Alessio Lunghi and Seth Wheeler analyse the events of the 26th of March and the aftermath. Originally published in May 2011.
The explosion of militant activity that escaped the A to B route on March 26th led to the inevitable round of condemnation from both the authorities and the mainstream media, as well as the busy hum of internet debate between those in the direct action/anarchist communities and the wider anti-cuts movement.
For us, these subsequent debates have attempted to return participants of direct action to easily codified ideological positions, and as such, has disguised the transformative and fluid nature of a new antagonistic radical subjectivity.
November 10th – the emergent radical subjectivity
Since setting the agenda with the storming of Millbank on November 10th 2010, the student movement has posited a combatative character for the broader fight back against the governments austerity measures. Students have shown an advanced level of self-organisation and a capacity to respond in the face of increased levels of state repression. The attachment to a more ‘immediate’ means of action has led to a convergence with the proponents of direct action, anarchist and autonomist ideas. This ‘meeting of minds’ has produced a dynamic and antagonistic sphere that exists within the broader anti-cuts movement.
The actions at Millbank were welcomed by many in the anarchist/direct action movements, as a breath of fresh air, ushering in a new cycle of struggle that would overturn the long period of sterility in street based action. While the 10th November was reflective of a growing dissatisfaction with parliamentary politics, it was broader in participation than the pre-existing far-left and anarchist groupings. While anarchists and other militants were present, the day belonged to a new, and as yet unidentified, political subjectivity. This subjectivity has since grown in size, confidence and militancy throughout the student demonstrations, occupations and actions that characterised the winter of 2010.
The first crisis of this new movement came on December 9th, when parliament voted through the rise in tuition fees. Rather than abandon the struggle as a lost cause, a period of ‘regroupment’ around university campuses began. Plans were laid out that intended to extend the terrain of struggle beyond the confines of the university. In London, this was expressed in a wave of squatted occupations, such as the nomadic Really Free School, the Anticuts Space in Bloomsbury and the occupation of the Jobcentre in Deptford. These spaces adopted the organisational form and aesthetics of the university occupations defined as they were by political openness, debate, creativity and horizontal formation.
March 26th - One Day, Two Spheres
The March for the Alternative, organised by the Trade Union Congress ( TUC ) - had a clear aim. The Labour Party and their Trade Union allies did all they could to ensure a clear pro-labour, pro-growth message to the day. As March 26th approached, it became clear that two political spheres were beginning to appear on the public stage – the institutional and the antagonistic. The former defined by the limitations set out by liberal democracy (an A to B route, march, rally, appeals to parliament), the latter by its aspiration to circumvent or transcend these limitations.
Dozens of autonomous feeder marches were organised and were subsequently declared “unofficial” by the TUC. This act of control was the the first demarcation between these loosely defined spheres. Many of these feeder marches were organised through the networks and spaces established out of the previous winter’s struggles. As such these marches were characterised by their autonomous and decentralised political forms, some of which had no or limited consultation with the police on agreed routes.
Politically organised calls, such as the ‘Radical Workers’ and ‘Militant Workers’ Blocs further aided the exposure of participants on the feeder marches to more radical identities and ideas, with a large militant Black bloc of around 600 people forming at ULU. The unwillingness from the TUC – the institutional sphere - to embrace the diversity of messages emerging from within these movements, was significant in enabling radicals and militants free reign to build up strength and influence.
The ‘antagonistic sphere’ of the anti-cuts movement acknowledged the limitations of ‘calling upon parliament’ to effect change. Despite the contradictions that exist inside it (e.g. UK Uncut’s militant lobbying) commonalities are shared that emphasise direct democracy and direct action as a means of affecting change.
UK Uncut’s action has focused on a sustained campaign of targeting tax avoidance by corporations. They employ peaceful civil disobedience, theatre and occupation as the form their actions take. The viral dynamic, reproducing replica demonstrations throughout the country, is testament to the accessibility of this form of action. Actions that are both open and participatory, not reliant on someone’s physical ability to confront the police or damage property. Their actions carry with them the possibility of ‘another’ world - transforming banks into nurseries etc - and as such are an interesting model for symbolic protest that both disrupts the flow of capital and posits the possibility of another post-capitalist relationship to space. As such the form their action takes has an ability to generalise but is contained inside a restrictive content that does not seek to posit a systemic critique. While proponents of UK Uncut come from a broad cross section of society, its numbers have been blustered by students radicalised in the fees struggle. As such many of their actions have cross-pollinated, carrying both anti-tax and fee messaging.
There is also another aspect of this broad antagonism, one characterised by property destruction, combative attitudes towards the police and the ability to circumvent police “kettling” techniques. All these experiences, as well as the legalistic and anti-surveillance lessons were learnt in the recent cycle of struggle and as such created the basis for the popularity of the Black bloc for March 26th.
We suggest that UK Uncut and the Black bloc, rather than being projections of separate ideological concerns, are reactions to existing modes of resistance and democracy. Therefore an unofficial union has occurred, a united front of antagonism to the current order of things and for the time being have empathy for each other. UK Uncut’s message is too limiting to express exactly what is necessary to say about the cuts, the crisis and capitalism. The Black bloc freely articulates itself through a symbolic immediacy, but is unable to build the conditions for a wider participation. UK Uncut as well as the Black bloc need each other, and the refusal to denounce one another is reflective of this. As our conceptualization of this sphere suggests, it’s a space that is in constant development, one that seeks to escape fixed identities.
Identity and Boundary maintenance
‘Militancy’ is often conflated with an anarchist identity, bolstered by a lazy media, who at the first opportunity will define any form of action that steps outside of legalism as being derived from an anarchist politics.
Political identity informed by ideology has a tendency to calcify thought. Ideologies contain preformed sets of ideas and interpretive tools that attempt to assimilate and codify possible interactions in line with its own principles.
While the hundreds of red & black flags that many took up on the Black bloc, were useful in reaffirming and uniting the bloc on the day it easily codified the bloc as a purely ‘Anarchist’ expression. In reality the bloc’s ‘politics’ was more than that of its symbolism. Many on the bloc removed their dark clothing, replacing it with normal clothes so as to join UK Uncut outside of Fortnum & Mason’s. We assert that this was more than a means to disappear into a crowd, but representative of the new radical subjectivity, that possesses the ability to shift from one form to another inside this antagonistic sphere.
Placing the ‘militant action’ into a more defined and political constrictive ideology has enabled the media and police to manage the actions of this “violent minority” as separate from legitimate participants (contained inside the institutional sphere) – this narrative exists as the default position of the establishment.
This equation of the Black block with anarchism has been repeated in the analysis of various left commentators and political blogs. Many of these have denounced the Black bloc actions as belonging to an anarchist vanguardist minority. This is ironic given that many of these political commentators supported similar militant actions at Millbank, seeing those as an articulation of a generalised radicalism. Therefore the aesthetics of the Black block (tied to an anarchist/militant identity) have contained how far the actions have resonated.
It could also be argued that the Black bloc on March 26th was an expression of anarchists’ new found confidence to act in conjunction with others, as well as a means by which people radicalised in the recent wave of struggle could enact a militant symbolic engagement.
Some in UK Uncut have been quick to distance themselves from the property damage undertaken by the Black bloc and posit themselves solely as proponents of peaceful, civil disobedience. This has been undertaken for a variety of reasons – as a defence, to enable such actions to continue without huge levels of policing; and to keep UK Uncut’s core message of tax justice separate from other ideological expressions.
Those in the Black bloc who have spoken to the media, have also extended the hand of solidarity to UK Uncut (see Brighton Solidarity Federation’s Open Letter), again promoting the ‘diversity of tactics’ narrative but ideologically positioning themselves outside of what they see as UK Uncut’s limited analysis.
This ideological ‘boundary maintenance’ is an attempt to ‘own’ activity on the day, to clearly delineate and equate action (form) with politics (content). This disguises the fluid nature of the new subjectivity, positing instead pre-formed identities and limitations.
We state that both participants of UK Uncut and Black bloc exist within a commonality, defined by a shared history and a mutual attraction. That this commonality is the basis of a new antagonistic sphere, wider than these two visible elements, that have characterised and shaped an attraction beyond the dominant institutional space which is fast loosing ground to it.
This was illustrated on March 26th when huge crowds stayed to support the Fortnum and Mason’s occupation, the crowd swelling into the thousands, who were then involved in cat and mouse games with the police, resisting baton charges and police dispersal. As yet the political content of this subjectivity is still developing but posits a radicality in its forms, if not currently in its content.
The new subjectivity is categorised by a tendency towards consensual decision making, a rejection of hierarchy, open political debate, participation and a fluidity in how it articulates itself. Our initial investigation leads us to pose more questions than we have answers. These include - but are not limited too: What are the political demands or aspirations that exist within the fuzzy boundaries of this ‘antagonistic sphere’? In what sense are these demands radical? How will this sphere interact with or expand into other forms of struggle?
Taking inspiration from the new movements we believe that inside the context of symbolic engagements, we need to re-conceptualise the meanings of actions that capture the public imagination, inspire confidence and participation whilst fostering collective power. We need wherever possible to escape the straitjacket of the rigidity that ideology can impose on these tactics, that ultimately leads to their over-coding/association with fixed and easily manageable identities.
On the evening of March 26th , Business Secretary Vince Cable, in a pre-written press release, reinforced the coalition government’s message that the demonstration will not change the course of the governments austerity measures, a definitive response to the institutional sphere. It seems that the institutional sphere is fast running out of space to move and accommodate the demands from the antagonistic sphere for more radical action.
The next challenge we see is how this ‘antagonistic sphere’ mutates to embrace any new wave of industrial disputes also faced with cuts and whether or not it can resonate within these struggles. This will be the true test of it and may begin to ‘flesh out’ its political content. When previously contained symbolic actions spill over onto the terrain where capital requires a discipline and dominance for it is stability, things will really start to get interesting.
Originally published in Shift magazine