Although 'Give up Activism' neglected to recommend any actual change in behaviour outside of saying that we needed one, perhaps now it would be appropriate to say something about this. How can we bring ‘politics’ out of its separate box as an external cause to which we dedicate ourselves?
Many of the criticisms of the direct action movement revolve around similar points. Capitalism is based on work; our struggles against it are not based on our work but quite the opposite, they are something we do outside whatever work we may do. Our struggles are not based on our direct needs (as for example, going on strike for higher wages); they seem disconnected, arbitrary. Our ‘days of action’ and so forth have no connection to any wider on-going struggle in society. We treat capitalism as if it was something external, ignoring our own relation to it. These points are repeated again and again in criticisms of the direct action movement (including ‘Give up Activism’ but also in many other places).
The problem is not necessarily that people don’t understand that capital is a social relation and that it’s to do with production as well as just banks and stock exchanges, here as well as in the Third World or that capital is a relation between classes. The point is that even when all of this is understood our attitude to this is still as outsiders looking in, deciding at what point to attack this system. Our struggle against capitalism is not based on our relation to value-creation, to work. On the whole the people who make up the direct action movement occupy marginal positions within society as the unemployed, as students or working in various temporary and transitory jobs. We do not really inhabit the world of production, but exist largely in the realm of consumption and circulation. What unity the direct action movement possesses does not come from all working in the same occupation or living in the same area. It is a unity based on intellectual commitment to a set of ideas.
To a certain extent ‘Give up Activism’ was being disingenuous (as were many of the other critiques making similar points) in providing all these hints but never spelling out exactly where they led, which left the door open for them to be misunderstood. The author of the critique in ‘The Bad Days Will End!’ was right to point out what the article was indicating but shied away from actually mentioning: the basic thing that’s wrong with activism is that it isn’t collective mass struggle by the working class at the point of production, which is the way that revolutions are supposed to happen.
In the postscript the author partly backpedals on a promising initial argument which @spitzenprodukte directed me following my earlier post. Nonetheless, the excerpt quoted above summarise some key points reasonably well.
ated quoted it.
- I’m somewhat puzzled at this insistence on “the way that revolutions are supposed to happen”. I would not necessarily expect the up-ending of the existing social, political and economic modes to take an orderly form that can be definitively predicted in advance - whatever Marx said.
- I would note that events in 1918 Russia were led by an intellectual cadre, and 2011 Tunisia sparked off by a man who wanted to be a self-employed street merchant. The “working class” bit is definitely up for grabs, whether it’s just in terms of definition (is it “the precariat” now?) or actual causality. What a “collective mass struggle” looks like is also up for consideration - and it looks like it’s more likely to be on the streets and online rather than “at the point of production” if that’s meant as a spatial referent - or even if it’s not.
- Actually, “revolution” is also a problem to my ears. Even after events of 2011 I don’t think I believe it very likely to stick in the West - upheaval yes, street disorder yes, but then global institutions of governance will determine whatever type of leadership replaces the government we lose.
- It seems very anti-zeitgeisty to say that ‘If real democratic, people-led change is to occur -and stick - it is likely to be a slower, more gradual, less violent process than the word “revolution” implies’… Seems to ignore the events of the last year. But this kind of change is based on a widespread shift in social attitudes and I still think that tends to take time. (Do recognise the risk events may prove me wrong on this one — but can we plan for events? Or only the longer slower work?)
- 12 years on, call centres don’t look especially plausible hotbeds of revolutionary ferment.
- Have to remember to read this in the context of its time, i.e. the 90s very fragmented single-issue protesting against road-building, against animal testing - stuff that frankly looks like not seeing the woods for the trees from today’s perspectives. The author of this essay is, however, getting that.
Why do I want to have anything to do with radical politics?
- Because the world faces problems - oil, climate, social justice - that mainstream politics is proving wholly inadequate at confronting
- Because I am interested in radical social / political theory, and consequently in how it connects to real-world actions
- Class privilege:
- means my neck isn’t on the line in these struggles. Come what may, I will basically be ok - or ok-er than 90% of people. So it’s patronising and presumptuous to be involved and to claim to be acting/speaking for those in a very different position.
- means I don’t have a right to speak in these spaces. My confidence and articulacy can intimidate and silence people who don’t feel so capable.
- Activists online love to slate “liberals”. As someone undecided and on the periphery, I’m going to get judged, attacked and mocked for not having enough “commitment to the cause”.
- I’ve got a job in the private sector, I’m ambitious and I want to earn enough money so that I can buy a flat and not be in poverty in my old age. I don’t want to live in a squat and I’m not prepared to live on benefits (or a PhD stipend…) as some act of protest against wage-labour. As such I’m too invested in the status quo to be involved in radical politics.
- I haven’t got any tangible skills to contribute - e.g. legal or housing know-how, the willingness to get beaten up in a protest, etc.
- What’s the point? How does it ever get beyond being a minority thing?:
- Activism doesn’t achieve tangible change in macro politics - million people march against the Iraq war, nada.
- Don’t see how we get there from here
- Protests, cultural centres etc basically permitted dissidence, small-scale spaces where people can vent their dissatisfaction with the system without in fact troubling it significantly. C.f. China and the Communist party’s attitude to protests.
- Don’t agree with the art-speak (or Hakim Bey) position that focuses on how radical political action changes the “consciousness” of the people involved - bluntly, this is not enough, it’s basically therapeutic navel-gazing.
- I don’t understand how radical socio-political structures can scale with any legitimacy given that 90% of the population think that radicals are a bunch of feckless unwashed students. How’s it get majority buy-in?
- Why is it verboten to ask about whether these social models are legitimate, why’s any concern about the potential for majority buy-in castigated as “dirty centrism”?
- Decide that I’m clearly too uncomfortable with and critical of radical politics to be a part of it, even though I believe it to be necessary? (Because I don’t want to be that person who sits in the corner and just goes, “No that’s impossible, that’s stupid”, negative negative negative.)
- Find a local project doing something clearly useful - environmental, urban planning - get involved, contribute. Stop over-thinking and just act; stop worrying about how this connects to the bigger picture (easier said than done)?
- Follow some different radicals on the internet & read different things that I might find more constructive - someone, somewhere has to be explaining radical politics in terms that make me go “Yes, I can understand how that would work”?
- Say ok then, I want to work from the starting point of party politics because I understand how that can make (albeit incremental and not sufficient) change in the world; join the Greens (or try to be part of the solution for the Labour Party?) and so on?
Work experience programme must be voluntary, says major employer amid complaints it is profiting from forced labour.
Supermarket group Tesco said it has asked DWP officials to make the work experience scheme voluntary after thousands of angry customers wrote in and posted messages on Twitter and the company’s Facebook site accusing the multinational of profiting from hundreds of thousands of hours of forced unpaid work.
On the one hand, a victory. People power.
On the other hand, not.
People power proving powerless when it’s enacted through democratic political means - the Tory party denying there’s any opposion; the Lib Dems apparently silent, and Labour nowhere to be found. Even the very idea of writing to your MP about this or turning up in a constintuency surgery asking him/her to ask a question in the Commons seems ludicrous, seems tilting at windmills - who believes that works? (Did it ever?)
But when - as consumers, not as citizens - we put the pressure - on companies and brands, not on our elected representatives - then something happens.
This blurring of citizenship and consumption is neoliberalism in action. In its public-facing ideology at least, the interests of business and state are thought to be mutually supportive - with a resultant blurring as to which of these really holds power. Baudrillard - once a Marxist, then a nihilist - becomes our guide to this modern terrain. In The Consumer Society (1998) he quotes President Eisenhower saying that government best secures economic growth by encouraging the individual to spend, and that taxation is a less profitable way of connecting an individual’s money and their desired services than consumption could be – consumption as a “social levy”, and also “civic duty” keeping the economy going (1998:82-3).
Furthermore, society and civic responsibility become just another pair of values to be consumed - hollowed out as empty signifiers fit only for endless exchange (not use). In Simulacra And Simulation, Baudrillard claims:
Advertising, “fundamentally saying and repeating incessantly, ‘I buy, I consume, I take pleasure’, today repeats in other forms, ‘I vote, I participate, I am present, I am concerned’ – mirror of a paradoxical mockery, mirror of the indifference of all public signification.” (1994:91)
The lack of Corporate and Governmental transparency has been a topic of great controversy in recent years, yet our only tool for encouraging greater openness is the slow, tedious process of policy reform.
Presented in the form of a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, the Transparency Grenade proposes itself as an iconic cure for these frustrations, making the process of leaking information from closed meetings as easy as pulling a pin.
Equipped with a tiny computer, microphone and powerful wireless antenna, the Transparency Grenade captures network traffic and audio at the site and securely and anonymously streams it to a dedicated server where it is mined for information. Email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice extracted from this data are then presented on an online, public map, shown at the location of the detonation.
Whether trusted employee, civil servant or concerned citizen, greater openness was never so close at hand.
Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is a multilateral agreement which proposes international standards for enforcement of intellectual property rights.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) opposes ACTA, calling for more public spotlight on the proposed treaty.
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has published “Speak out against ACTA”, stating that the ACTA threatens free software by creating a culture “in which the freedom that is required to produce free software is seen as dangerous and threatening rather than creative, innovative, and exciting.
Europe: this is our SOPA, our PIPA. Time to get hasslin’ our representatives (inasmuch as the EU is representative or democratic…)
Poland’s politicians don Anonymous-style Guy Fawkes masks in anti-piracy protest [Slashgear]
"Within the next few years an important threshold will be crossed: For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders—every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.
Plummeting digital storage costs will soon make it possible for authoritarian regimes to not only monitor known dissidents, but to also store the complete set of digital data associated with everyone within their borders. These enormous databases of captured information will create what amounts to a surveillance time machine, enabling state security services to retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets. This will fundamentally change the dynamics of dissent, insurgency and revolution.
A decade ago, those few of us who were paying attention to peak oil were pointing out that if the peak of global conventional petroleum production arrived before any meaningful steps were taken, the price of oil would rise to previously unimagined heights, crippling the global economy and pushing political systems across the industrial world into a rising spiral of dysfunction and internal conflict.
With most grades of oil above $100 a barrel, economies around the world mired in a paper “recovery” worse than most recessions, and the United States and European Union both frozen in political stalemates between regional and cultural blocs with radically irreconcilable agendas, that prophecy has turned out to be pretty much square on the money, but you won’t hear many people mention that these days.
The point that has to be grasped just now, it seems to me, is that this is what peak oil looks like. Get past the fantasies of sudden collapse on the one hand, and the fantasies of limitless progress on the other, and what you get is what we’re getting—a long ragged slope of rising energy prices, economic contraction, and political failure, punctuated with a crisis here, a local or regional catastrophe there, a war somewhere else—all against a backdrop of disintegrating infrastructure, declining living standards, decreasing access to health care and similar services, and the like, which of course has been happening here in the United States for some years already.
[John Michael Greer, What Peak Oil Looks Like, 7 December 2011]
What if we have also reached ‘peak freedom’ - the maximum extent of individual freedoms and civil liberties?
Europe and America became considerably more free through the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was abolished; women gained the vote; homosexuality decriminalised and employment and welfare reforms provided a baseline of freedom from exploitation and freedom for all to have a chance at a decent living. We gained the right to unionise; to (all) own private property; that everyone could access legal representation through legal aid if they couldn’t afford their own defence. From the Chatterley trial, to journalist’s privilege not to name sources, to the rise of internet we have gained increasing freedoms of thought and expression.
Wednesday I met up with an old, old friend by name of @metaleptic. We talked about 2011 and the coming end of the world - and what felt significant about our conversation is that perhaps for the first time I was as pessimistic as him.
What happened in 2011?
- The Met Police, Tory government and supposedly independent judiciary (hah!) seeking to criminalise all forms of protest that aren’t walking along a pre-determined march route (and how long will they keep authorising big protest marches, you wonder?)
- Kettling, mass arrests, police infiltrators, 944 deaths in police custody since 1990. Et cetera
- The US Senate overwhelmingly passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which gives the military (not the police) authority over domestic terror investigations and interrogations…
- …allows for indefinite detention without trial of absolutely anyone suspected of being a terrorist…
- …and defines the whole of the United States as a “battlefield”.
- The normalisation of drone warfare and extra-judicial killings of British citizens in Pakistan, a country we are not at war with
- SOPA and the Digital Economy Act threatening basic internet freedoms
What’s coming in the rest of my lifetime?
- The start of a four-degree or more rise in global temperatures, leading to extreme weather events and potentially the total loss of climate equilibrium (then god knows what)
- The oil runs out, as does rather a lot of minerals we use to make rather a lot of things
- The water runs out and large parts of the globe become uninhabitable
- Starving and/or displaced people in the billions
- Fortress Europe to (try to) keep them out of our (collapsing) economies and welfare states
- A geriatric population in the West no longer producing wealth but functioning as a massive voting block to stymie any change. (Actually Hugo and I did disagree here - he’s more cynical and doubts even the veneer of democracy, voting etc will survive. I predict a mere move through simulacra into simulation.)
Given that, then - Year of Protest or not - how is there any likelihood that the world will get more free?
The question becomes simply when we passed the peak - before or after 9/11?
Maintaining Olympic advertisers’ expensively-purchased monopolies of signification is a legal requirement for host cities. This means new laws:
Section 22 is then about how the police can enter your house to seize your Pepsi t-shirts, news articles or protest banners before you even use them.
Section 19: Advertising Regulations.
(4)The regulations may apply in respect of advertising of any kind including, in particular—
(a)advertising of a non-commercial nature, and
(b)announcements or notices of any kind.
(5)The regulations may apply in respect of advertising in any form including, in particular—
(a)the distribution or provision of documents or articles,
(b)the display or projection of words, images, lights or sounds, and
(c)things done with or in relation to material which has or may have purposes or uses other than as an advertisement.
Found via @DSG_DSG, 10 Growth Markets for Crisis
The protesters yesterday stuck a spoof street sign saying “Tahrir Square, London, EC4M”. This was not Tahrir - but it obeyed the same impulse to occupy physical space.
The impulse, I believe, is being driven by two things: first it is - as I wrote in the 20 reasons - a meme. It is an effective action that is transmitting itself independent of any democratic structures and party political hierarchies: if you camp somewhere, the press turn up and you can get an instant hit of wellbeing by, however briefly and tenuously, living the dream of a communal, negotiated existence.
Second, because this communal, negotiated, networked life already exists in people’s heads as a result of the rapid adoption of social networks and networked lifestyles. As Manuel Castells, one of the first sociologists of the internet, said: the more autonomous and rebellious a person’s attitudes are, the more they use the internet; the more they use the internet, the more autonomous their lifestyle becomes.
—Paul Mason, 'Occupy' is a response to economic permafrost, 16 October.
Chomsky at the Rebellious Media Conference, 8th Oct 2011 - notes on his speech made by Jo Abbess.
He’s speaking about the tension between mainstream and radical demands that I’m finding important / difficult at the moment:
The main thrust of the occupations – not very critical. Radical demands are tacked on at the end [of the lists of demands] – can be put aside.
[Takes out list of demands from Occupy Boston and reads out loud. The first section] Not very radical demands – in normal discussion. The final demand [is very radical - but to get anything like this] the mass of the population has to be behind it […] understand it.
[These demands are] things that don’t happen if you have a demonstration for a couple of weeks. Corporations have been buying elections for a 100 years [for example].
[What I note is] the thin character of the demands – get back to the “good old days”. There are radical priorities that should be brought into it – to explain the gap [between the obvious, non-challenging demands and the more radical, complex demands] and fill it; otherwise it’s going to reach a point where [there’s absorption/appropriation of] the “tolerable” demands, which are [fine to appear] in the business press.
Maybe [the Occupy movement] will galvanize the Democrats.
[The radical demands are] so far beyond what’s attainable – would need to mobilise the country behind them [to attain them]. [The Occupy movement will] maybe initiate a long-term effort. Dedicate yourself.
What’s successful about the slogan “We are the 99 Percent” is that it’s very difficult to argue against - almost everybody is the “us” not the “them”. Occupy Wall Street and related protests are successfully focusing an anger against (i) an unaccountable financial industry and (ii) the government bailouts they’ve received, two feelings that cross class and party lines.
This is powerful and needs to be maintained.
However, the people doing the occupying are for the most part not identifiably mainstream - instead they’re students, radicals, anarchists. This leads to a tension for the movement’s demands.
As Chomsky identifies, half are driven by normal discussion - the 99%-ers demands for a job, an education, healthcare. Demands that the financial industry not be allowed to crash the economy again, and for a government less subservient to its interests.
But as the radicals and intellectuals recognise, these aren’t necessarily coherent demands. Globalisation makes it impossible to step back to the wealthy West of the 1950s-1970s, the perceived golden era of rising prosperity. A government in cahoots with big business is recognised as the way things are under capitalism - the norm, not a corrupt anomaly.
So the demands get radical - revolutionary. It is capitalism itself that’s the problem - so we must overthrow capitalism.
My concerns are twofold:
- This alienates the mainstream. Completely. It turns something that might be a popular movement of the magnitude & influence of the Tea Party into an uncomfortable camp-out of a few dozen people who don’t have to get up and work a job the next morning.
- It’s incredibly vague. As @stavvers put it, the plan goes from A. Camp out in public square, B. ???, C. Revolution. She calls it “cargo cult activism”, a dedication to a form which mistakes that for function.
The hope for the 99% and Occupy movements is what? That the mainstream is somehow radicalised, accepts the wider and systemic nature of the problem, and goes on to demand & achieve some major victories despite a party-political system that is completely inert to these concerns.
i.e. that not just Labour but even the Conservatives & Lib Dems realise they must enact major changes otherwise they will be voted out of power for a generation. And then we go on to reform electoral democracy & capitalism because we realise the roles that existing structures have created in producing the current mess.
That’d be great. But I really, really struggle to imagine such a win. More likely the anarchists organise everything by consensus and have a series of 6-hour daily meetings wearing down everybody, so people drift away - back to uni, jobs, home and a bath. Their demands become couched in a systemic analysis of everything wrong with capitalism, running to 29 pages and requiring a postgraduate degree in political thought to understand. Ordinary people are alienated. The police are violent, but against what looks like a bunch of hippies. The BBC doesn’t report it. The mainstream’s concerns have no voice or visibility again. The NHS continues to be sold down the river, and the Tories win the next election by convincing people that “being tough on the deficit” is (i) important and (ii) what they’ll do.
As Chomsky is saying, how does this become more than a Tumblr and a few people in park, and get and keep the mass of the population behind it?
A couple of days ago I was thinking through the question, what’s important now? Or rather, what is now - what are the currents shaping the way the world is going over the next 10 or so years?
Perhaps this was inspired by Jon Henley’s article on September 11th, which argued that it wasn’t actually the “day that changed everything”, and many of the geopolitical events seen as consequences of the attack may have happened regardless.
One key trend is clearly black box algorithms:
In a speech at the technology conference TEDGlobal this summer, computer scientist Kevin Slavin argued that a profound shift is taking place: maths is undergoing a “transition from being something that we extract and derive from the world to something that actually starts to shape it”.
The maths Slavin is talking about, and Harris is writing about, is algorithms. We are, he says, living in an “algo-world”. If Slavin is right, algorithms are shaping everything from the goods we buy to the value of the money with which we buy them.[…]
The thing is, as systems of algorithms get more complex and take control of ever greater areas of everyday life, concerns are being raised over how much we’re able to track what they’re up to. The answer is: not all that much. As Slavin puts it: “We’re writing these things that we can no longer read.”
[Welcome to the algoworld, Sam Leith, Evening Standard, 12th Sept 2011]
Second, and bigger point - the stagnation and decline of the middle class standard of life.
Take a story that appeared in the Wall Street Journal Monday. The tale is nominally one about marketing strategy and it looks at how giant firm Procter & Gamble sells its household goods to its customers. But the picture that emerges is terrifying. P&G, it transpires, is cutting back on marketing to the disappearing middle classes, instead selling more and more to either high-income or low-income customers and abandoning the middle. Other big firms, like Heinz, are following suit. The piece reveals there is even a word for this strategy, helpfully coined by Citibank: the Consumer Hourglass Theory – because it denotes a society that bulges at the top and bottom and is squeezed in the middle.
The story contains some scary figures, such as the fact that the net worth of the middle fifth of American households has plunged by 26% in the last two years. Or that the income of the median American family, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than in 1998.
Or look at a story in the New York Times Tuesday. It starkly shows how the plight of the American working person has worsened. Solid jobs that once provided a secure grasp on middle class aims (a house, college for the kids, a retirement) have changed to become low-wage ones. It looks at the situation of some Detroit auto-workers, pointing out that new hires can find themselves working opposite long-term colleagues who do similar jobs yet earn twice as much. The system is called a “two tier” wage structure.
Perhaps that system can be justified as an emergency measure to keep Detroit’s auto-industry alive and help it survive the current tough times. But, like the Consumer Hourglass Theory, it actually looks far more like the permanent shape of things to come. American society is bifurcating, squeezing the middle class out of existence. The ranks of the poor and low-income earners are growing and the rich are doing just fine – and no one is talking about it, much less doing anything about it.
[The decline and fall of the American middle class, Paul Harris, Guardian, 13th Sept 2011]
More thinking on these later…
One learns all one needs about how to run the country from three years studying PPE at Magdalen College Oxford…
Summer is an ideal time for punting, but it’s important to choose the right kind of punt. Here’s a quick guide.
BNC (Beyond the News Cycle): The issue is punted into the near future in the hope that the audience will lose interest. For example, vague noises may be made about the possibility of a public enquiry.
BNE (Beyond the Next Election): The issue is punted into the arms of the next Government. A particularly effective punt when an election loss is expected.
BHL (Beyond the Honours List): The issue is punted so far into the future that the punter can expect to have received a life peerage before it returns to Earth. Suitable for issues with long half-lives, such as nuclear waste reprocessing.
BCO (Beyond the Clapham Omnibus): A particularly stylish punt in which the issue is punted not into the future, but into the intellectual stratosphere. It is suggested that those with a serious interest in the issue really need to understand another issue, such as the structure of complex financial instruments or European case law, in order to take part in the debate.
BPL (Beyond Party Lines): The issue is punted onto the moral high ground, beyond the reach of mere politics. Cross-party collaboration without a public debate is therefore not only permissible, but admirable.