Daily Archives: January 12, 2011

The State and Alliances – Network X in (soft) focus

I’ve been trying to use my latest spell of un(der)employment more productively than previous periods and have been pleasantly surprised that I’ve been successfully able to factor in more reading time to counter the pervasive influence of the internet. Today I’ve finally gotten around to reading “Space for Movement: Reflections from Bolivia” which came out in July 2010.

This smallish (100ish pages) book aims to ask difficult questions about climate justice and the relationship between social movements and the state. The authors attended the conference in Bolivia and used this time to host workshops, learn from other participants and also sit down to do some interviews with participants. The publication these experiences was translated into aimed to focus on two major questions, climate justice and social movement/state relationships. Here in the UK the student struggles have opened up a new moment in political time, a moment whose potentiality is equal parts exciting and worrying, this has pushed questions of climate justice (rightly or wrongly) into the political background and as such this post won’t reflect on the discussions on Climate Justice contained within the book. However, the other key theme of the book, the relationship between social movements and between these movements and the state. In Bolivia where President Evo Morales is supported by large, organised social movements these questions take on a different form to here in the UK where radical social movements are generally more hostile to the state form. Whilst publications such as Turbulence supported attempts at horizontalism in Cochabamba, others were more critical the thorny issue of organisation and alliance which occurs frequently in periods of social struggle and/or when differing political traditions attempt to form alliances.

Here in the UK the question of state alliance/antagonism, particularly in relation to the cuts is difficult. Many of the issues through which anti-cuts politics will be articulated implicitly seek to strengthen state functions. Fights to save the NHS, improve state welfare and benefits and fight tax dodgers all strengthen (in some way) portions of the state. However the state is multi-faceted and we must distinguish between portions of the state which are, in some ways, socialised forms of welfare (the NHS) and those which are clearly not such as the ministry of defence and the Bank of England. Whilst the difficulties of state/social movement interaction may appear simpler here in the UK when compared to Bolivia on second glance this appears to not be the case. As counter-intuitive as it sounds anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist movements may be drawn be drawn onto ground in which defending state institutions is necessary. An adherence to a pure, rigid anti-statism which doesn’t take into account the ways in which the state both enables and controls our lives will might see our politics reduced to the wayside. This is an interesting idea which I’m only just starting to think about (nice one Andy) but it’s conclusions have important repercussions for those of us involved in organising against the cuts.

Connected to the question of the state is also the question of other forms of political alliances How can our struggles resonate with others? In which ways will the cracks of social struggle spread, and how can we influence them? The metaphors for social change, of resonance, cracks, movement and connectivity, attempt to capture the unpredictable nature of social change. However, whatever our view of social change it is clear we are unlikely to have much effect on society in our small groups alone. Difficult questions become apparent though, when we try and move beyond our political groups, scenes and traditions and engage meaningfully with often vastly differing groups. Aiming to do this without being patronising or authoritarian or ineffective is a very difficult process at whatever scale of organisation we are concerned with. There have been some interesting discussions over at the Really Open University about this, particularly in the context of the Leeds University Occupation.

The nature of connecting groups, politics and ways of doing is clearly a messy, imprecise business. As I’ve mentioned here before, especially in relation to popular education, we can’t seek political purity. Politics is a messy business and I’m afraid political purity will only earn us credibility within our own ghettos. The redundancy of purity/adherence to ideology is only multiplied the further we move beyond our existing scene. Whilst this is, hopefully obviously, not a call to work with absolutely everybody (after all the far right are also against “global capitalism” no?) it is a suggestion that we look carefully for those with which we seek affinity. To, once again, borrow from perma-culture lingo we need to look for those potential edge spaces where two different sets of processes meet and where the possibility to produce a third space exists. This third space might not be useful, or even possible but therein lies the challenge to identify where experimentation might be useful. What we might call “movement building” requires all parties to change. Wanting to build movements, or spread cracks without being prepared to have ones politics challenged and changed is naïve at best and authoritarian at worst. However, whilst we must avoid political purity (our ghetto is cooler/more effective/ more correct than yours, we’ll stick to our tree camp/reading group/international network and you stick to yours) we also need to avoid the “activist missionary mindset” (our ghetto has lots to offer to people, lets go spread the word on direct action/consensus/Rocket Stoves to the unenlightened general populace). My housemate tells me that as post-modern as this sounds, an openness to change is also an integral part of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. A fact which many of todays socialists would do well to take on board.

Where could these alliances be formed? We’ve already seen the extent of the anger of young people seeing the last of the promises of universal education being pulled away from them. The energy, enthusiasm and rage has been an encouragement to many all over the UK and beyond. Many of these people are not in university, a place where lots of people here in the UK learn their politics and as such have approached the whole process of “doing politics” in a different way. This has caused conflicts at times with older students and/or activists with fixed ideas of what certain types of politics “the march/the occupation” should look like. There has been some great reflection over at the Really Open University about their experiences with privilege over in Leeds. In order to work together, rather than control, young people there are several challenges. The young people involved are a diverse bunch from diverse backgrounds. Most of them are unfamiliar and/or critical of much of the boring politics of the previous decade or so. It’s clear that they, quite rightly, don’t respond well to long political sermons or long, abstract political treatises. Our language and practices will need to adapt to accommodate new alliances. There have also been cases of violence directed against other members of protests, whilst there is always the potential of things like this happening we need to start thinking about how we can mitigate this as safely as possible. How can we help to foster a greater sense of solidarity in demonstrations? I’m sure there are lots of other potential groups and spaces we could interact with (state workers, benefit claimants etc.).

Network X

The question of alliances, what constitutes movements and the activist as specialist have all been key questions that have been raised again in the post-Millbank context. This weekend will see the Network X gathering here in Manchester. This will see two days of discussions, workshops, plenaries and the random moments of inspiration, frustration and (hopefully useful) confusion which are all part and parcel of large scale political gatherings. Members of various differing political prescriptions as well as many inspired by recent struggles will attempt to engage and discuss ways of moving forward be this as a network of networks, or as a newly formed organisation in its own right. For those of you unfamiliar with Network X, head over to here to see the call out and have a peak at the proposed agenda etc. It looks like lots of people are planning on heading up to Manchester for this one. There is clearly a desire from many to come together to share experiences and/or organise.

New articles, discussion pieces and commentaries (such as this one) are appearing at a rapid pace. Here are two that deserve reading:

  • The Commune have posted an interesting discussion piece on their website which seeks to analyse the tradition out of which this event has emerged. They proceed to call for a movement beyond endless “actions”, one which is outward focused, and class based issues with tenant claimants groups being one suggestion for how these principles may be put into practice.
  • Although not directly related to the gathering, Django from Libcom has written a great, equally constructive, analysis of the UK Uncut protests which can be found here. With UK Uncut being one of the more prominent of the “anti-cuts” groups and the fact that they are hosting one of the workshops this article deserves to be spread far and wide.

As for my hopes for the event, well I guess in a round about way I’ve already mentioned (again) the importance of making alliances with others, not disguising preaching as outreach. In such an exciting time we need to make sure we are open to change and that our movements… move. The recent protests have created a genuinely interesting political space and it’s important that we take a step forward into this uncertainty rather than instinctively moving back towards people’s kitchens, spectacular direct action and “movement repertoires” which we are familiar with. We need to start thinking beyond activism as usual, hopefully network X will be a space for these difficult discussions to begin taking place. Whilst we can’t know or control the outcomes of the weekend, we can hope that we begin to foster a politics which is open to change. If our politics have so far been in the background (at best) of these recent struggles, a return to previous modes of organising is unlikely to help generalise these struggles.