Increasing the uncertainty: beyond activism as usual

By Ben Lear, published online, March 2011. This was published in the build-up to the TUC demonstration in March 2011 which saw a large Black Bloc and actions by UKuncut as Ed Milliband spoke on the TUC stage.

Submitted by shifteditor1 on March 7, 2013

As we edge closer to the TUC demonstration this Saturday the internet, airwaves and blogosphere are becoming increasingly excited about what might happen. However, as is to be expected, much of this is already focusing on the usual themes of police fairness/repression, the likelihood of violence etc. This article seeks to reaffirm the real successes of the previous few months – an openness to change, a new found humility and greater social resonance – by calling for an intervention which focuses on moving towards uncertainty rather than falling back on tired, clichéd direct action strategies.

It will come as little surprise to many that the TUC will not be endorsing the various feeder marches which will be happening in London, or that their position on a diversity of tactics is fairly non-existent. As many commentators have already highlighted this is integral to the form of politics which the TUC is pursuing. The TUC 'game plan' for Saturday consists of turning the thousands of people which will attend into passive spectators whose only political impact is to provide a boost to the negotiating position of the TUC. What is interesting however is that many of the people on this demonstration, perhaps radicalised by impending cuts or this winter's demonstrations, will be unlikely to want to slip into this role. The political terrain has well and truly shifted.

For those of us wishing to move beyond this script we must be careful not to slip into a familiar oppositional role whose possibilities are already mapped out and which appears unlikely to actively engage and empower many more people than the TUC approach. Small groups of activists with specialist equipment taking direct action against specific targets are also likely to fail to directly engage with anything other than a minority of the people out on the streets and in front of TV screen this coming Saturday. But between the rock of the TUC's 'inclusive' demonstration and the hard place of the elitist 'direct action' of militant activists what kind of course of action can we pursue? Of course the answer is unknown, this is a problematic the answer to which might only emerge through discussion and trial and error; this article will make some suggestions as to what could be tried on Saturday's demonstration but before that it might be worth briefly discussing what we are trying to do on Saturday.

(Re/De)centering the Political

For many attending the demonstration tomorrow and certainly those organising the TUC aspect, the focus for Saturday is clear. The task for Saturday the 26th is to assemble as large a support as possible to support the TUC and increase its bargaining power vis-a-vis the government. Anything which breaks out of this polite, disciplined framework will not be tolerated. Indeed, in many ways, come Saturday the work of the TUC will have been done. All that remains is crowd control and to pack the hundreds of thousands of protestors safely back onto buses at the end of the day. From a refusal to support the feeder marches to police trained stewards expected to be the first line of policing in the event of disorder on the march (from sit-down protests onwards) it is clear that the TUC exists in a political framework of respectable negotiation and institutional politics which sees those attending the demonstration as supporters not participants. Indeed it is the formalisation of union politics which has seen its decline in both absolute numbers and political efficacy over the past decades.

But politics doesn’t just happen in the institutions of power, in boardrooms and council focus sessions. The world of institutional politics is just one dynamic, albeit a powerful one, which helps to shape the social relationships which make up our society. For those of us seeking to dismantle the state and move beyond the Capital relation we cannot afford to become fixated on the state form of politics, of representation, ‘sensible’ consensus, the role of the expert and the necessities of the economy. Of course victories in the formal political sphere are possible and indeed desirable but these will occur without us having to focus on them. Cameron's rhetorical shift from condemning a violent minority at this winter's demonstrations to recognising the more generalised confrontational nature of the movement is one recent example of this. The sphere of institutional politics will always seek to translate our challenges into the language of governance.

However, politics is also expressed in the ways we work, play and love, ultimately in the ways in which we interact with each other day to day, hour to hour. If we de-centre the formal sphere of politics and recognise politics as the process of challenging and changing social relationships then the horizons of our politics, the nature of our 'targets' changes. Beyond the set piece spectacle of direct action activism as has been practiced by many in the radical scene in the recent decades and the dull lobbying of the TUC demo a new target, our social relationships, might be seen lurking in the distance. Rather than focusing on building up a lobbying power to influence government, we should focus on helping shape the way in which those of us that attend the demonstration, and onlookers, experience it. By opening up new avenues of political experience, replete with all the uncertainty this entails, we help take a step away from those forms of doing politics which are clearly obsolete and possess little traction on the world. When the first students entered 30 Millbank it is unlikely they were aware of the consequences of such an action. This Saturday we should be prepared to continue the political experimentation which many of us have already found so exciting and refreshing. Rather than closing down political possibilities we should be aiming to increase these possibilities.

So, what might this look like on Saturday?

• A refusal to be disciplined and ordered, be it by the police or the TUC. Both of these forces will seek to order our protests to make them legible, to articulate demands and isolate those that slip outside of this 'protest consensus' as troublemakers – as those not worthy of a political voice. With so many events happening all day, the possibilities for escaping the already constructed narratives already exist. The 'anything but a kettle' mentality has implications beyond our physical constraint.
• A commitment to moving beyond the active(ist)/passive binary. Come prepared, but come prepared to share. Be it masks and other goodies or even just some new chants or a route proposal. We must seek to move outside of our comfortable friendship groups and forge new political affinities on the day.
• An openness to connectivity, experimentation and the unknown. Who knows what will happen on the day, but we should be prepared to actively increase the uncertainty and therefore the range of possible outcomes of the day.
• A critical, perhaps even subversive, engagement with the unions. The TUC demonstration shouldn't be shunned but engaged with, perhaps even subverted. The unions will be a key vehicle through which struggles will take place in the short term, but this does not mean we have to fall in line behind them. A critical engagement with the unions is necessary. If half of the TUC demonstration were to suddenly leave half way through the rally....well....

These principles seem simple enough but if we attempt to build upon them and make them a reality who knows what kind of effects this Saturday's demonstration might have for now and in the wider future. Seeking to emulate previous, tired forms of politics (be that isolated direct action or trade union marches) is a certain failure, new forms of doing – those which escape our current understanding or familiarity – might be the key to gaining traction in the here and now. The old doesn't work and so we shouldn't be afraid to move towards new forms of politics, however uncertain their effects may be.

Ben Lear is a member of the editorial collective of Shift Magazine.