Review of 'Reflections on J18' - Undercurrent

Undercurrent's review of the critical 'Reflections on J18' pamphlet on the 'Carnival Against Capitalism' which happened in London in 1999.

Submitted by Ed on July 24, 2009

June 18 saw the biggest riot in London in years. A broad alliance of mostly ecological groups had called for a "carnival against capital" as on that day the political character masks of the world's eight biggest economies had their annual summit in Cologne, Germany. The event itself was as diverse as the alliance that had initiated it. Many enjoyed the sound-systems, some got pissed, others smashed up London's financial centre. This disrespect for private property and the cops is certainly correct; however, in what relation does the actual street fighting stand to the political contents of the campaign that led up to June 18? Is the whole "party as protest" approach an adequate form of resistance?

"Reflections on june 18", a booklet published last October, brings together a near twenty "contributions on the politics behind the events that occurred in the city of London on june 18". It is fortunately not preoccupied with the technical details that often substitute analysis, and it hardly bursts of riot euphoria. Quite the reverse - "paulp." thus writes: "it has always been a mistake to fetishise street rioting…and constantly try to read something social revolutionary in it. (...) Smashing windows is smashing windows...and throwing things at police is throwing things at police, a buzz yes, but none of these things automatically imply the refusal of capitalist wage labour and commodities, the creation of common wealth and the building of world human community." Instead of celebrating J18 for the damage done, most pieces develop critique of J18 in regard to both the ideological contents of the pre-J 18 propaganda as well as in terms of the form of activism and street party.

As far as the content of the mobilisation is concerned, many contributions underscore the critique we advanced in our last two issues (which are, by the way, also included in the booklet), i.e. most importantly the highly problematic notion of "globalisation" and its implications. Too often when people talk about "global capitalism", it seems that what they reject is not so much the noun but the adjective: as if local or national capitalism was any better. Dutch activists point out that "the critique of free trade has long been a speciality of the extreme right, and has proven to easily turn anti-Semitic"; a point supported by the forceful polemic by George Forrestier which, amongst many other things, takes issue with the anti-Semitic implications of the "fetishistic and reductionist attack on financial capital". The focus on the evil bankers the J18 propaganda had is obviously something that many find, if not even dangerous, then at least completely misleading. It manifests a reified view on capital which misses the crucial point: that capital is a social relation we all reproduce permanently by working or buying commodities. Thus, a series of articles stresses the necessity to attack wage-labour and the state instead of joining the ranks of those lefty reformist ideologues who oppose democratic state regulation to "globalisation", symbolised by the cosmopolitan, a-national financial centres. Whilst it is a nice surprise to see this central ideological notion of J18 being under massive attack, it in fact gets redundant after a while -some articles merely reassert the points made by others but don't come up with new arguments.

If capital is not the sum of evil corporations and banks but a totality of social relations, then this also affects questions of strategy and forms of resistance. An article titled "Give up activism" states: "Our methods...are still the same as if we were taking on a specific corporation or development, despite the fact that capitalism is not at all the same sort of thing and the ways in which one might bring down a particular company are not at all the same as the ways in which you might bring down capitalism. (...) So we have the bizarre spectacle of 'doing an action' against capitalism - an utterly inadequate practice." The point is not to combine existing particular campaigns kept running by activists. Rather, the role of the activist, an expert in social change, in itself is quite problematic because it considers capital and revolutionary opposition to it "an issue" separated from her life just as chopping rain forests or road construction is "an issue". Yet capital is not something in the vicious city - "them" - where you can go and protest, but it is virtually everywhere and most importantly it is based on our everyday practice. What is involved here is also the relation between the activist community and what is often patronisingly referred to as "ordinary people". While it is true that revolution won't come about by everybody becoming activists, the claim that "…of course class struggle is happening all the time" sounds like whistling in the dark. It is telling that the same contribution ends by stating that "activism is a form partly forced upon us by weakness", i.e. the downturn in (class) struggle. "It may be that it (activism) is only capable of being corrected by a general upsurge in struggle when we won't be weirdos and freaks any more" - so, there we have the "us" again that the author set out to question by reference to class struggle which is initially presented to be almost something as a law of nature (here: second nature, i.e. society). Another contribution suggests that the contemporary proletarian silence "is not apathy at all" but a sign of collective intelligence as they have learnt the hard way over decades not to get dragged into every limited partial struggle, particularly in cases where there is no chance of winning." (paulp., Mustn't grumble).

However, the booklet mainly represents the diverse and contradictory positions around J18. While "Give up activism" belongs to the most inspiring pieces in the booklet as it criticises the political forms of the direct action scene fundamentally, the following text comes up with a lengthy proposal for how to make activist campaign politics even better - i.e. it wants to make things worse by not only keeping the focus on finance capital, but furthermore concentrating on nodal points instead of aiming at its totality because this "remains an abstract proposition for most people". This is the patronising way in which teachers talk about how to enlighten their pupils - make it simple!

There are a bunch of stupid contributions like that one, but as a whole, "reflections on june 18" is encouraging through its sharp criticisms which alone can get us further. However, it remains a mystery to us that the Kosovo war which hardly found the attention of the activist community busily preparing for the big event is quite absent from these critical contributions - because for us this lack of involvement in the anti-war-movement says as much about the shortcomings of the direct action scene as does the critical analysis of J18 propaganda and activist forms.