This question might seem odd to some. To seasoned libertarian communists, the answer ‘everyday life’ trips off the tongue without a second thought. But it seems like a productive question to work through in light of recent events, from the parliamentary expenses scandal to the August riots to the #occupy movement. So, where is politics?
#1: The liberal and leftist answer
'Politics is in the state!'
The conventional answer, one you’ll get from politicians and the BBC, is: Parliament. According to the BBC, ‘Democracy Live’ consists of watching a succession of grey men in grey suits, and helpfully provides a guide to the institutions where politics resides and your representatives who do politics for you within them. This conventional view is of course that of liberalism, that politics is the domain of representative democracy and its institutions. But this view pervades much further than the liberal establishment and into the leftist ‘common sense’ of the workers movement.
Trade unions typically affiliate to a political party to handle the political representation of their members, whether that’s the Labour Party or the ‘new workers party’ called for by Bob Crow and the Socialist Party. Reformists since Kautsky have seen parliament as the place of politics, and even the ‘revolutionary’ Marxists like Lenin and his ilk essentially follow suit. As Amadeo Bordiga saw it:
“Every class struggle is a political struggle. The goal of this struggle, which inevitably turns into a civil war, is the conquest of political power. Political power cannot be seized, organised, and operated except through a political party.”
So the conventional answer, which pervades both liberal and leftist thinking, in both reformist and ‘revolutionary’ guises, is that politics is in the state (and the appropriate organisational form is therefore a political party). To this day, even many self-identified ‘revolutionaries’ accept this logic, pursuing parliamentary influence or alliances, or running and/or endorsing candidates in elections. However, is it right to accept that politics is embodied in the state?
#2: The #occupy and activist answer
'Politics is in the streets!'
The most visible contemporary rejection of this location of politics with the institutions of the state comes from the #occupy movement. David Graeber argues that #occupy is based on “a rejection of existing political institutions and attempt to create alternative ones”. For sure, the exact content of ‘real democracy’, a slogan that has echoed from Spain to Oakland is somewhat fuzzy and undefined, but #occupy’s rejection of the established political institutions has drawn harsh state repression in Spain, Oakland, New York and many other places. Police in London have even labelled them as domestic terrorists for sitting in tents in public space and squatting buildings. It’s hard to understand why the state would react with such violence to such seemingly non-threatening actions, were it not for the significance of redefining extra-parliamentary space as political space. #occupy challenges the liberal statist location of politics in practice if not in ideology and articulation.
Correspondingly, #occupy also contests the idea of politics as something carried out by specialist representatives, juxtaposing it to a participatory ideal based on general assemblies and direct democracy. That is not to say that it does not reproduce political specialism in an activist form, but it is certainly easier to become an occupier than to become a politician. However, while #occupy can be seen to reject representative politics in favour of direct democracy, the relocation of politics is purely institutional, not relational. In other words, it’s all form and no content. So for example, the appalling response to the gang-rape at Occupy Glasgow represents precisely this: the challenge to the dominant political institutions is purely formal (replace ‘corrupt’ democracy with ‘real’ democracy), but social relations are unchallenged, and indeed questioning them is seen as a divisive threat to the #occupy form. A similar point could be made of the hero-worship of Julian Assange. So I’d reject Graeber’s equation of #occupy with anarchism. Yes, it mirrors certain anarchist forms (general assemblies, no representatives etc), but anarchism is not simply an empty formal politics but fundamentally about transforming social relations.1
#3: A libertarian communist answer
'Politics is everyday life!'
The default ‘libcom’ answer to the question ‘where is politics?’ is ‘everyday life, stupid’. However, this is often misinterpreted. The main misunderstanding comes from approaching it from the perspective of individual citizen-consumers in the market (i.e. liberalism) rather than social subjects immersed in and partly constituted by a web of social relations (i.e. communism). This leads to an interpretation of ‘everyday life’ in terms of consumption choices. Boycott coke. Use alternative medicines. Buy organic or just don’t move to the back of the bus. This is precisely what Marx means by commodity fetishism:
“the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things”
In other words, things, commodities, institutions and so on, are identified with the social relations of which they are both an expression and mediator (albeit a real one with real effects). Consequently, a challenge on the level of things is not enough, since they are not just the producers but also the product of social relations. Thus, to take an example of anarcha-feminist practices, things like alternative medicine or smashing up sex shops2 do not and indeed cannot challenge dominant social relations (even when the associated rhetoric purports to). The former is an attempt to escape them, the latter an impotent expression of their dominance. One can no sooner smash patriarchy by smashing up a sex shop than one can smash capitalism by smashing up a bank.
“an action against capitalism which identifies capitalism as 'out there' in the City is fundamentally mistaken - the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives - we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.”
So in place of this conception as politics as located in things, a libertarian communist perspective is that politics is located in everyday social relations. And these relations are constituted by power struggles and thus by antagonism. As Liberté Locke’s excellent piece draws out, the content of this antagonism bears many similarities whether it takes the form of patriarchal gender relations or capitalist wage relations. Thus continuing the anarcha-feminist thread, RAG write:
“while the site for this [struggle] has often been the work-place in traditional anarchist dialogue, it was noted that from a feminist perspective, the family and the body are additional sites of conflict (our literal “means of production” which we determined to seize!)”
For anarchists (i.e. libertarian communists), this power struggle is not a struggle for the capture of institutional power (the conventional account we saw above), nor simply to change the form of power (as thus far with #occupy). Rather, it’s a question of transforming social relations: abolishing hierarchical power relations and therefore the social forms which reproduce them (the state, private property, commodities, wage labour, binary gender etc). This is the class struggle. So in a sense #occupy is half-right. Politics is in the streets, but insofar as we transform social relations as we take to the streets. Politics for anarchists means replacing hierarchic social relations (state-citizen, boss-worker, masculinity-femininity and so on) with non-commercial, horizontal ones (the market is also a horizontal relationship, but not one opposed to hierarchy and in fact dependent on it). But this is not something that only happens visibly, on big days like November 30th. It means organising and agitating everyday where we are, not simply transposing ourselves to alternative political spaces, be that Parliament or an #occupy tent. This is the sense politics is located in everyday life.
- 1The recent development of #occupyhomes casts doubt on my assertion #occupy doesn’t contest social relations, or at least hints at the way in which the #occupy dynamic can’t be reduced to a neat theoretical category and is evolving, potentially in the direction of challenging private property itself, even while this is justified using the language of rights and fairness.
- 2This particular action is not claimed as anarcha-feminist, but direct action against pornographic boutiques has been identified as an anarcha-feminist tactic
great blog post
great blog post
Very well written. High 5!
Very well written. High 5!
Nice blog article Joseph.
Nice blog article Joseph.
Cheers guys... felt a bit
Cheers guys... felt a bit like anarchy-autopilot, but seems like it's worth examining what we mean by 'politics of everyday life'.
Joseph Kay wrote: Cheers
It's always worth writing basic stuff, IMO -- not meaning 'basic' in a dismissive way at all. In many respects, it's the hardest thing to write.
This is excellent JK
This is excellent JK :)
Yeah good point... there
Yeah good point... there might be a follow-up blog in that tbh. There's been a spate of mainstream articles completely misreading commodity fetishism as 'liking commodities', when actually the attempts of even powerful states to appease The Market in the current crisis call for the idea more than ever to explain how it is these inanimate and arcane objects and institutions have so much power over our lives. I'll have a think.
as Bobby/maloney/micky5/john09/graham/revolt68 would say, GOOD STUFF
I wish to differ. It
I wish to differ. It is
What did anyone learn that was new from this? It is abstract and banal and dull. Joseph Kay has not learnt anything new from writing this - which is the reason for saying that he went into "anarchist-autopilot" and I guess, nor has anyone else. But correct me if I have got all you flatterers, who seem to need to mutally pat Joseph Kay on the back for something that is just a "correct line", wrong. Perhaps I have missed something in this uninteresting piece. Please correct my ignorance.
GerryK wrote: What did anyone
New to whom? Most people aren't libertarian communists already, and there's a dearth of accessible libertarian communist writing imho.
Not really true, a lot of inchoate ideas fell into place reading Liberté Locke's piece, and this then wrote itself (hence 'autopilot'). I'm also still working through what to make of #occupy, and my opinions were changing even in the short time this took to write (hence the hastily added footnote about #occupyhomes). Specifically, I've been thinking a lot about the relationship of gender and class, and the LL piece cut through a lot of the abstract theorising around it (e.g. this) to focus on the emotional content and mechanisms of domination that make up the politics of everyday life.
Yep, you're ignorant, please
Yep, you're ignorant, please accept this as correction. If you know everything - which you clearly do - then enjoy the peace instead of sniping without adding any sort of contribution. Or maybe that's what people do when they're as super dooper as yourself. If someone writes a piece of work and it's worth complementing then that's what they get. If, however, the world's brainiest person decides that this is group flattery then they should be reminded that they acting like a bell end.
I'd have to agree with GerryK
I'd have to agree with GerryK here.
First I agree it is good to practice writing and I likely agree with what Joseph K is ultimately trying to say. But it is too abstract to a degree of non-utility/ obfuscation. In the absence of explicit strategic or tactial suggestions it reads like a mystification of "social relations". And it explicitly critiques actions which in actuality, contra the implication, can shape real social relations (whether the context of such actions is strategic or tactically viable is likely where I'd agree with J K about prioritizing different 'when, where, and whats' for sites of contestation but I wouldn't know from this blog as it is too abstract).
Commodity choices and property destruction or violence can and do affect social relations and eveyday life. Going with the 'anarcha-feminist' examples in the blog post for instance 1) 'alternative medicine'; a collective of women performing self-gynecological exams, for example, changes the social relations of individual women to medical specialists (often men) which could be (and often is) is an extremely alienating social relation to one of collective self-empowerment. 2) Likewise the destruction of an open pornography shop would likely force such to operate more 'hidden' and preserves or creates a social relation where the consumption of pornography is one which must be discreet or shameful (I'm not arguing about pornography here... rather pointing to the fact that such action does have an effect on social relations).
[email protected] wrote: 1)
That's a good point. I specifically used the term alternative medicine as opposed to say herbal medicine, as what makes it 'alternative' is there's no evidence it works. However, even then, it could still change social relations (although the empowerment may be a placebo effect, it would be a real effect). This is a related but really important debate actually - several feminists I know rage about this kind of thing as reifying 'female intuition' and abandoning evidence-based reason. On the other hand, there's plenty of examples of the medical establishment being shit to women.
There's also a question of how far it challenges everyday social relations per se, as opposed to a handful of relatively infrequent interactions (doctor-patient). Would skipping 'change social relations' vis checkout workers? These things seem very much located at the individual level rather than the social, being essentially consumption choices, and as such it's hard to see how they could prefigure a wider social change (but I might be wrong).
I think this is pushing it a bit though - i think societal attitudes to sex or pornography are unlikely to be effected by a handful of people doing smashy smashy. If societal attitudes are open to that kind of thing, the demand will be there and it's unlikely to be driven underground imho [i take your point you're not commenting one way or the other on pornography here, but making the point about the relation of 'action' to social relations].
Like others have said, this
Like others have said, this is really good.
I think you've simplified the liberal perspective though; quite a key part of liberalism lies in its focus on politics outside the state. It overlaps with the activist approach as you've outlined it in terms of a focus on individual actions. It also is concerned with the third sector (over-exaggerating its importance in my opinion) to a really large extent and I think that's worth saying even though it doesn't change the substance of what you're saying, because claiming liberals think 'Politics is in the state' isn't that accurate.
Maybe you also dichotomise things to too much of an extent. Yeah, unions and trotskyites want to build political power but that doesn't mean they don't recognise the importance in the politics of everyday life - they do. Similarly, and I know I'm not saying anything at all novel, but obviously politics does exist in the state to an extent - even though we don't think it's a valuable area which we can use to produce social conflict and change.
None of this detracts from the piece at all, but if someone from a certain political perspective reads something which mischaracterises their perspective (or another perspective which they know about) then it's very easy to see the piece as a whole as bad, which would be a massive shame.
I missed this the first time
I missed this the first time around somehow. I like this piece. I think it could be done up as a pamphlet targeting people who aren't already in the milieu by adding in a bit of "where to after this" stuff for people who are just thinking about this stuff.
I thought it was quite good
I thought it was quite good although I think only the first section would be easily understandable to anyone who wasn't already fairly aware of political terms and discussions
I see the link to Vaneigens
I see the link to Vaneigens book but there is perhaps a need to tackle, honestly and openly and with a sense of realism, the contradictions and frustrations of trying to 'take your desires for reality', and looking back to the women's liberationist slogan of 'the personal is political' in relating as a libertarian communist individually and collectively to a 'politics of the everyday' in advance of mass class struggle and the exercise of meaningful political power?
The various groups I was involved in over the years (influenced by a heady mix of anarchism/marxism/situationism/feminism) got themselves into some awful muddles trying to deal with this and it continues to bedevil todays groups it seems to me.
i think there's often lots of
i think there's often lots of problems with the way 'everyday life' is applied/interpreted. Vaneigem's emphasis on immediate pleasure is a healthy counterweight to stale leftist martyrdom, but could easily become the basis for something like lifestyle politics (certainly, CrimethInc circa 'your politics are boring as fuck' were in this vein). On the other hand, it could serve as an in-group mantra, with a handful of well-read politicos reciting it in the back of a pub, creating a sphere of 'political activity' ironically divorced from their own lives. but i think what separates revolutionary theory from philosophy is precisely its relation to our lives. if anarchist/communist ideas don't help us improve our lives, then what are they for?
Spikymike wrote: I see the
Spikeymike, do you think you help me understand this sentence?
snipfool, Sorry if that
Sorry if that comment was a bit of a (perhaps self-indulgent) mouthful - it just struck me from my own experience that tiny pro-revolutionary groups cannot themselves deliver the changes that their ambitious objectives seem to promise and often get bogged down in the very lifestyle agenda's they oppose in theory, because we do rather expect our activity in such groups to 'improve our lives' in the here and now, more than by just by a better understanding of the world.
It's a problem we all face in trying to reconcile our political opposition to the long list of 'oppressions' and 'divisions' which the material reality of everyday life in capitalism generates, with our practical abillity as individuals to maintain our sanity and survive with some integrity.
If that still doesn't make much sense best ignore it I suppose.
Spikymike wrote: it just
I think it's the other way around, tbh. If you aim only at 'understanding the world', then you're going to be at best a small bunch of people whose hobby is discussing communism. Nothing wrong with that, and plenty of such small groups have written valuable things which might have impacted events at the time or remained for future generations.
But the problem with a lot of ultra-left theory seems to be precisely this, it ends up mystifying everyday life to the point that communist theory becomes about understanding the world and not changing it, i.e. the exact opposite of Marx's famous advocacy of practical-critical activity (the over-quoted '...the point is to change it'). I was in a reading group on communisation theory recently, and there was a piece arguing that applying communist ideas to our lives was utopian, and we must only describe the future. That is almost the definition of utopianism ('we have nothing to offer you but a vision of how things could be')!
Apologies if i'm conflating what you're saying with a text i read, but it seems to be in a similar line of argument. I mean at what point did 'the point is to change it' become 'if you try and change it, you're a lifestylist, the point is to interpret it'? I imagine it's something to do with the defeats of the 1980s, but still i think the preoccupation with "mass class struggle" is misguided. You don't need the winter of discontent to get together with your workmates and refuse unpaid overtime. You don't need the Hot Autumn to pull together a mass meeting and stop work until you're given proper contracts. You don't need barricades to confront your boss over wage theft, or bullying, or lack of stable hours, and back that threat up with pickets/occupations/whatever.
Now a lot of this stuff isn't as sexy as pitched battles with the cops, or flying pickets and mass strikes, but it's all stuff that's happening now and is being catalysed by radical groups. To call it lifestylism is like calling it utopian. You could make all sorts of criticisms but it completely distorts the meaning of the term to apply it to this kind of thing. If communism is just a hobby, or a way of understanding the world, fine. But this need to see anything else as deluded, utopian lifestylism seems to cross over into actually telling people not to try and improve their lives - in the name of communism.
Edit: Obviously i'm not saying that SolFed (or AF, or whoever) can just create libertarian communism at will. Obviously. But there's a long, long way between '200 people can't single-handedly create communism' and 'all we can do is understand the world'!
Joseph Kay wrote: i think
Outta interest, are you speakign hypothethically or from experience?
IMO the very fact that talking about 'everyday lives' (which means your relationship to capital IMO) might seem counter-intuitive and elitist would seem to indicate a critique of the mainstream activist movement and its grand narratives about self-sacrifice and the 'greater good' more than anything else
My second attempt to explain
My second attempt to explain my concerns doesn't seem to have faired any better going on Josephs further response, perhaps because this is an area where my thoughts are not so refined.
My reference to the problems associated with 'improving our lives' was specifically in relation to what we expect to achieve from our tiny pro-revoluionary groups rather than what we might achieve by 'getting together with our workmates to refuse overtime' or other such workplace or 'community' activity, which is not anyway the preserve of such groups. I was thinking more about our interpersonal relationships and attitudes around work, consumption, friendship, race, sex, etc.
From my experience in such groups in the past and to some extent more recently (a period of some 46 years!), it seems that there is a tendency to lurch back and forth between a kind of 'hard line we're only interested in basic class struggle' and a preoccupation with our personal involvement in reproducing a varied list of 'oppressions'.
Beyond perhaps an appeal for realism in what we can expect from such political groups in terms of both our personal lives and our impact on the development of class struggle, this is just an observation not any particular criticism of existing groups.
Caiman del Barrio
Caiman del Barrio
Experience... When I first got involved in Brighton SF everyone wanted to do politics of everyday life but that seemed to involve perennially tailgating the struggles of others (i.e. you could have substituted Palestine or animals for 'the class struggle' as the external thing we were oriented to). It was a young group though (in age and newly formed) and identified that as a problem and developed away from that.
Perhaps this is the issue. If such groups are divorced from such things, then, it follows that they'll achieve little (in that sphere at least), which can lead to isolation (perhaps a subculture?). Such a divorce may not be optional but may be forced by circumstances of course (tiny size, burnout, heavy defeats, repression...). I'm not sure if lifestylism is the right term here, or rather I think I'm understanding something different by it. Imho even the most impotent political group wouldn't be lifestylist unless it held its clothing/dietary/residential habits were in and of themselves radical. But I think we might be using words differently and talking past one another.
Has that been something within specific groups, or the wider milieu/left? How was 'basic class struggle' distinguished from oppressions (presumably 'bread and butter' issues on the one hand vs anti-racism on the other)? Why do you think there was such an oscillation? Sorry, lots of questions. But keen not to repeat exactly the same patterns as have gone before, or at least be wise to them!
Joseph, I think we are
I think we are talking at cross purposes to some extent but that's probably my fault as I am trying to express here just an uneasiness I have with what I perceive to be the disparity between the publicly expressed objectives of many of our tiny pro-revolutionary groups and the actual behavior and expectations of the individuals that make them up. Not an 'accusation' of dishonesty as such but a lack of self-awareness and transparency which I have been as complicit in as much as anyone else.
You are clear that such groups cannot actually deliver communism but in all honesty can you demonstrate that any of these groups separately or collectively have in any way over the last 50 years or so brought us any nearer to communism?
Some may have contributed more than others to our understanding of capitalism and it's alternative in communism and some may have contributed in other (mostly small) ways to defending or occassionally improving our material conditions of life within capitalism, but any link between these two activities in practice has been more a case of assertion than evidence and neither are proof of any advance to our common objective.
So then we come on to what individuals really do expect to gain from involvement in such groups. Honesty would suggest that it is no more than the above two mentioned things, (though I am aware that some imagine they are actually building the revolutionary organisation of the future - party/leadership/union).
But even here there is a further matter of our individual integrity in our day to day personal activity as communists who would seek to live differently to the alienating condition of the 'worker-consumer' whilst still being constrained by the material realities of that role. We are intelectually communists because we recognise the limits of trying to live an unalienating human life within capitalism, but those limits can always be tested and tested more in the company of others. It seems much of the time however that those others are not necessarily all communists but rather people with a variety of different and conflicting views on life, and in respect of particular challenges, the make up of the company may exclude some communists who in practice do not have any advantage over others resulting from their intelectual ubnderstanding of capitalism. Being a communist does not provide us with a suite of armour against the material influences of life under capitalism or turn us into the perfect opponents of the whole variety of oppressions and injustices of the system. In everyday practice it is more often than not those who are not in any of the pro-revolutionary groups who are at the forefront of challenging the oppressions and restriction of life in capitalism as much on a day to day individual basis as in periods of 'mass action'.
So we are interested in 'lifestyle' I suppose and for some a group which is 'anti- lifestyle' provides the relevant political lifestyle.
Still struggling to express myself clearly here without at this point giving a lot of specific examples from the groups I've personally been involved with.
Spikymike wrote: You are
It depends what you mean by communism. I'm wary of defining it as a 'state of affairs to be established'. I think it has to be understood as a latent tendency towards the assertion of human needs (which is expressed through class struggles, since it's capital which turns us into its resources). I think there's definitely examples of small groups catalysing struggles in that way, in the last year alone i'm aware of a fair few (e.g. the cleaners at Brunel), though the sexier examples come from abroad (CNT etc). There's individual scale stuff too, e.g. the Hartley pub dispute).
You can say that these small things don't bring communism any closer, but aside from posing communism as a 'state of affairs to be established', i'd argue that the more experiences there are of collective direct action, the better organised revolutionary workers are, the better able we'll be to influence events in a revolutionary direction. I'd argue what's operative in such smaller struggles is not just the immediate results, but the effects in terms of normalising direct action and so on. I think the IWW's (failed) attempts to push for a general strike in Madison are instructive here. The IWW is pretty tiny, but nonetheless managed to put the idea on everybody's lips. If they'd have had a few more members/job committees in a few key sectors then they might have been more successful. Maybe they have those now despite the failure.
Ok, a general strike against a crap law is still not the abolition of states, markets, commodities, the gender binary... But the point is well-organised groups embedded in everyday struggles can have influence far beyond their numbers. I'm hearing similar things about the CNT (and to an extent the CGT) in Spain at the moment, using assemblies mainly made up of mainstream union members being denied strike ballots by their unions to catalyse collective direct action way beyond their membership. Whether this takes on a revolutionary dynamic is down to all sorts of wider factors and so on, but i think the chances of discontent/strikes becoming generalised and anti-capitalist has a lot to do with the organisation of revolutionary workers within that process, and recent history suggests it's difficult to make up lost ground within that process starting from scratch (e.g. the militants in France '68 who were unable to make links with other factories as the gates were patrolled by union/Communist Party men).
Briefly: i agree on the point we can't live an unalienated life under capitalism just because we want to (and that would mirror lifestylism). Gotta go out now so will try and come back with a more substantive response later.
Joseph, OK just responding
OK just responding to your last post which seems to concentrate on the first section of my previous post.
It may be that 'communism' is both 'a state of affairs to be established' and ' a latent tendency towards the assertion of human needs' expressed through the class struggle (and perhaps outside of that struggle as generally understood?).
It is usually the case that some minority or other takes the lead in advancing particular collective struggles but rarely is it the case as far as I can see that any one particular pro-revolutionary group (or any group in most cases?) is the significant factor in this process and the IWW experience seems a pretty week example against this.
But more importantly whatever the mix of politically influenced workers in these minorities, the experience of all those involved , outside of a much wider and deeper, 'externally' experienced economic and social crisis will not, and has not, lead to any significant challenge to capitalism as a whole let alone an effort towards communism. Put another way there is no long term practical evolution or accumulation of these different latent tendencies towards communism as a material reality, though such experiences may (but not inevitably) lead a minority of workers to learn from those experiences. It is this last possibility which most pro-revolutionary political groups hang onto as their justification but in todays world our groups, even collectively, are generally too small and unrepresentative of the international working class as to be in any position to effectively generalise and draw meaningful conclusions from their own experience beyond some very basic principles, (though networks such as libcom may go a small way to overcomming this limitation).
Of course it may be that we are actually at the beginnings of the sort of 'externally experienced crisis' I'm thinking of right now ? In that situation there might be more potential for a genuine accumulation of collective experience that will in turn exacerbate the crisis in a way that causes the whole system to implode, turning a potential tendency into a material reality on the ground. Unfortunately our tiny milieu is not well placed to ensure such a turn of events as opposed to more potentially reactionary outcomes.
Quote: In everyday practice