We’ve asked several readers to contribute their thoughts on the way forward for the left after the 2014 elections. The people we invited cover a range of viewpoints from class-struggle anarchist to independent Marxist and include at least one person involved in the Mana Movement.
Rather than invite ‘high profile’ left individuals, who already have plenty of platform space elsewhere, we’ve invited people who have been battling away as much as they can in their own ways across a number of campaigns and groups. We gave them complete leeway in terms of what they wrote, and which question/s they wanted to take up.
This is the third contribution in the series; Olly is a member of Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM) and has contributed pieces to Redline in the past.
by Olly Hill
“Modern capitalism’s spectacularisation of reification allots everyone a specific role within the general passivity.” Situationist International
For anyone who has spent time amongst the various tendencies of the far-left, from anarchist to social democrat and everything in between, it will probably seem the norm that many of the more committed activists turn their political ideals into some kind of full-time paid work. Such work could involve working within the trade unions, pursuing a university thesis on some progressive topic or other, working full time for a community group, climbing the ranks of a political party and so on. In some cases the pursuit of such movement jobs flows naturally from one’s personal or collective political positions; socialist groups send their more ‘alpha’ members into trade union work as part of a project of capturing these institutions and assuming a leadership role amongst the workers. Other times such roles clearly contradict the political principles of those pursuing them, in this case it is often necessary for a moment reckoning to occur, at which point one’s ideological perspective must play catch up with a shifting terrain of daily activity and social relationships. Formerly implacable enemies of the State reassess bourgeois political life and find it is ‘not so bad after all’.
It is my opinion that often times it is those who are most ideologically committed to the total destruction of modern society who are the most likely to wind up playing a role in this society’s reproduction. As 21st century capitalism continues to decompose proletarian social life, turning us all more and more into ‘self-employed contractors’ and the like, it remains the case that the vast majority of the dispossessed class manages to feed and clothe itself without performing heavily ideological roles within the capitalist division of labour. And they’re not even ‘radicals’! Why do so many people seem to pass through the ranks of the far-left milieu before going on to become partisans of ‘green capitalism’, ‘people politics’ and other such ruling class bullshit?
This piece is intended as a starting point for what should be a collective project; an investigation into the mechanisms of recuperation which tend towards sucking ‘revolutionaries’ into heavily ideological roles within the capitalist division of labour, and which therefore endow the revolutionary milieu as a whole with a material interest in the preservation of that division of labour. Where possible we should consider initiatives which may counter this alarming trend.
Cop by day, commie by night!
At the end of 2011 a scandal erupted in the European revolutionary scene when a small Greek group known as the TPTG released information revealing the involvement of John Drury, founding member of the ultra-left communist journal Aufheben, in the development of crowd control policy on behalf of the British police. Having used his involvement in protest groups as the basis for a PHD thesis on crowd psychology (thanks in no small part to the trust he gained from participants which allowed him to conduct many candid interviews) Drury proceeded to develop theories of crowd behaviour which saw him become increasingly embroiled in those sections of the academic world which collaborate with the repressive institutions of the State. Not only did Drury publish research which could be accessed and used by the police, he even went one step further down the rabbit hole by publishing articles in police journals and speaking at police conferences!
What was disturbing about the entire event was the extent to which many self-declared anarchists and other anti-state communists, including other members of Aufheben, rallied around Drury and defended his ‘right’ to pursue such a career. Although this author has no hard research to verify such an assumption, one must suspect that the tendency amongst British anarchists to defend a scumbag police collaborator like Drury emerges from a shared interest in defending such middle class, professionalized methods of self-reproduction.
“I was an anarchist once; you’ll grow out of it…”
The following is based on anecdotal experience of the radical scene in Aotearoa and does not claim to be true in all times and all places. It should also be read as a ruthless critique of myself as well as everything else that exists.
The overwhelming tendency amongst far left activists is to enter the milieu in one’s late teens to early twenties, often whilst studying at university. The student revolutionary goes on to write essays and conduct research around their own pet subjects, they organise around our ‘right to free education’ and generally defend the progressive role of the university within class society. Having run along this particular treadmill myself, it is my own experience that in no cases do radical students mount a serious critique of the university and the way it separates learning from everyday life – thinking from doing. Indeed it is generally the case that even the most radical students will enthusiastically reproduce the disciplinary and hierarchical role of the educational institutions both through political struggle, by defending their proper role as ‘conscience of society’ or whatever and also through the division of labour within the revolutionary milieu.
Eventually the radical student might proceed further up the academic hierarchy or otherwise they finish university and now finds themself ‘betwixt and inbetween’, as the sociological jargon would put it; unsure about how to proceed within a society which has clearly churned them through an educational factory for the sake of assuming a job based around mental labour, a job which to varying degrees will involve participating in the management of this society’s social contradictions. In any case a precedent has been established within the walls of the university where one realises their revolutionary politics through their role within the division of labour, rather than through an attack on that division of labour.
From the material position of the student radical emerges an incredibly partial critique of capitalist society, one which often seeks to preserve the institutions of this society while democratizing or improving them in some way, and which fetishizes consciousness over the spontaneous creativity of the dispossessed class. Whereas an attack on the totality of capitalist social relations, an attack which at the present moment of profound social decomposition is sorely needed, would necessarily involve a conscious desire to overturn the separation between mental and manual labour.
This, the student radical, simply will not do. Not outside of a moment where the possibilities for one’s self-reproduction are intimately tied to the collective liberation of all humanity, a revolutionary moment. Until then the student radical continues to think revolutionary thoughts and participate in whatever campaign sparks their interest and perhaps try to sell their particular brand of ideology to the workers or whoever else, without rooting their attack on capitalist society in their own everyday lives.
Eventually the allure of assuming a comfortable niche within the modern division of labour becomes all too much. In some cases the student radical abandons their revolutionary pretensions and ‘grows up’, as they would put it. One day they might even tell their rebellious teens that they too were anarchists once. In other cases those who hold out the longest, organise the most campaigns, speak at rallies, write press releases etc. realise that plenty of outfits will pay a pretty penny for the skills one gains as an activist. Their political perspective remains ‘progressive’ while more nakedly and unashamedly defending their professional interests.
Far from attaining a greater degree of pragmatic realism, as one’s interests align more and more with the preservation of this society the greater is one’s tendency toward self-delusion and spectacular mystification. After meeting with a colleague to put the finishing touches on their latest crowd control research, John Drury grabs a pint with the comrades and discusses the revolutionary potential of the Tahrir Square occupation.
Where to from here?
There exists within the far left a wide array of opinions concerning the possibility of contributing toward a revolutionary counter-power from within the institutions of modern society; from academia to the media to the trade unions. Although all of these professional roles do tend to fall under the umbrella term of ‘mental labour’ it is not my intention to ignore the differing social functions these institutions play and the possibility of independent activity within them. Nevertheless it is often the case that it becomes incredibly difficult to disentangle a serious analysis of these institutions from the interests of those who work for them. We do all need to feed ourselves and there are times where we may be able to initiate some sort of positive project in the process. Indeed it is clearly the case that it is possible to engage in work as a paid union organiser, for example, and at the same time stick to some basic political principals (although not always).
What we should not rely on is the inevitability of ‘anarchists’ or whoever else behaving in a principled way simply due to their political orientation. Therefore, as a first step toward combating the trends discussed above, comrades involved in full-time work as an activist should be prepared to openly discuss the contradictions of that work and to be held to account should they begin to cross a clear line. Indeed, a discussion around where the line lies needs to be had as a basic starting point. They should also be prepared to abandon that work should its pressures become too problematic.
Those involved with the academic institutions need to make an effort to attack the university rather than defend and preserve it through reform, regardless of how progressive they may consider such reforms to be. This would mean agitating against exams and other disciplinary institutions, exposing reactionaries like Drury and denouncing the totality of capitalist relations rather than simply complaining about the shifting allocation of middle class privilege. This is not impossible; it was in fact a basic ingredient in the revolutionary rebellions which shook France in May 1968 and Italy during various periods, particularly during the Movement of ’77.
Our revolutionary perspective needs to be rooted in a critique of capitalism which emerges from the poverty of our everyday experiences. For some that is easier than others; in my former job as a chef the brutality and stupidity of capitalism was apparent everywhere and I had no investment in any of it. Other times this is more difficult, in fact it becomes more difficult as one moves up the job hierarchy from manual labourer to mental labourer. This should be cause enough for radicals to seriously consider avoiding mental or ‘middle class’ jobs. However for those that do pursue this line of work it is of paramount importance that they are prepared to speak openly about it to their comrades and take the piss out of their workplace ideology amongst their workmates.
The tendency amongst radical students to ‘go back to the factories’ is often laughed at by today’s left. In part this is because going into working class communities as some conquering hero is indeed incredibly patronising and delusional. However it also often justifies the tendency amongst radicals to move in totally the opposite direction. Or, where a radical wishes to participate in the class struggle, they often do so through the framework of the trade unions. The problem to be addressed is not whether or not one can do ‘good things’ within this line of work, it is the degree to we start to reproduce a particular kind of hierarchical relation once this becomes the dominant tendency. The idea of ‘going back to industry’, or at least pursuing a job because one finds it politically interesting, should be seriously discussed and considered. I myself pursued this strategy to a certain degree when I spent a few years working in kitchens. It was tough work, and definitely not for everyone, however there is much of value to be learnt from wading through the shit with other proletarians as an equal.
Those who make a comfortable career out of the structures which have been thrown up by many decades of failed class struggle should be denounced as the parasites that they are.
We also need to make a realistic evaluation of the role we have to play during non-revolutionary periods and also during revolutionary periods. Revolution will emerge from the spontaneous, creative activity of the dispossessed, exploited and oppressed strata of society. We are not prophets or scientists, we are simply honest and open-minded participants in the struggle to discover new ways forward.
The separation between thinkers and doers needs to be consciously addressed and attacked. Although we will never overcome this relation until we have overthrown capitalism it should still be established as standard practice within our groups and movements as well as an integral part of our revolutionary vision.
Fire to all the schools and all the prisons!
Down with specialists!
Humanity won’t be free until the last sociologist is hanging by the guts of the last anthropologist!
Symposium Contribution 1, The Mana Movement and the left
Symposium Contribution 2, What is to be done about the radical left in New Zealand