Friday, 3 April 2015

The Indiscipline of Protest

There have been at least two great intellectual failures in the last hundred years - the first is Marxism-Leninism and the second has been the liberal rejection of some of the central insights of the Marxists.

Class But Not As We Know It, Jim

This is not to praise Marxism except as an analytical tool under defined conditions because Marxism is, fundamentally, a poor guide to our human condition. Despite its alleged materialism, it is an idealist philosophy which has been quite historically effective for seizing power. But idealism is intellectually sanctioned lying about the world. Marxism is Hegelian which, in turn, is an historicism derived from the Western Christian tradition which, in turn and philosophically, is ultimately an adaptation of Platonism.

The trajectory from Plato's Cave to the Gulag has been well if simplistically argued by others but the summary is that this Western tradition of idealism is ultimately religious and 'spiritual' and that it can kill when brooked. But the proverbial baby has been thrown out with the bath water in at least two respects. We have forgotten Marx' and Engels' insights that politics and culture derive intimately from economic conditions and that, though each person is greater than his class, there are class interests in politics.

Modern liberal democracy has tried to eliminate the language of class because it is not convenient for its preferred model of professionals organising functional coalitions of special interests and lobbies to share out the benefits of growth - but when growth falters, then Marx becomes analytically relevant.

Where Should We Be Looking

For this reason, in trying to understand what might develop out of the continuing economic crisis, we have to return both to theory and to what is happening where we are not looking - much as in 1910, we might have been wise not to ignore intellectuals in Zurich or school teachers in Bavaria. We should be studying not the machinations of the ideologues of the future (that is the job of the security services) but what they are saying that resonates with those who are either resentful of the current order of things or who are suffering and have the energy to do something about it.

It is that last clause that matters 'who 'have the energy to do something about it' - because there are an awful lot of resentful older middle class people, intellectuals and poor and vulnerable people who sit in their armchairs or on their sofas and have neither will nor ability to act. Liberal democratic hegemony (indeed, all hegemonies) ultimately relies on inaction - that moan in the pub, grumble in front of the TV, meaningless letter to The Times, rant in a Facebook comment. None of this morphs into organisation or action. It is the 'art of being ruled' (Wyndham Lewis' phrase).

In this context, the Occupy Movement, the hackers of LulzSec and the Anonymous operation both fascinated and appalled the establishment some years ago. It alternately tried to contain them within their laws and infiltrate them with progressive rhetoric or secret policemen (the Tsarist model). In the end, these 'protest movements' seem to have collapsed of their own volition, achieving very little.

Who Are These People?

But who were these failed protestors as a class? Not who was behind the 'attacks' or 'occupations' (some might as easily be provocations by the establishment as genuine acts of revolt) but who was participating not only in 'new' models of political action but in confused riots as states weakened? We have written elsewhere about the new anarchism but it is the class base of this movement that interests us here - and further investigation suggests that we were not seeing something new but something very old, the blockage of the aspirations of an educated young by the failed old.

This was a movement of graduates and not of workers (though there is a separate union-driven public sector defence movement whose self interest is so apparent that even middle class liberals can resent their claims) and of persons who are 'cleverer' than their parents. We get back to Marx. As in the print revolution of the 1500s, a revolution in communications has created a new technological and economic structure where value has shifted from one generation to another but where the necessary political or cultural change is lagging.

It is an old theme of these postings. The new technologies are not so much removing the ability of intermediaries to create value for themselves out of their oligarchical control of knowledge (the professionals, if you like) but are making intermediaries of all sorts potentially wholly redundant.

Paul Mason's Analysis

The young who know things the old do not know, including the absurdity of many of the rules designed to hold the old system together, were starting to use new technologies to combine and protest in ways that were entirely new. Their failures hide the fact that methods may have failed but the intent and the revolutionary potential for technology remain. A February 2011 analysis by Paul Mason of BBC Newsnight gave a number of reasons why this needed to be understood and, to a degree, embraced if we are to transit from one world to another without repression and killing. This is our gloss on that work after four years had passed.

  • Young graduate women are emerging who are not stuck in the specific feminist resentments of the older generation but simply get on with practical organisation in their own interest and what they believe to be right. Mason was right that educated women were at the core of protest but what is interesting to observe since his analysis is that the 'feminisation' of protest, conducted in 'feminist' language has developed a counter-reaction from young males not in terms of reactionary politics but political disinterest, a sort of 'why bother?'

  • Ideological formulations are dead as organising principles. There will be Marxists, conspiracy theorists, faith-based loons, environmentalists and liberals but none of them can control a propaganda process or impose an organisational model that can stifle internal dissent or insists on a 'line' to assert political discipline. The very fact of seven party leaders with different interests and ideologies sitting in a row on TV last night (in the UK) to present their wares to the public when only two realistically represented the possible ideology of governance for the next five years (and both of those agree on more than they disagree) tells you something about the emergence of hyper-real politics disconnected from the actual levers of power.

  • An international 'elite' of protesters seemed to be emerging in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 'crash'. They operated quasi-professionally across borders or supplied technical skills across a borderless internet. This is an analogue with the intellectual diaspora dissidents who fuelled the rise of anarchism and Marxism-Leninism. Unfortunately, it became clearer that their history was not only one of political development a decade before (that is, they were ideologues exploiting a situation rather than emergent from the situation) but that a proportion of them were trained and managed during the Arab Spring by State actors seeking easy wins over rival States.

  • The central economic issue remains State and personal debt at a time of lack of employment opportunity. The protests might rapidly disappear with job creation or free education and debt forgiveness but States are in no position to deliver these during the current crisis. The resentments of the young are real but it is not being expressed in revolutionary politics but in evolutionary democratic politics if at all. The real impulse here seems not to be engagement but gritting teeth, getting on with the job and waiting for a righteous revenge when the old codgers start to die off and inflation transfers wealth from the old to the young as recovery gets under way. It may be easier to get on a boat and plane and find a new home than stay in the old one and be left with the burden of paying for the profligacy of parents. Many young people are just voting with their feet.

  • If this problem of a generation without prospects and with old codgers getting in the way is causing difficulties in the West, then it is boiling up to violent proportions in the many countries where there is now a massive demographic bulge of frustrated urban young. And yet this explosive material which might have been assumed to have been progressive because it was young, now turns it to be just as likely to be traditionalist, nationalist and even fascistic when it decides to get off its behind and do something. It is not just that ISIS and other insurgencies are fuelled by the young but that a 'fascist' Maidan 3 lurks around the corner and that the student leaders of the Hong Kong revolt are not modern secular atheists but as likely to be Christians with a hot line to the local CIA man.

  • Organised labour is pretty well bankrupt as a revolutionary force. It has been a conservative force against 'clercs' (socialists) since the 1940s but it has degenerated further into being representative largely of those who are already ensconced within the State since the 1980s (in the UK) - a truly conservative interest at this time. Yes, there is a slow, steady movement by which a new generation of trades unionists (including a strong feminist element linked to the low paid private and public sectors) is reasserting their position on the centre-left but this is happening just as the official centre-left is beginning to crumble under the burden of managing austerity-lite because of the trap it has got into as the primary promoter of 'capitalism with a human face'. 

As for protest as 'fun', this should not be underestimated because contemporary protest seemed to permit people to 'take a day off' and join a camp. There is a history of carnival and, of course, situationist theory to fall back on, quite consciously so amongst urban anarchists. But four years on, the fun has gone out of protest - in the non-Western world, it is clear that people can get killed and, in the West, the magistrates are minded to take a dim view of carnival that destroys property

The educated young activist now has a better understanding of power relations than his forebears and has learned a lot since 2008. Most of it has been a repetition of the lesson of the 2003 Iraq protests - that the system is not responsive and will do anything to ensure its own survival, including violate whatever human rights are to hand if necessary.

The alternative is a level of commitment to organisation and discipline that just does not seem to be worth the effort compared to having fun, mating and building tradeable skills for the future. The young do not run on hope any more but on manipulative skills as effective as those of their opponents - it is just that they are choosing to re-direct those skills now to the game of life rather than political change.

There are mobilising exceptions - such as the Scottish Referendum - but the exceptions point up the problem: elites have to concede the opportunity for change. The moment cannot be seized independently. There is no ideological movement seeking to mobilise the masses for change, just minorities of 'activists' ducking and diving between methodologies and compromising with the very system of power they claim to despise.

Internal Contradictions

The fluidity and lack of ideology is the central weakness in the street. Occupy events proved weaker on the ground than they might have been because they attracted every type of conspiracy nut, weak-minded New Ager and middle class narcissist looking for self-expression. It also brings us back to class because young activists are driven by some understanding of power but not by allegiance to class or, bluntly, any real comprehension of economics.

The situationism in contemporary revolt is there for all to see. I am certainly not saying that the young should adopt Marxist models for success, quite the contrary since the end result would be bureaucratism, authoritarianism and soullessness, but there are issues here of organisation. We are only suggesting, by referring to Marx, that this is, despite its lack of self awareness, a form of class action because it is based, despite itself, fundamentally on economics and on technological changes to the means of production and that this leads to some interesting 'internal contradictions'. The protestors rarely seemed to understand their own condition - they could soon become manipulable mobs.

The intellectual base for rejecting Marxism as anything more than analytical tool is well summarised in a quotation from a French intellectual that Mason offered. Foucault advised Deleuze:
We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation [a nod to Marx], and, to this day [second half of the twentieth century], we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power.
The problem of organisation is a profound one because the current model of power relations only offers inclusion within liberal democratic coalition-building or the sort of bureaucratic organisational ability that allowed socialists to out-manouevre the anarchists between 1910 and 1940.

This is at the very heart of the debates already current in the British trades union movement at the turn of this century. The decision to go the way of a dogged turning around of the official Left (which has nothing much to say to the wider population as we can see in the lack of enthusiasm for Ed Miliband the front man of the movement) rather than recreate a socialist-labour movement to challenge capitalism was inevitable under such conditions. The Labour Movement might effectively and ideologically 'run' the next British Government and yet, while many individuals will benefit in the short term, nothing will have fundamentally changed at the end of their Party's' term of office. The objective conditions for change are simply not present.

The New Anarchism?

The logic of recent protest was different from that of the 'insider' approach but it is was soon very unclear how it could 'organise' anything at all. The fundamental self interest of the young and the Darwinian struggle between memes within that generation suggest that their primary tools are little more than their effect on the market (the rhetoric of action) and withdrawal from the law.

By withdrawal from the law, I mean not lawlessness but something entirely different and potentially more dangerous to the system - forcing the elite to acknowledge that its authoritarianism is unenforceable in any practical sense. The internet language of 'work-arounds' when systems fail springs to mind. But it still requires courage and involves risk in dealing with a system that likes to make examples of people and frighten the rest by publicising their exemplary law enforcement actions.

Solidarity is required to resist the tactic of control through exemplary fear. The fate of recreational drug users provides the template for the failure of an element in the community to challenge their masters through evidence-based analysis and organisation. The protests of 2011, we were told by Mason, were based on 'autonomy' and personal freedom within a democratic framework and (self-evidently) on opposition to state-protected special interests such as Wall Street and the finance markets. But this was the autonomous behaviour of very few people.

Four years on, nothing (and we mean nothing) had changed in regard to those ultimate power relations. Where the agenda had changed (as in the tax avoidance campaigning), it turns out that the prime beneficiary of increased taxes was only indirectly the people - the prime beneficiary was to be the State in its fight to deal with deficits and maintain social cohesion and its war machine.

This is where things start to get confused because if Anonymous and libertarian socialists are anti-capitalist, it is also clear that the Greek riots around the same time (2011) were also about preserving an economic system that was socialist in the worst sense - corrupt at every level including the level of the working classes themselves.

Syriza has proved to be far more interesting since then, offering perhaps the opportunity to structure an anti-corrupt anti-austerity model but it has had to do so by taking on the Goliath of the Franco-German European Project as a David looking for a Deus ex Machina to emerge out of the hearts of stern-faced Teutons and the opportunists in Moscow. This is David without a catapult.

The young Italians coming to London to escape local corruption are in direct class opposition to the public service workers at home expecting to be feather-bedded for life. Anonymous was with the first and Occupy was increasingly representing the last. This was an internal contradiction within the Western protests that was never resolved, any more than the contradiction was resolved between young liberal middle class liberals in Tahrir Square and young and hungry working class Islamists wanting bread and wives.

Conservative Welfarism And Personal Autonomy

On the one side, hackers, anarcho-libertarians and situationists and, on the other, a special interest socialistic coalition of state workers, liberals and communitarians. On the one side, bourgeois liberals wanting a comfortable freedom and, on the other, traditionalists wanting a legal system and socio-economic structure based on Iron Age texts. These are very different movements and they cannot work long together. The 'neo-socialists', for example, tried appealing to the police by saying that they were protesting to protect their pensions (and making headway with that argument), while the libertarians were wondering what the police were doing there anyway.

The State also needs economic growth and surplus capital to impose law and order. Reducing the need for law and order to its core becomes necessary - and this is why we now have a serious public debate on the treatment of sex workers and the war on drugs. Scarce resources were looking at solving the wrong problems - social cohesion and warlord organised crime are now more of a threat than the pleasures of layabouts. There is some complex intellectual negotiation going here - between justification for tax expenditure on guns and butter, about what constitutes threat to the people and what constitutes threats to the State and about public intrusion into private life.

States & Protest

In both the West and the emerging world, it is likely that States and foreign powers quickly started to identify elite operatives in protest networks and became busy in not merely tracking but 'turning' and infiltrating them. Some of the operatives are often well-heeled and not representative of most of the young by any means - state funds can permit other new entrants to rise rapidly. There is also a rather sinister potential turn to events that the more naive activists may not see. As we noted above, State bureaucrats may see protesters as allies in bringing the market to heel and protecting the tax base for precisely the sort of activities that Anonymous was set on exposing.

We noted this as a possibility three or four years ago and the populist assault on HSBC suggests that we were right - and there is more to come. Radicals are easily diverted into a global rights and anti-corporate agenda that neuters any serious opportunity for changes in the structures of power at home and helps to extend markets for domestic corporations. We predicted that an alliance with liberal NGO-based coalitions might be rather convenient for authority when faced by the demands of finance capital so that the heirs of the Occupy and Anonymous movements might become useful in shifting the terms of political trade back towards auctoritas. And this is what was to transpire.

But, yet another issue identified at that time for the protest movements is one already well identified in the mainstream media ... er, what do they actually want? The 'internal contradiction' here is that much of the rhetoric is anti-State and yet jobs and free education can only be provided by a strong State with a decent tax base. Here we have another possible convergence of State and liberal aspirations at the expense of personal autonomy and libertarianism.

Liberty or Jobs?

In both New York and London, the Occupy protesters appeared to be targeting finance capital rather than government and to be drifting from the territory of Anonymous (which emphasised state action as generally 'wrong') to territory associated with socialism and social liberalism (more state is needed). This internal contradiction is profound, mirroring that between anarchism and socialism in the late nineteenth century. It represents the difference between left-libertarian ideology and the self interest of the coalition of the vulnerable threatened with penury by the current crisis. We certainly saw libertarians moving away from the British Occupy Movement as it fell into the hands of the traditional Left (not helped by an Archbishop backing it).

The real reason we are in economic crisis is not 'imperialism' (which is unwieldy and expensive but probably pays its way in market access and access to resources) but the massively greater social spending and job creation programmes of social liberal states without the investment in infrastructure to support it. When Anonymous strikes at US behaviour in Iraq, it is striking at the State as both imperialist and liberal capitalist (including its size and welfare basis) whereas when Occupy protesters seize territory, they eventually want the State to remain big but do the 'right thing' i.e. give them economic prospects and security. But States do not do the right thing. They never do the right thing. They exist to exist and aggrandise power. This is a lesson the Left should have learned from 1917.

Anarcho-Libertarianism or Neo-Socialism?

This internal contradiction is so profound because it is about whether a new generation will be led by neo-socialists wanting to over-turn capitalism by means of the State or anarcho-libertarians wanting to get the State out of the market and stop supporting big capitalists so that communal self-organisation can take place in 'safe space'. Occupy people reluctantly vote Labour or Democrat (or possibly Green) but Anonymous people probably don't bother to vote at all. Anonymous may be the wiser when faced with rule by a Clinton or a Milliband ... The unpredictability of things lies in another point made by Mason back in 2012 - that there are a multiplicity of narratives from which both the young and dissatisfied older citizens can draw. Fundamental world views do not change but the expression of those views can change very rapidly under the influence of the internet. Support or withdrawal of support from causes no longer takes place within a narrative of 'solidarity' or 'loyalty' but one of 'truth' or 'effectiveness'.

This is why older generation liberals are confused and are becoming reactionary. There is now no fixed feminist, black or gay narrative any more than there is a nationalist or working class narrative. There is just 'my' or 'our' narrative according to who I am or to the interest of my adoptive tribe. Constant self development and neo-tribalism mean enormous adaptability and flexibility but they also mean difficulty in pinning people down to organised collective action as opposed to participation in an action organised by others from which they may withdraw at a moment's notice. In this struggle between modes of resistance, nothing is as yet predictable. Church, unions, police and military may join the protesters for a neo-socialist solution or States may have to adapt to situational anarchism by reducing their scope and being better at what they do. Either is possible. We are in flux.