Review: Notes toward a performative theory of assembly by Judith Butler

It’s been a while since anything was written here. I’ve been sunk with wage-labour. Or more precisely the labour that you have to do along side a paid job but which isn’t paid. I’m not sure what that’s called.

BUTLER_BASIC

But anyway, I didn’t have time to write but I did have time to read – Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. I remember being involved in a direct action campaign a few years back where we were blocking construction machinery on an infrastructure project. One thing that did my head in was when the construction workers would ask “but there is only a handful of you” as if that implied that what we were doing was not reflecting widespread public opinion. Even worse was when some of our own would say “It’s disgraceful that there aren’t more people here. If they really cared they would be here”. This whole dynamic brought forward a sense of righteousness: we are the only ones with the commitment to act on our beliefs and we were burdened with doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the majority who were on our side but too lazy to do something about it.

I never felt comfortable whenever this attitude started to assert itself in our group. Two interrelated topics that Butler deals with in this book are the socialised support required for a person to ‘appear’ and take political action, and the relation between the messages put forward through the actions of activists and the opinions of the broader population, the democratic will (And there are plenty others). What I’m taking away is that we should be humbled by the privilege to have the opportunity to act politically where others cannot (even if often getting beaten by the police, or ostracised trying to find a new job doesn’t make it feel like much of a privilege). It is also singularly important not to drift into the whole ‘doing this on behalf of those who could not be here’: certainly it’s good to acknowledge that there are those who can’t be there, and that out of solidarity we should do what they would like to have the chance to do, that is, to push the struggle in ways they would like. But we cannot assume the right to act or speak for others. This gives rise to the politics of representation. Ok not in the traditional sense where we think of it as a party claiming to represent a constituency of voters but then being given free reign with no accountability. But think about the elections last year in Kenya: anti-democratic electoral interference prevented Odinga from winning, but the flip side is that reclaiming democracy is now reduced to getting him into power. We can see a similar pattern with high-profile women hit by the glass ceiling (e.g. Robin Wright campaigning for equal(ly astronomical) salary as Kevin Spacy on House of Cards), persecuted whistleblowers dominating campaigns with their egos (e.g. Julian Assange), when asylum is granted to a limited number of refugees who took action, or arrested activists becoming the voice for the next directions of the campaign, namely to try to secure their release (e.g. Nelson Mandela). In each of these cases we have genuine subversions of democracy and genuine experiences of repression, leading to a situation in which the personal projects of a set of select people get projected as the only way the democratic will can be respected. Anarchists and activists involved in direct action like to think their forms of organisation and repertoires of action are based on directly democratic participation and are opposed to a politics of representation, but as Butler shows, and as seen in the examples above, saying your actions are against representation is one thing but there are ways for the logic of representation to creep back into things, which is not something that anarchists are used to being accused of.

Other themes dealt with in the book that are relevant to us today include ethics – important to guiding or situating intersectional struggle, including the right (even necessity) to subdivide multi-dimensional autonomous identities even in places where strategically only unity will advance struggle; breaking the separation between body and speech – think about the ability to write, or the talent to write well, and the exclusions that are created and voices lost when cultures or movements elevate the status of print over vocal and emotional knowledge; and, as the title suggests, a theory of assembly – what could be more important to understand seeing how the most explosive forms of revolt of the last 10 years were almost entirely defined by stripped down assembly, or simply being, together (compared to previous tactics like shutting down meetings in the days of the alterglobalist movement, or strikes and workplace occupations further back in the syndicalist wave of the early 20th century). Indeed evidence of its importance can be seen in how Hardt and Negri have made a comeback to deal with precisely that topic.

I’m probably over extrapolating in drawing out these lines, which is partly as a result of me reading too deeply into her thoughts, and partly as a result of her reading too deeply into hypothetical situations. The problem with hypothetical or abstract reasoning is that you can make very convincing arguments about a dilemma or contradiction that really is not such a big issue in practice. For example, she asks “Does the freedom of assembly depend on being protected by government, or does it depend on a protection from government? And does it make sense for the people to rely on government to protect itself from government” (p158). The problem is that this abstract logic creates a paradox which in reality people, rationally, are pragmatic about.

For example, I was reading something about a series of movements in India where it was observed how movements negotiate this false dilemma strategically rather than ideologically when deciding which avenues have the best prospects of getting their aims realised. As the author observes, movements recognise the necessity

“to steer a strategic course between anti-statism on the one hand and state-centrism on the other hand. The basic argument against anti-statism would be this: an awareness of the structural limits to the changes that can be achieved via the state-system and the state-idea does not translate into a principled rejection of any engagement with the state. […] this does not entail a position in which interaction and negotiation with the state is seen as the beginning and the end of the strategic scope of oppositional collective action. […] In other words, it is a position that advocates an instrumental rather than a committed engagement with the state-system, and the state-idea – that is, an approach to interaction with the state based on limited expectations of what can be gained and, simultaneously, a clear perception of what cannot be gained and what is risked in pursuing this avenue.”

So, if the police protect particular bodies on a particular night from attack, taking that protection doesn’t mean you are a statist. I remember being involved in a camp and on one occasion being called to intervene in a case of partner violence. When we joined together to ask the guy to leave he started punching out at all of us until eventually us weak bodies managed to somehow overpower his macho mass. And we sat on him to immobilise him and called the police, who by day had been trying to evict us. For us it was a no-brainer that we had to rely on the state to protect us, regardless of what the state tried to do to us other times.

And just to give another example (because it is annoying me how much of a non-issue this can be for people), unemployment benefit is often an important form of protection by government for activists. Without it many people I know would not have the time or energy to get involved in projects that they are in, while for others, it saves them from activism rendering them homeless or turning them into alcoholics. Activists often draw unemployment benefit without falling into the illusion that the state is somehow benevolent and that they don’t need protection from it. Indeed, in some countries unemployment benefit is necessary in order for unemployed people to be entitled to social and medical security – often precisely to pay for the medical costs for treatment for injuries received at the hands of the police at a protest.

This is just one fleshed out example of how Butler’s style of argument (and possibly the whole area of political philosophy in general, I can’t say I read enough of it to be able to tell) can create its own problems rather than dealing with problems that people encounter in struggle. As a consequence you need a fair bit of concentration to stay focused on the eventual point. I’ve heard other people speculate that Zizek doesn’t write his books – he just records himself on a rant and then has that dictated. I can well picture Butler doing this, only instead of recording herself while riled up and foaming, she records herself when stoned. And the result goes like this:

“It is true that I am trying to struggle toward an affirmation of interdependency in what I have offered here, but I am trying to underscore just how difficult it is to struggle for social and political forms that are committed to festering a sustainable interdependency on egalitarian terms. When any of us are affected by the sufferings of others, it is not only that we put ourselves in their place or that they usurp our own place; perhaps it is the moment in which a certain chiasmic link comes to the fore and I become somehow implicated in lives that are clearly not the same as my own. And this happens even when we do not know the names of those who make their appeal to us or when we struggle to pronounce the name or to speak in a language we have never learned. […] Indeed, certain bonds are actually wrought through this very reversibility, however incomplete it is. And we might find ways of understanding the interdependency that characterises cohabitation precisely as these bonds. For if I am here and there, I am also not ever fully there, and even if I am here, I am always more than fully here. Is there a way to understand this reversibility as limited by bodily time and space in such a way that the other is not radically other, and I am not radically over here as an I, but the link, the joint is chiasmic and only and always partly reversible and partly not?” (p 120)

As I said above, I don’t know if this kind of thing is a problem of this specific book or of political philosophy in general (Zizek certainly comes up with some things which sound fascinating and enigmatic but have zero relation to anything going on outside his head). One thing though in terms of the substance of her argument that I do disagree with is the second last chapter, ‘We the people’: thoughts on freedom of assembly. A big part of her conclusions here are built on, amongst other things, how she deconstructs the idea of ‘the people’. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid problematisation of what is and has always been an exclusionary and elitist concept of constituency. But why not just skip all these problems and just go with the multitude? The reason I ask is that elements of the multitude don’t try to speak for or act in the name of other elements. Butler even makes an important point with this critique of the concept of ‘the people’: civic units are (in part) constituted through the means by which they are permitted to access the public and/or political area. As she says,

“All of these are reasons why those with the freedom to appear can never fully or adequately represent the people, since there are people who, we know, are missing from the public, missing from this public assembled here in Gezi Park; they are those who must find representation, even as those who seek to represent them risk imprisonment for doing so. And it is not just that there are some people who happen to be missing from the gathering because they had something else to do; rather, there are those who could not have gathered in Gezi Park, or can no longer gather, or who are indefinitely restrained from gathering. That very power of confinement is a way of defining, producing, and controlling what will be the public sphere and who will be admitted to public assembly” (p 173)

Incidentally, for a great example of how this works in practice, have a read of this article on ‘minority politics’ in Amsterdam and how the local government switched the framing from multi-ethnic integration (involving social justice-oriented leftist immigrant groups) to religious inclusion (centred on religious associations), with the result that where left activists once campaigned as leftists, they then campaigned as muslims. But regardless, why not just sidestep the entire theoretical dilemma by using the concept of the Multitude? – which incidentally also happens to free itself from the further dilemma of tacitly legitimising a state that represses it.

So, on the one hand Notes toward a performative theory of assembly deals with a lot of relevant themes and ideas. On the other hand, there are problems which I have outlined. I’m going to embrace the contradiction rather than trying to tease it out.

Diversity commentary:

Monograph written by a homosexual woman. University-educated, working at Professor rank at a university in an advanced capitalist country (USA). She was born in the US, is white, but comes from a Jewish family, of whom previous generations were persecuted and killed by the Nazi regime.

Book Review: Getting By – Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain, by Lisa McKenzie

Getting By is the result of ethnographic research by sociologist, socialist, and social housing resident, Lisa McKenzie in her own council housing estate: St. Anne’s “Stanzville” in Nottingham in England. It is an important read for understanding how class works in Britain today. Class is not just a relation to the means of production – it is a social relation defined by being fucked around and having to get through difficult circumstances on a daily basis to get by. Through telling the stories of residents at St. Anne’s we get an idea of the difficulties people have to face on a daily basis and of the strategies used to manage and negotiate these circumstances. In doing so it provides an important counter-narrative to what you might hear from the mainstream media or stereotypes about the scum and worthless benefit scroungers. Instead McKenzie is motivated by trying to show the value of who and what is there on her estate. What she gives us is a picture of a community who are constantly considered worthless by the outside and in response create their own internal systems of valuation and respect (and a lot of this value system is something the outside word should learn from, for example being black or mixed race is envied in St. Anne’s). Highlighting these kinds of things is important in order to show the value of what is there in working class communities. Because without this you have ‘community development’ programmes, designed by outsiders which miss the whole point of council estate problems. The example is given of a mentoring programme claiming that “As a result [of our programme] a ‘mentor’ feels more valued in his own community” (p 162). As McKenzie points out, “This is a very simplistic approach to exclusion and disadvantage, […] and works within a limited framework. Being respected in your community is not the problem: it is being respected outside the neighbourhood that residents of council estates struggle with” (p. 162).

Image from the publishers, Policy Press

The most interesting part of the book is not by design of research. The book talks about how the estate is stigmatised by the outside and in response the residents are creating their own value system and systems of respect. Luckily for the researcher, just as she was finishing the research, the whole business of the 2011 riots happened, and the alternative value system that Stanz people had been creating in place of the one that rejected them began to accelerate. (alternative value systems are usually ignored, and when they are looked at, they are assumed to be statically existing rather than developing). And this gives a very interesting picture of what happens. The value system they are creating values belonging to the estate and an in-group identity. As this accelerates, this identity becomes counterposed to the identities of other council estates, and with that came intra-estate violence and riots. This is what McKenzie calls ‘estatism’:

“While boundaries were put up by those who lived on the estate in order to feel safe […], at the same time those boundaries acted as a wall, keeping in a closed and suspicious group of people, whose fear of stigma and ‘being looked down on’ often prevented them from engaging in pursuits that might make real and positive differences to their lives […] I have described a tight-knit community, which has been built on pride, a sense of belonging, humour, and sharing, but also fear, instability, and stigmatisation” (p. 149).

One of the chief directions of this wall was against other council estates, something that led to turf wars, even in the city centre of Nottingham, where some areas and shops were seen as Stanz territory, and others belonging to other estates like Meadows or Radford. And when the riots came, these inter-estate rivalries became battlelines. It would be fascinating to know how it changed in the aftermath of the riots. The main outcome seemed to be that the police and the courts, spurred on by the right-wing media and politicians, cracked down on any scapegoats they could find. We hear about the stories of people who had no involvement in activities but who were imprisoned by court systems that thought they needed to sate the appetite of a right-wing press and political class.

Like the example of Perry, who was walking home with his take-away dinner on the night of the riots, when he found himself being chased by police and was arrested and later trialled and convicted by jury and sentenced to three years in prison:

“The main argument of the prosecution was that Perry had been on the street in order to ‘get up to no good’, otherwise why else would he have been there? Another part of the prosecution’s argument was that Perry was wearing a red bandanna, which, they argued, was a signifier that Perry was part of a gang in St Ann’s. This line of defence seemed to go along way with the jurors, even though there was no evidence that Perry had done anything apart from being on the street that night, and he looked like a rioter. The police went through Perry’s phone records and contacts – he was not in contact with anyone else who had been arrested that night, and the police admitted that he didn’t seem to know anyone else who he had been arrested with. But among the furore about the riots, and the rising fear of ‘the underclass’ and inner-city ‘gangs’, 12 men and women from Nottingham believed that Perry was a ‘rioter’” (p.190).

This can only feed into the existing perspectives that everybody is against them. McKenzie describes how the talk among men in the boxing gym or or barbers was always about “conspiracy theories they had read on the internet, and swapped information about new sites with ‘new evidence’, which, for them, explained ‘their situation’” (p. 98). The most popular conspiracy theory was about the Illuminati,

“an organisation that is centred around Jewish bankers and Zionist politics, which holds politicians, the media, the legal system and the banks in their hands […] and their racism towards black people is purposeful and political, with the aim of keeping racial order and continuing inequality, thus keeping poor people in poverty, while its members and the Masonic order become more wealthy and more powerful” (p. 98).

What struck me reading this is how much of ‘their situation’ they are trying to explain: racism, poverty, inequality, the1% hoarding all the wealth, the political system, the media and the courts as tools keeping them down… However, as she continues, “while these theories are discussed in the greatest detail, argued about, and the men enjoy the debates that come from new evidence they find on the internet, there is little interest and even less knowledge of national and local politics, apart from the consensus that all politicians, like the police, cannot and should not be trusted” (p. 99). And this distrust leads to a process of looking inwards towards the safety of the estate, something which manifests itself as the inter-estate rivalry and violence. What I’m wondering is if the enemies can be more concretely pinpointed and if different working class communities might come together on the basis of this shared bad treatment after the riots.

An important thing about the book is that the author is working class. This is somebody telling the story of the community she is part of, rather then somebody looking in at them. It is important that knowledge is produced by the working classes rather than for the working class by outside middle class observers. One tendency of university-educated working class people is that the university values and encourages writing for academic or policy-making audiences and the use of language that reflects a grasp of social theory or the management/corporatist ethos of the neoliberal state. This has the effect of bribing/conditioning the brightest of the working class to ‘graduate’ and become culturally middle-class. McKenzie seems to resist this. She makes use of social theory to reveal aspects of estate life, but she doesn’t make theoretical points or convolute her language with references that prove to university audience how much she knows but just make reading it difficult for everybody else.

This poses a question though: who would read Getting By? Is it likely that people from the St Anne’s estate will read this? I don’t know, but it is probable that at least some from other working class estates or communities will read it. And it is here that the biggest potential is. If there is a way to autonomously develop awareness of common experiences of (gender, racial, class) oppression and common interests, surely it must be through recognising oneself in the stories of another. Indeed, this is exactly the kind of remedy to the chief problem that she identifies. Although she tells the story of St. Anne’s from the perspective of the people who live there, she is not shy to be critical when she notices the tendency towards estatism. What this book and other estate-produced knowledge have the potential to do is to counter this division that estatism seems to create by helping people to recognise that WE are all the same (because we are all fucked over by THEM – the true enemies e.g. punishing state, upper class demonisation and complicit media, racism, capitalism, etc…).

And here there is a bit of a contradiction that I don’t think is picked up on by the author. Elements of ‘naming the enemy’ are already there: “since the end of 2010, apathy has been replaced by fear that things are getting worse, and that no one cares, that it is state policy to purposefully run down council estates, and their residents, through death, prison, or both” (p 98). But this anger gets channelled into estatism. This estatism became most pronounced and most visible during the riots that pitted groups from one estate against the others. But the source of the riots was the police murder of Mark Duggan. Somehow, council estates and working class communities all across Britain knew that it was them whose time had come to rise up. It might not be the kind of mobilization that those on the activist or organised left would hope for, but it was undeniably a working class uprising, where people (ok, men more often than not) responded to circumstances on the basis of a shared identification as council estate people – even if this mobilization was channelled intuitively into inter-estate rivalry rather than unity.

So, contrary to the idea that the working class is hopeless, the riots showed that the working class is perfectly capable of self-mobilization, even if is not on the basis of a class identity that ‘we’ would hope for, and even the mobilization it is not of a form that ‘we’ consider strategic or even recognise, and even if it is targetted at groups who should be comrades rather than enemies. Still, this is how the working classes mobilize and if leftists want to have any relevance, the 1st step is in understanding and engaging with this type of mobilization. Getting By is not an analysis of the 2011 riots, but it is an important part of understanding the last part of that contradiction in particular – when people identify as part of but against the working class.

Diversity commentary: single-author monograph written by a working class woman, although she is white and heterosexual she has a mixed race family. University educated up to post-doc level but she was the first in her family’s history to go to higher level education. From and living in and about an English-speaking, European, advanced capitalist country.

Review diverse books (because the anti-capitalist literature can be so boringly monochrome)

Something I’m going to start doing on this blog: reviewing diverse books. What does this mean? Well a blog called read diverse books had this challenge to read diverse books in order to fight against the cultural industry’s tendency to tell us stories about how great white people are, particularly males, particularly middle class, straight, heteronormative whites, etc. It looks like a good idea so I’m adapting it here.

I say adapting because the original challenge (and a similar one at wocreads) is mostly oriented to fiction, so it focuses on lead characters. I’m more into non-fiction political books, so I’m adjusting the challenge to focus on authors rather than protagonists (except for biographies, then it is about the authors and the protangonists). I’m also adding some additional dimensions beyond gender/sexuality and race: things like class, experience of state repression, and linguistic communities. And instead of just reading I like to review so as to engage with the ideas and hopefully share the most useful thoughts and tools with those who can make use of them.

The challenge looks like this. I have to review:

  • A book authored/edited by a woman

  • A book authored/edited by a homosexual

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Latin America

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who grew up as an ethnic or racial minority in their country

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Africa

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who identifies as part of an ethno-national community that is without a state

  • A book authored/edited by somebody from Asia

  • A book authored/edited by a biracial person

  • A book authored/edited by a transgender person

  • A book authored/edited by a refugee

  • A book authored/edited by somebody with a disability

  • A book originally written in a language other than English

  • A book originally written in one of the over 2000 UNESCO designated endangered languages.

  • A book authored/edited by somebody without university-level education

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who was imprisoned for at least a year

  • A book authored/edited by somebody who lived under state socialism

  • A book authored/edited by a collective

One of the problems with checklist challenges is that the goal often end up being to complete it so you can say “look how fuckin diverse I am”. The main reason I’m doing this is to show how uniform the anti-capitalist literature tends to be. The checklist will be used mostly as a commentary during reviews about how diverse or undiverse the books are. And the emphasis is on commentary – not a rating. I don’t want this to end up like a judge in the oppression olympics.

Looking back at what has been reviewed so far on this blog, two were written or edited by individuals (How to change the world, and New forms of worker organisation), both white males from the US and the UK, employed (currently or at some time in their lives) as university professors, presumably straight, abled bodied, and originally written in English for English-speaking audiences. The two books on Rojava reviewed here are also written for US/English-speaking audiences, but they at least are edited by collectives, and include some essays and interviews translated from Kurdish and Turkish. Both collectives do seem to be north america-based though.

On the other hand, Teaching Rebellion, is also edited by a collective, this time Mexico-based, and although it is unclear whether it was written originally for a Spanish-speaking or English-speaking audience, almost the entire bulk of the book is composed of interview/testimony pieces which are certainly translated. Clearly the most diverse book reviewed so far here, but it just shows how much things need to improve. Looking forward to seeing what books this challenge leads me to.

Book Review: Eric Hobsbawm – How to change the world: reflections on Marx and Marxism

This is an excellent book, as with many Hobsbawm

Front Cover - How to change the world
How to Change the World by Eric Hobsbawm. Published by Yale University Press in 2011. Image taken from the publishers.

books. The title is a little offputting: I don’t like prescriptive-sounding books with only one author; I think somebody who is used to people shutting up and listening to them at length is the least likely to know how to make the world a better place. But it is Eric Hobsbawm and he is always very interesting to read, has a wealth of fascinating insights about the history of the left or history of the world from a leftist perspective. But actually (thankfully?) the title is a bit misleading. What the book offers is a history of Marxism, Marxism being an idea that was born out of industrialising capitalist europe, has been used as a toolbox by countless emancipatory movements of (and unfortunately too often for) the oppressed over the last 150+ years, has been used to legitimise some of the worst acts of humanity, and has struggled for its place in the last 25 years.

As Hobsbawm puts it in the introduction, when Marx died in 1883,

“there was little enough to show for his life’s work. He had written some brilliant pamphlets and the torso of an uncompleted major piece, Das Kapital, work on which hardly advanced in the last decade of his life. ‘What works?’ he asked bitterly when a visitor questioned him about his works. His major political effort since the failure of the 1848 revolution, the so-called First International of 1864–73, had foundered. He had established no place of significance in the politics or the intellectual life of Britain, where he lived for over half his life as an exile” (p3, 4).

But in the years since then the impact of his thought has been enormous, and often awful. So today, at time when popular movements have succeeded in escaping doomed strategies of various Marxist guises, yet also seem incapable of developing a strong enough counterpower to neoliberal hegemony (or the new variant of fascist demagogues) using alternative ideas on the left, a history of this sort can be very useful to help us figure out whether and how marxist thought can be a friend or foe.

The story begins with a brief sketch of some of the strands of socialist thought prior to Marx and Engles coming on the scene, before going on to tell us about the the context in which Marx and Engels lived and wrote much of their works. Reflections are given on particularly influential works through discussing their impact when ‘discovered’ and published later, often with adapted articles written by Hobsbawm at the times of the publications of certain new collections. Part two of the book goes on to discuss the trajector(y/ies) of the revolutionary theory and movement after the death of Marx. This starts with the meteoric rise of socialist parties in europe quite soon after his death and the formation and ultimate fortunes of the Second International, leading on the one hand to totalitarian dictatorships and on the other to bourgeoisification and support for their respective nations in the bloodbath that pitted worker against worker in World War I. From there, we are brought on a tour of anti-fascism, Gramsci, post-war resurgence in the anti-colonial independence movements and among the 60s movement in Europe and North America, and finally, decline. In all this, the book is made engaging because he doesn’t just describe Marxist theory, but what people did with it and how they changed its direction at different times throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. A true historian of ideas.

BUT there are problems with the book. Obviously any book on such a hugely influential subject has to be selective, but I think part of this selectivism is unfortunate. The biggest example is that the history stops in 1983. Although there is nominally a chapter on the years of decline for marxism 1983-2000 (followed also by the ‘comeback’ years 2000-2009), this chapter focusses mostly on events prior to 1983 which led to this decline rather than how marxist ideas coped and transformed with this decline. Arguably, the attempts of marxism to understand itself ‘at the End of history‘, without the anchor of ‘actually-existing socialism’, and at a time when Marxism did not have a hegemonic position within the radical left – the latter something not seen since 1930s Spain but which explosively re-emerged in 1994 with the Zapatistas – would be the most enlightening and promising in terms of emancipation and pedagogical re-invention. But you won’t learn much about this from the book.

Elsewhere, the role of Marxism in the post-WWII anti-colonial struggles and the movement of the non-aligned, while acknowledged, is underexplored. Its role in the movements against dictatorships in Latin America get barely a mention, and while its role in Greece and Portugal in ousting dictators is touched upon however briefly, the failure of these two post-revoluntionary countries to lead toward socialism or at the very least for the political landscape to take a similar leftist path such as those in Latin America would be a fascinating discussion but is unfortunately not taken up. Another topic that barely gets a mention is the Autonomia movement in 1970s Italy, a tendency which has since had an influence on leftist movements and theory proportionally far greater than other more classical schools. Of course, not everything can be included, but these kinds of exclusions mean that we are denied most the influences on Marxism from movements which are non-European, worker-led, and which creatively grapple with the contradictions of revolutionary ‘success’. As a consequence, we are left with a picture heavily influenced by the orthodox, the Euro-centric, the institutionalised, the educated, and the male. (Although in defence, there is a whole chapter if not two dedicated to Gramsci, and another to anti-fascism). For all his emphasis on the importance of history, this kind of selectivism leads to a standard of Marxism that is of limited use to changing today’s historical conditions (e.g. neo-liberal precarity, globalised divisions of labour, the importance of non-european repertoires of collective action in the global south above the European and american history of bureaucratic unions).

Another weakness is in his conclusions. I did mention that the prescritptiveness of ‘how to change the world’ is a bit deceptive. Still, Hobsbawm does pick out two main ‘conclusions’ from the historical narrative: (1) Marxism will(/should) continue to be of relevance; and (2) the importance of the Party. On both counts, the case for these conclusions has manifestly not been made. The only basis somebody could have for arriving at these conclusions from the book would be an implicit logic of, ‘well it is has been important in the past, ergo it shall continue to be important’. I would expect a bit more intelligence from an intellectual giant like Hobsbawm.

That being said, apart from these weaknesses – which admittedly would be difficult to address: how can one ‘comprehensively summarise’ such a large topic, and how can one ‘conclude’ anything concrete and definitive in an evolving history of our own making like this – the book is an absolutely fascinating read. Both because of Hobsbawm’s mastery of subject and his gift of being able to write in an accessible and engaging style, and because the subject itself is such an important one for the left. Of all books on Marxism that are not in graphic novel format, How to change the world is probably one of the most engaging and easy to read. For anybody finding themselves forced into struggle in these times, I recommend you acquire yourself a copy, but draw your own conclusions and don’t take his at face value.

Book reviews: To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective

asmallkeycanopenalargedoor-cover-web-300x420
A small key can open a large door – front cover. Image from Combustion Books.

Something incredible seems to be happening in Rojava. The first revolution ever to be pre-figuratively anti-patriarchy, anti-state and anti-capitalist, and doing all this in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course the Rojava Revolution is not without its contradictions: they have a military alliance with the US, there is the hero-worship of Öcalan, official feminist and libertarian ideology seem to have been decided on by the leadership of a formerly Stalinist Communist Party. But as Marx said, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, the Revolution in Rojava is something real, happening, and it is something to be supported and deserves our solidarity.

The problem I have is getting info on it. The many online resources are great to keep abreast of things. But like a lot of things on the internet while being swamped with updates I don’t really have a clear idea of what is being updated. On the other hand the problem with books is that they take so long to write, publish, distribute, become affordable, and finally to read them that they are hopelessly slow at keeping pace with the situation that changes everyday. And usually long single-author reads are just inappropriate for reflecting a real democratic revolution that is by nature full of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints and is constantly fluctuating.

Two books which kind of address this are To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective. Both books are short, accessible compilations of multi-author texts, and published relatively recently. Compiled to specifically address this dilemma outlined above they are aimed at international audiences to raise awareness about what is going on in Rojava and to stimulate solidarity movements.

To dare imagining was motivated by an utter failure on part of the american media “to report on the real story of what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, i.e. Rojava”, believing that “journalists are literally unable to comprehend the very idea of a social revolution” which they outline as:

“a left-tradition of resistance to oppression, and like those struggles, the Rojava Revolution has identified the State itself – nationalism, hegemony and patriarchal power – as the force to be overthrown. Alone amongst all recent armed uprisings in the world (except that of the Zapatistas), Rojava’s is an anti-authoritarian insurrection” (p7).

Compiled of texts (sometimes new, sometimes ‘borrowed’) written by visitors to Rojava, commentaries on the work of Abdullah Öcalan, and a few excerpts of his work, the collection reflects “a distinct urgency about getting this book out and into the american conversation”. It contains a diversity of viewpoints and is sufficiently coherent yet retaining the rough and ready feel that reflects its role as emerging from an ongoing and changing situation. In short, it is anarchist publishing at its most useful. Among the highlights are a set of interviews with women combatants in the YPJ discussing the experiences and feminist reasons for taking up arms, an essay on the sociology of biopolitical and necropolitical wars – the Kurds are victims of both state/imperial rationalised violence and the communal ritualised violence of the likes of ISIS with the implication that new logics and institutions need to be imagined as appeals for protection on the grounds of citizenship or humanitarianism don’t work – and a great piece by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, phd candidate, and one of the editors of the book.

A small keyis similarly motivated by the observation that “Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution” arguing that although “it is absolutely true that it is easier for radicals to travel to Chiapas, Greece, Palestine, or Ferguson” because the “danger is greater in Rojava then so too is the necessity of our support” (p41, 42). But beyond supporting the experiment,

“we also need the Rojava revolution for our own work here in the West. Revolutionary politics in the West have been waiting far too long for an infusion of new ideas and practices, and the Rojavan Revolution in all of its facets is something we should support if we take our own politics at all seriously. […] we can not wait for the selective safety of hindsight to analyze the revolution now unfolding. The people of Rojava have chosen to fight and so must we” (p. 42).

Unlike To dare imagining, A small key is built almost entirely on translated statements, documents, or interviews from groups in Rojava or Turkey and not original pieces, apart from a very informative introductory chapter written by the editorial collective and another great piece by Dilar Dirik on what it is that gives the revolution the will to succeed in the face of so many forces against them (“In the midst of war, Rojava’s cantons have managed to establish an incredibly empowering women’s movement, a self-governance system that operates through local councils in a bottom-up grassroots fashion,and a society in which all ethnic and religious components of the region work hand-in-hand to create a brighter future […] the anticipation of such a free life is the main motor of the Kobani resistance”).

If there are drawbacks, the most obvious one is that both are very much oriented to US audiences. A small key compensates a bit being based on translated texts, as mentioned above, from people or groups taking part in the revolution or activists in places like Turkey. This gives it more of a feeling of talking to a friend who has family and friends active there, whereas To Dare imagining feels more like being taken on a tour by a group of Western academics. Added to this, you have to be cautious and aware that both books only contain a very partial view of the revolution. With To dare imagining you have to keep in mind that the writers are themselves being taken on tours, most likely PR tours, by the welcoming committees, drivers, and translators who bring them everywhere. I’m sure there is as much hidden as there is shared with these messengers. And the other drawback, which is generic to this form of communication, is that they are already woefully out of date – A small key was published in March 2015, while although To dare imagining generally feels rushed and hastily prepared, the most recent of pieces date from January 2016.

Despite being dated, there is still a lot to learn from both books. What is going on in Rojava, if these books are in any way accurate, is nothing short of a new way of thinking and doing feminism (undoing male domination of women and society inherent in the birth of ‘civilisation’, hierarchy and the city-state thousands of years ago) and a new way of doing anti-capitalism (through practicing “the peoples’ economy”). It has made me rethink my perspectives on militarism and nationalism: I used to have answers – both were bad; now just uncertainty.

If I had to choose one of them, I would probably go with a small key. It feels closer to the revolution. That said, to dare imagining does convey more of the philosophy which is (apparently) behind it – particularly in terms of feminist theory and Öcalan’s writings on Sumerian roots of civilisation-as-patriarchy-and-hierarchy and on democratic confederalism. And it is that bit more up-to-date.

But I probably would also prefer the newer book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan which is more up to date and at least written by people who had spent more time there (written by three Germany- and Turkey-based activists who have been working for years with with and in Kurdish groups, they visited Rojava and spent a month there and compiled their notes into the book, which originally appeared in German but has been translated into English recently by Janet Biehl). Hoping to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as I can. But in the end, it is not so important which book or blog you follow. The most important thing is to spread info about what seems to be an incredible struggle that should be supported and learned from as much as possible.

Book review: New Forms of Worker Organization – The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism

New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class Struggle Unionism

Edited by Immanuel Ness
Published by PM Press
new_forms_of_worker_organization
Image taken from the publishers, PM Press

The title and subject matter advertise themselves. The editor, Immanuel Ness, previously did a book on self-management factory councils as co-editor – both subjects could hardly be more grounded in emancipatory anti-capitalist activism by the very people most exploited by it. And then there is the forward by Staughton Lynd, all of which make it an easy sale. Nevertheless, I was kind of sceptical. It looked like the authors are researchers rather than union activists writing about their own struggles. And although the chapter layout tries to present a global reach by splitting the book into chapters on case studies from the Global South and then from the Global North, the latter looks it it is more or less confined to the Anglo-Saxon world – aside from one Chapter on Sweden’s SAC, the rest come from the US, UK, Australia, and the US again.

I started reading the Introductory Chapter, which starts by arguing that capitalism and labour struggles around the world today have more in common to 1910s and 1930s USA than any other heyday, and so he proceeded to sketch a history of the IWW, and competing ideas around autonomist and syndicalist unions. Not only is this most likely the other way around (i.e. He knows about subject X, therefore he frames the intro to make subject X relevant) but the whole thing seemed horribly Western-centric and Modernist – implying that the 3rd World has to develop out of poverty through catching up and emulating the 1st World in everything they do, even in how they do anti-capitalism. After reading the next two theoretical chapters on the Autnomia Operaia movement in Italy in the 1970s and on contemporary China, I was left with a thorough idea about about what the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base did not look like, but no idea what they did look like, and I understood all about the historical causes of the Tonghua Antiprivatisation Struggle, but nothing about the struggle itself. The whole thing just seemed opportunistic on part of a US academic and his network who wanted to make their areas of expertise appear relevant to real-world grassroots struggles.

I had previously read Ours to Master and to Own, a book which claims to be accessible and of interest to the Working Class, but in reality sticks rigidly to the form of academic writing, complete with theoretical framework sections, laborious citations, dry reporting style and cross-sectional researcher positionality, all of which serve to allow authors to convince other authors how much they know but just obstruct ordinary readers. (although, there is a lot to be said for that book, but that is for a different review). But then at some point I started to read the Chapter on mineworkers struggles in South Africa, written in a narrative style and searching for lessons to answer those dilemmas that the author as an activist is confronted with. And then there was revolutionary labour and community unionist struggles in Colombia and self-organised subway workers union starting to understand their power to cripple capital accumulation across all of Buenes Aires when they withdraw their collective labour. Both chapters written by people close to the struggle, and in the case of the Colombian Chapter, composed largely of threads of emails which tell the story as it unfolds in the words of union members and their supporters.

And it just got better from there. Chapters from Sweden and the UK tell enthralling stories of the 100 year history of Sweden’s syndicalist union and of the struggles, strikes, solidarity and splits amoung self-organised immigrant cleaners in the UK who set up an IWW local. But the keynote Chapter for me is that of Erik Forman, recounting his story of attempts to get their IWW union recognised in a chain of fast-food franchise restaurants in Minneapolis. This is the best Chapter, not only because the author is the closest to the struggle (working in the restaurant and one of the main initiators of the formation of the union) but moreso because it is written in a gripping, engaging style and because the adrenaline-filling episodes are interspersed with the author drawing on historical examples of union organising, his understanding of capitalism and the problems with mainstream unions and the challenges and dilemmas faced by alternative solidarity unions such as his.

With these case-focussed chapters taken in, the more theory-oriented ones on Australia, Italy, and the US, become much more relevant. I think I will go back and read them again to get a better idea of autonomist theory: how the Working Class rather than Capital can – and should – set the pace of capitalist crisis and why this insight is important. As a whole, what I have taken from this book is the suggestion that while the decline in union membership over the last two decades is usually lamented by the left, this might actually present an opportunity to relaunch a dormant class war as people confronting their circumstances are no longer channelled into impotent bureaucracies (and incidentally, the recent unionising and (by definition) wildcat strikes by uber and deliveroo workers (‘contractors’) in London seems to confirm this: they managed to organise strikes in under 24 hours in part because there was no official union on account of them not being legally employed). Also, most importantly, at a time when the capitalist class look they have won the battle ideas and weathered their worst crisis in history, this book shows (not argues) that the struggle for democratic control over the means of production is still as relevant as it ever was. In short, I thoroughly recommend this book, but maybe start with the middle chapters instead of the early ones.

Teaching Rebellion – Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca – Review

Teaching Rebellion – Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca

Edited by Diana Denham and the C.A.S.A Collective

Published by PM Press

Teaching Rebellion Cover
Image taken from publishers, PM Press

The Oaxaca Rebellion of 2006 seems to have been forgotten in the collective memory, possibly because coming 5 years after Genoa and 5 years before Tunis, and seemingly unconnected to the US war effort, it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any of the major global upheavals of its time. Nevertheless, it is an event with a lot of relevance for what came afterwards – many of the elements that appeared novel to the Arab Spring, the Indignad@s, and Occupy-ations were present in Oaxaca: occupation of city squares (as opposed to factories or the state); open general assemblies; broad participation from people who were previously ‘politically inactive’; a confluence of diverse causes which somehow all came to fit together at a particular point in time (although this was one revolution that definitely was not organised on Twitter). Teaching Rebellion records a history of this popular uprising, told through interviews and stories from the various people who took part in the revolution at different stages. As they articulate what it was that brought them to join the movement, what they found they could do to help the cause, and what they learned about making a revolution, the opportunity is given for readers to learn how city-rebellions work. Indeed, as the name suggests, this is exactly what the book is oriented towards: the book concludes with a set of themes and questions based on the insights of the participants to be used in group discussions among rebels-in-the-making.

In a nutshell, the Rebellion of 2006 was ignited when the annual strike and occupation of the central square by the local teachers’ union in demand of higher pay and for clothes, food, and footwear for their students, was attacked by the regional police forces under orders from the Governor of Oaxaca. Rather than breaking the strike, this act of repression had the opposite effect and brought an outpouring of support from the city’s inhabitants, both those active in other causes and those who were never politically active before. From there, as more people join, a horizontal structure of ‘Popular Assemblies’ is created to allow the increasingly diverse group of people to agree on what grievances it was they shared and what they could do as a movement. A consensus of sorts is reached to make the principal demand of the movement for the resignation of the Governor of Oaxaca. And from this initial coming-together a city- and then state-wide rebellion expands and morphs numerous times in a dynamic relation to the escalating reprisals ordered by the Oaxaca State over the course of the following months. (And unfortunately, history looks set to repeat itself, with the current teachers strike, ten years later, also meeting brutal repression)

As a piece of ‘history from below’, the diversity of perspectives recorded, mirroring the diversity of goals, visions, and strategic directions in which the movement evolved, raises a multitude of insights and themes. I’ll leave the analysis of the accounts to you and your group discussions, but there are two themes that I want to talk about which I consider to be important. The first is the role of violence and repression in unifying a series of diverse, seemingly unrelated political projects. It is not just with the initial attack on the Teachers’ Union, but at every stage in which state-repression is encountered, more people are politicised and join some form of activism:

“At first I didn’t sympathise with the striking teachers. On the contrary I was annoyed with the situation in the centre and felt like the teachers just repeated the same thing every year. But everything changed after the brutal repression that the Governor unleashed against them. It made me put myself in their shoes. I thought about the suffering it caused them – the woman who had a miscarriage, the children who were beaten or fainted because of the gases. If you do this to a union that big and organised what can you expect to face if you’re a simple citizen or housewife making some demand or expressing your discontent” (Tonia, page 131).

A similar story is heard from Aurelin, a woman who, months after the attack on the Teachers Union, had no involvement in any of the popular assemblies or any type of activism. Instead she was working as a maid and as she was walking home from work she was arrested and detained without charge for 21 days, as part of indiscriminate oppression unleashed on the city’s population:

“I didn’t support any organisation before, but now I’m going to because I want all this to be over […] I want to fight for the release of all the innocent women who are still in Nayarit. They are humble people. I will work with people who have been struggling with whichever organisation, the APPO or whatever. I don’t want my grandchildren to suffer what I have suffered” (page 259).

This kind of emergence seems crucial for any anti-systemic project. That is, in any movement or potential movement whose goals are anti-systemic, such as anti-capitalism, anti-patriarchical, anti-racism, anti-militarism, anti-statism, anti-colonialism, etc, there is obviously something required to take all of the disparate experiences, grievances and claims that might be considered as having something in common, and to unite them, or at least to bring together in a single category. Analytically, theory usually does this job. However, systemic change happens through struggle and not merely through written analysis, so what is important is how people, groups, and single-issue campaigns begin to see their struggles as connected and start to act accordingly. There are generally two different ways recognised for how ‘class consciousness’ can be fostered: one that emphasises contact with commonality (for example consciousness-raising circles in the US feminist movement in the 1960s); and one that emphasises conflict with the apparatus of oppression and a radicalisation in struggle. (And a third which says that both commonality and conflict are just two moments in ongoing collective struggle).

And both moments are clearly present in Oaxaca, illustrated in the quotes above, and in the sentiment of Ekaterino:

“I started to participate in the movement because my dad was a teacher, a member of Section XXII, the Teachers’ Union, and my mom is the leader of her delegation […]. At first I just went to the sit-in because it was the only way I could talk to my dad, since he was always there. Then I started to talk to other teachers about their experiences. I started to understand the reality that exists here in Oaxaca, that many people and many communities have been forgotten by the Government […] There are serious health problems and people who have to travel five or six hours to the nearest hospital, which is extremely expensive. There are children who go to school without breakfast, which makes them do poorly in school. When I started to see the situation, it made me feel like going out into the streets to defend their rights, to stand up for the people who are really forgotten” (page 112).

While this pedagogical development, grounded in experiences of commonality, motivated him to take part in the occupation of Radio Universidad, it appears from the accounts that encounters with repression and state-violence have been the more significant for the momentum of the rebellion. And it’s here that the book has pushed me to confront to some significant ethical questions for organisers and strategists. A number of years ago I went to a talk hosted by a campaign who were resisting the construction of an onshore gas refinery and high pressure pipeline. The speaker was well-versed in his facts and figures and could convince anybody of the dangers of the project they were opposing. But rather than launch straight into his talk, the event opened with a video of a protest in which the community were harassed and eventually attacked by the police. I remember looking around me and could see the outrage building up and people deciding they would join the next action, landing the campaign with a healthy dose of recruits before the speaker had even spoken a word about the actual issue.

So capitalising on the reactionary tendencies of ‘the enemy’ and consciously using such repression for the gain of resistance is nothing new. But I think there are limits to how far this type of strategy can be stretched. Two or three years ago I was talking to a friend of mine who had been active in left-wing organising in Morocco about six or seven years before this. She was telling me about how frustrating it was trying to get people interested in political action and I asked what she thought about there being no Moroccan Spring, to which she said that it’s fine in theory to support the revolts in those other countries but in the end it isn’t her who has family in Syria or Egypt to worry about every night. And just look at how things have deteriorated since. Obviously there is a lot of ground between a small campaign responding creatively to repression and the point where organisers turn their backs on revolt because of the repression that resistance invites. But the stories in the book spark questions about where along this stretch it is ethical for movements to stand. For instance, is repression necessary to build or unite a movement beyond a small hard core minority of committed activists? And do the (hopefully emancipatory) changes brought about by insurrection or popular rebellion justify the indiscriminate pain brought about through provoking reaction? Do activists bear responsibility for the repression provoked or is it really ethical to just point the finger at the state and wash their hands of all responsibility? And does there come a time when it is best to retreat, abandon the revolution, and return to horizontal forms of consciousness-raising?

Translating these questions into the terms of current struggles, can organisers or initiators of the Tunisian revolution claim an ‘ownership’ over the goals of those revolutions that erupted in the Arab Spring and morphed in some cases into international geo-political wars? And, do organisers hold responsibility if a peaceful uprising transforms into a paramilitary-led civil war, or worse, with all the abuses this will inflict on the people ‘represented’ by the revolution? The consequences of igniting a rebellion have been shown to be horrible in many places, whether in terms of unleashing an environment of generalised repression and violence, or where the transformative nature of revolutionary dynamics have empowered reactionary groups who very few of us would consider as forces for progressive change .

These are questions which can never be conclusively answered but which are important to think about. The outstanding success of ‘austerity politics’ in co-opting all would-be reformers – and even the radical left as events in Syriza’s Greece have shown – seems to suggest that nothing short of root-and-branch paradigm shifts can mount a challenge to austerity’s hegemonic dominance. And of course, one of the biggest challenges facing such a task is that we don’t know how to bring such a paradigm shift about – we don’t have the revolutionary literacy to be able to say what forms of action will work.

And it is right here that the book doesnt provide answers. Granted, it was written at a time when the struggle had not yet come to a close, where people did not yet have the distance to draw conclusions. But with the ultimate outcome of the 2011 Spring yet to be determined – wheather in those countries where the old order were deposed, in those where the occupations petered out, those where revolutionary movements have transformed into protracted wars, or in those places that have yet to surprise us – this is precisely when it would be good to learn from past experiences. Nevertheless, Teaching Rebellion is a good example of opening a learning process. In the same way as teachers’ initial demands went beyond the self-interest of wage-increases to concerns with broader social issues such as the structures of inequality that affect the well-being of their students, in a similar holistic approach to education, this book offers Rebel Knowledge to be shared among future rebels. And this Knowledge is important to learn from – it took three years of crisis and largely ineffective and uninspiring resistance tactics before the movement was set alight in 2011 by city-occupations spreading from North Africa to the Middle East to South Europe to North America and to Northern Europe. The form that the revolution eventually took seemed to take everybody by surprise, but it is remarkably similar to that which appeared 5 years earlier in a backward state in Mexico.