Worlds in motion
The Free Association
‘People have been saying for some time that what the movement needs are some real victories. But – it’s a strange but frequent phenomenon – when movements finally win them, they often go unnoticed.’
Ding Dong! The Witch is dead… The Wicked Witch is dead! With the irrecoverable collapse of the latest round of trade talks, the WTO appears to be effectively defunct. The cycle of anti-summit protests of the turn of the century and beyond, and the social movements that formed around them, played a vital role in killing it off. Yet there hasn’t been a general affect of victory. In fact you could even say the opposite: the ‘we are winning’ sentiment of the couple of years following Seattle has disappeared and been replaced by, at best, head-scratching and soul-searching. More a case of WTF than WTO…
Maybe this paradox makes more sense if we start to think of movements not as concrete blocks of people, but as a moving of social relations. Of course social relations are always moving: capital tries to pretend that it is a universal and immutable way of living, when in fact those social relations have to be re-established every day – every time we go to work, or exchange money for goods, or act in alienated ways etc. But every now and then these social relations are fundamentally challenged by our actions as we start to create new worlds. One of the places where this happens is at counter-summit mobilisations: the new worlds we create there may be temporary, or geographically limited (this is the basis of the criticism of ‘summit-hopping’), but it’s those same limits which make them such a rich laboratory. They produce an intensity which enables us to see this moving of social relations on two different levels, one we can call ‘demands’ and one we can call ‘problematics’.
Demands are by their very nature demands to someone or something. They are demands to an existing state or state of affairs. They might be explicit – when we appeal to governments for a change in policy or we demand that sacked workers be reinstated; or they might be implicit – when we insist on our right to police ourselves. But they are always, to some extent, within the terms and sense of the thing we are trying to escape: we accept the idea of ‘work’ or the idea of ‘policing’. Indeed if demands are ever met it is only done by further reducing a movement’s autonomy. The state or capital grants the demand by recasting it in its own terms and within its own logic. This is how mediation works: think, for example, of the way ‘green consumerism’ is promoted as a solution to climate change. Indeed the incorporation of demands almost always takes the form of a counterattack – the cost of action on climate change, for example, will always be shifted on to us (eg road pricing, green taxes). As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for…
But it’s not as simple as saying that all demands lead to empty recuperation (‘bigger cages, longer chains…’). Those bigger cages also give us more room for manoeuvre. And it is partly because demands operate on the foreign territory of representation that we fail to recognise the achievement of demands as victories. They appear as the actions of our opponents, the product of their good sense and not our activity. But we need to dig a little deeper to see what’s really going on. In many ways demands involve a freezing of (a) movement, an attempt to capture what we are and raise it to the level of representation. But as a crystallisation, they also contain our logic within them, like a fly trapped in amber. It’s similar to the way the product of our work is sold back to us: sometimes it’s hard to see the social history buried within the latest government announcement.
There’s a second reason why we find it hard to see victories in the realm of representation as winning. There’s a time-lag to this process: when we stormed through Seattle in 1999 chanting ‘Kill the WTO!’, we felt like we were winning, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the WTO fell to to its knees. By the time demands are ‘met’, movements have moved on. And this isn’t just a question of time: it’s also to do with speed. During intensive moments, like counter-summit mobilisations, we can move so incredibly fast that a few days seem like years. Think of the way we arrive at a convergence centre or camp site: to begin with, it’s just a featureless field where we struggle to find our bearings, yet in the space of a few days, we have transformed it into a new world.
…DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE!
But demands are just one moment that social movements move through. They are necessarily lop-sided and partial, because they operate on a terrain that is not ours. We’re more interested here in the movement on the level of ‘problematics’. Unlike demands which are implicitly vocal or static, problematics are about acting and moving. If demands are an attempt to capture who we are, then problematics are all about who we are becoming.
Social movements form around problems. We don’t mean this in a simple functionalist fashion, as if there is a pre-existent problem which then produces a social movement that, in turn, forces the state or capital to respond and solve the problem. Rather, social movements produce their own problematic at the same time as they are formed by them. How does this work in practice? Firstly there has to be a moment of rupture that creates a new problem, one that doesn’t fit into the ‘sense’ of contemporary society – this is the grit that the pearl forms around. The Zapatista uprising is one example, but we could just as easily refer to climate change or border struggles. With this rupture come a whole new set of questions, new problems which don’t make sense and which don’t have a simple solution. As we try to formulate the problematic, we create new worlds. This is what we mean by ‘worlding’: by envisaging a different world, by acting in a different world we actually call forth that world. It is only because we have, at least partially, moved out of what makes ‘sense’ in the old world that another world can start to make its own sense. Take the example of Rosa Parks who simply refused to move to the back of the bus. She wasn’t making a demand, she wasn’t even in opposition, she was simply acting in a different world. It’s the same with the ‘anti-globalisation movement’: no sooner had we come into being as a social force, than we were re-defining ourselves as an alter-globalisation movement. In many ways, we were in a novel position of having no-one who we could put demands to. How else could we act if not by creating another world (or worlds)? And who would create it if not us? But first we have to create that ‘us’…
And here’s where we return to the realm of demands, of crystallising, because the process of creating this new agency (this new ‘us’) also involves acting at the level of ‘demands’, and this can be an extremely productive moment. The rupture itself can take the form of a demand, maybe a simple ‘No!’ That can give a movement an identity by providing a static position around which people can orient themselves – a public staking-out of ground within which an expanded social movement can cohere. This is exactly what happened with summit protests over the last decade. Most of us didn’t go to Seattle, yet an identity was forged there which we could loosely relate to. That identity was strengthened and deepened as it moved through Gothenburg, Cancun etc. In other words, summit protests were not only conscious attempts to delegitimise the meetings of the rich and powerful. They simultaneously legitimised our worlds and widened the space for worlds governed by logics other than that of capital and the state. Summit protests played a vital role in creating a new ‘us’, an extended ‘we’.
On another scale we were part of exactly the same process at the 2003 G8 summit when there was a mass road blockade at Saint-Cergues: the ‘No!’ of the front line barricade created space in which a new body could cohere and start to develop consistency. We created new knowledge (tactics for dealing with tear gas and pepper spray); we developed new ways of decision-making (for maintaining food and water supplies, and working out when and how we would withdraw); and we extended the problematics (blocking side roads, making connections with local residents).
This move from opposition to composition, from the level of demands to the problem of practice, is never easy. The UK anti-poll tax movement, for example, never managed to find its own autonomous consistency – when the government finally backed down in 1991, the movement imploded. We had been held together by our ‘No!’ – it’s what allowed us to stand together – but without the emergence of ‘Yeses’ we were simply unable to move. But trying to bypass the level of demands altogether is equally fraught. One of the criticisms of the mobilisation against the 2005 G8 summit was that we were too easily out-manoeuvred by a state-orchestrated campaign (Make Poverty History) which was used to make demands ‘on our behalf’.
Inevitably this moving has to take into account things that appear to be outside of it, like the actions of the state or the deployment of a police helicopter at Saint-Cergues. So we move in response to new developments, to evade capture. But there is also an internal dynamic caused by the new enriched material that has cohered around the original ‘grit’. This new material has its own new properties and might then find itself with new internal problematics. At a macro-level we can think here of the debates about the black bloc or the issue of violence after Genoa, where a whole new set of questions were posed and everything moved on. Or we can look at how the idea of convergence centres at summit protests has been developed to embrace a whole practice around social centres, whether rented, owned or squatted. These centres, however temporary, are one space within which movements can thicken and start to develop a consistency.
BENEATH THE PAVEMENT…
There is a bigger problem here. There’s a relation between our autonomous movements (inventing new forms, throwing up new problematics etc.) and the effects those movements have on capital and state and their mechanisms of capture. But there is a danger that we stay trapped within this relation and never manage to break free. We can never entirely evade capture, but we can try to develop techniques to postpone or minimise it. And this is where counter-summit mobilisations have proved essential.
In everyday life it’s quite easy to see the world of demands, of things, but it’s more difficult to work out what’s going on underneath. We can glimpse traces of the underlying dynamics in spectacular eruptions (Paris 1871, Barcelona 1936, Seattle 1999, Oaxaca 2006…) or by looking at the realm of demands and seeing what’s reported in the press, or how states act. Summit protests can shatter this everyday equilibrium and make the intensive realm spring to life. We can see commodities for what they are – dead. We get a sense that this is real, this is life. And we can see more easily what social movements are made of. This has profound consequences. At these times it becomes obvious that our movement isn’t a movement of us (activists vs others) but a moving of social relations, an unfreezing of all that is fixed. This moving of social relations is like the breaking of an ice-floe: it has no edges or boundaries (‘this group is in our movement, this group isn’t’ etc), or rather the boundaries are always in motion; the moving ripples through everywhere – absolutely everywhere. This is the affect of winning that we experienced in Seattle and elsewhere. We felt we were winning because we weren’t ‘we’ any more; maybe we’d even abolished any idea of a ‘we’, because there was no outside, no ‘us’ and ‘them’ any more. In fact this slippage in ‘we’ is reflected in this text: the meaning of ‘we’ goes from ‘us the authors’ to ‘you the readers’ to an extended ‘we’ that defies measurement. Moreover what we do cannot be limited to what is consciously decided: sometimes we ‘do’ things behind our own backs.
But this shattering of the everyday also forms a new point of rupture, a new jumping-off point. And this can be one of the ways we can escape the twin apparatuses of capture the state deploys. First, at the level of demands, the state attempts to incorporate us into its logic of sense. Here we can think of how the police tried to incorporate the land-squatted Camp for Climate Action into its own logic of legality by offering to be ‘helpful’ and just wanting to walk around the camp once. This ‘offer’ was initially accepted as there was a need for the camp to feel a certain sense of security. But there was a price to pay: when we move on the terrain of legality (whether ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’), we are within their sense not ours. Allowing the police on site set a precedent and it became impossible to refuse constant patrols, without forcing a new rupture. When we instigate that break, and follow the logic of our deepening problematics, we come up against the other pole, the state’s machine of outright repression. The danger is that we get trapped in this pincer of incorporation/repression, and our activity in response to either diverts us from our own autonomous movement.
We come full circle here: the problem that faces us again and again is the risk of being trapped in the logic of capital and the state, whether as radical reformers, summit protesters, workplace activists or whatever. Capital always takes its own limits as universal ones, but in truth those limits are ‘theirs’, not ours. The only way for autonomous social movements to avoid this dance of death is to keep breaking new ground. In this sense, winning, in the realm of problematics, is just the gaining of extended problematics, as our experimental probing opens up ever-wider horizons. Or more prosaically, all that movements can ever get from ‘winning’ is more movement. And that’s why we keep getting drawn back to counter-summit mobilisations like Heiligendamm: they are one of the places where the movement of movements can break the limits of its formation and ask its own questions.
‘Social movements have no ‘right’ to world. In fact any autonomous problematic automatically takes them into the sphere of becoming revolutionary. And that problematic can come from a ‘No’ just as much as from a ‘Yes’. From capital’s perspective, autonomous demands are always partial and one-sided (‘selfish’ even) because we refuse to take its logic into account. There’s a great moment from the English Revolution of the 1640s, when the Levellers are threatening to turn the world upside down with their demands for equality. Sir Thomas Fairfax, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, loses it and asks them, ‘By what right or power do you make these demands?’ There’s a silence before they reply, ‘By the power of the sword, master Fairfax, by the power of the sword.’ More than three centuries later, at the height of anarcho-punk, the band Crass re-worked this in slightly more direct terms: ‘Do they owe us a living? Course they fucking do!’
The anti-poll tax movement is reckoned to be the biggest mass movement in UK history, involving some 17 million people: over a period of about 18 months a huge non-payment movement emerged, culminating in a month of town hall demonstrations and riots in March 1990.
The Camp for Climate Action took place in the summer of 2006 near Selby in Yorkshire, UK. More info from www.climatecamp.org.uk or see Paul Sumburn’s article
Perhaps another way to think of this is in terms of measure. Demands operate in a field of certainty, what we can call an extensive realm. It’s the realm of ‘things’, which can be defined, counted, negotiated and partitioned. ‘You want a 0.25% tax on all foreign exchange transactions? How about 0.1%? Or how about just within the G8?’ etc etc. They are essentially static, which is what makes them easy to measure and capture. Problematics, on the other hand, operate in a realm of moving desires and subjectivities. They are dynamic processes that are indivisible, and it’s in this intensive aspect that changes happen. Think about a demonstration: you can measure it by the number of participants, or the value of damage caused. Looked at this way, a demonstration of 5,000 is half as effective as one of 10,000. But the level of anger, or the feeling of powerfulness, or the degree of collectivity are intensities that can’t be measured in the same way.
Alex, Brian, David, Keir, Nate and Nette freely associated to produce this piece, but we were helped along the way by countless others, especially people around the CommonPlace social centre in Leeds, UK (www.thecommonplace.org.uk). As ever, we’ve pinched ideas from all over the place, but some of our sources should be named. The opening quote is from ‘Biggest victory yet over WTO and “free” trade. Celebrate it!’ by Olivier de Marcellus (http://info.interactivist.net/article.pl?sid=06/08/18/0417238&mode=nested&tid=14%3Cbr%20/%3E). The extensive and intensive concept is from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Paul Hewson’s article in Shut Them Down! is a thorough account of the politics behind Make Poverty History and the lessons to be drawn from it (www.shutthemdown.org). The exchange between Fairfax and the Levellers is lifted from Ian Bone’s brilliant Bash The Rich (Tangent Books). Comments, criticisms and communication welcome: the.free.association[at]gmail.com. Our virtual home is www.freelyassociating.org