The Free Association on the occupy movement and the background of the global upswing in struggle.
It’s a year or so since we started work on our re:generation article. It took us a while to finish; we didn’t sign off on it until early January. Now the magazine Arranca is translating it into German and as part of the process they’ve asked us to write a post-script. As such we’ve briefly looked back over recent events to see how the text stands up to them.
Some have suggested that 2011 will go down as a new ‘68. That seems doubtful, but then again history is in motion and the significance of events is only determined by what follows them. What we can say is that something epochal is in the air. For us this really became apparent during the period of our article’s incubation. The first draft was written from within the stagnant state of limbo that had reigned since the start of the crisis. Our intuition was that attitudes and desires were changing, while our analysis made us expect the return of antagonism, but how can you be sure of such things until events emerge to mark them. In the UK it was the storming of Milbank that marked the point of rupture. As we finished our article we were still trying to think through the explosive student movement that followed. Since that point we’ve had the Arab spring, the student uprising in Chile, the movement of the Indignants in Spain and Greece, and then the world- wide re-booting of those square occupations by the Occupy Wall Street actions. This list, of course, is far from exhaustive.
And yet, in our opinion, these subsequent events have not made the article redundant. If anything, the problems raised there have become even more urgent. A new political generation is certainly emerging and in many places it is clothing itself in the political forms of its antecdents. This inheritance is most visible in the widespread adoption of consensus decision-making process, particularly amongst the Indignants and Occupy movements. We could explain this phenomenon by highlighting the initiating role played in these new movements by veterans of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles. But the sheer breadth of the spread of consensus process, and the prominence it has been given, indicates that something more is at play. Consensus has moved beyond mere functionality to become a form of expression for the movement. Its adoption has become one of the ways through which the movement understands and delimits itself.
It seems clear that the participatory nature of consensus is incredibly attractive to subjects raised during the neoliberal era. Politics has, for a long time, been reduced to the tedious manoeuvring of a technocratic elite. As that period begins to crack then consensus process has become a means for people to rediscover the affect of democracy. On its own, however, consensus process is not the solution to the Spanish Indignados’ demand for ‘Real Democracy Now!’ We understand the strong temptation to short circuit the process of transformation and erect consensus as a new universal model of democracy. The experiences of past movements, however, reveal it as a tool that carries its own limitations and drawbacks.
Consensus is most useful for gathering and coordinating forces around an already pre-established objective. It has also proven to be a powerful mechanism for allowing new political subjectivities to show themselves and recognise each other. This ‘assembly moment’ appears to be a necessary staging post in the escape from a-political world. The very aim of seeking consensus, however, carries problems of its own. Since it is easier to find consensus closer to the status quo of a movement, the process is less useful for the task of strategising, of changing objectives and of challenging existing sense. These tasks also need moments of dissensus and rupture and it is these tasks that the movements must tackle next. If we want to avoid a farcical repetition of the counter-globalisation cycle of struggles then the new movements must overcome the limitations of their inheritance, they must, in short, “constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew.”