Socialise Struggle now on Twitter

It was inevitable. We needed a way to engage with other media, to promote what deserves to be promoted, to bring it into other conversations, and to be part of the infrastructure that connects storyteller and active listener – in short, to be the media. And I was looking for a way to do this outside of the usual full blog post-length format. For two reasons: (1) I can’t write up something for every interesting thing I read – writing takes time and for people or groups who don’t exploit (“employ”) loads of minions time is always a scarcity; and (2) we need something less ME-ish – this is a hang-up from the traditional corporate media that competes for audiences but the way to a radically democratic and emancipatory media is not to intensify the clamouring of ME-isms, but to shut up when somebody else says something better than you can, or from a position of different oppression-privilege to you. Shutting up and instead amplifying the voice of comrades – this is what building a WEdia instead of a MEdia is about.

To date, socialisestruggle has had a number of vehicles for this. Book reviews are a good way to share some of the lessons I take from the books I read with the wider community. And at the same time, promoting some important books that you might not otherwise have heard of and hopefully giving some struggling authors a bit of visibility. Then, the statements and communiques section involves direct unedited and unanalysed dissemination of communiques from people involved in struggle. This is something that there needs to be more of, and actually doing this has really helped me listen more directly to groups in the thick of it rather than the misrepresentations of them in media. Which is a harder habit to break than it sounds. The establishment media and even alternative media have a knack for getting you to listen to those who write the news rather than the groups making the world that the news is supposed to report on. And it is unsettling how easily the dominant frames from these news media enter your subconscious, even when trying to read critically. But I digress. Then there was another section on this blog, Posts of the month, where I would post compilations of the best articles I had read on other blogs. This was experimental more than anything, and after some time I found it doesn’t really work. While I like promoting the writings of other blogs out there, and taking stock of how things are playing out in the world, the process is just time-consuming and a month is such a long timeframe that it is a challenge to remember what different articles are all about and by that stage who is really interested in reading about what happened 20 days ago? So, this series sort of dropped off the socialisestruggle agenda and instead we are, reluctantly plunging into the Twitter world (if they will have us – the account was locked three minutes after setting up for suspicious activity, seems to be working again but for how long?) . And the Posts of the month -type function (sharing other sites’ good writings) is being replaced by the Twitter presence – but in a more timely manner.

The emphasis is on reluctantly, because I find it a fairly unsatisfactory solution. The world of social media is largely a corporate owned and controlled world which has marketed itself as and profited from an image of emancipation – both against the traditional top-down media and as a resource for anti-dictator movements. For a good few years this image was peddled by the PR machines of said companies, uncritical brave new world liberal commentators and often by naive leftists (e.g. Paul Mason). And it was resisted in an unimaginative way by the traditional media (of which their cries of ‘post truth politics’ and ‘fake news’ are just the latest shallow and dishonest strategies to save themselves) (yes dishonest. Can you really remember a time when the media didn’t lie to you in order to manipulate you? No neither can I. The post-truth accusation itself is post-truth. Does that make it meta-post-truth, or just post-truth negated, since it cancelled itself out? Confusing. Better just to ignore the whole thing. It is a meaningless red herring false flag, it’s been added to the site’s banned propaganda terms and that’s the last you will hear of it from me), some equally uncritical but nostalgic liberal commentators, and by some of the orthodox left. So in that kind of landscape it was hard for a long time to articulate some kind of understanding of a world we were learning to live in without falling into the narratives of either the starry-eyed brave new world types or of the reactionaries. But over the years a more accurate picture is beginning to emerge. This is thanks on the one hand to activists sitting down and drawing out lessons from their own experiences of the limits of social media, and on the other hand because of exposés about how the rich and powerful are using it for their own ends.

The most prominent of these is the example of targetted ads, used in particular in the Brexit referendum and in the election in the US in 2016 and for which a new round of scandal broke into the mainstream this year. It turns out that while the PR machines of social media corporations were pushing the dictator-toppling angle, they were simultaneously selling data on our behaviours in order to send us ultra-targetted and manipulative ads. In this way, the new media corporations are no different from the old ones: their primary income streams come not from selling ‘content’ to ‘users’, but from selling audiences to advertisers. In this sense, they don’t produce ‘news’ or ‘entertainment’ or what have you, they produce viewership (maybe it should be updated to ‘usership’), whether large or specialised niche pickings.

And the beauty of corporate owned social media platforms such as facebook is that all this targetting was exempt from public debate because the only people who saw those ads were the targeted. So while the mainstream media talk about anti-immigrant sentiment as the key factor deciding the Brexit referendum because of UKIP’s ‘breaking point’ campaign poster depicting lines of brown people, in reality we have no idea what kinds of discourses tipped the balance because the ads employed are obscured from the public domain (leaving aside for the moment the fact that voters are not just outcomes of advertising). As long as differential access can be bought and sold, the rich will continue to try to use it to control us.

The flip side of this is that corporate-owned social media platforms can place restrictions on how certain types of content, possibly from certain types of profiles, can circulate. And again, because you see your posts from the perspective of your account, such restrictions are mostly undetectable. The ‘Shadow ban‘ on twitter is probably the most well known example, but I’m sure there are other mechanisms at work on that and other platforms that we just don’t know about and are powerless to do anything about. Can’t really call it our media then.

Then, let’s not forget the biggest winner in all this after the likes of facebook, twitter etc: uber, deliveroo, air bnb, etc, not to mention more traditionally structured companies who also benefit indirectly from the generalised lowering of labour standards and organising capacity brought about by what has come to be known as the gig economy. As people started to lose jobs following the 2008 economic crash, instinctive and creative ways were developed so people could continue to make ends meet, in what became known as the ‘sharing economy’ or ‘solidarity economy’. These kinds of practices involved to a greater or lesser degree informally connecting production and consumption and cutting out the biggest liability – formal middle-man institutions designed to funnel wealth out of the system towards Capital and the state. And then companies like those mentioned above parachuted themselves into this middle-man space, privatised the networks and practices that people themselves had created, and then, even worse, pressurised governments to recognise as law (or just to simply ignore and tolerate) and normalise what were and are effectively informal survival-level labour conditions for coping with an emergency. A far cry from the emancipation and empowerment that web 2.0 was supposedly ushering in.

So, with all this kind of corporate ownership and control, is it possible to challenge dominant narratives? I remember back in 2011 talking to a mate of mine, definitely not an activist, about the protests in North Africa, which had just spread from Tunisia to Egypt. He was super enthusiastic about the potential of the internet (as it was still known then) to unmask and disarm illegitimate repression wherever it is found in the world. “… because now, if the police beat a guy this can be filmed and then posted and then people everywhere will see it and see that the police are out of line. And then they can do something about it”. Leaving aside our differences on what he imagined illegitimate repression and being out of line were, and leaving aside for the moment the ‘they can do something about it’ part of the equation (returned to below), my answer on whether social media is an effective tool in terms of correcting misrepresentation in the mainstream media is … Yes and No. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, and I can’t figure out any further why the fuck it works sometimes and others not. The best analysis I have read on this is from the middle of a review of Paul Mason’s Why it’s kicking off everywhere:

It’s easy to lose sight of the potential impact this network effect allows and the way it has already transformed the potential for communication. As an example, I was part of the Shell to Sea media group that broke the story almost a year ago in April 2011 when women campaigners who had just been arrested accidentally recorded the arresting police joking about threatening to rape them as an interrogation technique. State media initially refused to broadcast the recording, but using Facebook and Twitter the recording we put online was listened to by 70,000 people in the first 12 hours, which spurred the state media into finally broadcasting it.

An article I’d written explaining what had happened was shared by over 2,000 people on Facebook in the same period. Close on 20,000 people read it in the first 48 hours. This genuinely new development in communications allows any one individual with something to say but without access to the mainstream media to communicate relatively easily with vast numbers of people. This happens because hundreds or thousands of other people make the small and low commitment decision to click ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ on an item in their feed and thus recommend it to their friends. Compare this to a pre-internet situation where we would have had to not only print 20,000 copies of an article up, but had to find 100’s of people willing to distribute them and get the leaflets into 20,000 individual sets of hands. This was only possible for large organisations or those with the financial resources to pay for such distribution; today the equivalent effect is potentially available to anyone with computer access.

[…]

Mason argues that Twitter has also greatly undermined the old anchorman structure of the news where a very, very few well known news figures got to interpret, spin and twist the news for everyone. This of course still happens from Fox News to Newsnight, but now such stories and those putting them out can be challenged on Twitter. The status of anchors in the industry no longer protects them from criticism because their critics are no longer journalists worried about the impact making powerful enemies might have on their future careers.

Again, in the example of the police ‘rape tape’ we were able to use twitter to bombard the state media Twitter accounts with questions as to why they had not yet broadcast the recording. These postings would have been visible to other journalists as well as the general public, not only resulting in a public shaming in front of colleagues, but also undermining the credibility of the broadcaster with a section of the general public, causing cumulative damage to the ability of state media to perform its primary function.

These processes are powerful but, at least as yet, they are no substitute for the automatic reach the mainstream media maintains. In the case of the Garda ‘rape tape’ the state was able to recover much if not all of the credibility lost through a cleverly worded and highly misleading report which was uncritically covered by the mainstream media and successfully created the false impression that the original story was suspect. We continued to provide often highly detailed corrections to these reports but despite the use of the same internet mechanisms & resources these never achieved a fraction of the circulation the original recordings received.

Sometimes the fish bites and sometimes it doesn’t. But stories of the times it does bite become famous and are heavily referenced by starry-eyed proponents of the brave-new-world narrative, while the times it doesn’t bite are known only to those media activists who have no option but to sit down and start again.

In some respects one of the definite gains of social media is found in its potential for developing class/race/gender/etc consciousness. When it comes to things like #me too, what is important is not whether these things are ‘true’ as some traditional media critics harp on about. Instead it is the potential for people to see their own specific circumstances (sexual harassment, domestic violence, or ‘low-level’ male aggression) as something that others also experience as part of a broader system of oppression. As put on a blog post about #YesAllWomen,

Women who may never have considered the connection between the microagressions we suffer, misogyny, and patriarchal society read and participated in those tweets. They are seeing the connections between the unwanted hand on your arse in a nightclub that other men condone, and the man who murders a woman because she says she’s pregnant, dumps her body in a barrel and flies to New York to try and get busy with his ex-girlfriend. And between the man who calls a woman a slut for rejecting him on OK Cupid, and the man who decides to shoot women because they rejected him in a forum outside of the internet. There is a broad spectrum of violence against women, and if others make those connections, while happening to “blow off steam” at the same time, that is a very useful thing in terms of naming the problem of misogyny in order to address it.

Or, as we say on this blog, ‘to recognise your struggle in the struggle of others’.

That said, the shift from indymedia to personal blogs and facebook accounts has done some damage to the communities that were required to run alternative media back in the day. As Indymedia London wrote in their closing down post in 2012, the initial creation of the indymedia networks was a gamechanger in terms of giving direct access to posting to ordinary people, which is the spirit that subsequently fuelled the later turn to blogs and facebook profiles, only replacing the collectivity of ‘we-ism’ with the egotism of an endless series of ‘me-isms’. I remember years ago in London we had what were known as ‘Free information networks’ (or FINs as we used to call them), where you would pool info on all sorts of events in the activist world onto an A4 sheet, photocopy it and then start handing them out and leaving piles of them at squats or bars. It wasn’t much work but doing it really felt part part of something, which you don’t get with liking or retweeting.

And speaking of liking or retweeting being insufficient, another detrimental impact social media has had is that it has killed in many places the capacity (and sometimes even the awareness of the need for) plane old fashioned organising. Social media has made pervasive the idea that you can make an event on facebook and BANG, unstoppable revolution started. (although to be fair, this is not such a new thing; I remember seeing critical mass dublin dying before my eyes because people thought they could just post it on the Indymedia calender and no need for any further work). Although this is maybe one of the most parroted myths pushed by the corporate PR machines, anyone who has tried it will quickly realise there is more to it than that – either that or lapse into a ‘I tried but people obviously don’t care enough’ righteousness. Building a movement is not about the numbers (a hang-up from traditional politics) but about how new people can take part and shape the development of that movement. Which involves hard work – movement-building and organising shouldn’t be confused with marketing and advertising. If you do then you will end up with a campaign that is as effective in changing the world as buying a product or voting for a party.

So, with all those reservations why was it again that we are venturing into the twitter sphere? Oh yes, because it is unavoidable. Definitely not my favourite of reasons when making a decision as to how best to further the autonomist revolution. But there we are. I’m just looking forward to when everybody is on Mastodon (an open source replica of twitter which can federate to twitter – meaning Mastodon accounts can follow Twitter accounts but not vice versa) and the twittershphere resembles an ageing out-of-touch population talking to themselves oblivious to conversations taking place not on their turf and in denial about the declining influence they hold with the world outside their bubble.

See you on the streets

Oh, sorry, I forgot. Follow us on Twitter etc etc @socialisestrug1.

Communique #1 London Assembly – international women’s strike

Statement from the London assembly of the international women’s strike. Very red feminism, centering black women, trans women, sex workers. I especially like the Voice of Domestic Workers bloc (follow the link to the original post to see the images). Well worth a read, worth sharing, and why not join in as well?

Communique #1 London Assembly

The International Women’s Strike in the UK began with women coming together to explore our visions of the red feminist horizon – what it could look like and how we could get there. The Women’s Strike is not a one-day event set to coincide with International Women’s Day each year – it’s not an activist campaign or a women’s project. In the UK and across the world we are witnessing an emerging international women’s movement that is experimenting with and struggling for a feminist future. We are not the first generation, nor will we be the last, to know in our gut that women’s liberation must be central to all social movements. We are not asking for our fair share under capitalism, we are seeking to destroy altogether a system that is designed to divide and oppress us. We already know women’s liberation to be at the heart of the struggle. To be clear: there will be no revolution until women’s lives and our labour are central to every political question.

In moving towards a red feminist horizon we continue the work of our feminist mothers and grandmothers in destabilizing ideas of womanhood. We refuse to be divided into good and bad women. We are not interested in reproducing a version of feminism that only makes some women visible, namely those who are white, middle class, cisgender and heterosexual. Nor is there anything stable, inherent or natural about being a woman. As Chandra Mohanty so forcefully argued 35 years ago, the relationship between “Woman” – a cultural and ideological construction and “women” who are real material subjects of our collective histories is one of the central questions that feminism seeks to act upon. We have to confront the reactionary and patriarchal ideas of what it means to be a woman today. Like that we are ‘naturally’ caring, that we all want to be mothers, that most of the time we are asking for it and the rest of the time we are in need of protection. Simultaneously, this confrontation must revalue care work and emotional labour, to support people who have children and combat the structural and systemic forms of violence and exploitation that harm so many women.

Reducing what it means to be a woman to set of biological characteristics and reproductive capacities and claiming that women’s oppression and exploitation is the direct result of having a certain genital configuration recognised at birth is a specific form of reactionary and misogynist politics that we have no interest in. From decades of black feminist thought we have learnt that universalist claims of what it means to be a woman serve the interests of some women at the expense of others. Such claims actively work against the possibility of meaningful connections and solidarity being forged between women who experience womanhood in different ways.

The red feminist horizon demands that we have full and final say on the meaning of our bodies, what they do, how we labour and what is done to our bodies. At the heart of that fight for bodily autonomy is reproductive justice: the right to reproduce when and how we want. For women to be free, we require full and free access to pregnancy termination, contraception and social services for children, parents and carers. But we also need full and free access to sperm freezing before trans women undergo hormone replacement therapy which results in infertility. We call for autonomy over our biological reproductive processes, whether they constitute a tendency to reproduce or, a tendency not to.

We are no longer interested in the faux-debates of whether sex work is ‘real’ work, whether the millions of hours we spend caring and cleaning is ‘real’ work, if the Women’s Strike is a ‘real’ strike or if trans women are ‘real’ women. Attempts to undermine the strength of our movement and thump the table about ‘authenticity’ say far more about those that seek to reduce women to our biological functions and confine us into victimhood, than it does about the vibrant and militant movement we are building. By looking to the wealth of knowledge produced by black feminism, transfeminism and sex worker rights movements we know who our sisters are. We know that trans women and sex workers have a central role to the play in dismantling the capitalist patriarchal systems of power that oppress us all.

We began the Women’s Strike as we intend to proceed. On the morning of the 8th March 2018 we organised a defiant direct action at the Department of Health to demand urgent action on trans healthcare. In the afternoon, 1000 people assembled for over four hours in central London, arriving from university picket lines in their hundreds and walking out of their offices, homes and factories. A social reproduction collective of mainly men organised collective childcare and cooked food to feed the whole assembly. We stood in solidarity with our Kurdish sisters, making it clear that we will defend the revolution in Rojava because their liberation is bound up with ours. Later on, we picketed pro-life religious organisations, joined striking cleaners who occupied Topshop to highlight their disgusting treatment of workers.

In the evening we took over the streets of Soho and marched behind sex workers who were on strike for the decriminalisation of all forms of sex work. The strike4decrim rally began with a minute of noise to remember the late Laura Lee, a fierce fighter for sex workers rights in Ireland. We heard from migrant sex workers who were arrested and humiliated during ‘anti-trafficking’ raids that did nothing for women in the sex industry and everything for property developers. We listened to strippers who are organising in their workplaces against being made to pay to get work and are denied basic employment rights. Our evening ended with hundreds of comrades, including sex workers and trans activists, joining the Picturehouse workers who have been striking and protesting for over a year to demand the living wage and decent working conditions. In bringing together service workers, sex workers, Kurdish women, single mothers, students, university workers, domestic workers, cleaners, artists and refugees we demonstrated our collective power. we exceed the narrow categories of womanhood forced upon us and make good on our promise to make feminism a threat again.

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.

The electoral politics delusion

Its that time of the season again where a prominent left-wing party or candidate looks like they might just get close to winning an election, and the question is asked, “what if ….”. This time it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, but this comes only a few weeks after Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not so far away from the 2nd round (and some say probable eventual victory had he reached that far). And with the failure of the extra-parliamentary, non-institutionalist left-led wave of struggle from 2009-2013 or there abouts, and with the racist right riding a wave at the moment, can you really blame people for getting enthusiastic about something that looks a little bit hopeful for a change?

The thing is though, if elected, Corbyn won’t implement any radical policies, and he will have a hard time implementing even moderate reforms. But I’m not going to argue this like the usual anti-state anarchist cut-and-paste denouncement of any effort to effect change through the state or political parties. Actually, I would ask people in the UK to vote Labour and maybe even join and become active members in their local Party branches. But before all that, let’s take a look at some trends leading us here.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the general capitalist crisis that followed it was so deep that neoliberalism really faced a legitimacy crisis for a while. But instead of trying to save its image the dominant response from governments right or left of centre was to mount a class struggle assault and to undo gains won from below in previous bouts – something so galling that by 2011 the movements of the squares unleashed the most visible ever (at least in Europe and North America) extra-parliamentary extra-institutionalist movement (of which the M15 or Occupy were only the most well known instances of a more general trend of extra-parliamentary and extra-institutional struggles kicking off everywhere), that explicitly said Fuck You to the entire political Class, in the process bringing in thousands of people who had never been active in any political way before.

But in the end, we failed. Even to get minimum objectives. Although the left-led wave of anti-austerity struggle did articulate visions of a radically different type of economy, there were plenty of other non-revolutionary solutions that we would have been happy with. For instance, Keynesianism is far from anti-capitalist and the capitalist class would have been ok with this as a peace-treaty had we forced it on them. A plane ordinary stimulus solution is even less anti-capitalist. But while capitalism should have been entirely discredited, not only did it survive, but it actually led an assault and pushed beyond the previous peace-lines. The fact is that nowhere has anybody – autonomist left, institutional left, or reactionary right (who regardless of posturing obviously aren’t going to challenge neoliberalism, what with their business leaders support) – was able to win anything: not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity.

In 2012 we saw Syriza jump from 4.6% to 12% of the vote. But with Golden Dawn making a frightening jump (from a lower starting level of support), and with the general movement still going strong, this was kind of forgotten about. But then, not so long later, as 2014 drew to a close, it looked like this party was likely to win in the election in January. This was certainly different from the movement of the squares, and it was one of the first times a Party that made significant anti-austerity noises had been in a position that they might have a chance of winning. So naturally people across Europe started asking the question: ‘What if…”

Well we soon found out what happened.

But I’m not the type to write-off any prospects for an institutionalist solution just because it didn’t work once. There are any number of reasons why what happened to Syriza would not necessarily happen elsewhere. For example, they were the first openly challenging austerity politics to get to a position where they could technically do something about it. So the Greek and European establishments rallied to prevent it. It is by no means certain such an alliance could hold out indefinitely and wait out the legitimacy crisis if faced with a series of similar situations in country after country (although obviously an unrealistic ‘if’). It was also Greece, the hardest hit of the austerity laboratories, and as a test case the neoliberal cadre has a lot invested in seeing how far they can push this one. It might have been easier to extract concessions if the Syriza phenomenon had taken place in, say, Portugal or Ireland (again, and unrealistic ‘if’).

But these hypotheticals aside, looking at what has happened since, I still say a Corbyn government will not be able to deliver, not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity. It is generally accepted that Mélenchon would not have been able to do much with a presidency despite the unique circumstances, reflective of a general legitimacy crisis in politics in France, where all you need is 20% to win. But because the support of a similarly diverse parliament is required, only a candidate of the establishment could actually do anything. This of course served to support Fillon or Macron, but Mélenchon or Le Pen would only have survived in the presidency if they made the right compromises. That is leaving aside whether Mélenchon would have actually beaten Le Pen in a second round run-off. Because while the Mélenchon campaign were criticised (correctly in my opinion – but more on that further below) for not showing unambiguously enough a Republican Front stance and instructing their voters to vote against Le Pen, I actually have serious doubts whether Fillon or Macron would have directed their supporters to do the same, because it is quite possible that the Capitalist class would prefer a racist fascist to a communist.

Looking at Labour, the two-round system and the separation of the executive and legislature are not a factor in the Uk and so the challenge for Corbyn is not in institutional structure. But look at what he has faced since being proposed as a candidate for party leadership in 2015: an incredibly hostile media (even including the historically progressive Guardian), and a Party elite which has tried every dirty trick to undermine him and has shown contempt for the internal democratic party process. And they have done this without fear of of negative media coverage, indicating a widespread establishment alliance to get rid of him. This alliance will only get stronger and more determined in that event that Labour wins a majority. And if in the very unlikely event that some radical or even moderately reformist measure was put to vote, it is almost certain that the right-wing Labour MPs will side with the Tories and vote against it.

But earlier in this post I did say that I would ask Uk-based people to vote Labour. After all this criticism, that hardly seems logical. The reason is because an anti-austerity campaign needs a strong and organised movement. Labour in government will not do that. But Labour narrowly missing out on government, with a confident militant grassroots of activists (which I think is Corbyn’s biggest achievements) would be far more effective in defending communities and extracting concessions from the Tories than would a Labour government.

In France, the << ni ni >> campaign (neither Macron nor Le Pen) scored an important victory (although at the time I was against it: Fascism is too dark to gamble with). Although their ‘candidate’ did not get elected, the campaign, and the election results, made it very publicly known that Macron did not win the Presidency – people voted against Le Pen. This makes Macron a much weaker opponent for the French left to extract concessions from than a hypothetical Mélenchon presidency needing the support of a centrist parliament.

And similarly, looking ahead, the Corbyn-inspired grassroots activism in the Labour party is probably the most significant and engaging level of political activism in Europe since the 15M movement and the equivalents in Greece moved out of the city-centres and into the neighbourhoods. Whatever about short term policy changes that may or may not (probably not) be achieved by a government, this kind of mass and sustained activism is what is needed – both to achieve short-term anti-austerity victories here and ther, and also for building community-based militancy capable of pushing for more in the medium to longer term. Unfortunately this is currently being realised through a political party. And when I say unfortunately I’m not talking about because it generate false hopes in a parliamentary solution, but because despite the level and radicalism of involvement, all this energy is always under risk of being co-opted or extinguished by a party hierarchy (whether involving a compromised Corbyn or the Labour right-wing after another one of their coups). What is needed is further movement-building and democratisation of the movement to be able to to resist, or eventually become independent of, the party. And both things can only come from a narrow Corbyn defeat.

No Pasaran for today

 

A few months ago, in the happy days before Trump stole the election or the Brexit referendum or the escalation of Erdogan’s repression following his gift from god, I went to a film. No Pasaran, directed by Daniel Burkholz. A documentary comprised of interviews with veterans from the International Brigades. It was very inspirational. For the most part, it was the events and motivations that led them to join the Brigades that were discussed. Again and again, different interviewees stressed that the Spanish Civil War was a fight against European Fascism in its entirety, and the war in Spain only represented the best place to confront it at the time. As one German Jew recounted how after fighting in Spain and then seeking refuge in France “we proposed to the French army that we could join their army and fight Nazi Germany. They agreed and suggested to us that we enlist and they would station us in North Africa to relieve Foreign Legion soldiers who would be deployed to the German front. So we got together and had a meeting to discuss this and we all agreed that No. Our fight was with Nazi Germany, not to defend the french empire” (warning: quote is a misquote).

nopasaran_poster__english
Image from roadside-dokumentarfilm

A few years ago, 2012 or so, I read The Age of Empire by Eric Hobsbawm. I was very taken with it at the time, in particular the idea that there was a sense of crisis that permeated every aspect of society: the generalised crisis in modernist certainties of progress caused by global recession of the capitalist system, which was only averted through the imperialist project in Africa, something that only temporarily displaced the internal systemic contradictions, but which in a short amount of time just led to renewed inter-national capitalist competition amongst the ‘great powers’, which in turn led to world war and the working classes embracing nationalist sentiment and standing against and slaughtering one another. What amazed me reading it in 2012 was how similar this pre-war period was to the austerity regime we were going through then. Now having seen No Pasaran I’m more inclined to say our period resembles the period prior to the second world war with the changes that have come in the last 5 years. The fascist right are having electoral success in Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Hungary, and the US. In other countries they are strong on the streets, they have infiltrated the police, or even the army, in places like Greece, Britain, and the US. And they are to be seen wearing new clothes in the form of ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and in the likes of Putin and Erdogan in Russia and Turkey. And another similarity with today that was highlighted in the film (although I don’t think they meant to make this analogy) is that in the same way that those fleeing Franco’s Spain to France were put in camps, only to be handed over to the Nazis when France fell, we are doing the same thing today by containing and shipping those fleeing ISIL off to the likes of Erdogan’s Turkey under the EU’s scandalous deal. If you think back to how it was through Coup d’Etats that the Fascists came to power in Spain and Austria in the 1930s, all it would take today is for the military to make a move against Syriza’s government or possibly in Italy, and the ‘refugee camps’ with their razor wires would be a gift horse they wouldn’t look in the mouth. The same with the prison industrial complex which have played up anti-terror hysteria to escalate their practices of policing and imprisoning racial minorities. Although we don’t call them “concentration camps” now, de facto concentration camps is exactly what are being built.

What is clear is that an anti-Fascist movement that is Europe-wide and further towards the Arabian Peninsula is needed. And it is necessary to see all the distinct issues – the far right, austerity, ISIL, refugees, police killings, drone attacks – and to unite them as part of the one system: 21st Century Fascism. Above all, this is a struggle for humanity, and in the spirit of the first intercontinental against neoliberalism and for humanity, the struggle for humanity is the struggle of the left. Although the socialist revolution looks further away than at anytime since maybe the 1980s (with the exception of Rojava), the road to revolution will only be made through walking. As another Brigadista interviewed in No Pasaran described life in Franco’s POW camps: “every morning they would line up three people to be executed. Any last words? Long live socialism, long live anarchism, long live communism! And they were shot” (also a misquote). They died believing that by fighting the fascists they were making the revolution.

There is a lot of work for this anti-21st Century Fascist movement to do. Included within:

  1. Direct aid to refugees, particularly ‘new arrivals’.

  2. Fight the policy whereby refugees are shipped to Turkey

  3. The fight against ISIL is the fight of the Left. Eventhough it is dominated by hostile powers (US, Russia, Turkey), ISIL are the most extreme manifestation of right-wing nationalism, and as such it is our fight. Like the International Brigades went to Spain as the most strategic place to fight European fascism, today we need to unite with the Kurds in Rojava (because with the growing budiness between Erdogan, Putin, and Trump, I reckon the days of US support for Rojava are numbered – although I don’t yet know what to make of the strike on the Syrian military airbase).

  4. Stop the further success of the far right in Europe, whether in elections or on the streets.

  5. Practice community self-defense with targeted groups.

  6. Fight borders. Whether this is physical construction of barriers, intensification of policing the borders, or bio-political-economic control from a distance – where people are dissuaded from crossing or even approaching borders by their associated costs like the dangers of traveling through hazardous routes, extortion by smuggler cartels, the precarious existence of ‘irregular’ living on the other side. The ultimate aim should not just be freedom of movement and refuge for those arriving from unsafe places, but also legal, safe, and free (as in free speech and free beer) passage for all.

  7. Fight against the conditions that strengthen the right: the state of things where the costs of economic crisis are being lumped onto the working classes, or where domestic economies are boosted by fighting foreign wars.

  8. Be prepared to work with liberals where this is likely to lead to direct material improvements in security for targeted groups. But constantly remind the world that it was the liberal centre that empowered the rightist surge by sitting-out and eventually exhausting the left-led mobilisation in the earlier years of austerity.

  9. Work with groups that specifically push beyond the confines of the liberal response. This can include for instance Black Lives Matter, who’s very existance insists that the liberal doctrine is false. I.e. that All Lives Do Not Matter to the US state, regardless of how many times it is written in some laws that they do. Also groups who campaign on the basis of migration as reparation for colonialism, to push beyond the whole ‘migrants are not a threat to our way of life’. We are a threat – we are a threat to and we aim to take down the whole capitalism-colonialism-nationstate nexus.

Statement: IMPACT Trade Union on anti-water privatisation victory

Statement by IMPACT Trade Union on Irish parliamentary committee’s recommendation to hold referendum on public ownership of water.

The background: Ireland was one of the worst hit countries to experience the austerity treatment in the EU but unlike Greece or Portugal, resistance was not very visible. Until plans were announced to privatise water. A resistance movement embracing direct action tactics of non-payment of charges and blocking installation of water meters swung public opinion so that all political parties declared themselves against water charges at the election in March 2016, forcing the new government to climb down. But this victory was not enough for the campaign. Although this government scrapped the plan there is nothing stopping any later government from re-introducing it. That is why the campaign went on the offensive and pushed for a constitutional referendum enshrining public ownership of water – that way any future government would not be able to privatise water without going back to the people in another referendum, where they would be defeated. Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee recommended holding a referendum, signalling a big victory for the anti-austerity movement in Ireland.

Originally posted on the IMPACT blog.

The decision of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services to recommend a referendum on enshrining public ownership of Irish Water in the Constitution was big news for the European water movement. For us, this was a huge encouragement for the many local and national groups fighting the privatisation of water services across the continent.

It followed on the heels of the Slovenian Parliament’s decision to introduce an amendment, guaranteeing the right to water, into the country’s constitution. Today [Wednesday 22nd March] is World Water Day, an occasion for us to celebrate the huge contribution that decent water services make to public health and quality of life, and to highlight the opposition to privatisation that’s growing throughout Europe.

People in Ireland and elsewhere are making it clear that water services should remain in public hands.

The concern that water services could be liberalised through trade agreements, like the CETA deal just agreed by the EU and Canada, motivated many workers to protest. And it mobilized Irish and European trade unions to start a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the right to water.

Attracting nearly two million signatures from across the EU, this became the first ever successful ECI, effectively placing the issue on the EU’s legislative agenda at the behest of its citizens. The European Parliament then fully supported the ECI demands in an opinion piloted by Irish MEP Lynn Boylan.

The European Commission responded, as it had to. But it failed to bring forward the legislation sought by unions and the European water movement.

Despite the clear message delivered directly by citizens through the ECI, and by their elected representatives in the Parliament, the European Commission fails to listen. In the case of Greece, where people rejected water privatisation, the Eurogroup has been forcing the government to sell shares in the Athens and Thessaloniki water companies.

World Water Day is also an opportunity to ponder the extensive research that underlines why private water companies want to stay on the pitch and make huge profits from what is a public good and a human right.

The University of Greenwich Public Services International Research Unit, which has undertaken extensive work on the issue, says public ownership is the right model for delivering quality water and waste services not least as public authorities can source cheaper loans than private corporations, and because the profit motive pushes up the price of water delivered by multinational private companies by as much as 10%.

Another drawback of privatisation that gets scant attention is that financial and other risks are never transferred to the private sector when lucrative contracts change hands. The quality of the water in our taps is put at risk. Public authorities remain responsible. But private companies can simply walk away, without sanction, when things go wrong.

On top of all this, the European Commission highlighted in 2014 that private water and waste contacts are a potential source of corruption.

These are the reasons why local authorities in European countries like France, which risked costly experiments in water privatisation, have been bringing services back into public ownership. The Portuguese city of Mafra followed suit after years of rising bills for water users.

The Irish people have made crystal clear their desire to see water and waste water services remain in public ownership. Their instinct is supported by the overwhelming results of research that shows privatisation is a bad choice.

Ireland has the support of Europe’s trade unions and the broader water movement, which is connecting the resistance to privatisation across European borders.

Kevin Callinan is Deputy General Secretary of IMPACT trade union. Jan Willem Goudriaan is General Secretary of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).

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.