Category Archives: Articles

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.

Ivan Illich Deschooling Society (1973: 9)

After having read this interesting book over the christmas period I thought I’d write down a few thoughts and impressions from it.

Lots of Illich’s work is focused on critiquing the institutions which on first glance are taken for granted such as education, transport, health care and work. In this book Illich focuses on the education system, its impacts on children in the global North, its development in the global South and argues for an alternative which he labels learning webs. Illich argues that the education system confuses the process of a minimum of 10 – 12 years mandatory education with professional educators intermittently interrupted by standardised tests with the substance/aim of education, supporting people to acquire useful information and develop ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

The book is critical of the educational institution and it supporting experts – educational technicians, the role of teachers (however well meaning they wish to be) and the subjects the system is aimed at producing. This is still an important critique, many of the students involved in organising against cuts to education have an image of the ideal university with which to base their claims on. I’m sceptical as to whether the university was ever an institution which those of us seeking to develop the human potential to its greatest would ever be happy with. Competition, examination, time pressures, limited academic freedom were presumably present in previous forms of the university even before the current edu-crisis. Illich’s criticism of the educational system, which does not explicitly discuss the university as a specific structure,  is useful for those engaged with current struggles surrounding the university.

In its place Illich suggests educational webs, informal networks facilitated through public services and social networks   (and presumably the internet today) would seek to link co-learners together in voluntary encounters. Those with specific skills could also advertise their skills and help to spread them through the tuition of interested parties. Illich, it seems, is arguing for mainly informal learning aimed at matching those with needs (an interest in car mechanics, a desire to read and discuss a specific book or idea) with either those in possession of specific sets of knowledge and skills (e.g. musicians) or those interested in sharing the learning experience together (reading group partners). The important thing that many of us interested in education might be able to take from this is that the most important thing, obviously enough, is to match desires/needs with like-minded people or those with the knowledge to help satisfy these needs. There isn’t much point doing rocket stove workshops in inner-city Manchester, the only need this is probably staisfying is for the rocket stove enthusiast putting on the workshops…

How we get to be in a position to work out these needs is another question though… Needs that emerge from within our own networks, social groups and communities might be easy enough but “solidarity” (or whatever we’d like to call it) with other communities may be a harder process. How do we know what other groups would like and how can we seek to facilitate these learning encounters without being patronising or well meaning but useless…

The book is, obviously, very old, so for a more in depth analysis maybe look elsewhere. the point above are more a snap shot of a few of the thoughts I had whilst engaging with the book.


p.s.  just found the Pinky Show’s video interpretation of this. It’s lovely, if not a little bizarre.  Only just found out about the Pinky Show and I think they’re pretty great.

What’s Left? Against the management of struggle, for its self-organisation.

This response rapidly went beyond what I expected to write and it is clear that these are massive issues which need lots of us working and experimenting on.


Spotted this short analysis of the recent student demonstrations here on indymedia. The article asks some huge questions and rightly critiques several elements of these protests. Whilst the questioning of Leftits management of struggle, forms of organisation and tactics of struggle are vital the answer proffered here aren’t quite as convincing. Whilst I’m certainly more sympathetic to insurrectionist arguments than many of my peers I feel this analysis needs to be engaged with and criticised. As empowering, exciting and refreshing as insurrectionist arguments can sometimes be, its familiar weaknesses are repeated here in this post. So, I hope that if the original authors of that article read this response they’ll accept it in a comradely fashion. These are massive questions we all need to work through, this will by necessity entail that at moment we all feel a little uncomfortable.


So, I’m going to assume you’ve read the article (go on, its only a couple of paragraphs). But, if you really can’t be bothered here is a brief summary.




The key question this article asks is “what role, if any, should Leftists take in these current struggles”.


The authors are very critical of those “that consider themselves already a ‘politically conscious’ and ‘active’ class”. They are the real target of this article. The authors suggest that they need to “know when to keep silent, when to step aside and to recognise that the opportunity being presented to them is to divest themselves of their own redundant, prescriptive and obstructive attachment to their own models of theory and action”.


These professionals of social change (on this topic see the often referenced, “Give Up Activism”) are criticised, ultimately for attempting to channel this explosive energy and rage into specific forms such as groups, networks etc. “ Because the activist project is not about rebellion nor about chaos. It is primarily a project of reigning in, of taming the unruly desire to break out of all constraints, to specialise it, professionalise it and rationalise it”. This is an interesting point and one which we must always challenge ourselves with.


Although not against organisation completely they argue, and perhaps rightly that “Formalising a struggle too early leads to the death of that conflictual tension”. They argue that “social force”, unrepresented, and non-formalised can spread outwards and resonate with other tensions before finding an end point with “fluid informal groupings of affinity”.


Also, rather dubiously, they argue that this composition emerges from attacks, from the bonds of friendship which can and do emerge in times of conflict on the streets. It is only in this way that we can, argue the authors, “escape dated concepts and forms”.


As for their own actions, in pointed opposition to many leftists they say they will operate in parallel to these struggles. In this way if a broadening occurs it will happen without being imprisoned within the bigger cage and longer chain of Leftist politics.


Towards New Forms of Organisation


The authors are rightly critical of what I would term the Old Left (the unions and their stewards, the socialist parties and their numerous “coalitions” and “networks”). These traditions, clearly, have failed to understand what is happening and are cynically attempting to piggy back the political capital which stands to be made by becoming the mouth piece of the (acceptable face) of the movement all the way to a cushy job in London. Aaron Porter, the AWL and SWP please take a bow.


In a different way it is also correct to criticise the “activists” (in both their liberal and radical forms) their impact on the struggle. Liberal and more radical activists are certainly shyer at attempting to direct these struggles than the Old Leftist Dinosaurs are. Noticeable also is the lack of “direct action” tactics we’ve seen in the past ten years. This, also, is a good thing. Who needs ten activists on a tripod when we have thousands of young people blocking roads, storming buildings and confronting the police together. What is noticeable with the activists is their real lack of noticeable involvement. The media are not focussing on the image of the, usually ubiquitous, masked anarchists for a reason, we are simply one small part of this, nothing else.


Whilst it is valuable to challenge the arrogance of many in the activist scene, those “specialists” in forms of direct action which seem deeply inappropriate for the current situation it seems slightly bizzarre to criticise legal support, kitchens and other forms of practical support. These, like the authors intend to do, enable these struggles not confine the choices that it can make.


One of the things the authors criticise is “email lists”. I can only assume this isn’t the form itself but merely short hand for activist, decentralised organising which is often as deeply disempowering as its centralised opposite. However, the question of organisation is key to the article and, I think, to the struggles, themselves. As well as the inspirational moments these struggles have been marked by familiar and not so familiar organisational problems from the SWP and other Trotskyist groups shamelessly hijacking events and causing splits to HE students privilege in articulating their version of these struggles vis-a-vis FE students to the NUS attempting to be the voice of something which is certainly not interested in them.


As appealing as anonymity and action can be, politics is as much about words as actions. A movement solely based on confrontation can not survive. Whilst the managers of capitalism become increasingly removed from the reality of the situation there are many out their with whom our struggles might resonate.


“We are not for continuing any of the structures or concepts given to us by democracy” – We cannot support the structures of capitalist democracy, of course. Yet this can not mean we reject the idea of organising at a scale beyond small groups. Without a space to articulate disagreements and develop, where we can, together, what is left? Explosive rage? How far can that take us? And where? Anti-Austerity politics are not necessarily progressive, rage at finance capital and austerity can filter in many ways. Are we expected to simply move alongside and hope for the best?


The authors of the text are certainly very supportive of any thing that attacks the current state of affairs yet if we don’t build anew as we attack then we are destined to fail. This building includes new political ideas (a new grammar for our actions) as well as networks, spaces etc. The success of struggles such as greece has occurred with the simultaneous development of assemblies, spaces, infrastructure. To borrow a quote from Gilles Dauve, “A communist revolution will never resemble a slaughter: not from any nonviolent principle, but because revolution subverts more (soldiers included) than it actually destroys”. To focus on violence misses the true point of revolution, the subversion, the changing of society.


How do we do this? Or, The Path is Made by Walking.

We must reject the activist notion of education, of being in possession of the secrets to society which merely need imparting to an ignorant population. We aren’t missionaries. We need to look to what we can learn from each other. These struggles contain, implicitly, a critique of most of the political spectrum. Against parliament, the unions, political parties (including the Greens) and the mostly irrelevant Left. If we are part of this, not outside of it and certainly not above it, then we can engage with it. The question is how we can do this whilst leaving our prejudices, privileges and dogmas at the door. Spaces for discussions on aspects of the politics or skill shares can be done in non-hierachical ways which respect the autonomy of those involved. Whilst the authors suggest we need to know when to stay silent, I’d suggest we need to know when to speak and how to encourage others also to speak. We need to recognise forms of micro-fascism, of hierarchy and control within our actions and of those we see as comrades. Although difficult, a frank attempt at this helps to develop more inclusive and dynamic spaces and moments, certainly more inclusive than glamorising conflict and violence as the authors of this article and insurrectionists in general are prone to do. Whilst the levels of militancy have been truly inspiring, they are certainly not massively inclusive nor self-sustainable. Much of this refers to my thoughts on popular education over the previous weeks. What would the composition of a new politics look like? Certainly not stale occupations (as are happening in many occupied university spaces here in the UK), political parties or subtly coercive workshops? Are the new threads of organisation visible in the here and now?


In conclusion this article asks lots of the right questions but perhaps offers little by the way of answers. This is certainly a massive topic and there will inevitably be many different answers but I feel that the answers they offer are lacking. Whilst the December struggles certainly do “feel like the beginning”, the question is the beginning of what? Rage can only last so long, how do we make this resonate whilst battling the Leftist urge to lead, co-ordinate or confine the struggle? I’m not  sure that small, informal groupings are enough and am excited about working out together what forms are appropriate.





Reflections on Popular Education

So on Monday at the OK Cafe some of us met to discuss what popular education means and how a popular education group might function here in Manchester. Recently I’ve also been doing some thinking with a few other people about popular education and attended a great workshop at the Really Open University over in Leeds which have also given me lots to think about. The conclusion to these conversations for me is that popular education techniques would be really important for our movements and that they ask difficult questions both about wider society and its’ power structures and the ways our movements, well, move.

Here are a few interesting points I’ve jotted down in these meetings plus a few thoughts that have just occurred to me.


* Popular education is a set of techniques and methods for empowering individuals and communities. Of building communities of learners willing and able to work together and build dialogues. These methods encompass facilitation techniques, theatre techniques and forms of emotional support. It is often compared with forms of education we here in the UK are more familiar with with an emphasis on functional, target based learning, competition for grades and access to institutions and often disempowering form of teaching. There are lots of interesting examples of how popular education techniques have been applied, most notably in Latin America with projects such as the autonomous university of Oaxaca.


* Popular education supports the breaking down of the formal teacher-student relationship. We need to recognise that no-one has access to the truth and that every session is an encounter in which we all learn things.


* The importance of reflecting on our experiences came up several times. This is a technique which can be used to discuss and learn about many different things but our group focussed on the implications of this principle for discussing anti-capitalist politics. Capitalism affects us all, from the imposition of work, financial discipline to functionality of state violence. We are all affected by Capital and we need to constantly assert that a a post-graduate degree isn’t needed to be against capital. John Holloway starts “Change the World Without Taking Power” with the concept of the Scream (against capital), the emotional and direct experience of life in the face of the irrationality of capital. Anti-capitalism can and, in my opinion, should start with the recognition of its everyday nature.


* This emphasis on experience and emotional reflection and a support for uncertainty and questioning was contrasted with the format of most meetings and events our groups have been familiar with. We discussed how it often felt that there was an importance attached to being “correct” and certain forms of technical or academic jargon were often rewarded whilst questions and the mention of emotions and experience can often be seen as getting in the way of meeting efficiency. These structures within meetings facilitated certain personalities speaking and also hindered others from speaking. Whilst there is a time and place for reflection and non-outcome focused discussions we didn’t suggest all meeting should cater for this.


* The importance of learning by doing was a common point. This wasn’t just for issues such as building rocket stoves or cob ovens but also things such as practicing good facilitation. These lessons need to be built into our everyday practice. We were also wary of popular education focusing on sharing tangible DIY skills as these often speak to our subcultures only.


* Some of us were critical of the concept of “awareness raising” often found within leftist circles. We were wary of seeing people outside of our circles as people that we needed to meet and bring into the fold, The Leftist missionaries of 2010. In my experience this was clearly seen with discussions on climate change and the focus on consumer choices.


* For me personally this leads on to the necessity of critically examining our movements politics and clearly recognising subcultural, lifestyle practices attached to our politics. We need to critically examine our history and consign that which is not useful to the rubbish dump of history, or at least stop forcing it onto other people. We need to ask what do we and our politics have to offer people? And, what can we learn from other social groups, politics and world views.


* Having recently been on a perma-culture course the concept of edges seems useful to me. In permaculture theory an edge is where to distinct eco-systems or habitats encounter each other and create a third space. This is an unpredictable space, turbulence was the term which frequently re-occurred, in which interesting new permutations and forms are created in abundance. Many perma-culture designs attempt to create spaces in which Edges can meet in a productive way. Using this as a metaphor for how our politics encounters others is, to my eyes, a useful way to avoid a peculiar form of anti-authoritarian vanguardism wrapped in the language of consensus, awareness and direct action. We need to be aware to what commonalities we share with those outside of our immediate politics and of what both parties might gain from our interaction.


Please note, these points may not be reflective of the wider group. I hope they are but personal preference etc. is always bound to influence these things.


p.s.  Look out for a lovely poster being made by other people at the conversation. That’ll be on the OK cafe website and I’ll try and get it on here as well.

The Janus face of the World Cup

Spotted this interesting discussion posted up by Shift and I thought I’d throw my ten pence worth in as well.

So, the world cup is upon us. The air waves, newspapers and broadband cables are humming with the sound of vuvuzelas (the ubiquitous plastic horns which FIFA are already considering banning) and England, once again, fail to inspire hope. The two authors to which I am responding have covered several important points, namely, that in a world in which geographical space is divided into discreet political territories supporting the side which happens to be organised around this specific territory does not compromise an anti-statist position. Supporting the  England football team in itself does not make one a supporter of the nation state. The hostility many involved in our movements show towards football and the world cup shows a misunderstanding of the nature of football. The state, much like Capitalism, isn’t a belief system, it exists regardless of us criticising it. However much we may dislike it, football will continue to be organised around specific politico-geographical units.

However, I disagree with Boyd’s statement that we should “feel the unity” of the world cup, that we should indulge in what Carly Lyes labels “plastic nationalism”. The “unity” of the nation state is based upon the physical or political exclusion of many, be that migrants on the perimeter of fortress Europe, or Christians in Iraq. Whilst the international politics of the World Cup certainly aren’t as sinister as anti-immigration politics or the expansionist nationalism we witness in many areas of the world, they still function as a nation building project. Nation states are social constructs which must be continually reinforced. This can be materially, border controls and passports to define who belongs and who doesn’t, or cultural and discursive, the introduction of national anthems, flags, authors etc. Global events such as the World Cup provide states, in particular the hosts, with the opportunity to consolidate their national identity. This can happen in many ways, from China’s acceptance of its vital role in the global economy (The 2008 Olympics) to the German world cup in which signs of patriotism were once again seen to be positives (prompting the response of the Anti-German’s with their “hit”, Ten German Bombers). There in South Africa it appears the World Cup is being portrayed as a chance for South Africa to demonstrate its success post-Apartheid. Alongside football analysis, the coverage has been focusing on the progress and development which is happening in South Africa as it seeks to rub shoulders with other newly industrialising states such as Brazil and Russia.  Of course this ignores the slum clearances which took place to develop the stadiums, the mistreatment of stewards which resulted in clashes with police and the rising inequality. Although the skin colour of the managers of capital in South Africa may have changed the underlying logic of capitalism (unsurprisingly) has not.

Protests last night outside the stadium by underpaid security staff. They were later dispersed by police using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Perhaps then the attitude that those who wish to enjoy the world cup whilst maintaining their anti-statist politics should take is one familiar to England supporters (no, not the riots), that of cynical support.  Like the nation state itself, the rainbow image of unity projected by international sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics is based upon multiple levels of exclusion, from those who lose their homes to make way for new stadiums to those unable to afford expensive tickets for matches. However, this is only the political context in which football (as a social product) must be framed. So, enjoy the football, support who you want but don’t forget the context in which it will be played out.

For Communism… Badiou and the re-emergence of the Communist Hypothesis

Infinite Thought has posted up a translation of a recent Badiou piece published in La Monde on the 13th of February. Translation by Alberto Toscano.

In this article Badiou attempts to confront those that seek to make the historic experience of Communism (in his words) ‘illegible’, that is to re-define emancipatory attempts as pathological periods which have no bearing on our current situation. Badiou, makes a strong argument for the ‘Communist Hypothesis’, a hypothesis which is larger than the disastrous experimentations in its name during the period of state communism in the 1900’s. The Communist hypothesis, Badiou argues, can be defined by its belief in three axioms. Namely;

1)      Universal equality. Not in terms of are individual attributes but in terms of our access to social wealth. Badiou criticises, quite rightly, those with a closed, pre-determined vision of humanity which accepts the inequality which Capitalism produces.

2)      Anti-Statism. Communist and Anarchists differ from Socialists in that they reject the so called necessity of the state. Power can be institutionalised in myriad ways and history is full of examples of collective democratic decision making

3)      The ‘polymorphousness of human labour’ – that is the possibility of sharing different tasks in a more equal way (think of Marx’s dream of a society in which one fishes in the morning, makes tables in the afternoon and debates in the evening). Badiou, interestingly, argues this is the material basis for the disappearance of social hierarchies.

‘These three principles do not constitute a programme; they are maxims of orientation, which anyone can use as a yardstick to evaluate what he or she says and does, personally or collectively, in its relation to the communist hypothesis’.

Communism then is an open concept, not a programme and certainly not a party. Indeed it is interesting to see how many traditional Communist parties match up to these ideals, with many of them uncritically supporting national liberation struggles and foreshortened anti-imperialist positions. This opening up of Communism that Badiou argues should be placed with his fellow Communist theorist Slavoj Zizek, whose latest book ‘First as Tragedy, then as Farce’ (see jouissance for a great review) also makes an impassioned plea for the re-definition of a Communist politics beyond its failed State Communist form. Whilst both are perhaps a little glib about the scale of the failure, Zizek being more alarming with his (hopefully) tongue in cheek endorsement of revolutionary discipline and terror, it is important that Communism be redefined and experiments with state communism be historicised as a tragic failure from which much can be learned. As Zizek has argued, we must be prepared to fail again, but fail better, in “First as Tragedy…” he argues that Communism should be seen as a problematic with which we face the world, not a utopian end goal. Indeed, within the movements which we would define as having Communist tendencies will surely be the seeds for new tensions and antagonisms. Perhaps then should Communism be seen as what John Holloway building upon Adorno argues a ‘movement of negation’ which seeks to challenge that which exists, rather than being a positive end goal to which we must strive. Whilst my knowledge of negative dialectics is admittedly rather shallow it seems a more fruitful direction in which the Communist discourse might move.

Historical Stages of the Eternal Idea?

Badiou then makes the case for historicising interpretations of the Communist Hypothesis. He argues that the first stage between 1848 and 1971 being organised around the themes of ‘Workers movements and insurrections’ whilst the second from 1905-1976 was built around the idea of the party. Badiou argues a third period, closer to the first rather than the second period, can be seen emerging from the rubble of our post-political period. He argues that the development of this period will be organised around the development of an impossible point, one which starkly highlights the functioning of modern capital. Badiou points towards the migrant worker as the point around which this hypothesis can manifest itself. He argues that this will require courage, a courage whose ‘horizon is the slow reestablishment of the communist hypothesis’.

Whilst agreeing with his argument for an open conception of Communism, it is perhaps this final section which demonstrates Badiou’s more traditional Marxist roots. The two clear problems with this section are his criteria for periodising the Communist movement and the traditional Marxist-Leninist obsession with defining the revolutionary subject in whatever form that may take be it proletarian, cognitive labourer, migrant or organic intellectual. These will be, briefly, dealt with in turn.

1)                          Firstly, it is interesting that Badiou discusses the first period of Communism as originating in 1848, the same year as the Communist manifesto was published. Badiou fails to mention the emancipatory tradition which has run throughout human history, from Peasant revolts to the wave of radical uprisings unleashed by the European reformation, A period which Luther Blisset’s Q has sought to argue, saw Communist ideals entwined with radical religious fervour. It is important to recognise that which is constant and common within history. It is this legacy which the Luther Blisset project sought to resurrect with their ‘mytho-poetic’ (see their interview linked in this weeks Sunday Papers) Genoa 2001, call out linking previous struggles with that of today (link). Whilst it is important to recognise the historical contingencies which have shaped our, considerable, political differences, it is also important to recognise that the Communist hypothesis existed before the existence of Capitalism itself, indeed, I would argue it is a central theme of human history itself.

2)                          Secondly, I would be sceptical about any search for a radical subject. Whilst the figure of the migrant, Agamben’s Homo Sacer, perhaps most clearly demonstrates the contradictions of both state and capital, any attempts at deliberately producing a subject around which struggle will emerge seems unlikely to be successful.

It is encouraging to see the Communist ideal being argued for once again. Whilst many argue that we no longer need this concept, or that its historical baggage ways it down, in many ways, I believe, this legacy is also its source of strength. The Communist problematic which has been posed throughout history can be a source of inspiration and strength for those of us seeking to challenge the state and capital today.


Cop-enhagen: Seattle’s coming of age party?

So I’ve finally managed to translate some of my scribbled notes from the week I spent in Copenhagen and mixed that with some of my scattered thoughts to produce some kind of comment piece. If anyone has written or knows of any other articles on the week please let me know and I can link them here. It’s vitally important that we learn from Copenhagen.

The build up to this years UN conference on Climate change, the COP-15 in Copenhagen, was huge. Both mainstream and alternative media were abuzz with predictions and discussions on the conference and the ,almost obligatory, counter-mobilisation. Many months were spent deliberating over whether to shut the conference down or try and enter (with the latter winning out). Would this, as Naomi Klein  argued, be the culmination of the alter-globalisation movement? Would this be another Seattle? Would we witness a fully formed social movement to challenge an emerging round of capitalist accumulation based upon responses to ecological, economic and social crisis (for a brief outline of this read Tadzio’s Mueller and Alexis Passadakis 20 theses on Green capitalism)?

In the end the conference, unsurprisingly, failed to come up with a deal which could be called progressive in any dimension. Climate Justice Now labelled the talks “a complete betrayal of impoverished nations and island states, producing embarrassment for the United Nations and the Danish government”.  Many, including Mark Lynas in the Guardian, blamed the newly industrialising countries, whilst, in an interesting confluence of opinion, states from the South (including China and India) and many progressive movements placed the blame squarely at the feet of the Northern states. Although the political economy of the deal and the power relationships which it reflects are in themselves fascinating, as well as vital for understanding the political terrain upon which we operate, this post won’t focus upon them.

Outside of the conference many protestors and demonstrators found themselves at the wrong end of preventative laws which had been rushed through in the eve of the summit. These laws allowed the police to declare any demonstration illegal and then to arrest any of its participants without even making the demonstration itself aware of this. As well as furnishing the police with the means to control most demonstrations, these laws allowed the police to declare entire sections of Copenhagen searchable. Many of us over there regularly felt powerless when faced with a police force operating within a state of exception, outside of the regular rule of law. These laws, married with a militant and aggressive police force, were a contributor to the relative lack of confrontation on many demonstrations, such as the large Friends of the Earth demonstration on the Saturday which saw a large portion of the black bloc kettled and “preventatively detained”. However, once again this post will not dwell on the police presence. A ratcheting up of police repression should be expected as social and ecological crises deepen, except for the unique situation here in the UK since the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 in April.

Perhaps the most important political “event” for our movements took place away from the streets and inside the social centres, crash spaces and people’s kitchens. Copenhagen can probably be called the first international meeting of various national movements. Here we met and began to develop and shared language of climate justice with which we can move forward, together. These discussion were not without difficulties but it was encouraging to see them tackled with a spirit of openness. For example when the mind numbingly boring topic of violence/non-violence surfaced yet again at the CJA open plenary in Christiania all the responses, from both floor and panel (comprised of Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt and Tadzio Mueller) started with the assumption that a diversity of tactics was necessary although they all argued that the action consensus (or agreement) had been decided that violence wouldn’t be employed on the “Reclaim Power” action. It was also positive to see that the understanding of non-violent resistance was of a far more confrontational brand than that espoused by many NGO’s and liberals. As Tadzio Mueller put it in the plenary session, it’s about “seeing the gaps in the police lines” rather than not even testing them.  This coming together of people from various places and political traditions required an unusual amount of openness in order to succeed. Interesting tensions were brought into conversation and made productive rather than fetishised and turned into rigid differences. I witnessed NGO representatives have open discussions with European militants and Argentinean picquetero’s running workshops on demonstration security. At times it felt like an exciting, unbelievable experimental laboratory in which we could try and develop a truly hybrid politics. It really did feel like something very exciting was happening there in Copenhagen with regards to the shared politics of our movements, the large turn out of environmentalists at the No-Borders demonstration and the mix of participants from both global North and South on the agricultural action days are testimony to this. It now makes sense to talk about an, albeit embryonic, global climate justice movement. It waits to be seen whether this energy can be translated into our everyday practices and politics. It would be a disaster if we have to wait for the next COP’s in Mexico or Bonn for this global aspect to re-emerge. I hope we’ve learnt our lessons from the summit hopping trend we saw in Europe about 10-15 years ago. Whilst many of us left feeling energised and optimistic for the year ahead, summits are no substitute for building strong, sustainable movements within our own communities.

So, all in all, a positive start was made over in Copenhagen. Tensions and differences are being brought into positive conversation and these will need to continue back here in our local contexts. Questions of how radicals can co-operate with liberals, or whether they even should, how Northern and Southern movements can engage with each other and the fetishisation of indigenous peoples and struggles (the chant of “No Borders, First Nations” on the No Border demo was particularly disconcerting) all need discussing and acting upon in the coming period.

Was this the alter-globalisation movements coming of age party? In short no. Whilst having obvious elements of continuity, Copenhagen is the first truly global coming together of progressive movements under the banner of climate justice. As such the political foundations needed for coherent, co-ordinated action are still being lain. This is not the continuation of the alter-globalisation movement but the start of something different, with its own politics, potentials and difficulties. We cannot equate Copenhagen with Seattle, no matter how convenient the decade anniversary of the event is.

For another good analysis of Copenhagen (No doubt to be added to in the coming weeks) check out this post. It’s an interesting and well written, if not a little bit more critical, account from Copenhagen. I’d agree with the author that a non-violent movement takes time to build and that Wednesday could have gone better, but many in that demonstration were experiencing police repression for the first time. It appears that this article has kicked up an interesting discussion on indymedia UK.

Also, someone called Olivier from the climate caravan has written a rather rosier account of the week here. The idea of permanent peoples assemblies in local communities is an interesting one. I’d be interested in finding out the experiences that movements and communities in latin America (Argentina and the picqueteros springs first to mind) have had with peoples assemblies.

The liberal “Anti-Capitalist” – Climate Camp 2009

Climate camp is over, all physical traces have gone and all that remains are the idea’s, arguments and debates that the camp created.

The camps media conscious strategy wasn’t very successful this year. With no direct action for the media to string out over a weeks reporting, the media resorted to criticising the middle class nature of the camp. This line of criticism was reproduced by several radical groups, including this report from the Cambridge anarchists . Sure, many of the activities highlighted at the camp such as compost toilets, morning yoga and the insistence on a militant vegan space may have seemed alien to many outside the fencing of Blackheath common, yet to critique the camp on these grounds is to use a weak, sociological understanding of class. It’s unlikely the camp would have been more radical if the yoga and soya milk was replaced with whippets and lager. A critique of the climate camp based upon sociological categories of class is not a progressive approach to take. Whilst a more diverse variety of activities may have broadened the appeal of the camp, it would not have improved the political content of it.

However, the issue of class is a vital one. A class analysis based upon the recognition of the stratifications within society based around people’s access to capital is vital when discussing climate change. The vocal debates surrounding the role of the state, austerity and lifestyle politics clearly demarcated between those holding liberal and more radical opinions. This split wasn’t just along a simple anticapitalist/reformist axis. Many “anti-capitalists” at the camp appear to have misinterpreted what capitalism is and were merely reproducing liberal critiques. Indeed the only political difference between liberals and many “anti-capitalists” at the camp was the willingness of the latter to take (highly mediatised, symbolic) direct action. However, D-locks and ninja masks do not a radical critique make. The main banner used on the joint demo with DSEI is an example of this. The (slightly cringe worthy) banner “More Future, Less Capitalism” misinterprets what capitalism is.

Dodgy banner, dodgy ninja's, dodgy politics?

Dodgy banner, dodgy ninja's, dodgy politics?

Capitalism is a totality, something which helps structure the entirety of social relations, it is not a qualitative concept. Indeed the claim “less capitalism” seems to resonate with the less-than-radical calls for less coal or less carbon supported by many “anti-capitalists” at the camp. These arguments fail to grapple with the structural processes of capital, instead limiting their critique to a superficial critique of the appearance of contemporary capitalism. This reminds me of Zizek’s concept of the “liberal communist”; the true utopians who believe we can have a  “just” capitalism devoid of its intrinsic exploitation and production of crisis.  Wind power turbines owned by private companies are still an enclosure of a bio-physical process common to the entire social field and a commodification of energy. If we are to ensure solutions to climate change are not harmful to the majority of the worlds population we would do well to recognise the nature of global class composition. Of course, this can not be a class analysis based upon teary-eyed memories of a mythical working class but must be rooted in an analysis of contemporary class composition (more on this in another blog post).

This “reformist radicalism” is buttressed by sub-cultural lifestyle practices which can lend themselves to a certain activist morality that often leads to self-righteousness. The whole gamut of lifestyle choices such as flying less or using rocket stoves can not be the basis of a progressive, antagonistic anti-capitalist movement. Pictures like this one here

The Activist as Moral Specialist

The Activist as Moral Specialist

remind me of Vaneigems critiques of the activist as a specialist in oppression (see, give up activism).When the needs of “the planet” become mediated through a specialised, reformist interest group, the progressive aspect of environmentalism begins to be closed down. Environmentalism in itself, is not necessarily a progressive sphere.

Apparently a lot of positive, progressive work was done on these issues on the last day of the camp. We will have to see if this can be translated, no doubt with opposition from the many liberals involved, into concrete outcomes.


Calais No Border Camp 2009. (In)visible subjects?

Between the 23rd and the 29th of June a No Border camp was held in Calais. Estimates range between 500-800 participants in the camp, with many coming from outside of Calais, mainly from other parts of France (Lille in particular), the UK and Belgium. The camp was also visited and used by people from the nearby neighbourhoods and by about 100-200 migrants, the majority coming from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. During the week there were several actions in Calais and elsewhere (in particular the blockading of a detention centre in Lille) with many workshops, meetings and discussions also taking place. The camp culminated with a demonstration involving 2000 people (and an estimated 2500 police!) with unions, in particular the CNT, and parties such as the NPA travelling from outside of Calais to join the event.

The Calais camp has thrown up some interesting questions and  this post will only deal with one of them. Questions such as, where were those that had mobilised for Strasbourg? Or, how do No Border politics and environmental movements relate,  which is a vital question in relation to the looming Copenhagen COP-15, will have to be left for another time. However, this post will focus on what is perhaps the most exciting outcome of the camp, that is, the strengthening of the relationship between sans-papieres and activists that is being increasingly based upon real, rather than abstract, solidarity.

we have access to food, we have access to clothing, you came here to talk politics so lets talk politics

This was a comment from an Afghan participant at one of the final meetings discussing how we move forward from the camp. This comment came in response to protracted discussions surrounding potential humanitarian work which sections of the camp were wanting to take forward. This discussion had clearly shown the attitude of some members of the camp, an attitude that had also been replicated in the pre-demo meeting, during which one participant had suggested that migrants be discouraged from attending for fear of their safety, an opinion which (thankfully) elicited disgust from many within the meeting. As well as being indicative of a patronising view of our relationship with sans-papieres, these comments also represent a concomitant lack of ambition for the camp. For most of us in Calais, we were not present to discuss soup kitchens and clothing handouts solely, but to link these practical activities to an antagonistic political project seeking to permanently alter the situation in Calais, to actually “talk politics” as the comment at the meeting had suggested. Important as it is, humanitarian work is self-defeating if it does not seek to alter the factors which produce the need for it.

One of the huge successes of the camp was to issue a statement and a list of demands that had been jointly produced by activists and sans-papieres within the camp (although no locals from the area were present, a problem which will need to be solved if we wish to continue this campaign in the long term). Although this meeting was long and tiring, (with comments often being translated into five languages!), it is an important step forward. The demands expressed (see here) accommodate direct and immediate changes alongside the long term political goals of the No Border position. They could become a bridge through which our energy, our actions and our desires could be focused and articulated in common.

If we are to act in solidarity with those struggling against migration management then we must work with these autonomous movements, not for them. The Calais-Dover border is an impediment to all who attempt to cross it, for those with papers and those without. This border is an anachronism within the Schengen system itself, and only remains due to stubbornness of the British state and many of its citizens.  A campaign to destroy this border must do so on the basis of our shared desire for its removal, not on the basis of sympathetic or charitable solidarity.

The camp and the declaration it produced is, therefore, an important step in creating this shared solidarity. The declaration accommodates diverse desires and provides the basis for moving forward collectively. This declaration is an important step in producing a political voice for people often silenced by the state. Those without papers are usually spoken for rather than allowed to speak. However, this will not be easy. Institutions and communication channels will have to be created that can provide a long term framework for an inherently transitory population. A population which also houses internal hierarchies imposed via violence and intimidation must also be dealt with. As well as organisational problems, our political positions must also be brought into conversation. At the camp translation difficulties resulted in our demands for no borders sometimes being interpreted into a demand for open borders (a very different proposition!). Important questions surround the ways in which we work across political, cultural and privilege differences to form the basis of our work together.

The Calais camp felt like an important, albeit initial, step towards building a movement based upon real solidarity within the Calais region. In order to build upon the camp, important questions surrounding the forms and the nature of our relationships with the sans-papiers of Calais, and local residents must be answered. The answers to these questions can only be produced through our collective action. As we move towards the Lesvos No Border camp, an encouraging sign can be seen in a recent protest in Athens on the 7th of July which attracted 2500 participants including many without papers. In the ensuing confrontation with the police those without papers played a prominent role. As demonstrated by the policing of the Calais demonstration, where police prevented the attendance of sans-papieres, a partnership between those with papers and those without, based on solidarity rather than charity, is a powerful force. A force which the state is anxious to prevent.