is wrecked and my cellular company is in Iowa. Can’t present myself as too poor.

After about 10 minutes of sitting on a cold, nearly broken metal chair the guy calls me back up to the counter. Not a moment too soon, if you ask me. The place is just packed and seating options are limited. It was getting harder to ignore the guy to the left of me loudly talking about the time his baby mama stabbed him mid-conversation. Way too early to be that loud.

Looks like I’m actually getting sent out to a job. Not prepared for this. Thought I would just wait around for a while, as usual, read a book, bullshit a little and then go back home and to sleep. Instead it looks like me and 3 others are getting sent off to a food packaging plant. Didn’t even bring a lunch, been up for too long and only have a couple halves of cigarettes to last me the day. Oh well.

II

We all cram into some tiny Japanese car and head to the southeast side of town. Pretty quickly, I realise the driver has some serious issues going on. Something is really off about him. Can’t understand his mumbling and he can’t stop swerving down the interstate. Wonder if worker’s comp2 covers the ride to work?

We’re soon there and it all looks so familiar. Like most factories, it is very familiar. Same large, pothole filled parking lot. Same unforgiving gray concrete. Same “No Firearms Allowed On Property” sign on the employee entrance. Walking inside, there are about 60-70 people in the breakroom. Confused, I try to find a recognisable face to get the low down on what to do. Apparently, we wait until the head floor supervisor comes in and reads off a sheet of papers that assigns us to the various production lines. It takes a while for this to happen, but I get assigned to a line and follow everyone out of the door. Not knowing exactly where to go, I wander until a blue shirted floor supervisor yells at me and points to a line. With all the machines running, forklifts rolling past and foam earplugs in my ears, he might as well be whispering, but I get the point.

The line leader instructs me to cut open boxes from 4 different pallets of 4 different dried fruits or nuts. Then I place a certain amount of them on a scissor lift conveyor belt that will be lifted up to a platform and dumped into a large mixing container.

It doesn’t take long for this work to get old and tedious. My thoughts start to drift away. Not a good thing. When you’re caffeinated and exhausted, it’s hard to think about anything but major worries in your life. In some ways, its one of the few things that helps you keep going in shit jobs like this. The faster and harder you work, the easier it is to block out such thoughts and get yourself recognised as someone worth keeping on. No such luck this time. Outside of the perpetual financial crisis that is my condition, my personal life is beginning to be affected, and become deeply troubling. I’ve started to withdraw from my social circle. Even the people in the same apartment. One of my roommates even tried to check on me last week. It was implicit that what she was saying was that she was worried I might have killed myself. I don’t tell her that I know that’s what she was thinking…or that the thought has crossed my mind.

Additionally, the few times I have gone out, the combination of lack of sleep and over-the-top drinking is starting to lead to me blacking out. When it gets this bad, sometimes I turn into a different person. Sort of a regression to what I call “my old self”. This “old self” is filled with all kinds of undesirable poor Latino/white traits and characteristics, so you can imagine there are instances where I wake up in fear of things said or done.

Try to concentrate on my work. While cutting open the boxes, there are little pieces of cardboard falling into the dried cranberries. One of the older women on the line notices this and yells something. Can’t bring myself to care.

Scanning the shopfloor, there’s around 90-100 people. There’s probably some logic to the way the lines are set-up, but it’s incomprehensible right now. It’s just a flurry of chaotic movement. Random floor supervisors scrambling from one line to the next. People with pallet jacks moving product around. Young white guys on forklifts whipping around, blasting their horns.

III

The break alarm bell sounds off. About a quarter of us rush to the breakroom or outside for a cigarette. It’s a long walk to the designated smoking area. Something about FDA rules or something like that.

While power puffing a menthol, a Somali guy is talking about how he just lost a $15 an hour job, being a personal assistant to an elderly, wealthy man. The man died, throwing him into unemployment. The specialised agency he worked through basically told him he’s done when someone dies, as other people have priority over him for the next position. It could take an entire year to be matched up with someone else. He half-joked that when finding the old man dead, he shook him and yelled “No, mothafucka, you can’t die now! I got bills to pay!” Everyone on the smoke break erupts into laughter, agreeing we would do the same.

Behind me, a black woman tells us she also did the personal assistant gig, but was fired because the old rich white woman she worked for accused her of stealing a can of coke (drinking without permission). But the real reason was the old woman’s dislike for black folk and a reluctance to have someone who was black assist her in her day-to-day affairs. The more rural type white co-workers shift around uneasily. Discussions about race and racism are still polarising in 2012…

The break is over and we’re back to work. Apparently, my refusal to avoid getting little pieces of cardboard mixed into the product has led to a multi-line shutdown. I just committed sabotage without even thinking about it. It takes a lot of self-discipline not to smile and laugh about this. If my phone worked, texts to some comrades would be in order.

While amusing, this is worrisome. The majority of people here are through day labor or temp agencies. These types of jobs always involve lightning quick responses and judgment calls on workers who mess up or can’t do the work right. In this economy, they can afford to be like this. There are literally hundreds of people ready to replace you, if needed. Luckily, it doesn’t look like they’re going to send me home. Instead they throw me on another line. This time I’m grabbing boxes from a conveyor belt and stacking them onto a pallet.

IV

My mind quickly goes blank and time flies by. All of the sudden it’s lunch time. The notorious caffeine crash is beginning to happen to me. Also, my 1 month contact lenses I’ve been wearing for 13 months are starting to become blurry and bother my eyes. Heading to the break room, I sit at a table by myself with no lunch and drink a cup of coffee that taste like vinegar and chalk. Start staring into space. How long is this lunch break? Why are people staring at me? Are they actually staring at me or am I imagining it?

End up getting up and walking outside and realise my earplugs are still in, which probably looked weird and was the reason folks were looking at me weird. In the smoking area, a Latina is talking about a bad experience at a pay day loan establishment and how they treat her like a child. I feel that. Being poor invites numerous different types of condescending attitudes from people. Whether its social workers, police, employers, pay day loan places, or even your own friends and comrades. From those who aren’t sharing your experience of extreme precarity and devastating poverty, these attitudes are somewhat in stages.

At first, there are expressions of sympathy. Whether sincere or not, this can be summed up by “I understand this is happening to people. I’m sorry this is happening to you.” If your situation drags on, sympathy turns into a form of pity. Pity in itself isn’t necessarily bad and can be tied to forms of solidarity such as making sure you’re not homeless, that you get some food, are included in social outings that cost money, etc. Being on the receiving end of this can make you appreciate these people in your life. But if it drags out it can be humiliating and destructive to your pride as an individual. The embarrassment of not being able to provide for yourself, of feeling like a ‘mooch’, can bring up a sentiment of resentment. This resentment, while really directed at your general situation, can easily be misdirected at people instead, which can confuse them and make you feel shame.

Sometimes from pity, which in itself is a feeling of superiority, a greater sense of superiority can happen. It can be explicit or not, it doesn’t matter. You can feel and read the faces of judgment. Things like “You’re just not trying hard enough”, “What is wrong with you?”, and “Your standards are too high” begin to be said (not always in those words). You can feel the change in how people talk to you. Their tone changes. It’s the tone of talking down to someone. Jokes about your situation that are deeply hurtful are said with barely an afterthought.

It’s worth mentioning that along with friends and family, this is a pretty accurate description of how relationships develop in workplaces where there are both temps and ‘regular’ employees. What the actual difference is when it comes to wages, benefits or even decision making power are often irrelevant in the face of perceived increased stability.

This is all a lot to think about during a lunch break.

V

The rest of the day goes by fairly quickly. I start to become too tired to even think in complete sentences and my body is full of aches and pains. When the day ends for us, and the shift changes, it’s almost a stampede, as hundreds of workers squeeze through a narrow hallway. The crazy guy who gave me a ride leaves without me. Luckily, the day labor place sent out vans to pick people up. 2 Latinos in the back are talking to each other in Spanish and the driver yells that he doesn’t want to hear anything he can’t understand. Not sure if this was a racist comment or a warning to talk more quietly. Either way, my face probably shows pure hatred towards him.

When we arrive back at the agency someone reminds me that I can get an advance. At the counter, after filling out an advance request, I find out this will equal around $25. A pitiful $25. Yet, I’m happy because this allows me to do laundry, buy a pack of cigarettes and afford bus fare. But I’m angry that I’m happy. What kind of life is this to lead? I’m not even the one most hurting out here right now.

It’s weird thinking that living paycheck to paycheck would be a step-up from where us day laborers are at right now. Bizarre thinking that the time when you could quit one mind-numbing factory job and get hired at another one the next day were the ‘good ole days’. There is a tension you can feel on the streets right now. I can feel it in the day labor agency and in the bodega down my block. How much can we take? How long will we put up with this until something snaps?

It has been said by others that in the U.S., precarity isn’t new. That the transition has been more drastic in places like Europe with had more visible social democratic set-ups than we have ever had. That could be true. Regardless of the larger question of whether this model of precarity in capitalism is ‘new’ or just a throwback to the pre-WW2 days, it’s eating me alive.

Whatever the case, and recognising my perspective is colored by the drastic situation I find myself in, we need to hasten the building of the new world in the shell of the old…before some of us decide to just burn down the old world with no regard of what emerges in its place.

Juan Conatz lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He is also one of the editors of ‘Recomposition: Notes for a New Workerism’ a blog that mostly revolves around writings and stories of workplace organizing and on-the-job accounts.

Originally posted: March 12, 2012 at Shift Magazine

  • 1. Member of the Industrial Workers of the World
  • 2. Workers compensation is “a form of insurance providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment in exchange for mandatory relinquishment of the employee’s right to sue his or her employer for the tort of negligence.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers’_compensation
It’s weird thinking that the time when you could quit one mind-numbing factory job and get hired at another one the next day were the ‘good ole days’. There is a tension you can feel on the streets right now. How much can we take? How long will we put up with this until something snaps?
Juan Conatz

“Occupy! Manchester is based on this desire to rediscover 'direct action' as a popular political form”: An interview with an organiser of Occupy Manchester

An interview with Jay Hooper, an organiser of Occupy! Manchester, the call for a mass assembly to be held to protest the October 2011 Tory Party conference. Published online in September 2011.

Who are you and what are you planning to do?

The Occupy! Manchester organising group emerged with the specific aim of mobilising against the Conservative Party Conference, due to be held in Manchester in early October. It is made up of individuals from various groups in Manchester, and formed in response to a call to mobilise for a mass protest that would aim to involve people who may not otherwise have joined together in protest on the day.

I'll say a bit more about how the group formed, because it's important for what we're trying to do. After the student protests of last winter and the TUC national demonstration on 26th March, it was clear to many in Manchester that the Tory Conference would be the next major event for the anti-cuts movement (broadly defined) and that we should step up and make it one to remember! But there was also a strong feeling that the Tory Party mobilisation should be a progression from 26th March, where the various wings of the movement had acted in almost total isolation from one another (with the UK Uncut action being the only potential point of convergence between those involved in official protest and direct action). As such, neither the march called by the TUC to coincide with the Conference, nor affinity group or black bloc-style actions would be enough on their own, as these tend to reproduce the divides into which we as protesters so often allow ourselves to fall: activists and ordinary people, students and workers, public and private sector workers, benefits claimants and taxpayers, socialists and anarchists, peaceful and violent campaigners. It was from this climate that the idea for an alternative organising platform that could bridge these divides emerged.

It's important to explain at this point that the feeling described above was one that was shared, to various degrees, across the left spectrum. It was a small group from the autonomous/anarchist tradition that called the first meeting for what would become Occupy! That group (of which I was part) was inspired by the wave of student protests that kicked off with Millbank, but also frustrated by the failure to maintain momentum following the student fee decision of 9th December, and by the narrow political vision displayed by all wings of the movement on 26th March. Meanwhile though, it was clear from one particularly well-attended and rowdy 'open planning meeting' for the TUC-called march of 2nd October that many union organisers were just as frustrated – they had great admiration for the militancy of the student protests and were keen to encourage more dynamic and militant action from within their ranks. From all corners, there was a recognition that only by pooling our mobilising capacities did we have any chance of organising a demonstration with the potential to start overcoming some of these issues. In response, then, a group formed, which today is made of individuals from various groups from Manchester who share this spirit of mobilising for a unified and militant protest. And eventually, after much discussion (and some compromises!), we decided that an occupation of Albert Square would be a good way to achieve the aims we'd set out for ourselves. As an extension of the commitment to a broad-based and non-sectarian mobilisation, we've also been encouraging groups representing a range of political persuasions, sectors etc to sign up publicly in support of the action and promote it among their members or networks. Hence the “diverse” list of supporters!

As for what we plan to do, we're calling for an assembly of protest on the doorstep of the Conference, as a symbol of the mass and deeply-felt opposition to the coalition government's austerity measures and the belief in better alternative futures. The choice of location was a very important one. Albert Square is very close to the ring of steel surrounding the conference centre. It therefore offers a chance not only for people to talk together politically, which is of course the connotation of 'assembly' and an important political principle for one of the exciting political developments of the past year: the Real Democracy movement (whose Manchester incarnation – Real Democracy Manchester – has been a key supporter of Occupy!). Rather, it was also important to us that the occupation was a place of protest. Close proximity to the conference centre is important in that respect and offers opportunities for disruptive actions to happen.

Albert Square also houses Manchester Town Hall, seat of Manchester's Labour-led council. That's significant politically as well, as it'll be a reminder to everybody that this protest isn't just about the Conservatives. This is particularly important in Manchester, which is obviously a long-time Labour stronghold, where opposition to the Conservatives is all too easily recuperated. The Occupy! organising group doesn't have a shared political position as such (due to its broad nature, we've tended to concentrate on letting the form of protest itself do the talking politically). However, one important bottom-line for the group has always been a rejection of all the mainstream political parties. The more successful Occupy! is in bringing large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds together on the day, the more important it will be that we make this rejection heard on the day – something that the radical, autonomous left should be well placed to do.

Aside from all this, we don't want to circumscribe what will happen on the day. We're asking people to come prepared to make the occupation their own – things will be guided by those participating and the atmosphere on the day. That said, as the day approaches Occupy! will be making announcements about the timings of some specific activities that are planned to take place in or around the occupation – that way those from outside of Manchester or who can't stay indefinitely (and we're aware that, lamentably, the timing of the plans means that the employed among us might have to head off early) can plan a bit better. Assemblies and noise demos throughout the night (the Midlands Hotel, where many top Conference delegates will be staying, is a stone's throw away from Albert Square: as a slogan from the Spanish occupations goes, 'if they won't let us dream, we won't let them sleep!') are ideas that are being floated at present. As I write we've had a group of lecturers approach us about doing a “teach out”. There'll also be sound systems to keep us going throughout the night.

What is the relationship between Occupy! and the TUC demonstration in Manchester on the same day?

Although as individuals the Occupy! group has mixed opinions on official marches as a form of protest, as a group we have always recognised the importance of marching, on its own terms at least: the TUC national march on 26th March, for example, was successful insofar as it brought massive numbers out onto the street (its role in the ongoing disputes over pensions, meanwhile, is less clear cut). As I’ve said above, we’ve wanted to avoid the divisive narratives of good protester/bad protester (and the rest!), so we’ve made efforts to coordinate with the organisers of the main demo, to emphasise our intention to supplement rather than conflict with the main march, and to avoid, as far as is feasible, plans that will be perceived as separatist. We’re inviting marchers to join us whenever they’re ready, whether that be after the main demo or not. In this same spirit, we're hoping that those who are interested in the march and subsequent rally recognise that not everybody feels the same!

The media and politicians will obviously have their own version of events though, so how successful we are in presenting a united front will obviously rely in large part on the solidarity we show to one another on the day. Not surprisingly, we haven’t been able to rely on the union leadership for support in this respect. On the other hand, the occupation has generally been really well received among grassroots and more radical union organisers. And it’s these grassroots, rank and file members who are frustrated with the unwieldy and compromised union bureaucracy that we expect and hope to see with us at Albert Square on 2nd October.

An interesting development here has been the announcements last week from the major public sector unions that they will be fighting 'long and hard and dirty' over the pension issue, starting with planned strike action for 30th November. For me, the strike action of 30th November is really important; but again (as demonstrated on 30th June), the union bureaucracy, for all its increasingly (or rather apparently) radical rhetoric, cannot be relied upon to fight this issue in the radical terms required if it is to really contribute to building a mass movement against austerity – because, quite aside from the unions’ inherently reformist nature, that would require more than merely tokenistic solidarity with the struggles of a largely non-unionised, precaritised labour force. Indeed, despite all that I’ve said here, the very idea for Occupy! came out of a recognition of the limitations of the TUC and the unions more generally: at the level of movement building, their limited capacity to mobilise beyond their traditional constituencies and to meet the growing desire for more militant and imaginative forms of protest; at the level of organising and expressing class struggle, their failure to have adapted to post-Fordist labour relations and their impetus towards the containment of working class interests. For me then, one of the motivations for Occupy! was always to provide an opportunity not necessarily provided by the traditional march format for overcoming the disconnect between the major public sector unions and the rest of us; for building direct solidarities – born from acting together in protest – between those who have a decent standard of social security to protect, and those who don’t, unionised and precarious workers, the employed and the unemployed, public and private sector workers etc. With the students preceding the strike action of 30th November with plans for major national protests on 9th November and increasing efforts to coordinate movements Europe-wide and internationally (I’m thinking of the recent Wall Street occupation and 15th October for World (R)evolution) in what looks set to be an autumn/winter of discontent, these solidarities and moves towards shared political subjectivities are all the more crucial.

There is, of course, a real danger with the announcements about 30th November that members “close ranks” behind their unions’ long-overdue action, with people consequently less inclined to get behind those alternative forms of politics that have inspired Occupy! We as the autonomous/anarchist left should stand beside grassroots union members in agitating for more from the unions – denouncing their failure to allocate adequate resources to mobilising for the 2nd October, calling for longer and deeper strikes etc; just as they should stand with us in seeking new forms of organising struggle that overcome the limitations of both traditional trade unionism and direct action as practiced by the movements of the 1990s and 2000s.

On that note, I’ll finish with an anecdote. In the early days of testing the waters among local socialist groups, particularly those involved in organising the main march, a local trade union organiser picked me up on the language used in the call-out we'd been circulating (a criticism that, as I write now, I realise I've still yet to fully take on board): we spoke of traditional avenues of protest not being enough, referring not only to the limitations of strike action for a largely precarious workforce, but also to marching. His point was not to defend official marches and the way these circumscribe the way anger is expressed, channelling it into official, state-sanctioned forms. Rather, his argument was that this ignored a long tradition of mass, working class direct action – the example he used being the widespread and sustained factory occupations that were sweeping Manchester, Salford and the North West when he first moved to the city (in the 1970s I think it was). And I think he's absolutely right; and what, albeit in different terms, had in fact shaped the original idea for Occupy! Direct action in the UK has become synonymous with 'affinity group' actions, often directed at corporate targets, involving small numbers of people and secretive planning. Some actions, such as those associated with the later years of the Climate Camp, of course involved – indeed depended upon – much larger numbers; however, they remained orchestrated set-pieces with a narrow social base. For me, Occupy! Manchester is based on this desire to rediscover “direct action” as a popular political form. In this respect, I hope the 2nd October pick up where the students left off last year and spark another autumn of popular resistance.

Jay Hooper is a member of Occupy! Manchester. These views do not necessarily reflect the diverse political perspectives of the organising group as a whole.

“Real Democracy”: an interview with Michael Hardt

Published online, October 2011.

On October 15th, hundreds of squares were occupied worldwide by activists united by the slogan ‘real democracy now’. Here, Shift Magazine editor Raphael Schlembach interviews Michael Hardt, author (with Toni Negri) of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.

In the latest print issue of Shift Magazine [issue 13], John Holloway argues that “real democracy is and must be a frontal assault on the power of money”. He implies that the demand ‘real democracy now’ is not enough in itself, but must be connected to a movement against the rule of money-capital-state-abstract labour. He insinuates a difference here to your own perspective, writing that “people who prefer to talk just of democracy (Hardt and Negri, for example) … prefer to let the movement itself discover that money stands in the way of real democracy”. How have you experienced the recent global democracy movements? Do you think the assemblies in Sol, Syntagma or Wall Street already carry an inherent potential to constitute an affront to capital?

I think that John's perspective and mine overlap much more than is implied by that quotation. There is a long tradition in Marxist and communist thought, you know, that poses a separation between economic struggles and political struggles - in fact, in many cases the division would be posed as "merely" economic struggles and "properly" political ones. In the context of the 3rd International, for example, this division corresponded to the work of the trade unions, on one hand, and that of the party, on the other. Well, I think it is clear that today this division between economic and political struggles no longer holds, and that the economic and political protests and demands of movements are inextricably mixed. John and I certainly agree on that. In fact, I would say that part of the work done by a concept like "biopolitical struggles," which Toni Negri and I, as well as many others, use, is to bring into focus together questions of life, economics, and politics.

In any case, I certainly agree with John’s point, which you quote, that a project of real democracy must also challenge capitalist rule, which in the current era predominantly relies on the power of money and finance.

I do see in this regard at least one real difference of approach in our most recent books -- John's ‘Crack Capitalism’ and our ‘Commonwealth’. My book with Toni tries to base the critique of capital and the proposal for democracy on a challenge to the rule of property, the rule of private property most urgently and also the rule of public property, meaning the rule of the state. John instead anchors his critique of capital on his analysis of money and abstract labor. We then both, of course, pursue these lines in terms of the transformations of labor in the current period and both share what might be called in shorthand a refusal of work perspective on this. These different approaches are in many ways compatible, of course, and one might even see them as complimentary, but this is where I would search for a difference if pressed to do so.

All that said, I do believe that the current cycle of struggles poses a new and more directly political character with respect to previous ones. The cycle of struggles from Seattle 1999 to Genoa 2001 put the accent firmly on the critique of neoliberalism and sought to reveal the undemocratic structures of the emerging global system of rule. The protests were mobile and nomadic, moving from one summit to the next and at each stop shining light on another aspect of the global neoliberal ruling structure: the IMF, the World Bank, the G8, the WTO, and so forth. In contrast, the cycle of struggles forming this year, including the encampments in Tahrir, Syntagma, Sol, Madison Wisconsin, and Wall Street, has a less mobile and more rooted territorial structure. The practice of encampment is an important novelty along with their assembly structures that manage to bring together a variety of economic and social issues. Democracy is practiced and experimented on the small scale - often in the organization of one square.

This cycle of struggles too is, of course, aimed at neoliberalism and the crisis, but I am particularly fascinated by the way that the aspiration toward democracy has become more prominent. Think of two of the central slogans in the Spanish encampments of 15M: "you don't represent us" and "real democracy now." The former certainly echoes the call from Argentina a decade earlier: "que se vayan todos" against not only one corrupt party or politician but against the entire political class. But it adds the critique of representation that touches at the heart of the republican constitutions. "You don't represent us" doesn't mean I want to get rid of this leader so that I can be represented by new leaders. It means I refuse to be represented and, moreover, when combined with the latter slogan, this so-called democracy you have given us is a shame. Instead we want to construct a real democracy. This seemingly naive idea to bring democracy back to the center of the discussion in this way, which probably entered this cycle of struggles from the aspirations in North Africa, seems to me extraordinarily powerful.

Occupy Wall Street was originally proposed by the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, calling for “20,000 people to flood into lower Manhattan, and set up beds, kitchens, peaceful barricades”, representing the 99%. But such protests come with their own problems. Supposedly, opposition to ‘corporate greed’ and ‘political corruption’ can unite all Americans beyond their political or social differences against the 1% of bankers, CEOs and politicians. Isn’t such populism incredibly simplistic? The term (direct) democracy is sometimes so broad that it can attract anyone from right-wing conspiracy theorists to La Rouchians. There seems to be a lack of political content.

It seems to me too early to evaluate in this way Occupy Wall Street and the other, spreading US developments. It is not the kind of movement that appears fully formed with a program. Instead it will take form as it develops, which, I hope, will continue for several weeks and months.

My view, which I think aligns with the sentiment of your question, is that these US movements should develop into a constituent process. This, in fact, is how they would most explicitly take up some of the challenges posed by 15M, which I mentioned before: the critique of representation and the aspiration to constitute a new democracy. In this way, the US movements would certainly carry further the cycle of struggles that has developed throughout the year.

How could we imagine this developing into more constituent forms of democracy? Do we need to go beyond the assemblies that are currently at the heart of the protests?

Yes, eventually one would have to go beyond the assemblies as they are practiced in occupied squares – even though, as I said, all these democratic experiments in organizing are themselves very important.

Opening a constituent process in this context has at least two sides to it. First of all, it is a recognition that the Constitution (and indeed all of the supposedly democratic constitutions) is not a sufficient basis for a really democratic society. As I said earlier, the critique and refusal of the representational structure is a powerful lever that could have profound effects. Call this first moment, perhaps, a “deconstituent” or, better, a “destituent” process. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a constituent process has to create a new set of social relations and, in this sense, a new foundation for democracy. This is a revolutionary process that creates new structures and institutions, as well as new political habits and affects. One cannot foresee now exactly what such a process would look like. The kinds of questions and aspirations that are becoming generalized today, however, do indicate that such a process is appearing somewhere on our horizon.

Finally, do you think there is a true global character to this movement? The square occupations in, say, Athens, Cairo, Tel Aviv and New York have come about in very different political contexts, with participants that wouldn't necessarily have regarded themselves as political allies.

The different movements that have emerged in this cycle certainly do, as you say, come about in very different social and political conditions. But they also do share some interesting aspects. I have been emphasizing the shared aspiration toward democracy, even when it is not completely clear yet what a real democracy would be. They also share the multitude form of organizing, characterized by a refusal of leaders, network organization structures, horizontal practices of decision-making, and so forth.
But even these shared aspirations and practices, as you say, do not guarantee agreement or unanimity. Isn’t it fascinating, then, how a cycle of struggle like this forms? How is it that people are inspired by revolts conducted elsewhere and translate them into their own local conditions in order to construct their own rebellion? How do they connect together in a chain this way in situations that are so different?
I would say that the struggles themselves, by this very act of linking together, are teaching us how the global level can be constructed – not through homogeneity but rather by posing relations among differences. That seems to me one among many things we have to learn from these movements.

“Unite march to parliament whereas the rank and file plan to meet up with the education march” - Interview with a spark

An interview with an electrician on the ongoing dispute over pay cuts and attacks on conditions in the sector.

A number of major UK building contractors have issued their electricians with new contracts. What’s wrong with the new ones? What are the main changes suggested in them?

The main reason for the new contracts is to save money on labour costs, as this is the only expense that companies can control. They see 75% of the work currently undertaken by their highly trained employees as semi-skilled and they do not like the fact that they have to pay skilled workers to carry it out. So they are introducing an ‘Installer NVQ2’ Grade to carry out the 75%. Therefore reducing our workload by three quarters and passing it on to semi-skilled, cheap labour. Would you be happy with your electrics being installed by a non-qualified person?

Another main area being attacked is apprenticeships. There will be no more electrical and plumbing apprenticeships offered by these companies as they want to build a work force of multi-skilled workers, trained in a little bit of everything but specialising in nothing.

Other areas also being attacked are overtime rates, independent grading of tradesmen, redundancy rules, unfair dismissal, trade status and travel pay just to name a few.

Which unions are electricians represented in? Are there negotiations ongoing?

Unite the Union represent the Electricians, Plumbers and Fitters affected by the current dispute. Unite withdrew from talks with the companies earlier in the year due to the companies stance that the installer grade was non-negotiable. Unite want a progressive path in the industry; the opportunity to go to college and gain qualifications to advance in your chosen trade. The companies want ‘Installers’ to be just installers, to never progress and forever be stuck at NVQ2 level.

What has happened so far to fight the new contract agreement? There have been picket lines at a number of building sites; have they been successful?

There have been protests/pickets outside building sites and power stations up and down the country in nearly every major city since 24th August. There have been numerous unofficial walk-outs involving thousands, flying pickets, occupations and mass civil disobedience.

As a direct result of the protests one of the original break away companies (MJN Colston) decided to stay with the existing agreements due to pressure from one of their major clients, Marks and Spencer’s. This week it emerged that because of the Manchester protests, Balfour Beatty have lost a contract at Carrington Paper Mill and are having payments withheld at Sellafield Power Station. There are also rumours that many other big clients are also putting pressure on the companies to resolve the industrial unrest before it escalates to strike action or face losing even more contracts.

On November 9th, Unite have called for a national rally at the Shard and march to parliament. But the rank and file will be out much earlier in the morning?

From the beginning of this dispute, the protests have been led by the rank and file. So it was decided that we would continue our weekly early protest and combine it with the Unite backed day of action. We have been outside building sites at 6:30am for the last 11 weeks and see no reason to alter our plans.

The march will go past Blackfriars towards parliament. Will there be a chance for it to meet the education march?

The official Unite march heads to Parliament from Blackfriars whereas the Rank and File plan is to meet up with the Education march at 12:30 at ULU. The general consensus is that talking to the MPs will not achieve a thing as they are doing exactly the same thing to their own employees in the public sector.

What are the next steps in the dispute? Are further protests and actions planned?

Unite are going to be balloting Balfour Beatty employees for strike action this month as they are seen as the main instigators in the whole affair. There will be protests every week across the United Kingdom until we get the companies to back down and stop bullying their employees.

JIB Electrician is the pseudonym of the author of the Electricians Against The World blog. Republished from Shift magazine