Tag Archives: Laurie Penny

Review: Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest

by Edd Mustill

This is the first of two lengthy reviews of books about the student movement that have recent appeared. This review looks at Fight Back! A reader on the winter of protest. The second will look at Springtime: The new student rebellions.

Fight Back! Has been put together largely from blog posts and other articles written contemporaneously to the most heated period of student protest, just before Christmas. Much of the content has been taken from the OpenDemocracy website.

The breadth of the articles is impressive. They include many posts dealing with tactics, some of the more well-known articles of those few weeks such as Laurie Penny’s Out with the Old Politics, and a contribution from a rebel Liberal Democrat peer.

The book is, on its own terms, an important one. The editors have done a decent job collating contributions from what could be called the various “decentralising” trends in the movement (you won’t find anything from the Trotskyist press, but then if you want to read that… go read the Trotskyist press I guess). Perhaps some harsher editing could have cut out repetitive sections in many of the articles wouldn’t have gone amiss, because they are personal accounts from different blogs and tend to repeat the facts of the protests a lot. I’m also not sure why we need to be reminded so many times that all the book’s editors have been caught up in a real police kettle.

The material is very London-centric, dealing with the national protests there and the occupation of the Jeremy Bentham room in UCL in some detail, with few contributions from outside the capital. Nevertheless it covers issues of national relevance.

Protest tactics

Some of the most original articles deal with the variety of tactics used on the pre-Christmas protests. They all favour decentralised, horizontal forms of organisation which, according to Jon Moses, bind activists together through shared experiences rather than ideology (although I’d say the same is probably true for the SWP’s Central Committee…).

In his contribution Markus Malarkey argues: “the strength of the student movement lies in its capacity for dispersal and for spontaneous, creative and autonomous actions that catch the police unprepared and avoid containment.” (p. 311)

This is certainly a tactical strength of the movement, but not really anything to do with its social strength. A failure to get to grips with the latter is perhaps the biggest weakness of the entire volume.

Rory Rowan is similarly a fan of “civic swarming,” the sort of cat-and-mouse protest that occurred on 30th November. Worried that the kettle is being used to defuse and demonise all protests, he argues that, “A step outside the kettle will be a welcome step outside the law.” (p. 235)

Mediaspeak

An admirable emphasis on the importance of radical action runs through the volume, as well as criticism of the media’s coverage of the protests. But some contributions unfortunately lapse back into the language of that same media.

Guy Aitchison’s criticism of the NUS’s famous “glowstick vigil” on the day of the Parliament Square demo is a case in point. He describes “the farcical spectacle of the NUS’ glowstick vigil (candles were deemed against health and safety) of 200 people at Victoria Embankment, whilst 30,000 students marched to Parliament Square to make their voices heard.” (p.55)

Isn’t “marching to make our voice heard” the very same sterile non-protest that other contributions criticise, and indeed that the whole book laudably seeks to downplay in favour of more creative, militant action?

Aitchison again lapses into mediaspeak when he calls the throwing of a fire extinguisher from Millbank roof a “mindless act of aggression.” (p. 69) But how can it be understood as anything other than a part of the Millbank action, however uncomfortable that makes us? Similarly, Paul Sagar condemns a group in Parliament Square “Waving red and black flags, dressed in plain black, with faces covered and snooker balls in hand, these were anarchists in the technical sense… clearly prepared for violence.” (p. 77)

This seems to capitulate to the police narrative of a minority ruining it for the innocents, especially in a protest situation where we know – and the series of eye-witness reports included in Fight Back! Testify – that the police have effectively criminalised us all and will use violence more-or-less indiscriminately.

Politics and space

I’ll admit that when it comes to talking about the spatial element of radical politics, a lot of that stuff goes over my head. I get bored with Debord. I’m at a loss with Deleuze. Nevertheless, even I found some interesting nuggets on the topic which I could understand.

Adam Harper argues strongly that students have used the protests to assert that, far from being the “dreamers” Clegg dismissed them as, they are actually very much rooted in the real world. Slogans about LibDem betrayal and the “This is actually happening” banner that appeared on the marches testify to this, as does the Book Bloc (making ideas literally into instruments of protest).

Talking about the use of music on the protests, Dan Hancox draws an interesting comparison between London grime and punk in the 1970s: “At its best, it’s the most explosive, exhilarating form of music Britain has produced since punk rock: and the repeated playing of two songs at several of the student protests – Tempa T’s ‘Next Hype’ and Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’ – encapsulate that energy” (p. 267)

Punk is always thought about in the context of the “political” 70s. I relish the prospect of Next Hype being the soundtrack to countless future nostalgic documentaries about the political struggles of this decade.

Class and the unions

Class is in some ways the elephant in the room. There’s plenty of talk of the damaging effects of the government’s austerity measures, some very interesting exchanges on the changing nature of the university and the social implications of this,

Despite calling Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s article praising the student protests a call “without parallel in the history of social activism in this country,” (p. 314) most articles don;t go further than talking about making solidarity with others affected by cuts.

Through this there is a danger that everyone’s struggle is seen as auxiliary to everyone else’s, that, rather than the holistic movement that Laurie Penny rightly calls for in her opening piece, we remain a series of sectional struggles united more-or-less through marriages of convenience. We support our lecturers in “their” struggle and hope for their support in “ours.”

Similarly, there is an implication that militant tactics are “our” – that is, students’ – tactics. The unions can have their boring marches and we’ll go off and do our exciting things. Perhaps what needs to now be talked about is how we go about applying militant tactics in the industrial field.

Guy Aitchison is absolutely right to argue that the most pressing question is how to turn solidarity into a fact on the ground. Surely the best way to do that is to start talking about the class struggle that we are all engaged in?

A lot of useful legal and practical information is included in the back, and thanks to the editors for plugging the Unrest alongside other websites in the book’s appendix.

Fight Back! is worth a read, or even just a dip into, to get a flavour of some of the ideas coming from a particular amorphous “wing” of the anti-cuts movement. Everything is readable and clearly written. Taken together, the articles reveal a useful engagement with the tactics of protest and the practical questions of “resistance,” but leave you wondering whether the contributors are thinking much beyond short-term protest and resistance. Nevertheless, as an introduction to last year’s protests; as I suppose what could already be regarded as a historical document, it serves its purpose well.

For details of how to get hold of
Fight Back! click here.

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Filed under Political Strategy, Reviews, Student Issues

The February Theses

by Anne Archist


Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…

 

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.

 

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Filed under Current Affairs, Economics, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

Carnival of Socialism

by Edd Mustill

Welcome to the 52nd Carnival of Socialism and the first to be hosted by the Great Unrest. In light of recent events, we’ll be focusing on an international theme.

Tunisia

While Tunisian events seem to have been eclipsed by Egypt for the time being, they remain important. Follow statements from the leadership of the UGTT union here.

Socialist Appeal describe what they think is the development of some elements of dual power. But Tunisia Scenario has a more sombre assessment. The majority of demonstrators seem to want to give the interim government a chance. The author also reports:

“Since the revolution many of my friends have started wearing Hijab and growing beards (having a long beard and going to prayers could supposedly get you disappeared) and it’s one of the most visible signs of the revolution. We hear a lot in America about regimes around here that repressively enforce Islam, but a lot regimes are just as oppressive in the opposite direction and it’s nice to see people take their basic rights back.”


Egypt

Of far left groups, Counterfire has probably been giving most coverage to the Egyptian protests. Understandably, most of the coverage so far takes the form of news rather than in-depth analysis. Socialist Worker carries some fantastic live eyewitness reporting from Judith Orr. Richard Seymour takes up the question of the army as an unknown quantity. Workers’ Liberty report on the formation of a new independent union federation. Entdinglichung has the press release.

The Egyptian blog Maat carries a detailed description of state repression and the rollercoaster of emotions unleashed by the revolutionary movement. The Arabawy blog is a good one for more eyewitness evidence, and reports that the tax collectors’ union is calling for the dissolution of parliament and cabinet.

Carl at TCF has produced a solid overview of the Muslim Brotherhood and a critique of the line on Islamism taken by prominent SWPers past and present, including Lindsey German, Callinicos, and Chris Harman. Dave Osler is pessimistic about the prospects for a positive resolution to the crisis from the point of view of the left.

Yourfriendinthenorth takes the “Socialist” International to task for keeping Mubarak’s party as a full member (yeah, I know…) until the last possible moment.

What are the prospects for further spreading of the unrest? Paul at TCF asks if the contagion will spread to Algeria. Here is the blog for an overlooked action taken last week by the General Union of Palestinian Students. They staged a sit-in at the PLO’s London offices to kick-start a campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council. Perhaps partly influenced by recent student actions in Britain and/or the movements in Tunisia and Egypt? Tendence Coatesy has a round up of developments in Sudan.

Puerto Rico

Meanwhile the Third Estate is seemingly one of few English-language websites to be following events in Puerto Rico, where a somehow forgotten student struggle has escalated into violent clashes with riot police.

Ireland

The Republic of Ireland has been kicked around and stomped all over by international finance, and is now at the beginning of an important general election campaign. Andy at Socialist Unity has bigged-up Sinn Fein’s anti-cuts credentials and electoral prospects.

WorldbyStorm at Cedar Lounge Revolution predicts a very tough time for the governing Fianna Fail party if recent polling is anything to go by. A Fine Gael/Labour coalition seems likely, and the Labour leadership is criticised here for not countenencing a coalition with Sinn Fein and the Left.

Cedar Lounge also has one of the more unusual election broadcasts, from independent candidate Dylan Haskins.

Britain

Back home, the split in the National Shop Stewards’ Network following the Socialist Party’s decision to push through the launch of a new anti-cuts campaign has provoked remarkably little discussion, perhaps eclipsed by international events. The exception is this thread on Socialist Unity.

The anti-cuts protests of 29th January have restarted the movement after a Christmas lull. The anti-official sentiment was shown in Manchester when NUS president Aaron Porter was chased off the demonstration. Subsequent wobbly accusations of anti-semitic abuse have been discussed on this blog and at Latte Labour, among other places. SSY‘s article is typically scathing. Infantile and Disorderly has a detailed account of the Manchester protest. Truth, Reason, and Liberty has an anarchist perspective, making the point I have tried to make on this blog that the anti-cuts battle is not a debate but a clash of social forces.

HarpyMarx has some good photos from the roving London protests. Latte Labour has a detailed account of Saturday in London, including a critical view of the Oxford Street protesters’ lack of engagement with shoppers.

UK Uncut’s Boots protest on Sunday was met with heavy-handed policing and the use of pepper spray, as detailed on the group’s website. New Left Project carries a report from one of the activists, which includes interesting indications of the attitudes of a police officer and the Boots staff themselves.

RandomPottins’ description of an anti-cuts protest in Brent reminds us that local groups are gathering steam in between the national demos. Hangbitch reports that Barnet Unison is balloting for strike action, although there seems to be very little of this going on nationally, considering the scale of the attack on local government jobs.

Debates around the movement go on. OpenDemocracy is advertising a forthcoming book on the recent protests from an eclectic bunch of contributors. Luna17 posts a short defence of democratic centralism. Although it forms part of a discussion about the Tommy Sheridan saga, it has a place as part of the wider debate about structures that is ongoing in the movement at the moment. Rob Ray decries what he sees as the Trotskyist tactic of setting up fronts. Another form of organisation, that of sex workers, is discussed at The Daily (Maybe) in a guest post from Jane Watkinson.

Owen Jones criticises “traditional” nationalisation, which is an incredibly important point to make.

Sofie at Zetkin is currently writing a three-part post about journalism and the student movement, taking Laurie Penny to task on some issues, which is worth checking out.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party can’t seem to get into the news much. Left Outside sounds a note of caution for those who are too optimistic about Ed Balls’ appointment as shadow chancellor. Darrell Goodliffe at Labourlist wants his party more heavily involved in the anti-cuts movement.

Leftist Lols

The award for Left-Wing Spat of the Week goes to Jacob at the Third Estate and Laurie Penny, who are engaged in a crucial high-level polemic about whether or not one of them is “a cunt.” (Un?)fortunately the comments thread is now closed.

Elsewhere Madam Miaow keeps up with the Julian Assange saga. The man is now being accused of smelling pretty bad.

So that’s our Carnival. The next one will be hosted by AVPS in mid-February.

Let’s give the final word over to Maat:

“Around me, friends are sleeping on couches, on the floor, in any empty space they can find.
I call them friends eventhough half of them I’ve never met before this week, but so many things happened, together we shared intensely charged emotional days that we became friends rapidly.

Yesterday I was terrified, I was freaked out like never before. I was shaking in bed trying to convince myself to sleep. I actually thought of writing a note and posting it on my fridge incase I died. Now I feel elated.

I have lived to see the uprise of the Egyptian people and the downfall of Mobarak. I can dream about having kids and me telling them proudly that I was part of this extraordinary moment.”

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Penny vs Callinicos on socialist papers

by Anne Archist

As has already been discussed on this blog, there has been recent debate over the use of papers by leftist organisations – it wasn’t the main topic of discussion but proved to be a controversial aside that spurned many people to the defensive. I wrote an article criticising the use of publications on the left some time ago (not here); while I think they are important and useful in theory, I also agree that they are behind the times. In the context of the current debate, then, I reworked this article to remove some of the more controversial sections that proved to be opaque or misleading for some readers, and to deal more with the technological opportunities open to use that allow relevancy to be maintained for the 140-character generation. I’ve also dealt with the question of targeting a specific audience and writing for them, maintaining different publications with different roles, etc – this is partly due to the focus of the original article and partly because these sort of questions are inevitably raised when we ask about a possible generation gap, the differing attitudes of existing activists as compared to people ‘outside the movement’, etc.

The status quo

Social movements and political groups generate literature – ‘Organise!’, ‘the Manifesto of the Communist Party’, ‘Steal This Book’, ‘On the Poverty of Student Life’. There is, sadly, a tired formula by which most organisations operate on the left – the regular paper and the less frequent but more substantial magazine and/or journal. There is often substantial crossover in content between these different formats despite their being aimed at different target audiences, and the same issue of the paper may casually throw around words like “dialectical”, yet feel the need to explain who Marx was.

These regular publications will be supplemented by a not-quite-manifesto, and possibly some pamphlets to round off. The statement of purpose will often consist of bland generalisations and be of no use to anyone, though some will break the mould enough to set out a highly detailed programme with no explanation as to the rationale or evidence supporting the proposals, nor any attempt to quantify their effects or costs. Pamphlets are generally abridged classics passed off as original thought or else a thorough collection of (out-of-context) quotes with little or suspect explanation.

But enough of that – presumably if you’ve got here already you know the practices I’m describing without me having to explain them to you. The question is, where do these go wrong, and how do we avoid the same pitfalls?

Next steps?

Obviously I don’t claim to have all the answers – what follows is merely a suggestion of the right directions to head in. I think the left needs to carefully consider the functions (and therefore target audiences) of its publications. If the medium of delivery is chosen, and the content carefully selected and presented, with this in mind then many of the present shortcomings and limitations of leftist publications seem surmountable. We should aim not to bore, confuse, frustrate, patronise, alienate, or mislead our readers. In order to do this, we have to deal with wider issues like the tendency to misrepresent a situation to gain political advantage for a particular group, and so on; but not only this, we also have to address our modes of communication. Differentiating streams of information in terms of their complexity and nature, writing for an audience, being fair in our representation of other interpretations/tendencies/etc – all of these things will help to retain readers, maximise their understanding, and so on.

Not only this, but with effective use of different media (particularly modern technology), the circulation of the text within its target audience can be most effectively increased and costs can be kept down; imagine a paper operating almost entirely via a website, publicising new articles and breaking news via twitter, with downloadable video and audio content recorded on (and playable on) a mobile phone, etc. This is not to say that physically printed material doesn’t have its advantages (such as accessibility without an internet connection) – but a stubborn insistence on the physical paper as a panacea overlooks the social and technological shifts taking place in the social networking age.

Writing for different purposes and audiences

Nothing about the function of a publication or the audience it is intended for dictates or implies a particular medium, a particular relationship to modern technology, etc. Obviously it may make more sense to keep up to date with modern technology for a publication aimed at students; the point I want to make here is simply that a ‘paper’ or ‘magazine’ can be run online and may take different forms even within this – a news site might operate a soundcloud account to upload speeches and interviews, a youtube account to upload videos, etc with all of this content integrated into the site; on the other hand it might focus on text and one or two images for ease of mobile access. I’ll say that again since people often overlook it – when I say ‘paper’, I don’t necessarily mean something that is printed up, produced and sold on a regular basis, and so on; the key factor is the size and nature of its audience, the content and purpose of the text, etc. A twitter feed can be a ‘paper’ inasmuch as it breaks stories, while an actual newspaper may be a ‘journal’ inasmuch as most of the space is devoted to historical articles, theory, debate between factions, etc.

Not all types of publication need to be as frequent as they often are – socialist papers rarely break news, so perhaps it would be better in some cases to provide a monthly or quarterly review of the key news stories of the period, approached from a different angle to the mainstream media, and focus on giving a more thorough treatment to fewer stories. Being frequent and timely in no way makes an accessible political analysis more compelling. Most freely-accessible publications should be as widely circulated as possible, using twitter and facebook to spread ‘hooks’ accompanied by links, etc; an irregular publishing schedule may make the updates unpredictable, but spreading notification of them will help counteract this (and of course many websites allow readers to subscribe for various types of notification via e-mail).

Not everyone has the same level of political sophistication, is equally up-to-date with the news, etc. In some cases we want to write easily-digestible class-conscious political analysis which questions the establishment without sloganeering or throwing around terms like ‘socialist’ in ways that may simply invite/enflame prejudice and alienate people. Paper-sellers often boast about how unperturbed people are by the proud socialist banner on ‘Workers’ Power’ or ‘The Socialist’, but this shows an ignorance of the inherent bias in their information – they will rarely, if ever, speak to the person who crossed the street to avoid them, whereas they will speak to the person who crossed the street to buy a copy! There will undoubtedly be a certain element of ‘lowest common denominator’ language and spin involved in making something accessible to the masses, but I see no reason to think that this dooms us to xenophobic knee-jerk responses and the like, despite their frequency in the mainstream. This type of publication’s circulation may be aided by some degree of research and dialogue with those who actually read it – this is probably true for most publications, in fact, but seems particularly important when it is aimed at an audience that are necessarily less forgiving due to consisting mostly of people outside the movement.

Keeping up with the possibilities

Modern technology is also bridging the gap between ‘online’ and ‘physical’ media, meaning that the very article I’m writing now takes account of a distinction that may become insignificant within just a few years. One good example of this is the increasing availability of smartphones making it easier than ever before to easily access encoded information on the move, transfer files between devices, etc. With the right apps it might take only a few waves or taps to transfer (via Bluetooth) a .pdf of the latest Socialist Worker; in time, carrying around bulky papers and running out during a successful paper sale may be a thing of the past – right now we can get started on minimising it, at least. Similarly, barcode-scanning is relatively quick and easy on modern phones. A two-dimensional QR code or traditional one-dimensional barcode could be printed onto flyers to link to a more extended text, or barcode stickers could be used to promote the homepage of a publication or ‘who we are’ page on a political group’s website (with information on how to join at the bottom, presumably).

Consider the many media used by the BBC and the flexibility with which they are presented: images, video and audio (both self-contained and integrated into text articles); social networking (twitter accounts, facebook page); text articles online (formatted for use on desktop or mobile devices); easily-accessible ‘share’ and ‘print’ functions, update notifications (via RSS feeds, e-mail bulletins, etc), podcasts, message boards, all topped off with accessibility advice for those with visual impairments and so on. If we can do even half of these things while still making it easy to use and attractive to look at, we’ll be doing very well indeed!

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Tactics and leadership: A summary of the debate in the student movement

by Edd Mustill

This is most likely the last post of the year. A big thanks to all (both?) our readers, and here’s hoping for an Unrestful year in 2011.

It’s been good to see so many comrades using the Christmas break to think about the nature of the student movement and where it is going. The following is just a summary of some of the main contributions to the debate from around the internet, with some of my own thoughts thrown in. Apologies if I’ve missed out any contributions; this is not an exhaustive list.

Most controversy has been created by Laurie Penny’s polemic with Alex Callinicos of the SWP. Penny wrote an article attacking “the old politics” and much of the “old left” along with it. Rightly dismissive of the Labour Party’s attempts to attract young people by offering membership for 1p, Penny says that the new activists “have no time for the ideological bureaucracy of the old left.”

Callinicos responded by arguing that the student protests have actually been quite traditional in form, making the interesting point that “the crowd” as a political beast is centuries old. This does, I think, gloss over the possible significance of some of the demos; the “wild demonstration” on 30th November when thousands of people ran miles around London to avoid police kettles is something without precedent in modern times. Callinicos also puts across the SWP’s perspective that a general strike is basically a necessity ASAP. There should be more explanation from those sections of the Left calling for an immediate general strike as to how it would be brought about and what its political role would be, although perhaps that is a debate for another post!

Penny’s response touched on a theoretical justification for her position that I would be interested to hear her elaborate further:

“The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities. Thatcher, Reagan and Blair deregulated oppression. In order to be properly effective, rebels have to deregulate resistance.”

Does she mean that the state has been decentralised? That there are more potential targets for political opposition than there used to be? That movements need to first and foremost think locally? But isn’t it the case that the state is more centralised than ever, and monopoly capitalism as strong as it ever was?

Richard Seymour has picked up on this, warning that such thinking maybe be a symptom of neo-liberalism, rather than a cure for it. He also warns against ideological laxity leading to unprincipled alliances (no doubt some critics of the SWP will chuckle to themselves when they read that). Finally, he makes a brief case for the existence of hard-copy left-wing newspapers as a way of overcoming atomisation in a way that Twitter isn’t capable of.

Billy Bragg, whose political degeneration continued at speed with his desire to get four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence to Christmas number one instead of an actual song, is totally wrong to say that the British Left has historically suffered from “ideological nitpicking.” The exact opposite is true: the British Left has always been laced throughout with hardcore empiricism, and a rejection of the importance of theory.

In this sense, those who claim that the movement doesn’t, or shouldn’t, care about ideology have more in common with the old left bureaucrats than they would ever care to admit. Trade union leaderships have always shied away from theory as well. In fact, bureaucracies manage to cement their control over organisations and movements precisely when no theoretical or ideological challenge arises against them.

This is something that Liam has already replied to on this blog, in particular flagging up the dangers of discarding theory too lightly.

This is not to suggest that anyone who is anti-Trot is anti-theory. Far from it, as Patrick has shown on this blog.

Guy Aitchison, at the New Left Project, and James Meadway, at Counterfire, have been discussing the implications of a centralisation of leadership in the movement. Meadway frankly discusses the unevenness of the movement, and argues that the militant actions of students are a direct result of their lack of economic agency – students have to be more radical in order to be noticed at all. Meadway is essentially arguing for students to “turn to the class” without giving up leadership of their own movement.

Also at NLP, FE student Sophie Burge looks forward to more political radicalisation in the fight to save EMA, and predicts, with good reason, that the student movement will develop into a more generalised anti-cuts movement. How and why this will happen is definitely something we need to look at more in the immediate future – how can “the student movement” retain all the militancy that has made it so significant while it reaches out to the “traditional” workers’ movement?

Something that has begun to worry me about some views from “anti-leadership” activists is a lack of perspective on the movement’s significance and size. Paul at Though Cowards Flinch has noticed this too, and defends the traditional far left for, well, engaging in class struggle. He has a warning for us:

“If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.”

For example, as someone who had grown weary of years of boring marches, I agree entirely with Jon Moses’ praise of new forms of protest, but the claim that they are part of a “new political mood” needs to be critically examined. I think what is happening at this stage is more a quiet polarisation than a general radicalisation. We shouldn’t forget that, in the grand scheme of things, only a handful of schools were hit by walkouts, and even at the majority of university campuses little or nothing has happened since November 10th so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Jon also seems to contradict himself: arguing that set piece battles with the forces of the state have given protesters a “political education”, he then goes on to say that such situations are outliving their use, and that we should be decentralising direct action into smaller, faster, more local protests like flashmobs. Nevertheless, discussions of what specific tactics to use on demos themselves have been rare, and it’s good to see this question being raised.

Jo Casserly of Revolution at UCL has raised a significant point; that the aim of the movement should be to bring down the government “by any means necessary.”

On leadership, Jo says something I agree with completely: “…my feeling is that those who praise the ‘leaderless’ nature of our movement are seeing what they want to see, and are often leaders themselves.”

“Leadership” is a word that raises the spectre of bureaucracy in the minds of many people, who are right to be wary given the history of the socialist movement in the last century. Perhaps it’s time we defined leadership in terms of a political phenomenon rather than a group of individuals on a Central Committee. All the most politically conscious elements within the student movement constitute a leadership of sorts. Whoever is behind Network X’s leaderless gathering in Manchester on January 15th / 16th, is part of this leadership too whether they would care to admit this or not.

Harpymarx has picked up on this with a call for collective leadership rather than an abandonment of leadership, staking a claim for the Labour Representation Committee as a model of such practice.

Other things worth reading that, for reasons of space, I’ll only mention briefly: The Really Open University have reproduced an interesting piece from Italy about the student movement there, which concerns itself, among other things, with the question of violence on protests. Alex Snowden at Luna17 has five tactical questions for us to consider.

A large proportion of the volume of material being produced has come from a relatively small number of places (UCL, Leeds), but it’s good to see comrades giving serious thought to serious questions. Hopefully, this will continue into the new year and beyond. Let’s keep talking, debating, campaigning, and fighting.

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A further contribution to the debate: ideology and the movement.

by nineteensixtyseven

Yesterday Patrick wrote an interesting commentary on two of the most polarised perspectives on the student movement.  In contradistinction were posed a ‘Leninist’  model of organisation and an ‘autonomist’ Marxist critique.  I, however, would like to address another aspect of the debate which I feel will become very important as the movement enters the new year: that of ideological direction.

I must admit to feeling uneasy reading Laurie Penny’s recent contribution in the Guardian on the ‘old politics.’ Although I have no real time for several of the organisations mentioned there seemed to me to be in the piece a conflation of ideology and organisation (‘ideological bureaucracy of the old left’)  and a premature rejection of both.  I will not address the topic of organisation in great depth because I have not yet formulated my thoughts on the topic, save to say that yes- parliamentary democracy has become utterly discredited in the eyes of many members of our generation.  This is not just because of the betrayal of the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees but is a consequence of the decade or more of ideological triangulation, of which the coalition government is perhaps the logical conclusion.

At the risk of addressing an argument that was never explicitly made (and if have done so, forgive me), that is not to say that we should ignore the parliamentary process or refuse to engage tactically with existing parties if suits us (see here).  The fact that students have been demonstrating outside Parliament Square is a tacit admission that the neo-Gothic palace hiding behind lines of riot police still matters and the pedantic parliamentary numbers game still count.  Let us not ignore that fact along with our well-founded distrust of the ‘usual channels’.

However, returning to ‘ideology’, one passage struck me in particular:

‘At the student meetings I have attended in recent weeks, ideological bickering is routinely sidelined in favour of practical planning. Anarchists and social democrats are obliged to work together alongside school pupils who don’t care what flag you march under as long as you’re on the side that puts people before profit.’

No one would deny that endless meetings characterised by stale rehearsals of well-worn arguments are exhausting and often pointless.  Nevertheless, in my experience of the Cambridge occupation the balance almost tipped too far, with practical concerns consuming most of our time at the expense of political debate, and the whole endeavour at risk of becoming a circular end in itself.  It was Bernstein who wrote that ‘The final goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me: the movement is everything.’   This formula was a license for, at best, a rudderless empiricism which saw the Second International put off answering how they hoped to achieve Socialism until it dropped the question altogether.  At worst it was a carte blanche for brazen opportunism.  There are lessons to be drawn from that experience.

Marx, it is true, marked his exit from the realm of traditional philosophy with the exhortation to action but let us not pretend that the absence of ideology is a neutral plain.  In so far as ideology is meant in the pejorative sense, as narrow and closed system of thought which by means of its own internal laws of motion has sailed adrift of reason and reality, I am in complete agreement with the author’s sentiments.  However, in so far as it represents the mental framework by which we interpret and understand the world around us, its absence lays the trap of an empiricism which by its very nature is imprisoned in the iron cage of society’s dominant discourses.

‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,’ which are themselves ‘nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.’  In place of objectivity and the value-free selection of the ‘facts’ substitute a muddled and unclear derivation of ideology unconsciously framed by the prejudices of the ruling class masquerading under the guise of ‘common sense.’  No, it is only by developing a clear understanding of what we are against and, most importantly, how it functions as a system that we can hope to enact change.  No one would propose to a General that he set out without a map, a clear knowledge of the topology and the strategical and tactical lessons to be drawn from this information.  At the risk of sounding obvious, we have to plot a route for 2011 which takes us beyond January 29th and the next flash occupation of a high street clothing store.

These questions have a bearing for the tactics of the movement because only by assessing things in totality can we make a judgement of the relative importance of, say, potential targets of protest.  As the flashmobs were mentioned let us posit that our understanding of tax avoidance is presumably wedded to some notion, however vague, of the state-capital nexus.  Our conception of the relationship between the state and big business, then, informs the demand that Topshop pay its fair share of tax.  This demand is open to all sorts of questions but only by thinking through the broader issues involved can we judge the merits of continuing this form of protest, both in terms of political principles and the efficacy of the tactic.

Laurie is quite right that part of this movement’s strength lies in its creativity and inventiveness.  It would be tragic if this was subordinated to overly bureaucratic structures and smothered in its infancy.  Nevertheless, now that we have recovered from heady fumes of Millbank, it is time before the next big rally to engage in some much-needed dialogue and discussion on the way forward.  This is not a call for a reversion to our own respective comfort zones but quite the opposite.  Indeed, perpetual action is at risk of becoming its own comfort zone as difficult questions are postponed indefinitely.  Rather, it is a call which echoes Edd’s point that people need to have a serious think about politics and rediscover the traditions (if they ever existed) of earnest political debate, shorn of petty point-scoring and ad hominem attacks.  I don’t pretend to have the answers about how we can square the circles of individual creativity and collective action on the organisational and intellectual fronts.  I hope though that I have made some contribution towards asking useful questions.

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