Saturday, March 19, 2011
Towards a new model commune posted by Richard SeymourI was asked to post this online, so here it is:
talk at ICA 19.03.11
(25 minutes in, if you want to watch).
What are we fighting for? I think we're fighting for self-government. I think all of our efforts so far have been a way of saying that we should be collectively in charge of our own lives. I think, whether we conceive it in this way or not, this means trying to move beyond the public; not so much new publics, but post-public. This is not just because notions of publicity are gendered and historically elitist - and by the way, Dan Hind's recent book 'The Return of the Public' is an excellent account of this - but because the public-private dichotomy is part of the means by which we are maintained as dependents. As public citizens we exercise a franchise, but in the private sphere we accept bondage: the discipline of the market compels us to accept it. For most of our waking hours, we cede executive control over our bodily and mental powers to someone else – in the vain hope of one day retiring with a decent pension. Whoops, that’s gone. You’ll just have to save more. But you’ll have to borrow more, because the economy needs you to spend. And we find that in all but the most mundane matters, when it comes to the activities and processes that constitute the major part of our lives, we have no autonomy. We do not govern ourselves.
Even our free time is not really ours. Much of it is spent commuting for a start - the average person's commute is equivalent to four weeks out of a working year. Four weeks - on that tube, that bus, that motorway lane. Think about what that's costing you psychically. Much of the rest is spent recuperating, essentially recovering our ability to labour so that we can go into work and do it all again the next day. And don't forget, of course, that even your free time isn't necessarily your own, because companies now want to organise your fun. Dress-down Friday - because Friday is funday; birthday parties, and office drinks, team-building outings, sporting days. Your fun, your enjoyment, your affection, often your time - on their orders. Awkward socialisation with middle and senior managers, stressful, moronic conversations, and long-winded explanations of what goes on in different departments that you didn't ask for, and you don't need. Then there's voluntary, unpaid overtime, worth £29bn a year to the employers - that's called flexibility, and what a good sport you are for doing that.
No more do we govern ourselves in our home lives which all too often become tiny kingdoms, patriarchies in which, among other things, children are acculturated to being ruled by others, and in which the first springs of what I would call 'capitalist guilt' are lodged in place - capitalist guilt is that gut-wrenching anxiety you feel when you're late for work, even though you probably won't get in too much trouble for it; it's the sickly shame that ruins your day when you throw a sickie, and immediately, absurdly start to think "should I go in anyway?" I'm just clarifying my terms.
So, we must be alert to the ways in which, when something beautiful starts to happen, people begin to declare their independence. They begin to run their own lives, to take their rightful part in the running of the whole of society. They exercise their due franchise fully, in every sphere of life. I will not exhaust you with utopian blueprints or detailed analysis of the Paris Commune, or the Russian Revolution, though these repay analysis. But look at the history. In almost every revolution, there are workers' committees, cordones, shurahs, soviets, popular councils, cooperatives, collectives, syndicates of some kind, some attempt to work out the protocols for self-government. Even in protest movements and rebellions short of outright revolution, people always confront the problem of how they organise themselves properly, democratically; sometimes that has to confront issues of oppression, sexual, gendered or racial oppression that can operate within movements; sometimes it just has to do with developing procedures that genuinely include everyone, avoiding majoritarian tyrannies (this is why in the students' occupations, we've seen experimentation with things like consensus decision-making); in striving toward self-goverment, toward the commune in other words, we always encounter unanticipated levels of complexity, but the basic problem remains one of self-government.
So, I want to look at the materials that are available to us to flesh out a 'new model commune', and it seems to me that the best starting point is to look at the tendencies immanent in recent struggles in the Middle East. Here, for example, are some of the features of the revolutionary movement that overthrew Mubarak, and even now is still fermenting in Egypt. First of all, they took over a nominally public space which the state wished to exclude them from access to, Tahrir Square. Having taken it over, and affirmed that they wouldn't simply go home at the end of the day - something we might want to think about - they saw off wave after wave of assault on the protests, from police and plain clothes thugs. They set up committees to keep watch for government men. They set up barricades, and routine ID checks for everyone attempting to enter the square. They set up a network of tents for people to sleep in - it's freezing overnight, so some of them jog round the square to get their temperature up. There are toilet arrangements - no small logistical matter when there are routinely hundreds of thousands of people occupying the capital's main intersection. They rig up street lamps to provide electricity. They set up garbage collection, medical stops - they occupy a well-known fast food outlet and turn it into somewhere that people shot at or beaten by police can get treated.
They set up a city within a city, and collectively coped with many more challenges than the average city would have to face in an average day. There was of course commerce, people hawking food and cigarettes, confident that the whole system of exchange wasn't being overthrown. Yet, far more of their actions were driven by solidarity, collective decision-making, and democratic delegation, than is ever usual for a city. Tahrir Square was the beginnings of a commune. Beyond that spectacular exercise in the capital, the labour movement that had been kicking since the 2006 strikes in Mahalla, was doing something that labour movement's usually don't do. It was starting to strike to demand a change in management. It was striking over the exercise of authority. This had happened in Tunisia, and usually it was because the CEO was some ruling party stooge. But it was the people who normally have no say in the running of the company - and Egypt's private sector economy is overwhelmingly informal, and insecure - seeking to exercise a sort of limited franchise. They did not seek to replace the management of the company with themselves, which would have been the ultimate statement of their confidence in their ability to rule themselves. But they were trying to have a say, and usually succeeded in that. And when the government withdrew the police from local communities and encouraged looting and thuggish behaviour, the people - instead of panicking, and deciding that we can't do without the police after all, please send the uniformed thugs back in Mr Mubarak - organised self-defence committees. Just as in Tahrir, they set up checkpoints, ID checks, and they made decisions about how their community would be run.
Now, this isn't socialism. Socialists were a current in the revolution, but not a big one. The major currents were Nasserists, Islamists, and liberals. And there are all sorts of political struggles that still have to continue - the horrible attacks on women in Tahrir Square on international womens' day shows that this fight has to occur within the revolution. And there's now the prospect that the army leadership will seek to consolidate a conservative ruling bloc with the assistance of the Muslim Brothers, who were an invaluable part of the revolutionary coalition but always the most right-wing element of it. While many Brothers will have been shaken up, radicalised and blasted with ecstasy by this revolution, their core base of small businessmen are probably anxious to get back to making money, and leave the commune behind. Still, the utopian moment of Tahrir Square and beyond showed us some of the lineaments of what a commune might look like. It demonstrated that with opportunity comes competence: that we can, if given the chance, quickly learn and apply the techniques of cooperation, solidarity and self-government.
Lately, our Party of Order - the Tories, the right-wing media, the police, the agents of authority and control - has been most vexed about the challenge posed by the mob, the student protesters. Cameron denounces them as 'feral', and the ideological frame that the media sought to apply, of selfish, solipsistic vandals disrespecting democracy, was ultimately supplied by one totemic incident, that of a fire extinguisher being lobbed from the top of Conservative Party headquarters. This 'mob', they said, clearly doesn't respect democracy. But democracy is not law and order. Democracy is the mob; the mob is democracy.
Democracy is supposed to mean popular sovereignty, not the unimpeded rule of a no-mandate government. It is supposed to mean that the will of the majority governs, not the interests of the rich. It is supposed to mean at minimum that people get the policies they vote for, not those they are overwhelmingly hostile to. In liberal democratic theory, the people are sovereign inasmuch as their aspirations and prerogatives are effectively mediated through a pluralist party-political state. They may not get all that they want all of the time, but the decision-making process will be guided by the public mood, which rival parties must compete to capture and express. Yet this system has only ever been effective to the limited extent that it has been when it has been supplemented by militant extra-parliamentary pressure, by the threat of disruption to stable governance and profit-accumulation. To the extent that the parliamentary system is ever really democratic, it is parasitic on a much more fundamental popular democracy. This reality, be it ever remembered, should exhort us to go further than we have, to turn our mobs into committees, shuras, soviets, communes. Let us, in future struggles, pose in practise the material possibility of our self-government.
It is, of course, a long-standing ruling class prejudice that we cannot govern ourselves. Trotsky once said, perhaps incautiously, that the Russian revolution was a gamble on the idea that ordinary working class people could rule themselves, and against the filthy aristocratic prejudice that they could not. His recent biographer, Robert Service, aligns with the Party of Order, insisting that Trotsky was foolish ever to have believed such a stupid thing. No surprises there. Trotsky, and the movements he inspired, hated the Stalinist regime for its savage despotism, the complete lack of genuine autonomy enjoyed by the mass of people. What the Party of Order hate about communism, however, is not what went catastrophically wrong with it, but what is right about it, what is admirable, just, plausible and emulable about it. It is the same thing that they hate about us - and we should welcome their hate, and their natural fear. It shows that their right to govern is no longer assured.