December 13, 2010

Winter of Discontent 2.0: Notes on a month of militancy


9.45 PM. Day X, November 24th. I'm at Charing Cross, grabbing my first food of the day. Actually, it's not particularly abnormal for me to be eating for the first time this late in the evening; but usually it's because of overwork, not a consequence of my being 'contained' by the police for eight hours. Two protestors arrive, coming down from the day's anger, frustration and exhilaration. I catch their eye and one of them asks me if I will be joining them next week. I say, yes, tell them that I've been kettled in Whitehall, only just got out. They say they were kettled twice. One of them has a V for Vendetta mask pulled up off his face. The police held him for a while but had to release him because of lack of evidence. (Later, one of my students at UEL will tell me a similar story - arrested by the cops on the grounds that he was wearing a red tracksuit top, the same as someone who supposedly set fire to a litter bin, held for a while, his clothes and mobile phone seized, bailed until April - obviously one of many intimidation tactics the police were trying on that day.) They show no surprise, no self-pity or hyperbolic self-dramatization, just a resolute sense of what needs to be done, and a delight in doing it. I enjoyed it, looking forward to next week...

I ask one of them what he does. He says his frend is already to college; he will be going next year. But it's not just about that ..... It wasn't just about him; it wasn't just about tuition fees, or EMA ...

It's not just about that ...

We are no longer that post-ideological generation

Contrast what the fifteen year old in the video above says with some of the responses from the "liberal" commentariat - those who belong the real "post-ideological generation", if ever there was one. For Deborah Orr, it's business as usual. Resistance to capitalist realism remains futile. "It is sometimes suggested that there is little protest against the cuts, except from students and schoolchildren, because adults are too craven and apathetic to stand up and be counted. The truth is that they are too wise to waste their energy on something so silly. Protesting against the cuts is like protesting against water's stubborn habit of flowing downwards." Compare also with David Aaronvitch on Newsnight: the avuncular grey vampire body posture, that performance of simultaneous weariness and infinite ease in the world, the jaded fatalism passed off as mature wisdom. Yes, of course, I would have gone on the marches when I was a student, bu f of course I know better now.... It's little different to an argument made by Richard Littlejohn: the protestors will be the next generation of politicians ... As if that's what they want, as if, even if that ended up being true, it would diminish what's happening now...

3.15 PM December 1st. In one of the dream-like transitions that are becoming increasingly common in the new atmosphere, I am sitting in the UEL occupation, when in walks Richard Seymour to give a talk on the recent history of the Tory party. The students at UEL have been holding Room 101 for a week., since Day X2. Things have changed rapidly in the space of those seven days; they are changing all the time. There are now banners draped all over the central concourse of UEL's Ballardian Docklands campus. Elsewhere, occupations are sprouting everywhere, like unexpected wildflowers.

The only thing I can compare the current situation with is emerging from a state of deep depression. There's the rush that you get simply from not being depressed any more --- the occasional lurching anxieties, a sense of how precarious it all seems (don't drag me back into nothing) --- and yet not only is it maintaining itself, it's proliferating, intensifying, feeding on itself --- it's impossible, but it's happening --- the reality programme resetting itself ---

David Cameron's response is both patronising and misjudged. The students should understand what they are protesting against before they protest. Yet it's clearly Cameron who doesn't have a handle on the current situation (who does?). As Richard argued in his talk at the UEL occupation, these flabby toffs don't have the experience, the strategic intelligence or the ideological consistency to win a bitter fight. Cameron was a Tory leader constructed in, and geared up for, the pre-2008 "consensus of indifference" (Baudrillard) - he didn't expect a struggle, certainly not with those who intend to win. What Cameron doesn't grasp, doesn't want to grasp, is the way that the fees are only the immediate cause of the new militancy. What has been provoked is a generalised discontent with nothing less than capitalist realism itself.

5.30 PM, December 2nd. Neoliberalism isn't working I've been stuck on Dartford station for ninety minutes. No trains moving in either direction. No-one knows where the trains are, or if they will be able to travel any further even if they arrive. One train tried to head further south, but it only got a hundred yards out of the station before having to stop. Official communication is minimal, but only has the status of rumour any way. The railway workers, bereft of reliable information, tell you one thing, then find it immediately contradicted by developments. Are the buses running? Who can say? ...

I strike up conversation with someone who happens to be heading to my destination. The usual complaints and bemusement. Why does everything in the UK have to be so crappy?. He's a casual worker, worried that his Christmas will be ruined if this weather keeps up. If he doesn't go to work, he doesn't get paid, and he already had to have a week off for flu.

Frail hopes of a train receding, we consider options - we're less than ten miles from where we want to be, but we could end up having to stay in a hotel. Then he gets a phone call; a friend will pick him up, and he can give me a lift. As we stand shivering and drinking coffee from the station cafe bar, the news comes over the radio. Russia to get the 2018 World Cup. It feels as if the winter closing in around Cameron. Neoliberalism isn't working. No joy for Cameron and the other members of the ruling class Holy Trinity - the Prince and David Beckham, the poster boy for New Labour-era celebrity soccer. The grimly smirking Putin arrives last minute to claim the prize. All the boom gloss is falling away, and England feels shoddier and shabbier than it ever did in the 70s.

Saturday December 4th. I'm following the news of the UK Uncut protests on Twitter. In the cold of the kettle on Day X1, it occurred to me that the best place to be kettle would be in a shopping mall, where the containment tactics would massively inconvenience capital. But the movement is well ahead of me .... Flash mobs invade a number of Top Shop stores across the country. IT is right about the crucial significance of this kind of intervention, which "indicates, among other things, an absolute fatigue with the corporate face of city centres." And also a fatigue with the mandarin-celebrity status of figures like Green. Discontent with celebrity-wealth culture has long been like an indelible shadow that no amount of digital manipulation could quite eradicate, but, until recently, the persistent sense that something is missing amidst all this conspicuous consumption and listless hedonism has had no outlet or agent.


The image above is so evocative because it suddenly suggests an outside, an effective interruption of the blank trance you can see in the model's abstracted eyes, which reflect our own ...

Day X3, December 9th. There's long been a discrepancy between culture and the post-crash situation. It's now evident that the New Fifties are over - the scenery still survives, but you can push your fingers through it. Paul Mason talks of a "dubstep rebellion", and, although it would be churlish to complain about Mason's report, given that he was one of the very few mainstream media commentators to properly engage with the movement, Dan Hancox is surely right: it wasn't dubstep that was being played last Thursday but "rnb, bashment, road rap, american hiphop and - albeit only once or twice - grime". What's striking here is the lack of any political content, or even - "Pow" excepted - much anger in the music that was played. What we can hear exemplified, in fact, is the disengagement from politics that Jeremy Gilbert has persuasively argued was typical of the 90s hardcore continuum: "given the social and political radicalism characterising most of their immediate antecedents (acid house, with its origins in the black gay clubs of Chicago; hip-hop, only recently having left its 'golden age' of political consciousness; reggae, with its history of anti-capitalism and anti-racism), as well as the traditional radicalism of their core constituency - the multiracial poor of urban London - the music scenes of the 'nuum' were notable for their detachment from any kind of politics, their embrace of competitive entrepreneurial values, and their defence of masculinist and heterosexist norms which other dance cultures were busily and visibly deconstructing at just that moment." What we've grown accustomed to is a split between leftist political commitments and the most vibrant, experimental dance musics. No doubt this is an aspect of capitalist realism, and it's no accident that I referred to Simon's 1996 piece on hardstep in Capitalist Realism. In fact, it might well have been the case that the central concept of the book was triggered by Simon's commentary on "keeping it real" there:

    In hiphop, ‘real’ has two meanings. First, it means authentic, uncompromised music that refuses to sell out to the music industry and soften its message for crossover. ‘Real’ also signifies that the music reflects a ‘reality’ constituted by late capitalist economic instability, institutionalised racism, and increased surveillance and harassment of youth by the police. ‘Real’ means the death of the social: it means corporations who respond to increased profits not by raising pay or improving benefits but by what the Americans call downsizing (the laying-off the permanent workforce in order to create a floating employment pool of part-time and freelance workers without benefits or job security).

    ‘Real’ is a neo-Medieval scenario; you could compare downsizing to enclosure, where the aristocracy threw the peasants off the land and reduced them to a vagabond underclass. Like gangsta rap, Jungle reflects a Medieval paranoiascape of robber barons, pirate corporations, conspiracies and covert operations. Hence the popularity as a source of samples and song titles of martial arts films and gangsta movies like The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, whose universe revolves around concepts of righteous violence and blood-honour that predate the liberal, social-democratic era.

    ... The pervasive sense of slipping into a new Dark Age, of an insidious breakdown of the social contract, generates anxieties that are repressed but resurface in unlikely ways and places. Resistance doesn’t necessarily take the ‘logical’ form of collective activism (unions, left-wing politics); it can be so distorted and imaginatively impoverished by the conditions of capitalism itself, that it express itself as, say, the proto-fascist, anti-corporate nostalgia of America’s right-wing militias, or as a sort of hyper-individualistic survivalism.
    In hiphop and, increasingly, Jungle, the response is a ‘realism’ that accepts a socially-constructed reality as natural. To ‘get real’ is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or a loser, and where most will be losers. There’s a cold rage seething in Jungle, but it’s expressed within the terms of an anti-capitalist yet non-socialist politics, and expressed defensively: as a determination that the underground will not be co-opted by the mainstream.

Demo Spectres.htm

At DayX1 I heard the predictable "Killing In The Name" and the even more predictable "Sound Of The Police", alongside The Beatles, Madness, and - depressingly - The Libertines --- and, most jarringly, "Another Brick In The Wall" (hearing "we don't need no education" as we shuffled out of the kettle made for a suitably incongruous experience).

But this video that Jeremy shot on Thursday suggests a possible convergence between post-nuum musics and politics. It is my belief that the UK music culture of the next decade will emerge from the stew of sound and affect in the kettles these past few weeks. Paul Mason dismissed the idea that the demo was exclusively populated by "Lacan-reading hipsters from Spitalfields" - but of course (we) Lacan-reading hipsters were also there, alongside the "bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington". In other words, this brought together working class culture and bohemia in something like the same way that art schools - so crucial to UK pop-art culture since the 50s - used to. But - with very good reasons from its own point of view - neoliberal policy has been hostile to this proletarian-bohemian cultural circuit. While Further Education and the new universities have precisely tried to make theory such as Lacan available to the working class - while also trying to engage with everything vibrant coming out of working class culture - the policy has been to re-cement rigid class and cultural distinctions: philosophy for the bourgeoisie; "vocational" courses for the masses.

Siobhan captures very well the frustrations we encountered on Day X3. Trying to be part of a crowd without being kettled proves all but impossible. The cops' ontology of the crowd is at least interesting: to enter the crowd is to be responsible for anything that any member of the crowd does. You wouldn't have been hurt if you weren't there. (One is struck by the way that this is the complete opposite of the "corporate irresponsibility" that applies to the cops themselves.) Dominic notes the "underlying identification of disorder with uncleanliness, an identification which is transferred onto the disorderly themselves, supports the cop's self-image as a preserver of public moral health, keeping the clean and decent citizen separate from the filthy and abject underside of society." (All of which is strikingly confirmed by these tweets. It's Foucault 101.

    The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of the evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omnipresent and omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him. Against the plague, which is a mixture, discipline brings into play its power, which is one of analysis. A whole literary fiction of the festival grew up around the plague: suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together without respect, individuals unmasked, abandoning their statutory identity and the figure under which they had been recognized, allowing a quite different truth to appear. But there was also a political dream of the plague, which was exactly its reverse: not the collective festival, 'but strict divisions; not laws transgressed, but the penetration of regulation into even the smallest details of everyday life through the mediation of the complete hierarchy that assured the capillary functioning of power; not masks that were put on and taken off, but the assignment to each individual of his 'true' name, his 'true' place, his 'true' body, his 'true' disease. The plague as a form, at once real and imaginary, of disorder had as its medical and political correlative discipline. Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of 'contagions', of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.
I was at Hillsborough, and I've seen what can happen when the police treat people as an undifferentiated mass, too subhuman to be disciplined. At these protests, the police have been the agents of negative solidarity: why should we pay for those students? It's bad for all of us, why can't they accept it like the rest of us do? By now, it's clear how prophetic Alex's post on "post-Fordist plasticity and negative solidarity" has become, since the movement - the alternative to negative solidarity - has assumed exactly the (plastic) form that Alex called for:
    Unpicking negative solidarity, which is clearly an internalisation of the conditions of flexibility and atomised ‘homo economicus’ individualism necessary for the embedding of Neoliberal post-Fordism, requires the constructing of a new form of solidarity, a form of solidarity adequately configured to effectively oppose the chief machines of Neoliberal praxis: finance. This new form of solidarity must be capable of fluidity and rapid response, able to exploit weaknesses within systems and structures opportunistically and with a global purview, one which crucially can mirror the rapidity and fluidity of international finance. This is solidarity as plasticity, rather than the static brick-like form of Fordist labour solidarity, capable of flowing and shifting, yes, but also of fixing into position and assuming a hardened form where necessary. This form of solidarity must be inclusive of the new protest and occupation movements which have emerged in recent years, which although they have been largely ineffectual to date, have certainly led to new and interesting configurations of interest groups. What has been lacking however are the necessary cybernetic coordination systems to effectively enable these disparate and fragmentary groups to achieve the status of a counter-hegemonic power, a “class” power in the broadest sense of the term, one which is capable of counter-balancing effectively the rapacious if discredited centres of neoliberalism. Indeed it is this which must be formulated as the political conclusion of theories of post-Fordisation, rather than any kind of fantastical and strictly imaginary political subject such as the multitude. Only when there is an effective counterbalancing power can new theoretical socio-economic post-capitalist forms be properly disseminated, and successfully gain purchase.

Post-Fordist plasticity is also in play in the other major political story of the day (Mail headline on Thursday: Now It's Cyber War): Assange and WikiLeaks. Now is not the time to go into this in any depth, but surely what we can see here - and something which those who say that the leaks only tell us what we already know have not grapsed - is a new level of symbolic crisis. The authoritarian big Other has always relied upon maintaining a clear difference between off-the-record utterances and official proclamations, but it is precisely this distinction which WikiLeaks (and its successors) threaten to abolish.

On the train home, I read Clegg denouncing "student dreamers" on the front page of the Standard. "I would feel ashamed if I didn't deal with the way that the world is, not simply dream of the way the world I would like it to be": capitalist realsim in a nutshell. (An unfortunate echo of Bobby Kennedy's famous slogan: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” See how, under pressure from capitalist realism, the rhetoric of mainstream liberalism has inverted.)

From Foucault 101 to Barthes 101. The coverage of the demo on the BBC news channel is a masterclass in the technique that Barthes called anchorage. What we actually see are mounted police horse charges and some property damage; what we hear about - as bravely narrated by a helmeted reporter from behind the police lines - is the "violence" of the student protestors. (It's of course not accidental that Paul Mason's report came from inside the kettle.) One of the most notable features of the media coverage since Day X has been the persistent equilvalence it has made between violence and property damage. Having narrowly avoided two kettles, I hardly see any violence or property damage. The violence I do see is perpetrated by the police, as a line of baton-swinging cops impose a kettle on protestors standing on Whitehall. I only learn about Alfie Meadows later, and the disjunction between the reality of the demo and its media reresentation becomes even more maddening, to the point where I can hardly bear to watch the news coverage any more. While a young student has a brain operation, the media are fixated on a cosmetic "attack" on the heir to the throne's car. The effects of all this are ambiguous, but it's now clear that the UK hasn't been as visibly divided as this since the Miners' Strike.

In the afternoon of Day X1, streaming from Trafalgar Square up towards Whitehall, we didn't know where we were going or who, if anyone, was leading us. A month later, the situation feels the same. We've broken out of the end of history onto terra incognita. What's certain is that the old world is disintegrating, and soon it will not be possible to even pretend that we can return to it.

Posted by mark at December 13, 2010 05:32 PM | TrackBack