Report on ‘AMASS: Towards an Economy of the Commons’ (by Prof. G Riddle)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the following blogpost do not necessarily represent the views of the UfSO, the wider protest movement or the Coalition government.
So, we attended the AMASS: Towards an Economy of the Commons event at the Chisenhale Gallery yesterday (16th April), and it was quite interesting. There was an introductory talk on (the history of) The Commons by Stevphen Shukaitis, and then some slightly problematic utopian schemes involving a Central Saint Martins library occupation on the one hand, (which I’m sure David Cameron would be proud of), and a talk about the Calverts co-operative by Sion Whellens on the other. I think co-operatives are interesting, but I became more and more agitated at the general uncritical acceptance that the co-operative economic model was/is a genuine alternative to capitalism, and this acceptance turned into a bit of a hysterical celebration of all things co-operative and everytime anyone talked about ‘the alternative future’, or ‘taking action’ against capitalism, all eyes turned to Sion Whellens (much like all conversation about anti-cuts activism deferring to the media saturated example of UkUncut at ‘The Paper Parlour’ event). And then it was our turn to present…
There was a moment when the total public disintegration of the UfSO opened up the space of discussion (within the quite strict ’round-table’ format) and the wider audience present at the Chisenhale gallery became involved. It seemed to me that the problems of self-organisation within the UfSO became the problems of self-organisation within the wider (anti-cuts? anti-capitalist? anti-coalition?) movement. We began to frame the problem of organisation through the dichotomy of action/critique, an eternal argument in UfSO meetings and on the mailing list, and the disagreements between the different members present at the round-table and in the audience pushed other people to offer their opinions. There seemed to be an overall emphasis on action and utopia – framed in one way by the recent tactic from the right of asking “what’s your alternative?” (to which Milliband weakly responds “the same, but not as brutal!”); and in another as “we should stop worrying about ‘critique’ and just explore alternatives which are ‘unrecuperable’ by the ruling powers or capitalism”. However, these tentative beginnings of a heated debate were halted by the need to recuperate attention into the structured time-table of the event itself (we are already over-running, let’s not eat into the valuable networking time).
I felt that this UfSO action (which I would say was a ‘critical-action’ or ‘action-critique’, and this is, in my opinion, an appropriate label for all UfSO actions so far) was a success, but only for a few seconds. I am tempted to explain this success in the hyperbolic terms of ‘the Event’ of French cultural theory – the performative dissolution of the UfSO into the audience (not by having members inside the crowd with planned questions, just in case everyone found the subject boring) by turning the presentation into a normal UfSO meeting where we all argue with each other, tapping into the latent tensions of the wider ‘movement’, in this case between action and critique; all this creates a moment when the restrictive and awkward context of the art-event is stripped back to a simple co-ordinate in space-time where/when a bunch of people brought together by the shared desire to overcome capitalism start to try to get to the basics of the problem. A potentially infinite energy is released which could lead to new ideas, new insights uncovered beneath ideology, harsh but needed criticisms voiced with passion, etc. This energy is built up by the tension of the art-event, to which everyone has come with so much hope but are inevitably disappointed because no-one has the answers, no matter how intelligent or successful they profess to be. The tension is also pushed to the limit as ideas are introduced which resonate with individual experiences, but these experiences cannot be incorporated into the art-event because the art-event is always about something else than real emotion. This contradiction between the claim to want to involve audiences in art-events and the inevitable restrictions on what reactions are allowed within this context is intensified in the art-world’s recent fascination with the anti-cuts protests (leading to unexplainable results such as Shiv Malik smashing a glass at The Papour Parlour because someone in the audience told him to, after talking at length of ‘the need for discipline in the protest movement’).
Note on ‘critical actions’:
The idea with ‘critical actions’ is to open up the problems/contradictions within definite subject/context. So we chose Lloyds bank for our first lecture not in order to lecture to the staff but to performatively (and hopefully in an ‘accessible’ way) exhibit the issue.
– Why is the lecture in a bank?
– Why did we bring our own audience?
– Why Lloyds and not another brand of Capital?
Our initial idea was to take back the private space which we felt was now publicly owned (because of the bail-outs), in response to the threat of privatization which the University is facing. This opposition was in turn framed within the larger context of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – instead of setting up a ‘Free School’, or keeping a library under threat from funding cuts open, we wanted to create a symbol of resistance by taking the undesirable element in respect to the government ideology (unprofitable humanities research) and insert it into the economic foundations of this ideology (which is also responsible for ‘the current crisis’).
However, the unresolved problem for the UfSO is how to exhibit the problem (which is always the same: ideology vs. reality), and in an accessible way. From a(n amateur) Marxist perspective, this is to say how do we manifest the economic base structure of society which contradicts the ideology of the superstructure (the ruling class: capitalists, the coalition) in order to create a new class consciousness which is relevant to the current situation? For me it is a question of attacking ideology over and over again – in particular, the ideological concept par excellence: The Big Society – in such a way so that we aren’t lecturing to ‘a mass of ignorant people’ or ‘the working class’ or whatever nonsense idea intellectuals have of a section of society somehow ‘over there’.
We are all getting f****d by the new government and the neoliberal ideology which they buy into wholesale. This ‘we are all’ refers to us labourers, teachers, administrative/clerical staff, cleaners, secretaries, public sector workers, the unemployed/redundant/retired and soon to be all of these, etc. The new ‘working class’ is something like a family resemblance of precarious labour-workers, and this family resemblance which could lead to a revolutionary class (or at least powerful true democratic force) is being constantly undermined by government propaganda.
I personally think that ‘critique’ is more important than ‘action’, if the latter means an oppositional stance without the preparation of the latter, because the real danger centers around power/ideology. If the critique is correct, and ideology is unmasked to reveal naked power structures/interests which are making the world crap for the majority of us, in order for a minority to live in total luxury and security, then there will be no choice but to change things (hopefully for the better). There are a lot of angry people around at the moment, and an expanding protest movement and the way to increase this exponentially is to mount an overwhelming and accessible case against the evils of society and for positive change.