"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)
A Happy New Year to all!
It seems that the holiday season has ushered in a period of reflection, debate, and disagreement within the growing student movement here in the UK (not to mention the wider anti-cuts campaign). If the first wave of protests were a symbolic success, how to now move forward remains a predictably thorny issue. At stake is the relationship between the very aims of the movement and the organizational means for achieving such aims. Laurie Penny’s December 24th article in the Guardian has certainly drawn attention to many of the issues at stake here and has prompted a number of responses including Alex Callinicos in the Guardian as well a post by Lenin’s Tomb, a response by Penny in the New Statesmen, and a further reply by Callinicos (scroll down to bottom of post by Lenin’s Tomb).
If I have enjoyed Penny’s writing on the new student movement, I do have some reservations with her post-ideological reading of the protests. Penny may rightly impugn the “old organizational structures of revolution” with their ideological heavy-lifting and outmoded politics, but is there not a risk that we simply replace the last rites of a “Petrograd-enactment society” with the empty theatrics of a Downing St. Rose Garden .
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that the kind of creative and committed activism lauded by Penny is in anyway similar to the vacuous post-political settlement advocated by the coalition with its baleful “new politics” sloganeering (see her excellent critique of the recent appointment of Simon Hughes as the friendly “face” of higher education cuts). But I do worry a little that there is something of a discursive homology between her critique of older forms of leftist organization and the coalition’s own attack on traditional parliamentary politics. It has, of course, been business as usual in Whitehall while Penny’s passionate appeal to a new form of resistance has, in contrast, highlighted the potentiality of assembling a genuinely progressive politics. But does this mean that we need to “de-regulate resistance” as she suggests? Isn’t there a danger in attempting to retrofit the language of neo-liberalism for progressive ends? Are we ultimately talking about a form of situationist détournement or the general subsumption of protest under the kind of capitalist realism described with such acuity by Mark Fisher?
I suppose my worry is that the political Right has always been remarkably successful in adopting and reworking the strategies and tactics of the Left (cue recent and ongoing discussion on mutuals: here and here). If the protests and occupations over the past few months have exposed austerity politics as so much “ideological flim-flammery” (I’m adopting a phrase of Penny’s), is there a risk that such a “reimagining of the British Left” becomes equally exposed to the machinations of counter-revolution and the forces of reaction. How do we avoid the “capture” and transmutation of real politics by the sectaries of new politicking?
I am not, it should be said, endorsing a return to the SWP as a workable model of alterity or resistance nor do I wish to see a return to petty factionalisms or “old hierarchies.” Rather, and building on Penny’s recent posts as well as those of some of her interlocutors, I want to endorse a view that reconciles vigorous theoretical debate (and disagreement) with practical planning and organization. While this should encourage us to re-read our Debord, Deleuze, and Negri, it should also prompt us to return to the Marx that penned the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoléon. And all of this also says nothing of the many practical lessons learned and still to be gained and shared (see the following thoughtful posts from the UCL occupation: here, here, here, and here). Whatcver the case, the student protests have made a strong case for re-claiming education as a public good and I think there is considerable potential here for composing a broad coalition of groups that share a concern with what it might mean to re-invent the commons. As Lauren Berlant has pointed out on her blog, “the crisis of the university is the crisis of publicness, of whether there is a general public worth investing in.” For Berlant, it is not enough to respond to such a crisis by making “good arguments” to sustain the current system. Rather it is a case of “generating new combinations and ecologies of relation.” Berlant, to be sure, is writing about the nature of research in the university but I do think that her argument could be extended to the composition of the political in the recent round of protests and occupations. I realize that this may seem to herald a return to a modest ideological commitment but I think it is one that is full of radical possibilities, possibilities that may finally offer a line of flight from the certifiably dead end of neo-liberalism.