March 22, 2013
[originally published in The Commune, July 2010]
by Nicholas Beuret
There have been a number of articles in recent issues of The Commune reflecting on what kind of organisation it should be. Indeed, many in the radical left have returned to questions of organisation as a result of the decline and dispersal of the protests and projects of the ‘networked’ anti-globalisation movement.
Somewhat surprisingly there is a great deal of agreement across the radical, conservative and traditional political spectrum that the purpose and function of political organisation is to produce propaganda, agitate, debate and discuss. That is to say, the left wing version is of a form of politics that is stuck in a loop of producing pamphlets, newspapers and websites, and hosting debates and conferences. Almost universally the question of politics is posed as one of communication, and political organisation as bringing together people with the same political understanding or perspective – be they anarcho-syndicalists, the EDL, feminists, social democrats or left communists –to set ideas into motion; to create a like-minded movement through common political positions and analysis.
But a rupture in the consensus of what constitutes politics and resistance is not only necessary but urgent: our point of departure needs to start from the question of organising from within moments of resistance and existing conflict, and it is only from there that we can move to the circulation of theory and ideas.
To be sure, the circulation of ideas, the creation of spaces for debate and discussion, and analysing current configurations of events are all essential elements for the development and growth of movements, especially movements that are antagonistic to capital. But they are not enough in and of themselves: their value is in their operation within such existing movements. Taken to its logical conclusion we can say that a text such as this one will not spark workplace resistance, or a community struggle, or build collective power at any level, unless there is somebody present to take up the ideas and use them in the mobility of conflict. As a pre-requisite, antagonism needs bodies that feel the necessity to act (be it through coercion or desire). What follows is the need to start from moments of resistance and move towards ideas through a reflectivity to that resistance.
Here it is necessary to add that I am writing of movements because of all the forces that shape and change society, if we are not to entrust our fate to luck or accident, or some kind of ‘faith’, then we need to create a force that has the power to fundamentally change the world – social movements are the only human force that we have that can do this. Only a broad social movement, full of complexity, collective memory and mass struggle, the full circulation of ideas and a diversity of bodies in action wield the power to transform society at its most fundamental level. I speak of them in the plural as rarely does there exist a moment in time where conflict is at such a level as to threaten all of society that it is threatened only from one movement.
If it is necessary to understand that such a movement does not yet exist it is equally necessary to locate and value the resistance and conflict that does – this much is obvious. For these moments of resistances to become a movement however, they need to exist as more than just a series of isolated events and incidents. They need to become common – with a shared language of struggle and collective vision for the future. There are some who view this common as ever-present, waiting to emerge with the right objective conditions or level of conflict. But this perspective operates from a location ‘outside’ of the multitude looking in. At it’s worse this means that radical political ideas or positions are seen by those holding this perspective as something necessarily imposed or imported into a space or site of struggle to produce a political common – either through some form of education (by a vanguard of left wing militants or intellectuals) or, conversely, existing as some kind of impediment to the real movement (as is the view of much of the ultra-left).
However, our shared history of struggle shows, objective conditions do not necessarily breed revolt, and revolt can occur even when people have ‘bread, and roses too’. Objective conditions are at best an indication of the potentiality and location of struggle, and not a barometer of the high or low levels of resistance, let alone a guarantee of shared or collective resistance.
Social movements that can bring about the necessary resistances and insurgencies capable of creating a sustainable and common future are built through our actions – ‘our’ because when we talk of the radial left we need to be able to locate ourselves within the multitudes, not set apart from them. Many revolutionary groups make the mistake of seeing themselves as apart and separate from the multitudes (or working class), holding some kind of special knowledge that others do not. And because of this they see their task not as to organise or resist, but to either rescue, save, help, educate or commentate on the actions of others.
The only difference between those people in the radical left and those who are not is that the radical left shares a common political perspective, and nothing is more ordinary that for people to come to a particular view with others. Clearly, the people in the radical left are not separated from the multitudes, and neither hold privileged information nor have access to something others do not. They hold a critical perspective on capitalism and the state, and a view that radical transformation is needed – to create a new world in place of the old. The question is how does this perspective come about – how is an anti-capitalist perspective made?
Wherever there is resistance there is power and at the same time wherever there is power there is resistance, however minor, however hidden. Acts of resistance occur when people either feel compelled to act and either take action or seek out others to act with. A single action becomes something more when somebody else sees their own desires to resist reflected in the actions or words of others. Collective resistance starts with a visible act of defiance that people can see themselves in. The crucial element here is proximity – how close is the act of defiance? Here I am not talking of physical distance, but something less tangible – of the distance between lives and experience. By this I mean workplace experiences, cultural differences, functions of the state and other social-religious institutions, as well as personal distances such as friendship networks and community ties (‘imaginary’ or not). Proximity allows for the creation of a common – both a common enemy or problem and a common language to organise collectively through.
Individual resistance becomes a collective struggle when people are moved to act collectively on a common problem through a common language. The problem doesn’t have to be a simple or singular thing – it can be a threat (nursery closures), a systemic problem (climate change), an act of state (the Poll Tax), a workplace struggle (a restructuring), or any other issue that can be named and that affects more than one person. And the language does not have to be a matter of words – office occupations are a common language for many students, strikes for many workers or resistance camps another for climate or border activists. What is clear though is that the problem has to be deeply enough felt to move people and commonly enough felt to a great number of people.
Into this field of the common re-enters proximity. A thousand individuals scattered across Europe is not a moment of collective resistance if there is a lack of proximity. Proximity, as well as allowing for the development of the common, allows for the organisation of resistance. In returning to proximity we need to note that while it is not merely a matter of physical proximity, the actual distance between us also matters. To struggle in a workplace, you need people in that workplace to struggle together to be effective. To stop public service cuts, you have to all be living under the same governmental regime. Here we need to note that the site of struggle and proximity are not the same thing (but they are related) – a local football club can form the basis for a strike committee; a book club can form the nucleus of a fight against public service cuts. Proximity is inscribed on the terrain of struggle, and is different for each problem we face. Through common problems and in a common language, collective struggle becomes possible.
The anarcho-syndicalist contribution
“In order for the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of their oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation they can transform. This perception is necessary, but not a sufficient condition by itself for liberation; it must become the motivating force for liberating action”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Proximity, terrains and commons are necessary for collective resistance but not enough. One last thing is needed. People need to understand that the world can change through their actions. And this is something that cannot be explained solely through text but must be embodied and experienced. More often than not, merely knowing something is not enough to bring bodies into action, nor does knowing you are oppressed necessarily mean you understand you can change things. We have and continue to learn that resistance is formed and operates through the act of resisting. We learn about power, oppression and ourselves through our acts of defiance. About how to put in motion constellations of actions with the desire to create, disrupt and transform. It is through action we develop our consciousness.
A useful contributions to our understanding of how people make the shift from understanding to action comes from the history of anarcho-syndicalism, as Nappalos shows in his paper The anarchosyndicalist contribution to the theory of revolutionary consciousness. Nappalos makes four important points.
The first is that it is people are radicalised through struggle. It is not through understanding your situation or oppression that you are moved to resist, but by understanding you can change your situation through action. This is learnt in struggle, and nowhere else. It is only through struggling, or being in proximity to somebody struggling, that we can know that we can change the world.
The second is that consciousness is formed not only from within the hegemonic ideas of the time (born from the dominant power structures) but also arises from within the activities and social organisation of the multitude. The self-activity of the multitude generates consciousness through the construction of other ways of being and living. Our daily experiences of life outside of exchange and oppression teach us about other ways of being in the world.
The third is that our organisations and institutions of resistance – our organs of struggle – provide the deepest anti-capitalist education. By building our collective power in the pursuit of our common interests, and through a common language we start the project of creating the visible possibility of another world, a possibility that people can both see and live here and now.
Finally – and with this point we return to the questions of proximity and the common – the history of anarcho-syndicalism shows us that “revolutionary ideas cannot be artificially planted. Workers become receptive when these concepts are confirmed and reflected in their own experience.” Dolgoff, The American Labour Movement: A New Beginning.
Towards an anti-capitalist movement
On a terrain where a multitude of struggles exist together in proximity, the development of ideas through a common language reflecting peoples experiences would be a strong contribution to the development of a communist movement. But this is not the situation we find ourselves in. At the moment we are scattered, disconnected and not in a position of strength. The task at hand is not to throw our energy into the development of an already existing movement, but to create the possibility of the movement itself.
Here we should note the anarcho-syndicalist contribution also states that collective resistance is not enough. There are limitations to basic local struggles and that a moment of transition from the local to the global is needed. There is a current of thought in the radical left that sees the development of a revolutionary consciousness as something that comes spontaneously, either through objective conditions or through struggle. And while there is some evidence that this has been the case on rare occasions, it is fair to say that it would seem to be the exception – more often than not workplaces struggles or community resistance campaigns do not result in revolutionary militancy. Most of the time struggles remain located within their terrain, not transcending the limits of the contest (the wage claim, service provision, etc). If the spontaneous movement from the local struggle to the global fight is rare, then what hope can we have for an anti-capitalist movement?
If we reject the idea that spontaneity will ever be enough then we are left with the necessity to create bridges from specific moments of resistance to a bigger, broader struggle: from any one workplace or community struggle to the necessity of an anti-capitalist movement. And this is where we come back to the purpose and potentiality of radical left groups.
Communists like us: notes on organising
The function of organisations within the radical left in periods where we are weak as a class is to be involved in creating the possibility of the movement. We do this both through direct involvement in struggle and by providing a space for the development of a collective vision, created through discussion, debate and reflection. To circulate and generate ideas is the second step however – first there is a necessity to build collective power through specific struggles from within the terrains we find ourselves. We need to start from those spaces we are in proximity to and organise collective resistance. It is from there we can start to create a common language and collective vision of our future as it emerges from our daily experiences. This is the lesson the Zapatistas tried to teach us prior to the cycle of summit protests but that we failed to learn well. Our principle relationship has to be to struggle. Only then can we start the process of debate and discussion, but from within a common space and with a language developed within, and not outside of, a specific set of experiences and terrains.
And this brings us back to the question of organisation. A pluralist form is one that will allow the maximum collective organising effort without falling into some kind of substitutionalist or vanguard pretention. If we start from where we live – from the terrains we find ourselves in – then we can avoid such pitfalls. And if we have no single ‘organisational line’ but construct our vision for the future through a common language born of our collective struggles, then we will avoid the folly of seeing ourselves as bringing the ‘truth’ to other peoples struggles, or seeing ourselves as able to educate people as to the ‘reality’ of their oppression. People are well aware that they suffer. What they do not necessarily know is that this can be changed, that together we can resist. To resist is not to rescue or to save the other – people must take the first steps of their own revolt. Insofar as we resist, there remains an ongoing question of the balance between autonomy and solidarity.
Ultimately we will need to focus our social imagination. We start with our desires and the possibilities of other ways of living created through our struggles. From these we are able to articulate a vision of another world that speaks to people and reflects their own desires and experiences. But that will come with time. For now, we need to be able to start to organise and to decide together to initiate struggles. We need to collectively organise around potential sites of conflict that are close to us. We also need to choose those spaces that open up the possibility of alternatives – alternatives where we can act collectively through our experiences. And we need to develop a common language based in the terrains in which we resist, able to reflect both our collective experiences and describe a common vision of the future.
Revolution is a transition, not a sudden rupture, and the alternatives we develop in the here and now will form the basis of the new world. There is an open question as to where we should collectively decide to put our efforts. My sense is that unless we move beyond the wage and workplace struggles into the spaces of social reproduction – essentially the transformation of social and public services, as well as those ‘essentials’ such as energy, housing and food – we will not be in a position to transcend capitalist social relations, but merely to improve our lot within them, which history shows us to mean at the expense of others.
Regardless though, it is through organising and developing these alternatives that we will build a communist movement, and it is as an organising network that we should go forward.
“We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present”
(Deleuze &Guattari 1994: 108; What Is Philosophy?)
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