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Report on ‘AMASS: Towards an Economy of the Commons’ (by Prof. G Riddle)

April 17, 2011

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.

The Commons

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2011 9:27 pm

    For a few seconds only…! Great response. A few thoughts:

    It seems like there’s enough critique already – hence the need now for action. But the problem rather is that critique is not effective. An audience member asked the UfSO effectively, what are you after? How do you see education working – given that you reject its privatisation but don’t advocate the old state-funded model either. I don’t believe a clear answer was given (I don’t know, I scarpered off halfway through, so maybe it came up again). Critique is only effective if there is a position to start from, a desire for some specific kind of change, and a suggestion of how it’s going to happen. This involves hard work – what do we want, why, how precisely, strategy towards this, etc. Otherwise the UfSO, like so many other groups, is in danger of seeming a bit reactionary and even a little fluffy.

    UfSO actions instead could step up to be a more effective form of critique. But first there has to be some kind of affirmative project with propositions and ideas. That kind of work would be exciting, working all this out, what one part of the UfSO wants. The viral and deceptive nature of the group shouldn’t be understated. But briefly, and then critique is used as part of UfSO actions. There should be no distinction between action and critique: only better critical actions with some more specific aims. Having a clearer stance would be one possible start.
    Prof Effra.

  2. April 17, 2011 10:01 pm

    P.S. a call for better critique is toothless without a couple of suggestions, so here are two possible projects for collaborative UfSO critique :

    1. The free university – a UfSO guide to sustainable, stimulating and effective education. How should higher education and further education work. Who pays, studies, teaches. How this might work in the UK, or elsewhere. The role of the humanities, but also of other faculties of study. Free sticker set and cut-out masks, costumes, moustaches etc for UfSO affiliate branches (collect them all…)
    2. The book of dares: a kama sutra for persons being fucked by neoliberals. What neoliberalism is in clear terms, how it came about, how it succeeds – precarity, a state-led ideology, privatisation of the public, etc. Bad or uncomfortable positions used by left and critical theory in past, and more effective and fun ways to stimulate your total revolution. How we overcome neoliberalism, and why – daily tips, small things. Comes with pop-up full-colour illustrations, and plaster set for people being affected by cuts and other strong economic medicines.

  3. Her Royalness permalink
    April 22, 2011 11:17 am

    Thanks for this analysis of the AMASS event. I think the last minute idea to open ourselves up in a relatively vulnerable way was, for me, refreshing and exciting. I completely agree that there was a moment where it felt like a real debate was emerging out of the crowd – people became passionate and expressed their ideological concerns. I received some interesting feedback after the discussion that I think is relevant to share.

    Some people didn’t get what we were doing, they did not necessarily realize that we opened ourselves up purposefully and that our ‘presentation’ was not an ‘oops we broke down in front of a group and we don’t know what we are doing’ but actually we knew and HOPED that we would present this breakdown of formal organization. Why not show how we work and that different opinions on what we are and how we work exist. We are not some pure united front, and we really don’t think anybody is. I spoke with a couple of people from another organization similar to our own and they claimed there was not internal battles, that things, so far have run really smoothly in their group. They were not being houseproud but actually surprised that their specific organization had not yet come to that point… a point they recognize organizations and activist networks often come to. I explained to them that we meant for the presentation to go that way, that we wanted to open ourselves up because we are interested in raising questions on organization and ‘the movement’ and ‘the commons’ and are looking for answers and alternatives and feel they aren’t happening in these forums. We welcome this discussion and perhaps this is central to UFSO – personally, I do not see this as internal conflict, I see this as part of UFSO – we are a space to critique. Critique can come in many forms: theoretical, written, spoken, performative, aggressive…

    UFSO does not have to place a hierarchy on any of these forms of critique. We can just do them, somewhat autonomously, in the name of UfSO.

  4. May 5, 2011 6:54 pm

    drownedandsaved wrote:

    > Critique is only effective if there is a position to start from, a desire for some specific kind of change, and a suggestion of how it’s going to happen. This involves hard work – what do we want, why, how precisely, strategy towards this, etc.

    It’s very resonant with what I believe. It may be hard work but we don’t have to do all of it, at least not alone. There are quiet interesting pieces of work done about a commons-based society that I collected here: http://www.commonslearningalliance.org/content/towards-commons-based-society .

    The “how to get there” strategy is less clear although my friends and I have a few ideas… Is anybody interested to explore a strategy for the transition to a commons-based society?

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