Category Archives: Articles
Review Article: Intern Nation, Ross Perlin, 2011.
It is clear that the economy has changed dramatically since the 1960s. “Flexibility,” “creativity” and “entrepreneurship” are very much the buzzwords of the form of neoliberal capitalism that have replaced the secure, unionized and relatively well-paid work which parts of the Global North enjoyed in the 1960s. However, behind the language of flexibility and personal fulfillment used by the gurus of the new economy the real experience for most of us is increasing precariousness, falling real wages and the erosion of the welfare state. Ross Perlin’s first book seeks to uncover and politicize one of the key actors in our new economic landscape: the intern. In “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy” Perlin, a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China and former intern, examines the economic role of the internship industry and the raft of academic institutions, government bodies, corporations, non-profits and internship brokers responsible for creating and maintaining the current interning conditions.
Why is a book on internships important? Isn’t it just paid workers who have the power in our economy? The role of interns to the global economy is, as of yet, understudied, but likely to be vast. Perlin estimates that between 1 and 2 million people annually take internships in American organizations alone, saving firms an estimated $2 billion. Many firms have factored scores of unpaid interns into their business plans. The impacts of an intern wide general strike could be devastating. Disney alone has employed 50,000 interns via its college program, with many working unskilled jobs at Disney World, over the past 30 years. With the destruction of the negotiation strength of many unions, these young interns are being exploited whilst simultaneously having negative effects on the security of many paid staff. With the benefits many organizations reap from the annual hordes of internship-seeking young people it is unsurprising that entry level jobs are disappearing, in turn making internships even more vital. In some careers working for free as an intern is a vital step towards ever finding paid work. For those unable to support themselves through a stint of unpaid work, many careers will be permanently inaccessible. This is one of the first critical books on the intern explosion and is an important read for labor organizers, young people in or considering internships and those of us on the Left in general. Perlin’s book is, ultimately, an impassioned argument for reclaiming the lost rights and privileges of workers, and in the author’s own words, a “step towards sanity and towards justice.” We need to begin recognizing that interns are workers and should be supported and remunerated for the work that they do.
Perlin is quick to explain that being an intern today can entail a variety of different things, from paid and structured programs to non-paid, menial and draining work for little if any reward. These are offered by all forms of institutions from small businesses to non-profits, government bodies to global corporations and the experiences they offer vary between them. Indeed the term intern is a slippery one to define, both academically and legally. The term is traced back to its origins in the United States where the practice of interning (read confining) medical students within an institution for 1 – 2 years before becoming fully fledged doctors was its first use before being adopted by state and municipal levels of the government as a fast track form of recruitment. However it wasn’t until the 1960s when the practice truly expanded into other sectors, seeing a true explosion from the 1990s. This trajectory is likely to be mirrored in most parts of the Global North. For Perlin, the rise of the intern is related to changes in the functioning of the economy and he links his history of internships to The New Spirit of Capitalism as articulated by sociologists Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski. Internships are, for Perlin, the outcome of changing forms of work combined with concerted attacks on the wages and conditions previously won by workers. The rise of unpaid forms of work, and young people willing to take them, are connected to the increasing “flexibility” required by workers within neo-liberal capitalism. Exploitative, non-educational, menial and unpaid internships are being developed and facilitated by a nexus of non-business actors. Perlin points out the integral role played by universities selling cheap academic credit, criticizes the internship economy in Washington D.C. and meets several firms in the burgeoning intern brokerage industry.
This exploitation is justified in terms of the supposed educational experiences which those taking part will garner. “Intern Nation” is packed with interviews of current and former interns that explain that this often amounts to thankless, menial tasks such as letter stuffing, coffee making and photocopying. Interns at Disneyland can expect to work in the gift shop, the onsite hotel or the bathroom facilities as part of their internship. Whilst once these tasks would have been paid, now they are offered as exciting, unpaid educational opportunities supported by academic institutions with scores of graduates and students, desperate for experience, clamoring to sign up. The current state of interning is defended academically by a whole host of educational experts promoting “experiential learning” and “situated learning” whilst many campuses in the U.S. have made attending at least one internship mandatory for graduation. The blurring of the line between education and employment in the economy is symptomatic of the raising of tuition fees in many countries and the active development of the current, exploitative internship model by educational institutions.
As the lines between students and unwaged workers blur, perhaps interns can take hope from the struggles of students across the world from the U.K. to Chile, Greece to the United States who have occupied, demonstrated and even rioted to challenge the role which education is currently assigned in our society. The reduction of education to preparation for employment paves the way for the exploitative internships we see today. These actions have shown that the processes of neoliberalism which began in the 1960s and are being redoubled in the face of systemic crisis can be challenged, and that other ways of running our society can come into being. Perlin shows that slowly the amount of lawsuits against exploitative employers is rising as interns realize their rights and begin to fight for them. In the U.K. interns are outing those offering unpaid “internships” to replace paid work and groups such as the Carrot Workers Collective seek to continue building bridges between students (future interns) and interns (ex and future students). It is telling that labor unions are barely discussed in this book. Labor unions will have to alter their understanding of their role and their membership criteria in order to accommodate and support the struggles of this generation of exploited interns. Indeed it seems clear that the struggle over the rights and conditions of interns is a modern form of labor struggles which in previous ages secured many workers the guarantee of a better life.
Perlin’s book is an interesting and well researched exploration of an under-exposed phenomenon. Whilst focused on the United States its findings and conclusions are universal. Jam packed with shocking statistics and revealing interviews with interns and those that employ and coordinate them, it provides an inside view into the topic and a welcome break from the hordes of self-help books proclaiming the value of an unpaid internship. As we begin to look at the fundamentals of our society the ways in which our young people are integrated, unpaid, into the economy must be politicized and challenged. Hopefully, the origins of resistance to exploitative internships can be seen emerging; now we must find ways to stimulate and support these.
This article was originally written for Left Eye on books and was published on 11/10/11.
Interesting article over at opendemocracy from a fairly liberal writer. Takis Pappas, a politics professor, makes the case that the crisis is as much political as economic. The country is moving towards an ungovernable state with
- Fairly generalised social unrest and disobedience.
- A weak and squabbling government with barely any mandate.
- A growing counter-power within parliament comprised of Leftist parties. I’m far more sceptical of this one.
Pappas points to the lack of law enforcement capacity as a key weakness of this government. It’s clear that when the economy is in crisis the state must resort to whatever methods necessary to restore order. However, the heavy hand of the Greek police force seems to be struggling to deal with the generalised levels of resistance.
With the likelihood of another financial package being tied to renewed austerity measures we seem to be moving towards an interesting position. If the people can resist the implementation of more cuts and make the state ungovernable then Greece may be forced to default (a partial default appears to be on the cards it seems), this could put the Euro in jeopardy. Would the Greek people be better off with a default? I certainly wouldn’t know how this would pan out and would be interested in seeing whether a default would be a platform around which to campaign on both in Greece and here in the UK. Anyone with a handle on the economical side of this care to help me out?
I’m planning to turn my head towards class composition and strategy ideas in the UK in the next few weeks (I promise to at least try and get something up on here). It’s certainly clear that the Greek model is where many of us are, consciously or not, aiming our sites for. Of course the UK context is very different. We lack the collective memory and organisational structures created in past (70’s) and especially recent (since the 2008 uprising) struggles. Part of our struggle will be to analyse the forms in which resistance is taking in Greece and work out in what ways in could be adapted to the UK context. The danger however, seems to be that we make the situation ungovernable for the tories who are duly replaced by Red Ed and a slicker implementation of the cuts…
So, I’ve been using these few days off of work to indulge in some reading. Top of the pile was Ivor Southwood’s relatively new book Non-Stop Inertia, out on the Zer0 books imprint. Like many of these books it has emerged from a research trajectory Ivor has been pursuing over at the excellent Screened out (http://screened-out.blogspot.com/). The Zer0 imprint started really strong with Capitalist Realism by Mark Fischer (AKA K-Punk) and One Dimensional Woman by Nina Power, both great books with important points to make. However, recently Zer0 has perhaps strayed from their stated aims of producing
‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’
Recent publications dealing with Awkwardness, Class as portrayed in Cinema and modernist architecture perhaps stray from political rootedness and engagement but Southwood’s contribution to the series does not fall prey to this.
Southwood’s topic is the form which work takes in the 21rst century in the Global North. Beginning with his experiences and subtly incorporating post-autonomist theorists to support his claims, Southwood produces a bleak picture of the conditions in which many of us are forced to sell our labour power. Non-Stop Inertia serves as an excellent introduction to the key concepts needed to unpack our current political economy. Notions such as precarious labour, affective or emotional production and the privatisation of unemployment are introduced and explored throughout the text. Indeed, in the context of austerirty measures and predictions of a jobless recovery Southwood’s investigation of the privatisation and management of unemployment is particularly worrying. The book is littered with personal observations and a succession of stimulating yet also challenging ideas.
Southwood deals with a complex and oft tricky topic and simultaneously avoids the dangers of over-simplification (i.e. we all face precarious work in the same way) and hyper-specificity (i.e. there are no universal labour conditions that we can analyse). What emerges is a timely analysis of work in the Global North. It is surprising that this is one of the only notable introductions to precarious theories that I can think of. One can only assume that this stems from a reluctance from much of the non-union/workerist orientated Left to deal with the new conditions of work. Given the context Southwood’s book is an even more important read.
Perhaps the only weakness of the text comes towards the end when Southwood turns towards discussing possible means of resistance. His argument centres around the concept of ‘campness’ of over-exaggerated seriousness and the micro-tactics of individual resistance. Whilst this is no doubt important I am unconvinced that this is enough to challenge the hyper-flexibility of 21rst century capital accumulation. Southwood himself recognises that his suggestions are not likely to yield revolutionary results but (quite rightly I think) are strategies for attempting to limit the alienation felt in the immaterial factories of the UK today. The lack of serious antagonistic strategies, in many ways, highlights the conspicuous silence of those on the Left orientated around workplace struggles and the limited thought put into re-orientating workplace struggle in a period of precarity and austerity. Discussions around strategies for dealing with precarity, however difficult they are right now, are likely to prove useful as resistance to the cuts and austerity broadens beyond set-piece street battles.
Given the oft daunting task of wading through post-autonomist and political economic theory (e.g. The New Spirit of Capitalism) Southwood’s book is a welcome jump off point and a real success for Zer0 books. It delivers an accessible, challenging and altogether human analysis of labour conditions in the Global North and is an important contribution to a discussion much needed within the Left at large.
A new job and the looming Shift Magazine deadline have taken me out of action. Expect some new posts in the near future.
Head over here for the article. Any comments etc. much welcomed.
I’ve noticed that there wasn’t a report up on Indymedia about today’s March Against the Cuts organised by the Manchester Coalition against the Cuts so i thought I’d quickly write some thoughts up. Apologies if it’s not a very to the point report, I thought I’d have a crack at some “gonzo” journalism.
The March Against the Cuts demonstration headed to the town hall and although Granada TV suggest 2000 people were present, I’d probably say about 800 people were there. This demonstration had a clearly different make up from the previous wave of demonstrations that we had seen in Manchester and the UK. As well as the numbers, gone were the FE students, sound systems and “anything but a kettle” mentality and in their place was the much more familiar array of leftist factions, paper sellers and tabarded union members. The different element being represented at this demonstration were community groups and projects about to feel the bite of the impending cuts. The route was clearly marked and those trusted with the loud-hailers clearly prepped to keep the energy up with anti-tory chanting. The police presence was very low with the tabarded stewards keen to keep everything presentable and organised. The demonstration wound its way through the city centre, meeting a mixed response from supportive car honkers, to bemused photo takers and all positions in between. Compared to the unpredictability and open-ness of the previous round of protests this was certainly very different with the whole script already clear before we’d set off. Milan Kundera’s Long March of the Left made a stop off here in Manchester this cool March morning.
However, I shouldn’t be too critical. Although the demo. was missing many of the people that had made the winter demo’s so interesting there were still some interesting development and indicators of difference to the political repetition we were seeing. The many local community groups and organisations feeling the heat of the impending cuts were a new addition. Some of the largest cheers at the end of demo speeches were reserved for successful campaigns such as the one which saved the public baths in Levenshulme and for those currently fighting to save the South Manchester law centre. It was these groups rather than the varied, though invariably dull, speakers from the organised left such as Stop the War and the TUC which were calling for the occupation of the town hall. These groups, once again fighting for a real material issue, might be the next flashpoint of struggle. If we are to engage with these struggles meaningfully we will probably have to move beyond our comfort zones which have been established during the past decade or so of fairly low social struggle. I left the post-demo speeches with many more questions than answers with regards to the character of the anti-cuts struggle.
The lack of students has been illuminated for me by spending some time at the University occupation here in Manchester. The space is lovely and there is an array of events going on, some good and some falling prey to the inevitable invasion of dusty old lefties in a room to gently patronise the only genuinely exciting grass roots social struggle in the past decade or so. However, at a recent strategy meeting one possible reason that many students were no longer involved were clear. At the meeting the organised, experienced leftist groups were keen to argue that the student struggles were over (or at least needed broadening), that this “political” battle must be subsumed to the “economic” battle of the workers. One rather patronising Communist student suggested that I should refer to Lenin before discussing the finer points of financial theory… Indeed it is this return to the “safe” (and vacuous) answer of “building/broadening” the movement and engaging the workers with literature (perhaps another newspaper? 😛 ) which marks the return to business as usual and the resultant decline of broader interest. Many that were involved before xmas have inevitably drifted away whilst those that are left seem to be rapidly slipping into the professional activist role, be that in its anarchist, liberal or Socialist form. The traces of this exciting period though, shouldn’t just be read into the fresh faced students selling various newspapers or masked up by the town hall with a “feed the poor/ eat the rich” banner but also in some of the genuinely interesting experiements still going on. The Roscoe occupation is one of these spaces and has the potential to be a great space to share ideas and for different political “generations”, if we are to use the Free Association term for it, can come and cross-pollinate. Peering into the murky depths of student politics at the occupation and today at the demonstration it’s difficult, but still possible to make out the echoes of the exciting events of last winter. Where these echoes travel, and through which subjects and spaces, remains a question far more open than the the way in which many in the traditional left are interpreting it.
So, the character of the resistance to the cuts is changing, clearly. Whether we can learn anything from this demonstration or the discussions in an occupation here in Manchester who knows… The 26th in London will be the next chance to see who and what makes up the current state of the “movement”.
So last weekend, after 6 years of existence the climate camp has officially announced its decision to change. Not end but change. The statement is really great and can be read here. The camp has decided to;
1. We will not organise a national Climate Camp in 2011.
2. We will not organise national gatherings as ‘Climate Camp’ or the Camp for Climate Action in 2011.
Whilst keeping several working groups which will aim to;
- A group to maximise the usefulness of our material resources.
- A group to address ongoing communications plus learn from and document our experiences over the past few years.
- A group to investigate new organisational forms, structures and tactics for possible next experiments.
- A group to organise a meeting to share ideas about these next experiments.
As the statement accurately begins the political times have changed, new dynamics have moved the political space in which we operate to a very different place. What was once new and fresh had become slightly predictable and no longer spoke to the activist scene or the wider public. It’s really difficultto realise that a group/movement has reached a dead-end and an certainly very brave to decide to end this project and start experimenting with alternatives.
The Climate Camp was certainly successful in many ways (direct action, skill sharing, awareness raising on climate change) and also struggled in some areas (international linkage, overemphasis on finance and certain banks such as RBS) but it’s importance is unquestionable. In a period of low social struggle the camp for climate action was a key node within the UK’s Left wing milieu. I went to several camps and they were quite formative in my political trajectory so far (admittedly helping to define as much of what I opposed as what I supported). However, the recent protests, their lack of specialist activists in the forefront, their focus on other struggles (education, welfare, etc.) had left the climate camp struggling to engage. Indeed the task of linking climate justice with anti-austerity measures needs to be taken up in more detail than the general call for green jobs.
Given the scale of the cuts, the upsurge in social struggle and the organised Left’s difficulty in relating to them these experiments are more important than ever. This blog has been a commentator on the climate camp (at times, admittedly, a fairly acerbic one) but would like to wish everyone involved well with future projects and hope to bump into you in an exciting political space/event sometime soon.
As the articles title suggests this isn’t the end but a new beginning, part and parcel of our experimentations with political forms and content and should be applauded as a brave move towards the continual revolution of our praxis. But what shape will this crysalis take and in what from will it emerge?
This week’s reading for the Bingham Autonomia series consisted of Tronti’s “The strategy of Refusal” and Selma James’s and Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community”. The Bingham group have posted up some notes here, whilst Hilary Malatino has further explored the genealogy of the refusal of work and the ways in which these currents exist in the contemporary politics of the left.
As these two commentaries have already highlighted, from our position now, the two articles which we have read for this session dovetail neatly. The social relations of capital rely upon unwaged reproductive labour in the social factory as much as in the industrial factory. The refusal to “collaborate actively in capitalist development, the refusal to put forward positive programs of demands”. Both look to move beyond the party and examine social relations, and social conflict, through the eyes of its producers in both their waged and unwaged forms. Indeed, as Michael Denning argues in a recent article what unites us is not the wage (indeed a guaranteed wage is fast becoming the exception rather than the norm throughout the world) but rather our precaritisation and dispossession from the means of subsistence and production. In recognising that ‘there is a class even in the absence of the party” (Marx, in Tronti), previous forms of organising such as the labour movement and the ‘party’ are challenged. The task now is to recognise the new forms in which our struggles are articulated and the terrain upon which they are inscribed.
Precarity, Social Labour and the Refusal of Work
Under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited
Michael Denning, NLR
I’d agree that the refusal of work is one of the key “Autonomist gestures” but how is this translated into political action? Tronti is dismissive of the general strike as a “romantic naivete” and develops this to critique the official labour movements endorsement of the dignity of labour and demands for its “fair share” of the produce (written at a time when many of the ledt wing parties in Italy were endorsing the “historic compromise” between capital and labour). Looking towards future readings this scepticism of the general strike as means to take power, rather than create crisis, is echoed in the invisible committee’s concept of the “human strike”. In a time of mass unemployment and precarious labour what does the refusal of work look like? Where are the (as Tronti so poetically puts it) “New Barbarians of the proletariat”?
Dalla Costa and James analysis of unwaged labour which occurs in the household resonates with some of the reading I have been doing regarding precarity and immaterial labour in the past week. As well as household work we help to (re)produce society, produce immaterial commodities and invest them with meaning in our everyday life. From helping make parts of cities “cool” (See the Berlin Left’s intensification of its anti-gentrification campaigns) to developing new niche scenes (the “hipster” scene in Shoreditch perhaps?) or micro-musical genres (witch house anyone?) we are involved in producing unwaged cultural capital in many different ways. Even our facebook data is mined and sold as marketing information, returning to us in the form of personally targeted ads. In the 21rst century of more widespread immaterial labour surrounding the production of signs, meanings and emotional affects the refusal of work seems broader than downing tools at the sight. Anti-gentrification struggles, internet piracy and counter-cultural trends all seem to suggest partial connections to the refusal of work yet, ultimately, are prone to recuperation and commodification. Leading us back to Tronti and his (sometimes unconvincing) argument that our struggles are the real motor of capitalist development.
A Lenin for 2011?
Finally it’s worth highlighting the leninist roots of some of the currents which came together within autonomia. Tronti is clearly pro-leninist arguing the “subjective leap forward” for the capitalist driven by a Keynes inspired fusion of state planning and economic development is as important as Lenin has been for the working class. What is the Leninist legacy? can anything be salvaged from it? Slavoj Zizek clearly thinks there is, and I’d be tempted to say that there are some important things we can take from him (a theory inspired by the belief we can win and a willingness to analyse the political context strategically) but other parts of is theory e.g. the party and the vanguard must be assigned to the political graveyard. As we progress it is clear that Autonomia has some roots which may seem alien to the predominately anarchist and autonomous Marxist positions which find inspiration in it.
The movement of 1977 was not only a totally different way of conceiving of the relation between life and politics, but a series of contents and values that had never been placed on the agenda of the political project. Despite having apparently left a void in its wake, despite having apparently only laid bare the crisis of political forms, including the crisis of the party-form, 1977 has to be considered one of the greatest anticipations of the forms and contents of political and social life seen in recent years. After 1977 there is no turning back, despite all the errors committed, and for which many are still paying in an atrocious manner. 1977 was a year in which the wealth and complexity of problems was such that the political form able to contain and organise them all adequately could not be found.
(Sergio Bologna, 1980)
Here are some of my thoughts on the reading for week 2 of the Bingham University Autonomia reading group.
The Personal is Political
The pamphlet “Lets spit on Hegel” by an Autonomist feminist group Rivolta Femminile is interesting and I’d pretty much agree with the analysis put forward by the Bingham group. Although having no familiarity with Hegel at all the article made some interesting points, namely:
- A rejection of contemporaneous Marxist-Leninist politics which sought to subsume gender struggles within the class struggle, interpreted within Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic.
- A very interesting critique of the liberal and juridical conception of equality.
- A recognition of the political nature of the everyday experiences of people.
This pamphlet marks some interesting changes within radical thought during this period. The rejection of Leninist politics, the emegrence of new spheres and forms of struggle marked an extremely productive and creative flowering of political antagonism towards which most of the old leftist forms of organising were simply no longer relevant. Whether these organisations moved down a parliamentary road (see next section on the PCI and PSI), dwindled to small isolated groups or disbanded such as Lotta Continua (see the Free Associations great article on Autonomia and Punk here), the changing nature of society, its class composition i.e. how work was organised, the aspirations of people, the political struggles which were apparent or deemed necessary – was changing beyond the abilities of the workerist organisations to adapt.
The langauage and co-ordinates of politics were changing. Politics moved into the social factory and struggles were fought over access to culture, the role of gender in society, and housing. The terrain of political conflict moved beyond production to social (re)production. These two markedly different forms of organisation with different lexicons of desire struggled to be legible to one another.
The underlying economic and political changes which laid the foundations for new forms of Leftist politics are made clearer through a reading of the two chapters from Steve Wright’s “Storming Heaven”. This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now and I was glad to finally get the incentive to start reading it (although it felt a little like cheating skipping to the final chapter).
Wright’s first chapter focuses on the major leftist organisations in 1950’s and 1960’s Italy, the Communist party (PCI) and the socialist party (PSI) and their gradual incorporation into the world of formal politics with both parties aiming for centre coalitions using the political capital gained by fighting the fascists during the endgame of the second world war and an economic boom brought about by productivity bargains and the Marshall plan. This economic boom occurred between 1948 and 1962 and exacerbated an uneven geographical development of Northern and Southern Italy. For a brief but interesting analysis of this see Ernest Dowson’s “The Italian Background” over at libcom. The increasingly dogmatic reformist politics of the PCI and the PSI led to many radical leftists leaving these groups and beginning to develop their own ideas. Particularly around the concept of class composition and attempting to develop a parallel sociology to that of bourgeois sociology and develop it as an analytical tool for radical social change. These militant workers enquiries revealed lots about changing forms of production and the increasing irrelevance of the unions and leftist parties to ordinary workers struggles.
By the final chapter, set almost two decades after the first, Wright paints an image of an organised Left in chaos with the Autonomia movement facing a choice between self-conscious political ghettoisation or combattentismo, the cult of machismo and political violence which occurred in several places throughtout Europe and North America during this period (presumably as a response to the petering out of the radical potential of the New Left, though I’m certainly no expert). Wright argues that a political disconnect has occurred between the Operaist (Workerist) current and the movements of Autonomia, whose politics emphasised “needs over duty, difference over homogeneity, the localised and personal over class struggle”. This new political language marks a clear break from political ideas and forms of organising which were becoming increasingly irrelevant. The Rivolta Femminile article is one clear example of this rupture with traditional forms of worker based politics. The worker as the privileged political subject was undermined.
As the quote I chose to start this post with highlights the autonomous politics of 1970’s Italy mark a clear break with previous modes of organising. However, some of the concepts of tools of operaismo, and the workers tradition in general, still have purchase today. As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts the concept of class composition, is useful for those of us organising beyond the capital relation. The political laboratory of Italy in the 1970’s speaks to those of us involved, yet demand a critical analysis, whilst the impotence of the unions and the failure of workerist politics are still clearly evident, so to are many forms of political activism which have been associated with Leftist politics in the past twenty years. Ultimately what I’ve taken from this week’s reading has been an analysis of political change in a political situation not too far removed from our own yet still with enough distance that it’s political contours can be fairly clearly sketched out. What we witness when we place these three chapters in a chronological order is a story of political experimentation, successes (even if at first they don’t appear as such) and also failures. Hopefully future reading will beign to untangle the move towards analysing the “Social factory” and the move towards extra-parliamentary politics.
Finally, I’d like to end with a few questions which I may perhaps take up at some other time: What might an analysis of the class composition of our given situation reveal today? Could a workers or a students or an unemployed workers enquiry reveal important hints about possible future forms of organisation? What is the relevance of Autonomia to our current struggles, what political resonance exists between these very different time/spaces?
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.).
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.