A 2012 New Year Resolution: against the politics of abstraction and charity, for the real movement in our interests!

The fallacious logic of the 'anti-cuts movement': that there's a bill that needs to be footed

As we career headfirst into 2012, and the now customary cycle of ‘actions’ and demonstrations continue to sustain the British activist movement, I would like to use the commencement of a new year as an opportunity for a moment of self-reflection.  If 2011 was indeed the year in which more things happened than ever (and it definitely wasn’t an ahistorical perception fuelled by the constant expansion of news media), then a moment’s pause to evaluate the role of the revolutionary – mostly subsumed, not entirely prudently in my opinion, in the self-styled anti-cuts movement – should be a valuable endeavour.  I would also like to further some belated New Years’ Resolutions for the revolutionaries embedded within the working class.  However, unlike my preferred mode of blogging – in which I try to use personal experience of everyday life to inform my approach to political and social struggles – this one is largely restricted to the abstracted and divorced spectacle of hobbyism: in particular, the activities of the self-contained and largely self-defeating ‘anti-cuts movement’ (or, in layman’s terms, the left wing activist scene).

Entering 2011, revolutionaries in the UK had reasons to be optimistic. Although both the university fees hike and EMA abolition had been – or were about to be – rapidly passed by a typically perfunctory Parliament, signalling the defeat of late 2010’s student movement, many students responded by orientating themselves towards the anti-cuts narrative emanating from the revolutionary left and the anarchists who had accompanied them in their demonstrations and occupation.  Indeed, for a brief moment, the populist ‘anti-cuts movement’ concept suddenly appeared to leave the arena of leftist fantasy, instead becoming a reality via a merger of angry, radicalised students and the established activist scene/revolutionary milieu (delete as appropriate).  This was evident in the TUC’s March 26 anti-cuts demonstration, when as many as half a million people marched through central London, with the initiative being seized by fresh-faced, well-networked young people, either in the property damage of the 1500-odd black bloc or the Fortnum & Mason occupation by UK Uncut.  And, it seemed, the movement could only continue to grow.  By the beginning of June, activist assemblies were being held in London to plan support for the J30 public sector strike of over 750,000 workers.  Exactly five months later, upwards of 1.5 million workers in over 20 different unions struck.

However, despite the plethora of activity that emerged from the momentum of the student movement, UK Uncut, local anti-cuts groups and the tokenistic TUC march – and indeed despite the two one day coordinated strikes – Cameron, Cable et al have reiterated their commitment to cuts on a number of occasions, and many of the newly sliced budgets are now in full effect.  In fact, the Coalition is currently pursuing a neoliberal, anti-worker course that is far more ambitious than deficit reduction (as if that ever were their goal in the first place).  Far from rescinding their assault, they have actually intensified it, as the ground being cleared by the budget deficit propaganda campaign in the NHS, education and so on, is now being sown by so called efficiency machines, profit-manufacturers and other assertions of the ruling class’ dominance of capital.

For many, the explanation for the hitherto unsuccessful nature of this movement will relate to tactics, and it is certainly true to say that most anti-cuts activists never really moved beyond consciousness-raising exercises (also known as public relations stunts): ineffective protests outside council offices, theatre performances inside banks, symbolic demonstrations within view of Parliament (but on a Sunday!), and so on.  Despite the direct action rhetoric which may have prefixed many of these events, they were all typified by the quasi-evangelist mission of spreading the word, telling the good (or bad) news to the world, etc, rather than engendering the actual prevention of the implementation of austerity – or indeed, the interruption of the flow of capital as a means of blackmailing the hatchet (wo)men into abandonment.  Even when economic disruption was attempted – such as by a number of local radicals and students in south east London, blocking the A2 road to Dover in support of the mooted (but largely phantom) EAN FE student walkout in January, and then again in conjunction with the J30 public sector strike – they found themselves isolated and quickly outnumbered and neutralised by the police.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a deeper fault within the self-styled anti-austerity movement, in its distance from the worst victims of the cuts, and – by extension – the working class as a whole.  This became most apparent in during two months of the Social Centre Plus on Deptford High Street.  After an encouraging opening meeting, in which a large number of attendees voted unanimously to ignore the a local business owner’s claim to the building and instead convert the occupied space in an anti-cuts organising hub, the Centre quickly found itself struggling to access many of the people’s whose struggle it wished to adopt.  Repeated open days, cafés and flyering sessions on a bustling market day failed to pierce the isolation of the local wider working class (with a few notable exceptions, of course), with the space instead becoming populated by the usual suspects from London’s activist and squatter scenes.  This, in turn, set in motion the predictable cycle of inwardly focused, unapproachable anarcho-squatter behaviour and the space’s fate as yet another redundant activist hangout seemed set, even as it resisted one eviction and successfully occupied the adjacent building.  Eventually, as the ragtag group of local anarchists, squatters and leftists struggled to agree how to progress, both buildings suffered rapid evictions and the project died.

In SCP, we had not only failed to acknowledge the sheer difficulty of integrating most of the victims of government cuts into the anti-cuts movement, but also the problems inherent within the desire to act on their behalf.  If the cuts are an attack on the most vulnerable members of our society (single parents, the elderly, domestic abuse victims, etc), then it is because these demographics compose some of the most marginalised and alienated individuals in the land, individuals who – self-evidently – are some of the least disposed towards political activity.  Yet without their participation and insight, any sort of campaign against the cuts cannot represent their needs and a path towards their emancipation.  Instead of offering solidarity with those acting in their own interests, we could only conceive of speculative charity on their behalf.  This is the circle that SCP – and, by extension, the anti-cuts movement as a whole – cannot seem to square.

Moreover, in the aftermath of SCP, J30, N30 and so many ‘anti-cuts’ events, I find myself questioning the relevance of austerity to our lives.  Undoubtedly, cuts in public spending have adversely affected almost all of us in one way or another, but – as I have already said – austerity is not the only political/economic phenomenon in progress on a national and international level, and my experience at SCP would seem to indicate that austerity is not at the forefront of many people’s minds (perhaps not even the plans of the ruling class).  In many ways, the anti-austerity movement has become a futile activist talking shop in which radicals convince each other that they’re part of something larger, all the while mistaking their own reflections for strangers, like a contemporary Narcissus.

This is true even of the two coordinated strikes we’ve seen, both of which were – ostensibly – over the curbs on public sector pensions, a measure that uses the budget cuts as a pretext.  However, most of the radical milieu reject this causality.  After all, to accept the link between pension cuts and the deficit is not only to assume that the ruling class acts in good faith (indeed, in our interests), but it also complies with the non-sequitur of the necessity of deficit reduction.  The arguments presented by the Labour Party, the TUC, the SWP, and even UK Uncut – which essentially cheerlead alternative forms of fiscal fundraising for the state (be it through reductions in bankers’ pay, ‘progressive’ taxes or indeed, the tightening of existent taxation legislation) – all serve this purpose.

Clearly, austerity shouldn’t be understood as an attempt to reduce the budget deficit (although it may well have that effect), but as the seizure of an opportunity to restructure capital and the balance of power in their favour (as indicated by Lord Mandelson shortly before the last elections).  Indeed, it is interesting to note that many European economists (such as the German economist Holger Schmeding) are now emphasising that austerity is useless without accompanying “labour reform” (ie the Thatcherite model of breaking of the workers’ movement in order to facilitate increased flexibility and worsening conditions).  The strikes, therefore, must not be viewed as the result of austerity, but rather, the desperate efforts of workers to maintain their scant conditions in the face of a ruling class attack.  The public sector workforce must now be more concerned with the sudden and intransigent collusion of their union heads with the DWP en route to a ‘deal’ than the progression (or lack thereof!) of the anti-cuts movement.

However, the irony is that despite the wayward, confused, ineffective lurches of committed would be anti-cuts campaigners on the ground, 2011 has been an incredibly difficult year for the British ruling class.  Not only has the economy continued to stutter as it stumbles ever closer to the edge of the precipice overlooking the Eurozone, but the state’s institutions have been rocked by a series of events, shaking the fatalist assumptions of even the most fervent advocate of the status quo.  The Coalition is weak, depending – as it does – on the mutual acquiescence of the Lib Dems, who look as discredited and implausible as ever (despite Clegg’s desperate attempts to disentangle himself from the tangled web of student fees deceit by breaking consensus on the issue of Europe), and the anti-EU Tory right, bullishly confident thanks to their benefactors in the CBI and the Square Mile, but too elitist and detached to generate a genuine popular base (whatever the right-on liberal scaremongering about Mail headlines may say).  Labour, for their part, are fraught by their own identity crisis and the stains of the Brown years.  On top of this, the entire Westminster, Whitehall and even Fleet Street elites have been undermined by the seemingly never-ending Hackgate scandal, which illustrates the almost breathtaking extent of collusion between the different factions of the ruling class, simultaneously chipping away at the notion of an independent press replete with journalists of integrity.

However, possibly the most important political event of the year came in early August with the sudden, unexpected spate of riots and looting across the country’s major cities.  Without meaning to add to the already gargantuan amount of analysis and commentary on the brief few days of social unrest (itself a testimony to their significance), two initial observations seem prevalent: firstly, that the riots represented the most serious base-level threat to the British state’s authority in 2011, and that secondly – partially because of this, but also due to the socio-economic faultlines that they exposed and then promptly saw exacerbated – they seem likely to recur in some shape or form in the near future.

Moreover, the answer of one participant who was interviewed in The Guardian and the LSE’s joint investigation is of interest.  Daniel implies that his motivation for looting and arson was a desire to make resistance to austerity more expensive than the savings implied in austerity itself (“do a lot of damage to the point where, forget all the benefits they cut off, they’ll have to pay 20 times worse than that”), or – in our parlance – to ‘make the country ungovernable’.  This is noteworthy – not because it implies that the riots were caused by austerity (such a reading would be a poor attempt to reap political capital out of a complex social phenomenon, a trap that some of us unfortunately fell into) – but rather because it illustrates the effectiveness of economic disruption as a tactic, when it has sufficient numbers and self-belief.   Perhaps even more crucially though, it depicts the disorder as will for social change, and an opening that emerged not from a movement of political activists advocating political reform (whose sheer remoteness from the events only serves to demonstrate their own redundancy), but the disenfranchised and angry, acting against politics.  Inasmuch as the riots represented a breach with the normal order of capital – jeopardising its control, distribution and hegemony – they were a situation which could have evolved in any number of directions, irrespective of the socio-political assumptions of its actors.

This should not be understood as an attempt to ‘justify’ or condone last August’s events, but rather, to place them in a national and social context.  Indeed, the perspective offered by Socialism and/or Barbarism – that riots are neither fair nor unfair, good nor bad; rather, they are an inevitability, a reality under capitalism – seems, to me, to be a pretty accurate analysis. Instead of moralising therefore, we should try to understand the significance of threats to (the inherently pro-ruling class) notion of public order, and the possibilities therein.  Events in Egypt in January last year, for example, have – and will continue to – reverberate far beyond the immediate removal of Mubarak, as they have imbued in the Egyptian – and wider Arabic, even global – working class the potential of popular revolt as a force for achieving their material interests.  Similarly, the UK riots showed us the fallibility of a ruling class that was struggling to control its own citizens, highlighting the disruption of the everyday as a more effective route towards social change than the condescending public performance of political activism.

It is for this reason that in 2012, I hope for the victory of the real movement for the propagation of our material interests over the imitation of action inherent in political lobbying and evangelistic self-promotion.  As long as the activist continues to try to steer and influence political discourse from above, then it seems probable that this real movement will almost certainly have to surface from outside of the entrenched activist community, and therefore be drenched in the contradictions inherent within our own existences.  I can only hope that those revolutionaries who are genuinely interested in social change choose re-immersion within their class over the hobbyism of subcultural high jinx, and insodoing, appeal to immediate concerns and the desire for self-betterment in the arenas of everyday life (work, housing, education, etc), over a bitpart role in the simulacra of the manipulated, elitist, faux-populist political discourse (austerity).  The tendency should be towards the dismantlement of the walls that the activist constructs around him/herself, becoming an active participant in the process of his/her class’ social change, rather than the volunteer, the charitable donor, the Ubermensch, the Messiah, the “external detonator”.

I also hope that in 2012 we being to truly envisage the working class as the agent of its own change, using direct action, self-organisation and solidarity in their – our – own interests, not because of prior political conviction or contact with an abstracted political campaign, but because of intuition and common sense.  Social unrest should be understood as apertures – gateways towards another world – platforms upon which we should climb, while political movements which concern themselves with the grandiose and the abstract should be disregarded. That is when I believe we will start to gain relevance as part of an authentic movement for working class control against capital.

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Time to Re-Occupy Our Own Lives

Even forgetting the problems with the 99% mantra that this banner exposes, the apparent tolerance of her - and, by extension, her wealth and privilege - at #OWS demonstrates de-politicisation at its height.

As the “Occupy” fad goes global, I find it hard to combat my cynicism. And yes, I have observed how it’s affected the bourgeois political discourse on the recession and subsequent austerity package, and indeed I have listened, once again, to the latest parade of millenarian post-modern declarations of how it represents a “new” this and a “new” that, with the implicit rejection therein of all the lessons learnt from centuries of popular political struggle (and isn’t it ironic how talk of “new politics” is actually an exercise in de-politicisation that is as old as the hills?), yet I still feel cynical.

Now, as I see you rolling your eyes at the back there, let me clarify: it’s not the comfortable or pleasant sort of cynicism that prefigures inactivity; rather, it is a bitter sense of frustration at the conscious decision of hundreds (?) of thousands of (predominantly young) people to uproot themselves from their own homes and camp within the cracking, plate-glass bowl of finance capitalism, far away from the very real conflicts that the individual – or the decentralised group of individuals – undertakes against capital on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, none of the discussions and statements I’ve seen emerge from the various Occupys (with the possible exception of Occupy Oakland) communicate to me as an individual about my personal problems.  When I overheard one friend ask another if he’d been down to St Pauls recently, his quipped riposte rather struck me: “I do pay rent y’know!” It was a flippant comment, but one which neatly serves to make my next point.   After all, I do have a room – with a bed, furniture and so on in it – but I only manage to retain it thanks to the sweat of my brow (my rent and bills accounts for approximately half of my monthly pay cheque), and I am loath to waste that in order to withstand the cold, the discomfort and the insecurity of an open air camp.  More fundamentally though, I can’t agree with them, and neither can I empathise with them on a human level, since – in this age in which I flip-flop from one crap job to another – I struggle to think of a more consistently undermining and undignifying relationship than the one I have with my landlady.

Those of us who are private tenants are living in a misanthrope’s wet dream; a sort of Wild West in which landlords are the biggest names in town: the gun-toting cowboys kicking open the swing doors of our measly, damp flats or terraced houses, fully aware that the diktats of the housing market, the recession and – more than anything else – the crushing isolation of residency in London in 2011 will, more often than not, trump even the most fundamental of tenants’ rights.  We are almost powerless against their assaults on multiple fronts: rent hikes, illegal or unjust conditions on our tenancies, illegal and unjust intrusions into our homes and lives, deposit thefts – the list is almost endless.  And these tales of landlord abuse are not exceptional: it is a unifying feature amongst friends and family, regardless of background and political perspective.

Private tenancies maybe the Wild West but there's no Clint Eastwood to save us

Personally, I seem to have spent the majority of the second half of 2011 in the laborious and exasperating business of room-hunting.   My last long-term contract expired at the end of July and, after a brief stay of execution round the better half’s (she’s not ready for me as a room mate, would you believe it?), I became bored of the interminable internet searches, the wild goose chases to the darkest corners of Deptford, and the toe-curlingly awkward smalltalk with prospective housemates in a sort of mock job interview for a new faux-friend, and I settled on the first house which, rather than – as they say – ticking all my boxes, merely didn’t place an X in either of them.  Now, just seven weeks after completing the exhausting and draining process of moving in, I find myself once again scrawling Gumtree for something that – again – doesn’t look shit.  Except now, my understanding of an ‘acceptable’ place has been considerably tightened.

Maybe I should have seen the signs: my landlady’s cold aversion of eye contact with my prospective housemates when I came to see the room, her subsequent threat to remove the room off me when I mistyped her card digits on my deposit down payment, and then the torrent of abuse my tragically docile Scottish housemate received for the supposed infraction (using an unoccupied room) of someone else.  Within an hour of her departure, and as a direct result of our landlady’s tantrum, my housemates were screaming at each other in the kitchen, a row which even entered my own room at one point.  Another housemate later called her to complain about smoke emanating from my room, a mere 20 minutes after informing me that smoking in our rooms was fine.  Bear in mind, dear reader, all this happened within the first night of my arrival!

"Home Improvement". Trust me, it's much less funny when it happens in real life.

As days turned into weeks and then months, I rapidly became exposed to the rampantly arrogant existentialism of contemporary houseshares between strangers.  For my housemates, hell truly is other people.  Living in single-person tenancy alongside strangers causes a sort of micro level cabin fever, which manifests itself in an irrational, paranoid mistrust of your immediate neighbours. Conversation is weak and insincere, mostly limited to enquiries as to the health of the internet connection, or – worse – chance kitchen encounters which often encompass passive aggressive commentaries on specks of dirt or food on work surfaces, the floor or – one time – the sink.  Shared space is heavily contested, with bitchy notes on the bathroom door and contemptuous sighs around the electricity and gas meters.  Ultimately, everyone much prefers the meagre comforts of their own bedrooms, leaving the corridors resembling a cheap hotel in their sad anonymity, while our rooms look like storage spaces for our lives, a sort of train station waiting room piled high with opened suitcases, papers and other such signifiers of temporality.

However, in case there is any doubt, I don’t mean to merely deride some selfish housemates (after all, such an asinine complaint would scarcely merit mention…right?).  Rather, I write this because following an altercation with my landlady and her husband, I realised that the mutual disdain and resentment between us tenants was as much a product of their hostility as anything else.  For my landlady, the every action of the five tenants is an imposition: I have been chastised for using the pots and pans, threatened for going to the ‘wrong’ bathroom, and insulted for owning a bike.  Repairing my blinds was equated to martyrdom, while demanding notice of their intentions to ‘visit’ (as they do regularly on Sundays, usually to try their hand at Tim Allen-esque DIY ventures – cf: the kitchen shelf that lasted a grand total of four days before crashing down in the dead of night) was seen as beyond the pale, and grounds for my eviction.

I came to understand how property ownership and social conservatism are natural bedfellows, and how the urge to protect one’s property leads to attempts to restrict any sort of activity therein, thereby inevitably creating direct conflict with those semi-permanently sheltered inside.  However, conversely, there are possibilities for betterment here: collective discussion between housemates could lead to a decision to confront the couple over their abuses with the threat of further action should our demands be disrespected.  More longterm, we could contact other tenants with the same proprietor or estate agent, or even on our same street, and we could share information and tips, or even present a united front against the cowboys.  We could organise a mass rent strike in order against above-inflation rate hikes, and start to dictate our own terms of engagement with the private property sector.

Yet, this potential was never realised, in my case at least – my landlady’s campaign of intimidation and harassment instead being internalised by the tenants and regurgitated as fear and self-absorption, creating an ugly atmosphere of suspicion and disregard in the process.  As a result, the aching discomfort I feel in my house is matched only by my desperate sense of impotence.

The Occupy LSX camp has chosen high profile media spectacle over concrete organising

If we are to accept the profile of an Occupy LSX-er (or, indeed, those who passively or actively support it) as an educated, internet -savvy twenty- or thirty-somethings, then their wilful desertion of their own homes (which are, probably in their majority, private rents within Greater London) indicates a continuation of the worrying trend within political “activism” which sees politics and economics as things which happen externally to the mundane rhythm of everyday life (in a bank, a financial sector, or a summit meeting), rather than the two shards of broken glass through which our every experience is refracted.  The notion of the Occupiers leaving behind all the unhappiness and indignity of their ‘own’ rooms as a metaphor for them abandoning the project of improving their own lives is so strong that it goes beyond the figurative.  And indeed, as things stand, Occupy can be compared to a music festival, or a gap yah gallivant, in its cocksure rejection of ‘normality’ (the crushing alienation of wage labour, the diminishing returns it grants us and, increasingly, the atomised habitation of a glorified washing machine) in favour of the romantic, the grand, the spectacular.  It is only when talk of re-occupying our own existences, in all their tedious, fragmented glory, becomes as popular as talk of occupying a town square that we will start to see the quantum shifts in social power for which we so lust.