Editorial - Looting, arson and organisation

Originally published in September 2011.

As a magazine we have always tried to published commentary on current affairs in movement politics, as well as allowing for undogmatic, critical reflection and debate. Recently this has been particularly challenging; a pattern has emerged for the Shift team over the last year. It goes like this. Develop a concept for the next issue, begin commissioning articles, band around a few ideas for an editorial, and then… seemingly from nowhere, an uprising. Suddenly, the students are smashing up the Tory HQ, Mark Duggan is shot dead by police and riots are spreading across the country and we find ourselves, our ideas, hopelessly irrelevant. Stop press. Change tact.

The riots, and the responses they have elicited (which are depressing both in their mundane predictability and their dystopian surreality), are dominating discussions by left-wing activists up and down the country. Accordingly we chose to adapt the theme of this issue to account for the complexity of feelings, analysis, solidarities and conflicts these riots have inspired. We’re not going to re-hash these conversations here; what the events of the last few months have shown us, is that it’s not about us any more. It never was. But the idea that ‘we’ (activists/anarchists/lefties) occupy some privileged vantage point from which we can put the world to rights, with our tried and tested methods and arguments, is more absurd, more irrelevant now, than it ever was. Judy, one of our three new columnists who will be sharing their thoughts on everything from the riots to the persistence of conspiracy theories in the radical left, contends “we need to get over the idea that we already know how to do social change”. The idea that we need to give up our identities as activists, our insular anarchist culture and our direct action tactics resonates through all of our contributing articles.

Elsewhere in this issue, Emma Dowling and Begum Özden Firat, in their reflections on the heyday of the anti-globalisation movement, stress the importance of everyday struggle, away from the spectacle of summits, camps and gatherings. It is through this ‘everyday struggle’ that we recover the agency of our own communities, on a local and global scale. Rather than making demands of the state, of capital, these struggles “act for themselves without the worry of representation and communication of their views and ideals”. It is our task now, as John Holloway argues in his interview with Shift, to see the connection between the global struggles against financial institutions and the more localised battles on the streets against police violence or the draw and exclusion of consumer society, “the lines of continuity, the lines of potential, the trails of gunpowder”.

The anti-globalisation movement has been described as being unified by ‘one no, many yeses’. Can this characterisation, which accounted for the diversity of actors and demands that were present, be applied to the current struggles emerging in the UK, and beyond, in the past year? The student protests, the Arab Spring, the European square occupations of the Real Democracy movement, the UK riots? The gut response of many seems to have been to dismiss the riots as ‘not political’, in that they represent consumerism, thuggishness and un-channelled rage. Drawing on the anti-globalisation movement as a framework from which to explore the current uprisings, Emma Dowling and Begum Özden Firat argue that there was a tendency when reflecting on the summit-hopping movement to overstate the coherence of the participants and that, for the most part, it is only at the level of everyday struggle that we can overcome the divisions and identities that capital enforces on us and that the state uses to pit us against each other. When we consider the overwhelmingly classist response to the ‘looting’ and the draconian prison sentences they received, it is important to ask, how is it that we feel more solidarity with institutions that exist to control and exploit us, than with our neighbours, peers and friends?

So where does this leave us? It is obvious that not everyone is a comrade, and that the barriers that prevent us from organising and acting together can run deep, stemming from racisms, sexism, nationalisms, etc. Indeed the nationalist elements in the Real Democracy movement and the racism in the UK riots speak to this, but maybe the task is to engage with these struggles rather than to revert into the safety and insignificance of anarchist/activist theorising/direct action/lifestylism. After the riots many on the Left asked, “where were we?”, but maybe the problem isn’t that ‘we’ weren’t there, but the ‘we’ itself.