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.
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.
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.
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.