Fairy dust for all! - Raphael Schlembach

‘Moments of Excess: Movements, Protest and Everyday Life’, The Free Association, PM Press, 2011, reviewed by Raphael Schlembach. Originally published in September 2011.

Last July, SHIFT Magazine invited the authors of the new book ‘Moments of Excess’ to give a talk to the inhabitants and visitors of a Manchester housing project. For about an hour, they talked about sorcery, Harry Potter and ‘fairy dust’.

The authors’ collective Free Association that penned the articles in the book has long moved on from the more classical anti-intellectualism of its roots in the anarchist group Class War. Towards the close of the 1990s they had argued for the dissolution of Class War instead formed an affinity around theoretical readings and discussions.

When they talk about sorcery and fairy dust, this is with a nod to one of their intellectual engagements, that of the first chapter of Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’. Capitalism, explain the speakers of the Free Association, is not a rigid ‘thing’, but a set of dynamic ‘social relations’. And for Marx, the specific character of capital makes these social relations appear as ‘natural’, unchangeable. Against capital then, the Free Association attempt to introduce magic: the ‘supernatural’!

To see whether the magical imagery introduced by the Free Association is capable of demystifying the apparently natural and showing capitalist relations for what they really are – social and historical – let’s have a closer look at their Marxian reference point.

Towards the end of his first chapter in Capital, Marx writes about the ‘secret’ of commodity fetishism. Not dissimilar to the language used by the Free Association, Marx also evokes the magical. For him, however, it is the commodity that is somehow “mystical”, “enigmatical” and “mysterious”, he describes it as a “social hieroglyphic” and “a riddle”.

But for Marx, magic – or ‘fetishism’, as he terms it – isn’t a good thing. It is part and parcel of a bourgeois ideology that deems itself rational, yet is much closer to the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. Just as people have invented God and have found themselves really governed by Him, they have granted magical powers to the commodity and to money.

So with all this capitalist sorcery at work, is it not a bit self-defeating that the Free Association wants to add another layer of fairy dust to “the mist” (Marx) of capitalist productive relations?

The idea of magic also pops up in the Free Association’s book ‘Moments of Excess’. It’s not about fairy dust or sorcerers but about the magical feeling we gain from taking part in these moments of excess, be they Seattle, Stokes Croft or Millbank - experiences of togetherness, affinity and power.

The Free Association’s book makes clear that we cannot put our hope in an activist magician to get us out of the capitalist mess. There is nothing supernatural required to begin thinking and acting beyond capitalist social relationships; no need for superheroes, priests or superstars. If capitalism is reproduced by us all, everyday, then it is on this everyday level that a lot of our efforts to build a different world have to be focused.

Indeed, the book does also tell the story of extraordinary events and possibilities created by ordinary people. Sometimes it is in these moments of excess, the authors write, “that we feel most alive, most human”. Maybe it is the magic entailed in the experiments and alternatives of the ‘movement of movements’ that makes us most clearly see through the capitalist mist and gives us glimpses of new forms of social organisation. After all, the Free Association has taken its name from Marx’s phrase (also in Chapter 1 of Capital) that “the life-process of society does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men.”

Raphael Schlembach is an editor of Shift Magazine.