A contribution to the "Reflections on J18" collection.
June 18th - If I can dance, it's not my revolution?
June 18th in the UK indicated once more that we have yet to realise the impasse contained in a politics of carnival expressed in the form of a street party. Indeed, I am going to suggest that the very concept of the street party is, in its current guise, part of the difficulty, a contributory factor to the spectacularisation of resistance which celebrates an idea of 'party as protest', thereby repeatedly mobilising the same constituency, without appealing beyond a narrow sub-cultural ghetto. Where, in the past, our critique has successfully illuminated the staid and self-disciplined marches of other social movements, the purpose of which appears to all intents and purposes to be the alienation of those participating, I want to suggest that we are now in a similar position, having imposed our own self discipline in what amounts to a carceral continuum of 'protest'. 'Participants' turn up at the meeting point, await instructions, follow their leader(s), have a party, and express their frustration in the inevitable confrontation with the police. Whether at London Wall or Upper Thames Street, we still led, or were led (most peoples experience), to a space which we accidentally liberated through force of numbers, before being invited to trash something symbolic, and then either defend that space with force from the police, or retreat under the threat of state intervention. During all of this it was possible to 'party' if you could get out of the way of charging horses and baton wielding police. Despite having approximately 10,000 people in the City of London, only a handful of occupations took place on the morning of June 18th, and the actions that were taken were generalised in the sense that they were organised in established fashion, CAAT actions involving locking on in banks, Critical Mass, etc. Despite the notable attempts to block London Bridge most peoples involvement was to choose to meet at Liverpool Street and await instructions, rather than to plan their own autonomous actions.
June 18th in London whether we liked it or not was essentially an RTS, and was more revealing for being so. Previously the action of blocking roads was in itself politically significant, in rediscovering their potential as streets, the party became a celebration of a world turned upside down, the liberation of enclosed space. However in bringing the same tactic to the City, our challenge was not in the decision to move from the pavement to the street, but from the street in to the closed citadels of capital, and unfortunately many of us were happier to stay in the street, excluded from the real party, that of the owners of capital, rapidly enclosed, and then beaten down, our frustration taken out in unimaginative graffiti - 'bankers=wankers', the breaking of windows, and the entirely bland re-enacting of iconic revolutionary moments of the past. The burning of documents might have had greater resonance, if it wasn't for its ritualised performance by a handful of militants who entertained the crowd with their daring, but ultimately reaffirmed their own separateness from those spectating. This was the theatre of protest married to the spectacle of the party, the unrefined anomic disorder of the dispossessed, frustrated and angry but ultimately controlled, allied to the hedonism of the party scene which often perceives the political as an 'off yer face - out of mind' distraction. This is what I mean by 'party as protest', it inverts Emma Goldman's often quoted affirmation of revolution as a celebration, and replaces it with the conceit that to party is revolutionary. I'm bored in every sense with 'protest', the very notion of a fragmentary objection to some 'thing', and I celebrated the repeated assertion of 'resistance' in June 18 agit-prop, yet everywhere I still hear the same mantra about 'protest', as if it were possible to protest against capitalism, to turn out for one day a year and object to the very relationships within which the rest of our everyday lives are embedded. And, here lies some of the difficulty of the street party, difficulties which have long since bedevilled a politics of carnival. Despite the wonderfully erudite reading of carnival that has peppered RTS agit-prop, much of it derived from Bakhtin, a street party is unlikely ever to become the revolutionary moment, because it contains within it all the aspects of carnival which have been, and continue to be recuperated within the spectacular, participants in the street parties we organise have everything to gain by playing it safe. Nowhere was this more evident than in the City. We have seen commentators lamenting the police actions in breaking up a 'peaceful party', and the police in the City of London, despite our best imaginings, have given us little indication that we are conceived as a serious threat, ultimately they sat back and let us go where we pleased, not because they couldn't stop us, but because we create the conditions of our own confinement. When they wanted they were able to split the crowd, drive us away from the LIFFE building and beat those who tried in vain to hold their ground. Tactics which are reminiscent of the Met's recent handling of RTS events, where they have deployed minimal control during the 'rolling' stage of the party, waiting until we're stopped and then surrounding us. What are often celebrated as temporary autonomous zones, can just as easily be conceived as prisons of our own choosing. The availability of between 5,000 and 10,000 people as a core constituency on any street party in London means that the risk associated with attendance is minimal, minimal risk - maximum attendance, yet there were 7,000 people 3 years ago, and after months of work we can still only attract similar numbers, which is far from a 'critical mass'. Lots of symbolic actions, little meaningful disruption for the City, and to make it worse we then congratulate ourselves through commodifying our resistance, 2 million quid of damage - good demo!
Despite our good intentions party and carnival are not synonymous in the context of the street party. Party here means the 'party scene' and just that, an opportunity to let off steam see your mates, get off your face and go home, bar a few highly distinguished exceptions, the party scene is a semi commercial enterprise run by entrepreneurs marketing a niche in sub-cultural chic - witness the flyers distributed for pay parties and whistles being sold to the crowd outside Liverpool St with little challenge. What I want to know is where are the people that marched with us to Trafalgar Square (accepting the failure of other plans for the day!) on the March for Social Justice, the dockers, the RMT dissidents, disaffected trade unionists, Kurdish workers, pensioners groups, twice the number of people we attracted to the City. People whose tradition and history speak volumes about differing forms of resistance, from whom we might learn differing repertoires of activism and to whom we might teach certain tactical innovations. The Inter Continental Caravan, should have raised many questions for our movement in the UK. Why have we failed to mobilise large swathes of people whose lives are touched everyday by the machinations of the City, whose communities have long traditions of resistance and whom we have worked with in the past. Part of our difficulty is articulating a sustainable form of resistance outside of activist ghettos, finding forms of engagement which enable others to participate and constructing networks which go beyond those already in place. The movement has diversified since the prominent mass actions against road building, and whilst this diversification is healthy in that it opens avenues of access to participation at different levels, with differing emphases, drawing from differing traditions, if we are to have further mass actions aimed at key nodes in the operation of finance capital, part of this process has to be an escape from the well established routine of the street party as it is enacted currently. Let me illustrate the problem through reference to one of the key moments on June 18th in London. I was present outside the LIFFE building when there was an organised attempt to gain access, despite the presence of long term activists, with a significant history of engaging in direct action, many of whom I respect enormously, they were met by other misguided people calling for 'non-violence' who, alongside the obligatory security, managed to physically obstruct their attempts to gain entry, these confrontations opened the way for the crude anarchism often displayed in such situations whose advocates merely seek to smash things up and lob bottles from distances which imperil those at the front, thereby bringing in the riot police, it also encouraged the spectacle of protest, many happy to watch things develop despite being implored to occupy the building. There was little resolve in those present for an occupation, and yet with 100 or more people the building could have easily been occupied and perhaps even barricaded, with greater enthusiasm this could have been achieved with little in the way of violence and would have sent a resounding message around the globe. So why didn't it happen?
Because the crowd gives the illusion of action but is essentially passive, there is a 'peaceful party' to be part of which seeks little in the way of serious engagement, we are stuck between the virtual activism of the party and the dedicated efforts of a far smaller number of activists whose vision is of a revolutionary carnival. We have the ambition but the means we have chosen dissipate our energy and allow our recuperation. Let's not pretend any more that being forced away from the Futures Exchange and smashing the odd Mercedes dealership is some kind of great success, this is merely anomic disorder with little merit or conviction. We might be able to mobilise 10,000 people but how many of them were willing to take instrumental direct action which is aimed at the interference, disruption and symbolic appropriation of key nodes in the operation of informationalised capitalism, we have this capacity, and such as RAND ('Cyberwar is Coming', Arquilla and Rondfelt, 1993) have been theorising our capacity to cause such immense disruption for years, yet still we engage in the same theatre of collective action, tacitly affirming the relations of power to which we are finally subjugated.
Suggestions for further mass actions.
If we are to hold further mass actions against finance capital they should be explicitly targeted against key nodal points in the network of institutions, corporations, and exchanges which facilitate the current globalisation of neo-liberal capitalism, not at its totality which despite our understandings of the 'spectacle', or the 'military/industrial/entertainment complex' remains an abstract proposition for most people. This could involve a call to stop a particular institution working for a day, a wonderfully old fashioned mass picket (call it whatever you want) by the people whose lives are affected in the everyday by its operation. We could explain very clearly how the institution works and why it should be stopped, local groups could research the impact it has in their region and tie it to local pollution, poor working conditions, health and safety etc. Our energies and resources could b e focused on research to uncover every last detail of their operations, it would be easily communicable through our own media and quickly picked up by the external media post June 18. It would be a return to the single issues that politicised so many of us previously, but it would be the single issue of capitalism itself expressed in a less abstract manner. We could target a different institution every six months, explaining and demonstrating the links between them and calling for actions against their offices or buildings globally. We could forget about the secrecy of locations and be overt in our choice of target, those coming to participate would know why they were there and it would be made apparent that the aim was to shut the choice of target down. Tactics could involve occupations (where possible), mass pickets (as carnivalesque as possible), cyber attacks - hacking/fax attacks/e-mail bombs, phone actions, letter writing campaigns, street parties outside Director's houses and wanted posters of them in their own communities, etc etc. Instead of dissipating our energies rallying against something so big it disappears, we would be uniquely focused on the points at which their system is weakest. Inevitably we would be the subject of massive police attention, but besieging such institutions would allow for a clearer articulation of how capital operates and the means of operation upon which it is dependent. Imagine the police defending a sieged building of a major multi-national or financial exchange when for weeks before local groups had distributed information about how it effects the lives of people in their region, before going to take part in the action. The police role as puppets of private capital would be increasingly revealed to a wider constituency of support who could participate in numerous ways, many people in our area would love to participate but haven't reached the point where they can take to the streets, there would be nothing to stop them phoning this or that institution/exchange on the day. Unions could be contacted and sympathetic workers engaged with, allowing for further information and possible internal disruption/sabotage. This broadening of our support base would diminish the range of repressive actions the police could take and might if we exhibited the same organisational capacity as we did during June 18th, lead to them advising our targets to cease work/dealing etc for the day. In the event of violence by the police, the representation of a thin blue line sweeping a rabble from the streets could not be sustained as easily, think of previous struggles such as the miners strike, the printers at Wapping or even the poll tax riot. If we can articulate a strong case why a particular corporation/exchange should be stopped and threaten to lay siege to it, they will be forced at some level to articulate a counter position. Once they engage in a debate they effectively legitimate opposition, two positions are known and people are able to side with one or the other, this strengthens us immensely. The City was able to appear as sanctioning June 18th during its 'peaceful party' phase, before expressing shock at later events which were represented as random and chaotic violence, they had no need to defend their part in global death and destruction because they were never called to do so. Trashing a Mercedes showroom, whilst it has my sympathy, is not going to make others question the logic of capital, it's merely a means of relieving frustration. We all know that stopping the City whilst it sounds wonderful is unlikely to happen whilst we fail to engage those outside our number who won't come for a party. However, stopping London Clearing House or the Metals Exchange or the god forbid the Futures and Options Exchange....
If we could stop them once it could be done again, and if they can be stopped once the utopia of stopping them permanently would appear almost in sight. Imagine 5 years from now when everyone knows how the City operates because they've seen it sieged, exchange after exchange, bank after bank, institution after institution. Imagine it permanently cut off from the rest of London its own need for security strangling its operation, whilst its reputation as a key player in the global network of finance is devastated. Imagine the ripples it would send throughout our networks, the same hope many of us have seen in the audacity and tactical brilliance of the Zapatistas. It's possible but we need to move from a celebration of its possibility to the enactment of its downfall. There is nothing here which is at all innovative, I'm merely suggesting a replication of tactics that have achieved differing degrees of success elsewhere on a smaller scale, think of live animal exports or Hillgrove and EF!'s national campaign against Tarmac. Neither am I calling for the abandonment of RTS events, rather I'm attempting to suggest a way forward from the impasse of challenging finance capital through the 'party as protest' route, which despite its ability to mobilise large numbers, does so at the risk of inducing a political vacuum in the heart of our resistance. As one of the people that occupied Freshfields law firm in the City of London on June 18th, I found their own reporting of our action very telling:
"Freshfields has been stormed by the protesters waving banners and playing bongo drums! The dancing is pretty dreadful but it's made for an exciting morning' (Squall Web Site). The time of us dancing to their tune should be over, I'm not interested in making their work exciting - but stopping it. At the same time as our occupation and again over the weekend, other activists from within the Lancaster J-18 group launched a cyber attack against Freshfields which disabled their e-mail system, whilst others still occupied Acordis Acetate's plant in Lancaster, leading a critical mass there and storming the building. Acordis pump carcinogens in to the air over Lancaster, and Freshfields are the lawyers that facilitated them doing so. So when we danced in Freshfields it wasn't because we considered that in itself was enough, but to celebrate the storm that was coming their way. If we are to use the metaphor of carnival to frame our politics, let's not have another carnival against capitalism, but turn capital in to the carnival, juxtaposing its grotesque greed and excess, its viciousness and inequity to our world of chaotic order and beautiful anarchy.
Much love from Lancaster.
G. Lancaster J-18 Collective.